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X-Bombed

X-Bomber premiered on Japanese TV on Saturday October 11th 1980 at 6 p.m, with disappointing results; according to The Japanese Encyclopaedia of the 80s, it was cancelled after only twelve episodes! Ikeda's reaction was philosophical: "I was quite sad. I thought that if the programme proved popular, we could establish a new genre. It's a shame things didn't work out as planned." Though the series won some devoted fans; Fujiwara fondly recalls fans turning up at his house for a chat about the show! it failed to make enough of an impression to survive. Critically, perhaps, it failed to generate the deluge of merchandising that keeps many Japanese series afloat, though it did inspire some beautiful die cast and plastic versions of X-Bomber and Dai-X by Takatoku Toys, which today fetch high prices on the collectors' market.

It also spawned an X-Bomber manga, serialised in Monthly Shonen Jump, though this wasn't, as might be expected, drawn by Go Nagai, a factor which undoubtedly did little to ensure its survival. Naoki Urahara's artwork had something of Nagai's crudeness, but little of his dynamic energy. Another manga incarnation, also very juvenile in style, appeared in the X-Bomber Encyclopaedia. In a brief adaptation of episode 22, artist Eiichi Saito revamps Professor Hagen's laser cannon to look suspiciously like the 'Space Jockey' from Ridley Scott's Alien.

Despite his early reservations, Mikami was also sad to see X-Bomber fold: "I came to really love the puppets," he recalls. "Although they're not actually alive, you end up feeling quite sentimental towards them." Fired by the technical challenge of the show, he was undeterred by its cancellation; asked what his next target was, he answered "I want to test the limits of possibility with Supermariorama." Takahashi shared his enthusiasm. "I think that, with X-Bomber, Supermariorama has proved itself. In future I'd like to extend research into this even further. The technology for operating the puppets will get even better in the future." Sadly, while similar techniques such as Animatronics have evolved considerably since then, it's a moot point whether technology offers any future for puppetry like Supermariorama given the staggering advances in computer generated imagery in films like Toy Story, Antz and Dinosaur.

Cancelled it may have been, but X-Bomber wasn't ready for the scrapheap yet. Soon it would get a new name, and a new lease of life, overseas.

LOVING THE THALIAN

Dubbed into English by Leah Productions, X-Bomber relaunched as Star Fleet, which can, with pride, claim to be one of the least altered Japanese TV imports. Name changes aside, there is little to differentiate eastern and Western versions. Even the familiar Japanese 'next episode' tag trailers survived the 'versioning' process, though things do seem to have got a little confused as Japanese names such as Gelma, Brest Cannon, and Dai-X's Brainder, Jumbody and Legstar were used in UK spin-offs like the annual and comic strip, in place of the new English names used in the series! The English dubbing cast contains some spooky echoes of X-Bomber's influences: Denise Bryer, who obviously had a whale of a time voicing the slinky Commander Makara, first worked with Gerry Anderson in 1956 on his first puppet series, The Adventures of Twizzle. From Star Fleet she moved straight into voicing another over-the-top villainess, the Android space witch Zelda in Anderson's critically mauled 1983 return to puppetry, Terrahawks. Possibly to rest her vocal cords, she also provided the more refined tones of plucky yet demure heroine Mary Falconer. Further entwining the fates, Lamia and Captain Carter were voiced by husband and wife team Liza Ross and Garrick Hagon, who have since tackled more, er, demanding Japanese dubbing on the notorious Urotsukodoji III! Hagon achieved a certain immortality by playing Biggs Darklighter, aka 'Red 3' in Star Wars: A New Hope.

While Star Fleet didn't exactly shake up the blandness of 80s children's TV, it did offer a refreshing change. Perhaps the most famous of the fans it won over was Queen's lead guitarist Brian May, who watched the show with his son and was struck by its English theme song composed by Moody Blues keyboard player Paul Bliss. Gathering together a few industry friends including Eddie Van Halen, May played around with arrangements of the theme during jamming sessions. Though not intended for commercial release, May later had a change of mind, realising the 'Star Fleet Project' as a single, 3-track mini album and video, which used FX footage from the show. "I love the series," he told Guitar Player magazine, "it blows my mind!"

X-Bomber's limited Japanese merchandising seemed like an avalanche compared to the meagre offerings in the U.K., which amounted to a poorly illustrated 1984 annual and a few jigsaw puzzles; but something of a first was a black and white comic strip serial in Look-In, which could be considered the only 'English manga' to date. Energetically scripted, probably by house writer Angus Allan, the strip ran for 27 weekly instalments and showcased the beautiful artwork of Mike Noble. During his four decades in the British comics industry, Noble tackled TV tie-ins as diverse as Star Trek, The Lone Ranger, Kung Fu, Popeye, The Man from Atlantis and Robin of Sherwood. He also had plenty of prior experience breathing life into TV puppets while painting strips based on the Andersons' Fireball XL5, Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds spinoff Zero X for the revolutionary 60s comic TV21. As with these shows, Noble was able to fully exploit the dynamic potential of Starfleet denied by the limitations of its puppets.

