From the pages of Strange Skins Digital #4, Claire ‘Moth’ Harris looks at the classic Saturday morning puppet series ‘Star Fleet’.
‘Send a message out across the sky,
Alien raiders just past Gemini,
Who will come and save us now?
Who can defend us from their power?
Star Fleet! Star Fleet!’
Okay, housekeeping first: that song, which ran over the end titles of every episode of the series I’m about to ramble on about, was not sung by poodle-permed guitar god Brian May. This is a myth of the urban variety. Mr May did record a cover version of the song with a group of his rock chums in 1983, but that was not the version used on the programme, which was written and recorded by a chap called Paul Bliss.
Of course, if you’ve never heard of Star Fleet, you’ll have no idea what I’m going on about, nor likely give a tinker’s cuss. Allow me to elucidate: Star Fleet was a puppet series broadcast on British TV on Saturday mornings in the early 1980s. It was adapted from a Japanese series entitled Ekksu Bonbā (X Bomber), re-dubbed into English and festooned with a gloriously groovy 1980s soundtrack by the aforementioned Mr Bliss.
Now listen; this is a nostalgia piece and not an in-depth analysis of the production of the show, so I’m never going to refer to the series as X Bomber – no more than I would refer to Monkey as Journey to the West or Battle of the Planets as Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. I know these are the original Japanese titles for these shows but, y’know what? I wasn’t born and raised in Japan, so I have no nostalgic attachment to those titles. I was however born and raised in Sussex, so I do have a nostalgic attachment to Star Fleet.
I’m not sure why I was asked to write a piece on Star Fleet. Maybe because I had previously written a piece on Supermarionation and that makes me to the go-to-girl for puppetry round these parts. Who knows? Who cares? I’m quite happy to do it because I just love Star Fleet and any chance to bring it back into the public consciousness, even in such a small way as this, is okay by me.
One more final warning: there will be spoilers. Star Fleet had a distinct story arc and it’s impossible to talk about it without mentioning the unmentionable. But hey, it was over 35 years ago, so I reckon the statute of limitation for spoilers has long since been surpassed. If you’ve never seen Star Fleet and you think that this here feature might wreck your plans to do so, I’d stop reading now if I were you.
The saga of Star Fleet starts when the peaceful Planet Earth comes under attack from the sinister Imperial Alliance, led by foxy cyborg Commander Makara in her catfish-shaped spaceship. She demands that they hand over the F-Zero-One, but no one at the Earth Defence Force (not Star Fleet, nor ever referred to as such) has any idea what it is. On the way to Earth, Makara had called in on Pluto and made similar demands of cool shades-wearing Captain Carter – but he had no idea what she was on about either, so she blew the living s**t out of his base.
The ships of the EDF don’t have a great deal of success against Makara’s forces, even though her second in command Orion (pronounced or-ee-on, for some reason) is a downtrodden incompetent boob, so they send for pipe-smoking, Abe Lincoln bearded tactical genius Dr. Benn (no relation to Mr. Benn) and his amazing experimental new spacecraft X Bomber. Such a lot is at stake that Dr. Benn naturally crews his pride-and-joy with teenagers straight out of the academy. They’re a not remotely stereotypical bunch including obese ginge John Lee, cool black dude Barry Hercules (nice to see Barry making a comeback as a name in 2099) and fey Manga-faced swoonfest Shiro Hagan, who favours an iron helmet at all times, even when sleeping in his bunk.
Adding to the general Star Wars vibe (you’d never guess this was made just a couple of years after it all kicked off in a galaxy far far away, would you?) is cutesy flying robot PPA (Perfectly Programmed Android) and a princess in all but name Lamia, who turns up with her Chewbacc-a-like protector Kirara in tow. Lamia is some kind of mysterious orphan who was raised by Shiro’s father Professor Hagan – even though Shiro had never seen or heard of her before she rocked up on X Bomber.
Star Fleet is a curious mixture of Eastern and Western culture. As I mentioned, there is a lot of the Star Wars zeitgeist on display, but also a heady dose of Manga and very Japanese storytelling styles. The X Bomber might look like it was assembled in the same shipyards as the Millennium Falcon, but tucked away in its undercarriage is a secret weapon in the form of Dai X. That might sound like a Welsh porn star, but its actually three smaller spaceships that fit together to form a giant red robot that stomps around like a man in a suit beating the crap out of things. Could you possibly get more Japanese?
