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X-Bomber
X-Bomber-logo
Also known as Star Fleet Flag United KingdomFlag United StatesFlag Australia
Bomber X Flag France
Flota Espacial Flag MexicoFlag Cuba
Bombardero X Flag ArgentinaFlag Panama
Die Sternenflotte Flag Germany
Vegskip X Flag South Africa
صفر صفر واحد Flag Saudi ArabiaFlag Iraq
Esquadrão das Estrelas Flag Portugal
Genre Tokusatsu,
Science fiction, Fantasy
Creator(s) Go Nagai
Written by Go Nagai
Keisuke Fujikawa
Michael Sloan (UK)
Directed by Michio Mikami
Noriyasu Ogami
Akira Takahashi
Louis Elman (UK)
Produced by Kimio Ikeda
Keisuke Fujikawa
Composers Kyoji Yamamato
Kazutaka Tazaki
Nakayuki Sakuraba
Paul Bliss (UK)
No. of episodes 26 (24 UK)
Running Time 22-26 minutes aprox
Country of origin Japan
Original network Fuji TV
ITV (UK)
Picture Format NTSC 4:3
PAL 4:3 (UK)
Audio format Mono
Original run October 4, 1980-
March 28, 1981

“X Bomber” (Xボンバー, Ekkusu Bonbā), named “Star Fleet” for UK transmission, is a marionette tokusatsu TV series. It was created by manga master Go Nagai, and produced by Cosmo Productions and Jin Productions. The show aired on Fuji TV from October 4, 1980 to March 28, 1981, with a total of 26 episodes (including the pre-series pilot episode), and was billed in Japan as being filmed in "Sūpāmariorama" (スーパーマリオラマ), a puppeteering process similar to Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation works.

BackgroundEdit

The success of Star Wars and Thunderbirds longstanding popularity inspired producer Kimio Ikeda of JIN Productions to try combining Lucas' space opera approach with the Andersons' marionette techniques to offer what he hoped would be a fresh alternative to the plethora of SF anime on Japanese TV. Despite Thunderbirds success, no Japanese company had tried emulating Supermarionation, as the Andersons had branded their high-tech marionettes which utilized electronic solenoids to synchronize the puppets' lip movements to pre-recorded dialogue tracks. "In Japan, it seems like people were allergic to Supermarionation dramas" comments Ikeda. "I planned this project as a new genre of Supermarionation."

Homegrown puppet science fiction series were unusual but not unknown on Japanese television: Kinosuke Takeda, Japan's premiere sf puppeteer, had scored considerable success in the 1960's with his series Spaceship Silica (1960-62), Galaxy Boy Troop (1963-65) and Aerial City 008 (1969-1970). However by 1979 cel animation was well-established as the medium of choice for sci-fi subjects on television.

Ikeda faced an uphill struggle. Supermarionation is an expensive business. Unlike other genre productions, you not only have to spend money on models and special effects, but also on manufacturing your actors! Back in the sixties each Thunderbirds puppet cost in the region of £250, a single episode £22,000; luckily Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had the financial backing of Lew Grade's massive ATV/ITC empire. Lacking such a wealthy backer, Ikeda realized that his financial gamble would need a big name to lure in viewers and contacted veteran manga and anime 'bad boy' Go Nagai to flesh out his vision.

"Because it seemed like an interesting idea, I took the job", says Nagai, adding "I've always liked SF, you see." Hardly a revelation to his hordes of fans. Though he enjoys a colorful reputation for the sexual and violent excesses of works like Devilman and Violence Jack, Nagai's more enduring legacy to Japanese SF is probably revolutionizing the country's fascination with robots. His 1972 manga/anime series Mazinger Z introduced the concept of the robot as a vehicle, often with a symbiotic relationship with its pilot. Up till then, robots had either been sentient characters in themselves, like Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), or simple remote controlled 'toys' like Yokoyama's Tetsujin 28-Go (“Gigantor”). Nagai gave us the robot as dream machine: shiny and sexy, its sleek curves and wicked-looking fins concealing an arsenal of ultra-cool weapons, the robot equivalent of coveted 50s American automobiles. Kids throughout Japan vicariously piloted Mazinger Z via die-cast toys, and ushered in a decade in which anime was dominated by candy-colored super-robots. Years before The Transformers, Nagai set another trend with 1974's Getter Robo, the first transformable combining mecha, an element he would incorporate into Ikeda's puppet project.

Plot summaryEdit

The story begins just outside our solar system as a massive alien cruiser arrives from the Thalian Zone, destroying an Earth scout ship without provocation. The year is 2999, and the solar system has just seen the end of Space War 3. The alien cruiser sweeps through Earth's defenses and, hovering directly above Star Fleet Command, issues an ultimatum - hand over the F Zero One (F-01) or face destruction.

