For a sci-fi packed with more potential than Barry Bonds with steroids, Starship Operators was painful to watch unfold. At just about every possible turn the series managed to fail in one way or another, turning what could have been an outstanding series into unmemorable, bland one. The premise itself, for being rather cliché, actually didn't initially seem that bad - a group of military cadets are taking one of their nation's newest warships, the Amaterasu, on its maiden voyage prior to their graduation ceremony. However, during the flight their nation receives a declaration of war by the much larger Kingdom, prompting the cadets to take the ship and run rather than cede the technology to their captors when their nation surrenders without a fight.
Unlike most series of this fashion, the crew is not a bunch of immature kids - all are trained to handle a starship, they just don't have much hands-on experience under their belt. Sadly, this premise gets annoyingly shaky when they choose to finance the ship's operation by turning it into some off-the-wall reality TV show, which only becomes more prominent as the series drags on. Try as I might, I simply couldn't stomach how horrible this was, as far too much time is spent tracking the reporter's antics rather than developing the characters. Ultimately the series falls into a "character group of the day" mentality, picking a handful of characters and inserting them into dramatic situations only to never touch them again. Some of these episodes involve death, some romance, but it's hard to really feel any emotional attachment to any of parties involved, and this really hurts its overarching enjoyability. The romances, for instance, are built up very loosely (generally only hinted at) in the earlier episodes, and when finally addressed their resolution tends to be somewhat sudden - after being "resolved," the romance basically disappears from focus in the series altogether. Though I really wanted to attach myself more to the crew, aside from Shinon not a single character managed to captivate me, and most ended up feeling more puppets of the drama rather than human beings.
Also, the ending sequence is rather haphazardly rushed and makes little overall sense. While I understood that the crew of the Amaterasu was supposed to be enormously talented and the ship itself a very powerful asset to their survival, it boggles my mind how they oust the Kingdom's top generals multiple times - the Kingdom is supposed to be some militaristic galactic empire, not some oddball compilation of brainless thugs piloting warships. This lack of believable villains ends up derailing the soundness of the ending - it's decent at best, as the events leading up to it border on absurd. Still, it did manage to still be fairly dramatic despite this, and Starship Operators does have its moments throughout, so I can't say it was so much terrible as simply disappointing.
While overall Starship Operators flaunted a smooth, crisp display of CGI, I can't say I was very impressed. The ships scattered throughout the series could have used a substantial amount of polishing, as they appeared rigid and block-like rather than fluid and aerodynamic; a bad aesthetic flaw for space age vessels to possess. Ordinarily I wouldn't consider this a particularly notable flaw, but the sheer number of long-distance, deep-space camera shots allotted for far too many empty and uneventful screens even in the heat of battle. More often than not I found myself completely uninterested in what was visually happening, and were it not for the subtitles, I could easily have seen myself falling asleep on a number of occasions.
Fortunately, though, the animation wasn't half bad when it comprised more than a black screen and a handful of rigid polygons. There was a lot of emphasis put into things such as consoles on the bridge, significantly enhancing the futuristic feel of the interior. Also, there were a lot of subtle details that highlighted the ship as being plausibly futuristic, which helped offset some of the other unrealistic annoyances that plagued the storyline - for sci-fi nuts like myself there are certainly plenty of entertaining quirks to look for and gawk at, and for that it deserves at least some credit.
If it does but one thing successfully, Starship Operators manages to put forth a solid musical performance. Much of the insert music is quite ambient and appropriately placed, certainly helping it keep on track with the overall (at least attempted) serious atmosphere pervasive throughout. Likewise, the voice acting tends to be above average as well, especially with the more central characters like Shinon. Where the series failed in developing its characters the actors picked up the slack, and fortunately this does make the show watchable when it otherwise would have been overwhelmingly droll.
While I really wanted to like the characters more than I did, Starship Operators set itself up for failure with its time constraint of a mere thirteen episodes. It tries to explore the stories of about twenty to thirty members of Amaterasu's crew, but ultimately is forced to condense and package them into groups rather than individuals. The result is a viewer who identifies the characters by face instead of name, resulting in a rather shallow emotional response during important dramatic moments such as a character's death. Too many times I found myself wondering more how a death would impact the story than it would the characters themselves, as more often than not I couldn't recall who exactly on the crew it personally impacted the most.
