‘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.)
This is the ONLY show where I didn’t care about the characters and loved it purely on political shit because the tactics are AWWWWWESSSSSSSOOOMMEEEE. Wait till you get to one of the most fulfilling tactical battles I’ve ever seen <3333 *goes to play some Fire Emblem*
Heh, I have the complete collection of this on DVD. This post will make me want to see what you mean about it.
As the series progresses, I think you’ll get a better sense of Sinon. There are some hints in the first episode — the instructor/captain refers to her as the best cadet on board, and is sad that she’ll be stuck below the “glass deck”. The way the crew gets sorted for the reality show echoes this: the handsome, but feckless rich-boy captain essentially yields almost all command decisions to Sinon.
One of the things I liked about the series was the way that victory was sometimes the result of luck and sometimes the result of hard work. Toward the end of the series Sinon spends sleepless days in the simulator, running battle after battle, trying to find a way to even hopeless odds of their upcoming battle.
@ 21stcenturydigitalboy: Sounds encouraging, especially given your professed dislike for political science fiction.
@ newgeekphilosopher: I’d be interested to hear what you think of it.
@ dm00: I’d noticed Sinon playing capable Yang to Cisca’s borderline-incompetent Alliance administration already, but I hadn’t put that together with the ‘glass deck’. What you say bodes well for the other two volumes.
indeed I don’t like politics but I looooove tactics. not enough anime incorporate the tactical aspect of battle. Most political anime are faction disputes between big bloody war fights who’s victors are mere plot conveniences. Sometimes there’s basic strategy involved but not much more than ‘if we do this we might kill that’ to the point of occasional borderline deus ex machina. This is why I enjoyed Starship Operators and to some extent the first season of Code Geass.
I’m glad you’re interested in what I think of this series, IKnight, because this will be my first tactical science fiction anime I will watch. I haven’t finished watching Macross Frontier, but thanks to spoilerific bloggers I kinda know how Macross Frontier ends.
I don’t even know what Yakk…Deculture or whatever it is IS yet, so Starship Operators might be a better entry point to go on than watching a sequel to a long running anime franchise I’ve never seen.
Ok, how about this: Both you and I(Knight) watch Starship Operators and when we’re done watching the series we can join up for an “At the Movies with David and Margaret” style review of the series, which will hopefully involve a modified version of Margaret’s reviewing catch phrase “But David, I thought we saw a different FILM!”…
@ 21stcenturydigitalboy: Fair point on tactics’ position in anime in general. If it’s a mecha show it’s (rightly) focused on the hero, not the commanders, and anime struggles to treat war without mecha. I’m sure there are honourable exceptions, though.
@ newgeekphilosopher: Be prepared for it to be pretty cerebral – also, I won’t finish the series for a while yet, as the second volume’s only released on the 12th and it’ll be a while after that before the third and final volume’s released here. I’m happy to collaborate on something if you’re up for it, though.
Wait holy shit is SO just now coming out over there?! God Europe sucks O_o
You’re telling me. Plenty of stuff never gets released here at all since it’s not viable (in the UK, anyone with the money to buy anime will probably have imported the R1s anyway, or so the publishers reason).
But there are places where no anime is available legally at all, so in a sense we’re lucky.
I still have mixed feelings on Starship Operators–on the one hand, the tactics, the psychological battles that occur when the enemy can watch, on live television, you plan your strategy adds an air of tension not usually seen in space battle series.
On the other hand, I think Starship Operators suffered from the same problem that plagued Good Witch of the West: they tried to cram far too many novels into far too small a series. Carrying a series out to a conclusion is to be commended, but the overall effect is, in the case of Starship Operators, is to completely reduce the characters to what they resemble when they’re on the gravity spinner: cardboard cutouts. (In Good Witch of the West, it had the effect of making the series almost impossible to follow–I read the first novel, and there was so much that got left out of the anime that I wondered why they even bothered)
I’d love to read the novels for myself, though, as I suspect they’re very good. Starship Operators, as an anime, however, exists as a pretty thrilling sequence of space battles involving characters you barely care about. And a great KOTOKO ending theme.
So, yeah, you pretty much nailed it on the head after the first volume. And, despite all that above, I’m still proud of my boxset. (because the logo’s cool, har har, I make joke)
Did you ever finish Misaki Chronicles?
The lack of character depth was the killer in this show. It has some fantastic battles, insofar as tactics go (except for that whole stealth ship thing) and the political intrigue is good too.
There’s also a lesson driven home in one episode where they have an ally (4 or 5 on 2 battle); in a battle, the tactics must be dictated by your strategy, not the other way around. I think that episode represents the high point of the series.
I did find the ending somewhat disappointing, if still a bit emotional. It might be the only emotional segment of the show. In the end, I just couldn’t empathize with the characters enough. The battles: gripping. The characters….snooze.
Only other complaint is that I found it a bit odd that every space kingdom builds only battleships, and they’re all unique (except for Earths). Weird.
DOES THIS MEAN IT’S LIKE CODE GEASS?
@ OGT: I’m pleased to hear I ‘nailed it’, but also saddened. Then again, I do like my anime to have an ending, so it’s an acceptable sacrifice. It sounds like the opposite of the * of the Stars series, since the latter is so deliberately paced and has great characters but lacks an ending (granted, the novels haven’t finished).
@ Steven Den Beste: Yeah, though I couldn’t find a way to write a post about it. Like s-CRY-ed, I enjoyed it immensely (and admired its refusal to give in to its character designs and go bad), but couldn’t work up much to say about it. It was good, though, so thank you for writing the review that directed my attention to it.
@ ubu roi: If the ending must be the only emotional segment, at least it is the ending and not elsewhere that’s emotional.
Oddly enough I remember the tactics/strategy split being used as a metaphor when we were taught English-to-Latin translation – which perhaps highlights Latin’s continuing male/military associations. (One of my fellow Latinists wanted to become an army officer: ‘. . . and if they won’t accept me, I’ll become an archaeologist and fight Marxism that way instead!’)
The battleship thing is a bit odd now that you point it out. Thinking hard the best I can come up with is that battleship design philosophy moves fast enough to change in the time between laying a ship down and launching it, and battleships are expensive enough that they’re only built sequentially. But that’s weak and while we’ve seen fast changes before (Dreadnought) that’s a naval-space analogy, which is a bit risky. So yeah . . .
@ Michael: Not really, I’m afraid.
I don’t mind non-endings, or even a lack of ending, in anime–it’s almost to be expected. The Cult of the Ending mystifies me, as I’ve always relished the “getting there” over what “there” actually is.
A satisfying, and conclusive, ending, though, can never, ever hurt a series. On the other hand, sacrificing the “getting there” for a conclusive ending is undesirable.
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Thank you for getting me into this series!
@ MechaMarshmellow: No problem, I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it.
Wow, now you’re going to dig me out of the shadows so I can reply to this. Okay, you aren’t really digging me out of the shadows, but hell… you know what I mean.
Honestly, I love the interplay between the government, the media and the public in this show. It’s one of the few shows where the media isn’t portrayed as some sort of soul-sucking leech on society, or a valiant knight trying to save the day by overthrowing the powers that be. It’s just a means of conveying information. And sure they’re concerned about sales, but not on a level that’s completely ridiculous.
A good point. The reporters, and the staff putting the programme itself together, are people doing their jobs. I was quite surprised at how restrained Starship Operators was in its treatment of reality television – I expected a much more biting level of satire.