Fortunately Star Fleet's last hope, the X-Bomber, manages to repair the damage it suffered as the alien cruiser's forces attacked and lures the cruiser away from Star Fleet Command. X-Bomber's advanced weapons beat off the cruiser, but the question it asked remains - what is the F-01? When a mysterious space sailing ship appears near Pluto and is attacked by the alien cruiser, Star Fleet Command recognizes that there is more going on than they realize.

Over the course of Star Fleet's 24 episodes a complete story is played out, something that set it apart from Gerry Anderson's shows and makes it more reminiscent of modern shows like Babylon 5. In the style of the old Flash Gordon serials, each episode ended with a hint at what would be following in the next. This isn't uncommon with Japanese shows, but was certainly something different for British television of the early 80s.

ProductionEdit

Nagai had set his fertile imagination to inventing a varied puppet cast: "I took extra care in establishing the personalities of the characters. Unless the personalities of each and every individual character are clearly defined, the story becomes difficult to follow because there are so many characters appearing." Nagai sketched out time-honored archetypes: a naïve youth, a cantankerous fighter, a loveable clown, a beautiful princess and a wise mentor. Throw in a big walking carpet and a cute robot and it all sounds disturbingly familiar.

Senior director on the series, Michio Mikami was a board member of Cosmo Productions, the company hired by JIN Pro to film the series and provide its special effects. Initially unenthusiastic about the technical difficulties involved, Mikami eventually agreed to come on board and was determined to "make something even better than “Thunderbirds” - no mean feat, considering his team would be tackling cold techniques which the Andersons' effects team had refined through trial and error over a decade!

Following the Andersons' model, Mikami split his staff of around 60 into two units, one for effects work, the other for puppets. (In comparison, over 250 people worked on Thunderbirds.) While the model effects were relatively straightforward, the puppets presented a much more specialized challenge. During their 12 year career in puppet production, the Andersons had evolved through two basic techniques: from 'wire' marionettes operated from a gantry above the set to the opposite end of the spectrum (excuse the pun) introduced in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, rod puppets operated from beneath; in effect a more complex version of hand puppets. This offered a solution to the visible 'strings' which the team fought hard to disguise. Used to great effect on Jim Henson's Sesame Street and The Muppets, the technique also echoes Japan's traditional bunraku puppet theatre in which the characters are operated by 'unseen' black clad puppeteers. Though the Andersons still used wire marionettes, the rod puppets reflected their desire to push puppetry ever nearer realism. The early caricatured puppets of Stingray and “Thunderbirds” were replaced with human-proportioned versions, effectively rendering the technique redundant in favor of live actors. In much the same way, given the limitations of the puppetry, X-Bomber's story might have been better served as an anime; but had it gone down that route, would it ever have stood out from its contemporaries?

Mikami opted for rod puppets, but wisely went for a caricatured look, playing up the strengths of manga stylization. "We decided to make them out of rubber", he says. "It was hard to get their mouths to move. It took about half a year to make the dolls. It was really onerous." The resulting technique was imaginatively dubbed 'Supermariorama', but while titles may change, the limitations of puppetry don't. Natural looking movement remains a real challenge: "We had to put everything we had into it, just to produce a puppet-like, jerky movement", laments director Akira Takahashi, who describes the process as "trying".

Walking is notoriously difficult, which first prompted Gerry Anderson into the science fiction genre. He reasoned that flying vehicles and futuristic moving walkways would alleviate the problem. Rod puppets like those of X-Bomber rarely exist from the waist down except for special versions used in publicity photos. "The puppets were supported on rods, there was a thin cord running through the rod, and that's how the puppet was operated," remembers Mikami, "so, when we made them walk they had a tendency to goose-step!" which might have been taking the fascist overtones of the series' villains, the Gelma Empire, a little too far!

The solution was to keep walking to a minimum, using a combination of moving back projected scenery and the occasional brief glimpse of real legs. One problem that united the scriptwriter, technicians and directors of X-Bomber was getting the puppets to express emotions, something the Andersons achieved to a degree with interchangeable heads: frowning, smiling , etc. For whatever reason, probably spiraling production costs, X-Bomber didn't go down this road with the unfortunate exception of a brief scene in episode five in which the crew sport grotesque 'laughing' heads that actually make them look as if they're screaming in agony. The Andersons made exactly the same mistake in the feature film Thunderbird 6. Wisely, neither team repeated the disaster. Scriptwriter Fujikawa attempted to solve the problem via a different route. "I decided to make their lines as long as possible" he says presumably to give the voice actors more room to emote!