It’s well known that George Lucas was influenced in the creation of Star Wars by the work of Akiro Kurusawa and classic Japanese cinema in general; you can see it even in the design of Darth Vader’s helmet. So Star Fleet, in taking influence from Star Wars, is Japanese fiction seen through a Hollywood lens and then adapted back into a Japanese perspective. That’s some mixed-up s**t right there, but it works! I don’t know whether the original producers were aiming for inter-national sales, but there’s a conscious mix of Eastern and Western characters.
Although not especially culturally Japanese in its makeup, it’s noticeable that both the main heroes (Shiro and Lamia) and the main villains (Comm. Makara and Capt. Orion) are noticeably more almond-eyed than those around them. A few eps in, the mysterious Captain Halley turns up in his outer space sailing ship (yes, it’s literally a sailing ship in outer space) and he’s straight out of Casshern or Captain Harlock or something, in his horned space helmet and samurai sword. He threatens to sway Lamia’s affections away fro Shiro, so I kinda hate the smug git on principal.
Shiro is voiced by Jay Benedict and he can be a bit of a wet fish at times. I think he’s kinda written as an impetuous teen, but they pitch him a bit young at times and he just comes over as whiney. Other times he can be very proactive and heroic – even a bit ruthless – so he’s a trifle schizoid in terms of character. Lamia has a more consistent character – it’s just not a very good one. She bursts into tears at the drop of a hat and makes a lot of stupid decisions that put the crew in danger. Only at the very end, when it turns out that Lamia is the F-Zero-One and therefore some kind of super-being does she get to kick figurative ass. Oh, and she’s voiced by Liza Ross, who is – brace yourselves trivia fans – the sister of Jonathan Ross.
John Lee and Barry Hercules are both a lot of fun but, like Amstrad and Phillips, they’re a couple of stereotypes (that’s a 1980s joke kids). The glutton and the hot-headed rival male are common types of character in Japanese fiction, though unlike their Western equivalents, these foibles aren’t always seen as a weakness. Although Barry Hercules is voiced by a white actor, he’s given a kind of laid-back Shaft style accent. He calls Dr. Benn ‘Doc’ where everyone else calls him Doctor. I can’t make my mind up whether it’s all a wee bit racist or not – let’s just call it a product of its time and think ourselves lucky that they didn’t stick with his original Japanese name of ‘Bongo’ Heracles.
There are a few voice actors here who might come as a surprise to sci-fi fans. It’s quite well known that Garrick Hagon, who was Biggs Darklighter in Star Wars, was the voice of Captain Carter. But did you know that John Lee was voiced by Mark Rolston, who played Drake in Aliens? Or that Al Matthews, who was Apone in that same fim, was the voices of Professor Hagan and Caliban – uncredited for some strange reason? Not only that but Peter Marinker, who voiced the Imperial Master, has a whole raft of genre credits to his name including Labyrinth, Judge Dredd and Event Horizon. That’s the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd, but let’s not hold that against him, eh?
The most distinctive voice though has got to be Commander Makara, who was performed by former Mrs Nicholas Parsons Denise Bryer. I never realised this until quite recently, and you couldn’t tell it by listening to them, but Bryer was also the voice of Zelda in Terrahawks. The Gerry Anderson series was produced a year or two after this, so it’s quite likely that Bryer got that role off the back of her work on Star Fleet. Makara couldn’t be more different to Zelda though; whereas the Terrahawks villainess looks like she’s been pickled in vinegar for 500 years, Makara is actually rather sexy, what with her midriff-exposing armoured breastplate and cast-iron mini-skirt. I wish I could carry off an outfit like that.
For me, the bad guys of the Imperial alliance are by far the most fascinating aspect of the show. We’re told they come from the Thalien Zone, wherever that is. Maybe it was named by someone from Yorkshire, y’know – Th’alien Zone. Sorry, readers outside England won’t get that joke… but since when has that ever stopped me? They seem to be a race of cyborgs with mechanical limbs and extensions grafted onto their humanoid bodies, although the original humanoids would seem to be from different planets, as the likes of Orion and Caliban have differing skin colours and facial types to Makara, for instance. In that sense, they’re a precursor of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Borg by over 10 years.
