‘Reviews. I’m really not very good at them, unless I force myself to write with inhuman brevity. If, however, criticism is, in the words of America’s greatest writer (I’m sorry, the urge to troll was irresistible), “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste”, I probably ought to make an effort to do some taste-correcting from time to time.’
That, at least, is what I was thinking when my eye fell on the first volume of Starship Operators, recently released here, as it lay on the periphery of my desk. The periphery of my desk is, it would seem, a dangerous place to be.
The story (a light novel adaption) goes, in brief, like this: a crew of space cadets aboard the cutting-edge battleship Amaterasu decide to fight on when their homeland is conquered. To fund their campaign, and secure supplies, they sell broadcast rights to a television network, effectively turning themselves into reality television stars. Of which more later.
Later demands an earlier, and since I like starships we’ll start with them. Said starships are a vulnerable bunch which engage each other at extremely long ranges, and the characters fight from cramped rooms full of computer screens. Much of the excitement is in the crew’s efforts to figure out what happened, what’s happening and (if they’re lucky) what’s going to happen. The flow of information drives the battle sequences, which usually culminate in the hero, Sinon, exercising her tactical nous to great effect. This is definitely the Ryvius School of spaceborne action.
The push-button approach is backed up by some concessions to actual science (much to the reality television producer’s disappointment, laser beams are invisible) and common sense (being a military vessel, the Amaterasu doesn’t have many showers) which do set Starship Operators apart from its stablemates. Before hard sf fans pull out their credit cards, though, I should say that we still (quite rightly, in my view) see fact ignored for the sake of a good story. They tell me concealment in space is impossible, but that didn’t stop me enjoying the sight of the crew trying to detect a stealth warship in the fourth episode.
All well and good, but do we care about these people? At the moment, not a great deal. A lot of the time left aside from the important business of establishing the premise has been spent on the warfare and hints of intrigue. Some people die but, as you can tell from my ‘[s]ome people’, their deaths don’t provoke much feeling. There is a romantic subplot in the Fire Control Bridge which is workaday stuff although, to be fair, it is integrated well into the larger story of the Amaterasu‘s progress.
It may be that a significant part of this problem, if that is what it is, is the lack of information about Sinon herself. She dislikes being a reality television show but puts up with it, she gets on well with her friend Miyuri and she has a knack for operating their starship’s various components and crew, but that’s about all I can say after four episodes (nearly a third of the series, remember). Sinon needs something other than cunning planning to do to justify her existence.
I’ve refrained from addressing the reality television element until now because its presence has been less obtrusive than I expected. I had feared that Starship Operators would descend into a welter of self-referential humour and that, thankfully, has not happened. Instead the show employs brief flashes of satire, mostly revolving around the uncaring, ratings-chasing producer, and these are quite funny in a Legend of the Galactic Heroes ‘I’m smiling on the inside of my face’ way. (Which is fine: satire doesn’t have to be funny, and anyway all of my own jokes are like this too.) The television does complicate critical judgement. The music, for instance, is underwhelming. On the other hand, it does sound just like the underwhelming music you might expect on a reality television program. Is this bad, or clever? ‘Both’ isn’t a silly answer. Hopefully the reality television plot is going somewhere.
Actually, that’s a good summary of my thoughts on the whole volume. The only outstanding things here are the tactical shenanigans and the push-button space warfare; everything else shows potential but could do better. Sinon’s attitude to the Amataseru‘s struggle should be challenged. The television producer and presenter should become attached to the crew. The battle structure used in the first volume should be dispensed with before it becomes a formula, and replaced with longer and more intricate confrontations.
All of these things are possible, and they would all improve a show which is currently entertaining (very entertaining, for me) but unremarkable.
(Oh, and the animation itself? Yeah, it’s okay.)