Following its initial U.K. run, Star Fleet seemed to disappear into oblivion. All that remained to remind fans were two appallingly hacked-together compilation 'movies' first released in the dim, dark days of 1983 when, like most videos, they would have set you back an exorbitant 20 each. Incoherently edited, The Thalian Space Wars and Space Quest for F-01 were hardly a fitting memorial to the series.

DEJA VIEWING

So where did X-Bomber go wrong? It drew a lot of flak from Anderson devotees who labelled it a weak carbon copy, but it had plenty going for it. The special effects are, on the whole, good. The spacecraft move smoothly with no visible support wires, itself an enviable achievement. The pyrotechnics are impressive, though never quite as realistic as those detonated by Derek Meddings on the Anderson Shows. However, X-Bomber scores by using cel animation to add the various beams linking craft to explosion, a technique earlier used in Toho's Godzilla films to simulate King Ghidorah's destructive 'gravity beams'.

The puppets are striking and have plenty of personality, especially some of the eccentric-looking minor characters, but their movements frequently let them down. A scene from the opening titles springs to mind, where No. 2's salute to General Kyle appears more like a rude gesture! In retrospect, using one type of puppet seems a mistake, repeated by Anderson with his similar 'Supermacromation' rubber rod puppets in Terrahawks. Wire marionettes perform certain movements better than rod puppets, and vice versa, but of course the cost of making both types of puppets may be prohibitive.

Ultimately, X-Bomber may have failed simply because it offered its audience nothing new. There was no appreciable improvement on the puppetry of Thunderbirds, despite the intervening sixteen years, and it obviously lacked the nostalgia element that had reinforced Thunderbirds' appeal over that time, though I can foresee the nostalgia industry generating a CGI remake in years to come! Its TV budget space dogfights couldn't hope to compete with Star Wars, even in its pre-enhanced version, and Japanese children could find many of the same elements (gaudy, exotic villains, dramatic explosions and men lumbering around in giant robot suits) in contemporary live action TV shows such as Dynaman, Ultraman 80, and Kamen Rider Super 1, which had the added bonus of plenty of fights and physical action, something decidedly beyond X-Bomber's cast!

Any charge of being derivative is hard to deny, since it's positively riddled with what could be politely called 'homages' to both Eastern and Western sources; Leiji Matsumoto's Captain Harlock and Space Battleship Yamato, Osamu Tezuka's Space Firebird, Gerry Anderson's live action series UFO and Space: 1999, and Superman and Battlestar Galactica, to name but a few. Of course the Star Wars 'lifts' are most obvious to Western audiences, such as Hagen and Hercules imitating Luke and Han shooting up TIE fighters. (You can almost hear Barry growl "Don't get cocky, kid!") However, when it comes to evil Empires striking back, Go Nagai can justifiably claim to have got there first with creations like the Jama Empire in Steel Armour Jeeg or the gloriously named Pandemonium Empire of Getter Robo G, both of which predate Lucas by a couple of years.

In fact, X-Bomber echoes many elements of Go Nagai's anime output, perhaps by way of in-jokes or maybe just lack of inspiration. However, as we headed into the 80s, the Japanese public's taste in mecha-drama had shifted more to the gritty realism introduced by 1979's Mobile SUIT Gundam rather than the excesses of Nagai's angst-ridden, hyperbole-spattered melodramas.

NEVER SAY DAI?

Ironically it was these very elements, old hat in TV anime, that made the series seem fresh and exciting to U.K. audiences. Its exotic design, coupled with the serial format, story arcs and the sheer dramatic impact of seeing major characters killed off, burned Star Fleet into many a young mind sick of the sanitised pap that usually passes for children's TV in the West. Elsewhere in Europe, in markets already more open to Japanese imported TV, the series did quite well. The French called it Bomber X, renamed the three young heroes Leo, Cyril and Heracles, and gave the show its own bande dessinee (French for comic, in case you're wondering.) They also gave it a new theme song and music score by Shuki Levy and Haim Saban, songwriters responsible for Inspector Gadget, Mysterious Cities of Gold and Ulysses 31, who later turned to TV production and inflicted Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers on an undeserving world. The lucrative American market, however, resisted Star Fleet's charms, despite the best efforts of international distributors Enoki Films. The series finally saw the light of day Stateside in 1988, with the whole series released on home video, albeit slightly edited to merge three consecutive episodes into one mini-movie per tape.

Few would regard X-Bomber/Star Fleet as a classic. Despite its creator's ambitions it failed to break new ground in TV puppetry. The stock footage and repetitive space battles, so obviously a substitute for physical action from the cast, could be tiresome, yet it remains an entertaining experiment, fun to watch and totally undeserving of the obscurity it has suffered for the past eighteen years.

The year is 2001: the dawn of a new millenium. What more appropriate time to dust down X-Bomber, fire up those Quantum Power engines and watch her take off once more?

Last updated 14 December 2013

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