Other Alliance generals who turn up late in the narrative are even more alien in appearance and the Imperial Drones are androids who seem quite easily killed. The Imperial Master himself is a towering robe-wearing figure whose head (helmet?) is festooned with skulls, presumably of his previous victims. It’s never made clear if he is humanoid or mechanoid or what. When Makara speaks with the Imperial Master, something strange happens which hints at the patriarchal nature ingrained in Japanese society. Most of the time, she speaks as normal, but her helmet has a tiny man’s face over one eye which becomes active when she speaks to her superior. Makara bows her head, the eyes of the little face light up and talk to the Imperial Master in a man’s voice.
It’s like they trust a woman to fly their main battle cruiser, but when she address-es her Lord and Master it must be done by this strange little masculine part of her personality. It’s all very odd and possibly doesn’t really translate well to our Western culture. I’m loathe to describe it as being consciously sexist because I don’t really think that it is. Also, within the context of the story, it kinda works because Makara is this hybrid of woman and machine, so maybe it’s actually that only the machine part of her can communicate with the Imperial Master. Who knows? If this was the most baffling part of Star Fleet, I might spend more time on it – but it isn’t. Not by a long shot.
Getting back to the story, the narrative soon moves away from the Earth, as the Imperial Alliance, discovering that Lamia is the F-Zero-One, pursue X Bomber out into the universe. This is where the stories start to pep up a bit. In all honesty, the stuff around Earth fixates on big space battles and things exploding. The special effects are all very nice, but it’s dull viewing and not even Paul Bliss’s pounding electronic score can liven it up.
For me, the standalone stories set in deep space are where Star Fleet finds its feet. You get much more imaginative and visually exciting ideas as we move away from the Earth and explore exotic alien worlds. One of my favourite stories is ‘Farewell, the Eternal Battlefield’ (the story titles aren’t shown on screen and, being literal translations from the Japanese, are often rather odd sounding) where the crew of X Bomber land on a planet of eternal war and instantly come under attack by tanks and planes that lie waiting for a new target. The images of futuristic tanks rising from the dust have stuck with me since childhood, as has the image of the alien princess of the planet surreally transforming into a rose for no adequately explained reason.
Around the same time, you get the episode ‘An Attack Beyond Tears’, where X Bomber lands on an alien planet and instantly starts to get weighed down by cute little fluffy creatures that Lamia calls Mon-Mons. In order to escape and not get blown to kingdom come by Makara, they will have to shoot the Mon-Mons off the hull of the ship, but Lamia is horrified at the idea because THEY’RE SO ICKLE AND NICE AND FLUFFY! They look for an alternative solution. There is no alternative solution. Hercules shoots them off the ship. Lamia is upset. It’s a thorny moral issue for a kids’ series, even if it does revolve around fluffy little space critters, and it shows the unusual degree of sophistication in some of the writing on Star Fleet.
If the series has a failing, it’s that there are too many clip-shows. I realise that this was an expensive series to produce and the clip-show is a way of getting an extra story for very little money (Gerry Anderson used to do it all the time) but there are two quite close together in the series and a third from the Japanese run, ‘Bloody Mary’s Promotion’ (Bloody Mary was the Japanese name for Commander Makara – I wonder why they changed it?) was not adapted because even the producers of the English language version realised that three clips-shows was a bit much.
In the episode ‘Our Mortal Enemy is Captain Carter’ (bit of a giveaway in the title there, guys) it turns out that Shiro’s former mentor has undergone a Borg-style transformation into a tool of the Imperial Alliance… and all while still retaining half of his shades! In an unexpectedly emosh confrontation with Shiro, Captain Carter’s human side resurfaces and he smashes his cyborg arm into a rock until the claw flies off in a shower of sparks. Unable to live with the guilt, he then forces Shiro to shoot him. It’s great stuff; you didn’t get that in Captain Zep – Space Detective!
