Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Estranged from their home planet and fighting a lone battle against the invading Kingdom forces, the student crew of the rogue starship Amaterasu have suddenly become space celebrities after having their adventures broadcast on the Galaxy Network. The planet of Shu gladly welcomes them when they stop by for supplies, but a diplomatic meeting with the president turns sour when the Kingdom declares war and incites a coup among Shu's military. Now the government must decide whether to align with Amaterasu and fight the Kingdom, or surrender completely. Caught in the crossfire, the Amaterasu's crew must get back to their ship and develop a plan to stave off the overwhelming enemy forces.
Starship Operators is not for those who like fast spacecraft, big explosions, and smart-talking heroes. Not that there's anything wrong with liking those things—but frankly, this is a thinking fan's series, with action relegated to just a few climactic scenes each episode. The real heart of Starship Operators is in how it gets to that action, telling gritty stories of brainwork, determination, and pure guts. In a future where pragmatism wins the day, a hero doesn't need to be smart-talking. A hero just needs to be smart.
In these middle four episodes, viewers get a couple of two-part adventures: "The Great Escape," where the stranded ground crew makes a mad dash back to the ship, and "Stardust Memory," where Shu's military and the Amaterasu battle the Kingdom fleet. Although one is about on-the-fly response, and the other a tactical mind game, they both reflect the series' modus operandi: judge the situation, talk about it a lot, and then—only then—act on it. If that sounds boring, well, you'd be sort of right: most scenes are dominated by dialogue, and technical (or political) dialogue at that. A dry storytelling approach and poorly timed cuts don't help, either. But good things come to those who wait: after an episode and a half of buildup, watching the tension break is its own fascinating reward.
This practical approach to space adventure is reflected not just in the story, but in the setting too. Firing a cannon requires several minutes of charging up; going to warp means pulling out the star maps. Perhaps too many minutes are wasted on routine button-pushing and initiation sequences, but it makes you appreciate the complexity involved. Cutting-edge 24th-century space travel is depicted as an impressive but cumbersome task, just like it was in the 20th, making it an unexpectedly realistic take on future technology.
With all this academic focus on a complex, war-torn universe, something does go missing—the characters. Sometimes it feels like the Amaterasu's crewmembers are just mouthpieces for the discussion of military and political ideas. A minor character dies in this volume, but the event and its aftermath are treated so briefly that any emotional impact fades out. Perhaps this is part of the series' pragmatic approach, but it's hard to believe that the crew feels sad for about 3 minutes and then jumps right back into work. Even the central character Sinon does little more than strategizing and giving orders, and it's still hard to remember everyone else's names.
Of course, remembering names gets hard when the crewmembers look so generic. Practically everyone on the Amaterasu is a variation on the "typical young anime male/female" prototype, and the adult characters aren't much better. The nondescript males among the Kingdom and Shu forces, all looking somewhat old and serious, make it maddeningly difficult to follow the scene changes between different flight decks. Mechanical designs fare better, with rich details and texture compensating for the fake CG look on the spacecraft, and control panels showing off intricate banks of information. Standard, non-technical features like rooms and hallways look plain, however, and the animation is average at best. With lots of dialogue scenes, they can almost get away with it, but one-on-one action scenes like in "The Great Escape" reveal a stiff, unexciting sense of movement.
Kenji Kawai's stately music score fits the mood of the series, with rich string orchestration and minor-keyed tunes dominating. The wordless sequence at the beginning of "Stardust Memory" is one of the most evocative, carried almost entirely by the poignant background track. Even during action scenes, the music rarely goes any faster than walking pace, preferring to subtly underscore the tension rather than exploding with hyperactivity. The ending song, a heartfelt ballad, matches that mood as well and is more melodic than the run-of-the-mill opening.
The dense, technical dialogue takes its toll on the English dub, with the voice actors being forced to chew on compound sentences and multisyllabic words. The result is a performance that ranges from unexciting to almost embarrassing (one of the fleet generals practically spits out his lines). The actors' attempts to sync with mouth movements often lead to awkward timing, although that's also the animation's fault. Most of all, the dub script shows the futility of the situation, with lines, meanings, and technical jargon altered at will. So, is it "dissipation" or "dispersion"?
Among the extras on the DVD is a collection of TV commercials and promotional spots—not terribly exciting unless you like seeing the same few clips spliced together. However, the casing itself features a reversible cover.
If you lean more towards the intellectual, strategic side of space adventure instead of pure action, then Starship Operators is the series of choice. Its emphasis on military and political maneuvering makes it a challenging series to follow, especially with long stretches of dialogue, but those who put in the brainwork will enjoy the intricate buildup and resolution. The double-length stories in this volume should be especially rewarding. On the other hand, exciting animation and absorbing characters don't seem to exist in this universe, so take that into account—a smart hero isn't necessarily a fun hero.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : B+
+ A surprisingly serious, mentally challenging take on outer-space adventure.
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