Reviewby Theron Martin,
In the 23rd century, cadets of the 73rd class of the Defense University of planet Kibi are returning from a final pre-graduation shake-down space voyage when war is declared by the invading Henrietta Alliance (aka The Kingdom). Kibi's government quickly capitulates, but instead of standing down as instructed, the cadets decide to buy out their state-of-the-art space battleship Amaterasu and continue the fight against The Kingdom. Operating a battleship requires money and supplies, though, so their new “captain” cuts a deal with the Galaxy Network: in exchange for financial backing, the Galaxy Network gets unrestricted rights to broadcast everything they do as the ultimate reality TV show! Although tactical specialist Sinon Kouzouki opposes the idea, for she hates the thought of being involved in a war and sought only to move on with a normal life after graduation, it is her tactics, combined with the teamwork of the crew, which sees the ship through its early battles.
Given the popularity of reality TV shows the past few years, it's inevitable that the craze would finally find its way into the realm of anime. At least the creators here tried to be clever with it; they combined the reality show concept with a stock sci-fi story format to produce a series that's basically a new twist on the traditional “space cadets come of age” story. The four episodes in this introductory volume follow a “challenge of the week” format, with each episode offering a new foe which presents entirely different tactical problems for the young crew. The variety of these challenges is quite inventive (they actually came up with a plausible space submarine!) and overcoming the challenges is much more an exercise in thinking and planning than in taking action – although the unique way the crew is united against a psychological warfare threat in one episode is more an emotional appeal with an unintended side effect than anything that's carefully thought out. That and the intense focus on lending as much realism as possible to the tactics of space combat are what separate Starship Operators from the mass of other space-fighting-centered anime series out there, even if one discounts the reality show angle.
The impact of the reality show gimmick can't be discounted, though. The on-ship hostess of the “Spaceship Channel” isn't the obnoxiously intrusive, uncaring busybody one might expect, but she and her cameras are always around. Characters have to wear make-up even on combat duty so they'll look good for the camera, and there are suggestions that the actions of the ship are at least partly influenced by what the producer wants. The crew also has to account for the fact that the enemy also can pick up broadcasts of their story and operations on the Galaxy Network. And of course there are the predictable intimations about the conceptual sleaziness of a TV show being based on life-or-death struggles.
Whether or not the series is better for its realism and tactical focus or its reality show gimmick is debatable. The more cerebral emphasis makes it a low-key series compared to space-combat stories focused more around action (Outlaw Star, et al) or character relationships (Banner/Crest of the Stars). The quality of the writing and storytelling is also not particularly sharp once one gets beyond the tactics. Characters die, but it doesn't carry quite the impact one would expect, interpersonal dialogue is very ordinary, and in general it feels like some key component is missing; a sense of urgency, maybe. The very “blah” name of the series doesn't help matters, either. If that is an accurate translation, then couldn't the original creators have come up with a more exciting-sounding name than Starship Operators?
The cast also has yet to much distinguish itself. The prominence of Sinon in the opener and DVD case artwork suggests that she is the lead character, but so far this appears to be more a case of featuring the most appealing character than an indication of her actual prominence. Granted, she does play a key role as the reluctant, even-tempered tactical genius, but her part in this volume isn't substantially bigger or better-developed than anyone else's. The sheer size of the ensemble has prevented any of the other characters from developing much beyond their stock personality/role/motivation combo, with a doubling up on the nerdy types: the guy's a computer whiz, the girl's an astronomy nut who stayed on solely because the Amaterasu is one of the best stellar observatories around – and, of course, she wears glasses. (People still need those in the 23rd century?) There is some suggestion that one character may be a mole, but whether or not the hints offered are accurate remains to be seen. What is not present is any manner of robotic character, alien, or talking AI; this is an all-human conflict and cast.
Like any other recent sci-fi anime series, Starship Operators makes heavy use of CG artistry and animation, but it is better-drawn-and better-used than in most other recent examples. Especially sharp are computer screen displays, which look believably futuristic. Regular artistry is also well-drawn and attractively-colored, with particular care being taken to adjust the coloring based on ambient light conditions. Character designs are, for the most part, realistically-proportioned, eye-pleasing, and distinctive from each other, with uniforms color-coded according to the person's role on the ship, just like in Star Trek. While Kibi seems to be a progressive enough planet to allow women in their Defense Forces, they are apparently not so progressive on their uniform design; the uniforms worn by female cadets are very feminine and figure-flattering compared to the uniforms worn by the male characters. (Yes, I realize this was probably done to attract the attention of the fanboys, but Banner/Crest of the Stars proved that unisex uniforms in sci-fi can be used successfully in anime, so that's no excuse.) The eyes of the female characters also deserve special mention. Though they are closer to proportionate size than normal for anime, their pupils are inevitably oversized and rounded, which gives some characters (especially Sinon) the disconcerting appearance of always staring wide-eyed at everything. Animation, both CG and non-CG, is very well-handled except for the fake-looking scenes where non-CG characters are standing on the CG-rendered gravity ring as it rotates with other characters talking in the foreground. The only other artistic flaw is a brief scene in one episode where a coloring error makes a character temporarily look like she had a disembodied hand. Overall, though, it's a very good-looking series.
The aforementioned problem with a sense of urgency may be heavily attributable to the bland musical scoring, which lacks the soaring, action-enhancing dramatic sound a series like this should have. Instead, it sounds much like the background music for a video game. The generic techno beat of the opener also thoroughly fails to impress, while the gentle, fully-orchestrated closer by KOTOKO is actually worth a listen. It isn't enough to save what is otherwise a very forgettable soundtrack, though. Language options are also, unfortunately, available only in 2.0 versions.
Geneon's Ocean Group-produced dub uses a cast that is heavily-populated with new talent but anchored by the likes of Kelly Sheridan, Kirby Morrow, and a handful of other long-time regulars. Performances by the veterans are solid, while some of the newcomer performances sound tentative and/or forced at first. This gradually improves as the volume forges on, though, and the use of so many new voices and a separate casting company to collect them has resulted in a very accurately-cast dub. That accuracy does not extend to the English script, however, which often all but ignores the subtitle script in favor of dialogue with (usually) roughly equivalent meaning. In only a couple of places is the meaning of a scene changed by this substantial rewording, but those who favor accuracy in their dubs won't be pleased. While the dub is passable for dub-favoring fans, it isn't likely to win any converts.
On-disc extras offered by Geneon on this volume include clean opener and closer, the U.S. series trailer, a music video for the closer, and company previews. The packaging includes a mini-poster featuring all the female cadets, an acetate insert that is a copy of the front cover, and a reversible cover with some nice additional art.
With its first four episodes Starship Operators establishes itself as a clever, good-looking reality show version of a classic “space cadets coming of age” drama. Thinking and tactics are favored over pure action in a series that isn't the best-sounding or best-written but has a lot potential.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : C-
+ Great-looking CG art, clever ideas, action which emphasizes thinking and tactics.
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