As the story arc progresses, more info gets dropped into the mix and things get rather strange. Lamia, though adopted by Professor Hagan, is actually the future queen of Captain Halley’s planet. She’s all part of this prophecy about how at the turn of the millennium into the year 3000 (often misleadingly referred to as the turn of the century in the script) she will ‘become one’ with Halley, who’s some kind of a prince or chosen one or something, and save the universe. I’m not sure exactly what ‘becoming one’ entails, but I’m kinda hoping it’s not a Spice Girls interpretation of the phrase. Eugh. Either way, old Shiro is not best pleased.
About this time, Caliban comes into the mix on the side of the Imperial Alliance. He’s a silver skinned dude in a greatcoat with a massive camera lens for an eye and his main function seems to be to make Orion look stupid in front of Makara. He’s no great shakes himself though; his plans are just as ropey as Orion’s, but it adds a bit of colour to the mix to have a third recurring villain next to Commander Makara and Orion.
Now, as Star Fleet nears its end, you start to see how it’s different from other kids’ series before or since. Firstly, it’s a definite SERIAL, with a defined story arc and ending. I suppose that they could have produced another series (as the UK producers wanted, but the Japanese end did not) but it wouldn’t have been easy – for reasons that will become clear. You thought Blake’s 7 was unique in having a format that allowed for the deaths of its regular characters? Well, check out Star Fleet – if anything it’s even MORE blood-thirsty as it nears its climax.
First off, quite shockingly, Dr. Benn dies in the episode ‘F-01 Assassination Plot’ saving Lamia from the poisoned claw of a robot preying mantis thing. This comes completely out of the blue and I recall being convinced as a child that he would come back or be resurrected by the F-Zero-One or something; but no, he’s gone for good. They have a funeral for him and everything, where the name on his tomb-stone can quite clearly be read as ‘Dr. Ben Robinson, even though he’s only ever referred to as Dr. Benn in both English and Japanese versions. Professor Hagan steps in as a Dr. Benn replacement for the last few episodes – well, he’s got the beard for it, he just needs a pipe.
Determined to avenge the death of their friend, the crew of X Bomber begin a full frontal attack on the Imperial Alliance cruiser in the episode ‘Full Frontal Attack Begins’ (I don’t know how they think of these titles). Captain Orion, mortally wounded and determined to die in battle, launches a suicide attack on X Bomber (somehow I suspect you wouldn’t get that in a kids’ show these days) and the whole long big punch-up ends with Dai-X flying into the maw of Makara’s command ship and rampaging through the decks, just smashing the hell out of everything in sight! Caliban whines like a little baby before he’s crushed by falling metalwork. This is an interesting turnaround, because the seemingly cowardly Orion dies a ‘hero’s death’ while the bravado-fuelled Caliban dies whimpering in a corner.
As Dai-X smashes onto the Command Deck, Makara makes a run for it and you fully expect her to reach an escape pod and get away twirling her figurative moustache and cackling “I’ll get you next time, X Bomber!” But no – shockingly, Dai-X pulverises her into a wall with one giant robotic punch! POW! It’s a total WTF moment that nothing in your preconceived ideas about storytelling lead you to expect. And am I wrong to be more upset about the death of Makara than that of Dr.Benn?
It’s not over yet though. The Imperial Master is a bit pissed off and decides to launch an all-out attack on the Earth. Who can save us now? X Bomber? No, that’s tired and shagged out after a long squawk during which Kirara was killed with very little fanfare. No, the fate of the Earth is in the hands of Lamia, who confronts the Imperial Master directly. And how can this be…? For she IS the Kwisatz Haderach! In no time at all, she’s using her F-Zero-One powers and flying round in space like Princess Leia in the new The Last Jedi, only with more zapping.
And so ends Star Fleet. The lads return home to a hero’s welcome while Lamia passes on to a new phase of existence. If you consider that it’s now nearly 40 years old, the series stands up really well. The characters, achieved mainly by the use of rod puppets, have charm and articulation and the special effects are remarkable by the standards of the day. The stories are fast-paced and colourful, enhanced by a witty English language script. They don’t make ‘em like Star Fleet any more, but they SHOULD because kids these days deserve this level of creativity.