As effects work continued, including the construction of some seriously massive spacecraft models (up to 4 meters long), Kimio Ikeda faced the age-old producers' dilemma of balancing imagination against money. "I'm constantly worried about production costs," he said. "In the case of X-Bomber, it costs about 12 million yen to make one film. Now, that's tough." Someone was happy though: director Takahashi. "I got to spend a lot of money on the sets for the interior of the spacecraft. Fortunately, I was able to build the sets I really wanted. Normally, in television, not a great deal of money is spent on the interior sets."

X-Bomber premiered on Japanese TV on Saturday October 11th 1980 at 6 p.m, with disappointing results; according to The Japanese Encyclopedia of the 80s, it was cancelled after only twelve episodes! Ikeda's reaction was philosophical: "I was quite sad. I thought that if the program 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, serialized in Monthly Shōnen Jump from June to August 1980, though this wasn't 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. A second set of manga was illustrated by Makoto Ono and in the magazine TV-kun from November 1980 to April 1981.

Star FleetEdit

Star-Fleet-logo

Titlecard for Star Fleet, the English adaptation.

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 and background music and sounds aside, there is little to differentiate eastern and Western versions. Even the familiar Japanese 'next episode' tag trailers survived the 'versioning' process. Louis Elman, who was commissioned to produce the English dub, turned to American writer/producer Michael Sloan (The Master, The Equalizer) to help touch up the overly literal Japanese translation provided, where he added many sci-fi terms such as "quantum speed" and "parsecs".

As the original Japanese music and effects track was mostly unusable, those elements also had to be created from scratch in order to complete the Star Fleet soundtrack. Supervising editor Tony Lenny (who would go on to edit and direct numerous episodes of Terrahawks) drew on material from a library of sound effects created for Gerry Anderson's Space: 1999 series, but the icing on the cake was an original pop/synth music score written and performed by "The Moody Blues" keyboardist and songwriter Paul Bliss. Bliss had never scored for film before but he rose to the challenge and created a memorable musical accompaniment which lingered in viewers' minds long after the program had finished..

The English dub premiered on the morning of Saturday, October 23, 1982. Heralded only by a cover-feature in that week's issue of the children's comic Look-In, and largely overshadowed by the UK television premiere of Star Wars (1977) the following day, Star Fleet nonetheless made an immediate impact on a generation of British children. 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 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, realizing 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 meager 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 installments and showcased the beautiful artwork of Mike Noble.

Voice CastEdit

EnglishEdit


Home Video ReleaseEdit

Main article: List of VHS and DVD releases
X Bomber (LD-Box)

X Bomber LD-Box released in Japan

The original Japanese version of the series was released in its entirety in a LD-box in 1993 and subsequently by Pioneer LDC in a DVD-box on November 29, 2002. Both sets also contained one of two compilation movies created from Star Fleet, in English with Japanese subtitles. Both sets have since gone out of print. In 2013, a new edition was released, with slight remasters applied to it, this also included an unaired pilot used to sell the series to potential investors.

Following its initial U.K. run, Star Fleet seemed to disappear into oblivion. In the UK, only three Star Fleet video tapes were ever released. The first and rarest contained episodes 4 and 5 of the series. The other two were appallingly hacked-together compilation 'movies' entitled The Thalian Space Wars and Space Quest for F-01. The series has not been repeated on UK television since the late 1980s.

In the US, eight video tapes were released which also contained compilations of the series' episodes, albeit in a less-drastically edited format. Before the official series release to DVD, many VCD and DVD-R copies sold on eBay and amongst fans were primarily utilized from these VHS tapes, however quality was often very horrid due to poor and greatly compressed transfers.

In Bulgaria the The Thalian Space Wars and Space Quest For F-01 tapes were released by Multi Video Center with Bulgarian dub.

A DVD set of Star Fleet was released in the UK on February 9, 2009 by Fabulous Films. Included in the DVD set are all 24 episodes, restored to their original UK broadcast format. Beyond the episodes, the set also includes stills and a double-sided poster, as well as a comicbook and a comprehensive 'making of' documentary, which includes contributions from series creater Go Nagai, Dr Benn's voice artist Peter Marinker, Paul Bliss and Gerry Anderson.

Further to the DVD release, Paul Bliss' soundtrack has been released on CD and is available via mail order.

In France, the French version was released on DVD by Kaze Entertainment in 2010. This DVD featured digitally remastered versions of the episodes with very sharp and detailed versions of the episodes.

Discotek Media announced in June 2016 that they will release the series on DVD in the United States in either late 2016 or early 2017.

External linksEdit

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