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SFXB TV Show History

Dai-X

At 10 o’clock on the morning of Saturday, 23 October 1982, a new science fiction adventure series made its debut on British television. Heralded by a cover-feature in that week’s issue of the children’s comic Look-in, Star Fleet made an immediate impact on a generation of British children. This was a series unlike anything they had ever seen before, a hybrid of Gerry Anderson-style puppetry, model effects, Japanimation-style characters and Suitmation – the man-in-a-monster-suit technique pioneered by the Toho Company in their classic Japanese monster movies.

The transatlantic accents of the characters led many young viewers to assume that Star Fleet was an imported American TV series, but the show’s origins were more complicated than that. The series had actually been produced three years earlier for the Fuji Television Group in Japan and was the creation of producer Kimio Ikeda and manga master Go Nagai. Ikeda was a highly-respected animation producer whose previous work had included Tetsuwan Atom (Astroboy), Mach Go! Go! Go! (Speed Racer) and Gatchaman (Battle of the Planets) while Nagai had made his name as the creator of Mazinger Z, Devilman and Getter Robo. Ikeda was a big fan of the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation productions of the 1960s and was keen to kick-start the genre with new Supermarionation-style puppet programmes made in Japan. Nagai had been inspired by Star Wars and wanted to make a Japanese space opera series in the Star Wars mould. Together they pitched their new TV series idea to Fuji as a Thunderbirds-type puppet series with Star Wars elements.

Directed by Michio Mikami, Noriyasu Ogami and Akira Takahashi (who also doubled as the series’ art director), 25 episodes of Super Space Machine X-Bomber were filmed at a cost of 300 million yen (about £560,000 or $1.3 million in 1980). Over the course of the series, an epic story unfolded charting a battle to defend Earth from the evil Gelma Empire spearheaded by Bloody Mary and her associate Kozlo. Leading the fight against destruction and conquest was the Earth Defence Force and its mighty X-Bomber spacecraft, piloted by Dr Benn and his crew, Shiro Ginga, Bigman Lee and Bongo Heracles. Central to the struggle was Dr Benn’s ward Lamia, a girl with a mysterious alien origin who may be the F-01, an incredible weapon which Bloody Mary covets.

Alliance

Super Space Machine X-Bomber debuted on Japanese television on 11 October 1980 but, sadly, was not the success Fuji TV had expected. No further episodes were made and producer Kimio Ikeda returned to cel animation for his next project, Scientific Rescue Team TechnoVoyager, another Supermarionation-inspired series which was screened as Thunderbirds 2086 in the UK.

Fortunately this was not the end of the story. In 1982, Enoki Films, the overseas distributor of Super Space Machine X-Bomber, offered the series to London Weekend Television for broadcast in the UK. LWT were interested as long as a suitable English language soundtrack could be created. Earlier Japanese series shown on British television – Astroboy, Gigantor, Marine Boy and Battle of the Planets – had mostly come pre-packaged with an English dub created for American television but a precedent for producing an English version of X-Bomber domestically had already been set by the BBC with their successful adaptations of The Water Margin and Monkey.

With the series now retitled Star Fleet, ADR (automated dialogue replacement) specialist Louis Elman was commissioned to produce and direct its English soundtrack. Provided with overly literal translations of Keisuki Fujikawa’s original scripts, Elman turned to American writer/producer Michael Sloan to adapt the dialogue for English-speaking audiences. Sloan was best known at the time for his work on a string of American series – Quincy M.E., The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, Battlestar Galactica and Sword of Justice – and had only recently completed work on his latest, B.J. and the Bear. The process of anglicizing the scripts required that many of the original character names were changed to be more suitable for British viewers, so the pilots of X-Bomber became Shiro Hagen, John Lee and Barry Hercules while Bloody Mary and Kozlo became Commander Makara and Orion of the Imperial Alliance. Lamia and Dr Benn both retained their original monikers. In addition, episodes 18 and 19 were felt to be too slow so they were cut together to form a single episode, but otherwise the series’ story development and characterisation stuck very closely to the original Japanese version.

Shiro

Elman assembled a cast of 11 voice artists to record the English dialogue, drawing heavily on a pool of American and Canadian actors living and working in Britain. The most notable cast member was British actress Denise Bryer (Commander Makara) who had previously voiced puppet characters for Gerry Anderson in The Adventures of Twizzle and Four Feather Falls and had also originated the voice of Lady Penelope for Thunderbirds. She would go on to voice Zelda and Mary Falconer in Anderson’s Terrahawks series. Peter Marinker (Dr Benn) and Sean Barrett (Orion) had both previously contributed to the English dub for The Water Margin, while Garrick Hagon (Captain Carter) was best known for his role as Biggs Darklighter in Star Wars. Jay Benedict (Shiro) and Mark Rolston (Lee) were relative newcomers but both later appeared in Aliens (1986).

As the original Japanese music and effects track was completely 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 Hollies keyboardist and songwriter Paul Bliss. Bliss had never scored for film before so Star Fleet was something of a baptism of fire but he rose to the challenge and created a memorable musical accompaniment which lingered in viewers’ minds long after the programme had finished. On Lenny’s suggestion, Bliss also penned a catchy end-titles song which was later covered by Queen’s Brian May for his ‘Star Fleet Project’ Mini LP (1983).

Main alliance Ship

When Star Fleet finally aired in ITV’s Saturday morning schedule in the autumn of 1982, Louis Elman and LWT found themselves with a ‘sleeper’ hit on their hands. Positive word of mouth spread like wildfire around school playgrounds all over the country and the show also developed a loyal student following in universities, colleges and polytechnics. Before the year was out, Star Fleet and its infectious theme song were as engrained in the lives of British youth as Pac-Man, The Tube, Spandau Ballet and Doc Martens. Apart from a two-week break over Christmas, Star Fleet had an uninterrupted run, concluding on 16 April 1983, by which time the series had proven so popular with younger viewers that LWT were even prepared to finance the production of a second season. Unfortunately Louis Elman soon discovered that a fire at the production studio in Japan had destroyed all the puppets, models and sets and the cost of rebuilding everything made the filming of new episodes prohibitively expensive. The proposed second series was cancelled before it ever really got off the ground.

Despite its brief success on British television, Star Fleet disappeared from our screens and was largely forgotten until its resurrection on DVD early in 2009. Now a new generation of viewers are discovering the series for the first time while thirty- and fortysomethings are fondly reacquainting themselves with the crew of X-Bomber. For those of us who remember Star Fleet from its original screening over 25 years ago, this release of Paul Bliss’s fabulous music for the series is long overdue.

Chris Bentley

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