Probably the best part of Starship Operators, though, is that the characters are, in general, very likeable in spite of their lack of development. Shinon, for instance, is quite the rare female lead - she's confident, bold, and brilliant, yet simultaneously torn (in a very realistic fashion) by her own insecurities. Right off the bat I felt an attachment to her, as she's one of the few characters thoroughly developed from start to finish. Unlike most of the drama, that which involved her actually proved emotionally captivating, and there was actually a scene toward the latter half of the series that caused me to tear up a bit - a damned hard thing for an anime to do if I do say so myself. In many ways the ability of Starship Operators' story to not inwardly collapse was bent on the strength of her character, as the maturity she contributed to the series' atmosphere was really all that kept it afloat.
Yet, sadly, all the characters in the series might have been equally as fascinating had they been given the time to develop; a trimming of the cast and a stronger emphasis on making it a character-driven anime instead of a story-driven one would likely have resulted a much stronger presentation. The fact that it portrays life on a starship from the perspective of characters other than just those on the bridge makes it unique, and I can't help but shake my head in shame at how much potential was wasted by letting this innovation go completely to waste. In so many ways the story just isn't important to the overarching events affecting the crew - sure they're being chased and yes they have enemies to shake off, but it just wasn't interesting when the series tried to delve into the politics behind the war. I cared more about how the crew was dealing with problems like breaches in their hull rather than some fancy parliamentary aristocrat whining about his cravings for power.
Starship Operators would have, could have, and should have been a top contender for best anime of 2005 had it been given a less absurd premise and a more directed focus. Unfortunately, even for spaceship loving geeks like myself, it just doesn't make the cut in terms of quality. If nothing else, it proved that turning a tactical cat-and-mouse game of space warfare into an intergalactic game show is a faulty premise, and hopefully such an abhorrent concept will never taint the sci-fi community ever again (anime or not.) Still, for those who can overlook its flaws it makes for a decent watch, and I can't say it should be passed up simply because its tacky in a number of ways. With serious, mature space dramas as elusive as Bigfoot himself, you really can't go wrong in at least giving it a shot - chances are if it interests you from the first episode you'll stay interested all the way through.
Starship Operators could have been a great space opera / sci-fi adventure if it was 50 episodes long, and had less humor. The basic idea is good but the way it is presented on screen makes you feel like it’s a 10 year old playing with his plastic space marines. Which makes sense if you take into account who made it.
- Animated by J.C. Staff, the studio that exists to make shitty adaptations full of retarded fan service.
- Directed by Watanabe Takashi, who has made nothing but silly stuff, such as Slayers, Ikki Tousen, and Shakugan no Shana.
- Based on the novels by Mizuno Ryou, whose only other known work is the most mediocre Record of Lodoss War.
The story is about a team of youths fighting some generic evil oppressive empire with their ship, while the whole thing is broadcasted on interstellar channels so the kids can have funds in their war thanks to the sponsors. This is a good twist to the otherwise “magic money” trope that is so heavy in most teen adventures and basically it’s what makes the show seem more real than the average corny mediocrity out there. “Hey look, they don’t find money and food on space trees; they are paid for making a tv show.” And indeed, it is highly ironic and interesting how they are part of a real war and at the same time they need to make the whole thing enjoyable for the masses by looking all perky and interesting. Heck, even the otherwise out-of-place mini skirts all the girls are wearing are in this case excused as in-story fan service for the in-story male viewers. Smart meta-trick is smart.
So the basic idea of the show is to see it as a space adventure that has turned into a mass entertainment reality show. The war is real, the characters act as they feel like, and money still rules the world. From this description alone you are presented with one hell of an original and well-thought out idea. Too bad it wasn’t given the proper duration and directing…
The first thing anyone will wonder about the anime is its power balance. On one side we have an interstellar empire, armed with thousands of advanced warships. On the other we have some rookies with a single spaceship. How the hell do they manage to keep defeating the enemy? Oh sure, you might as well go asking why the good robot always wins in mecha shows, when the enemy army outnumber it by a few million times. If it was THAT silly then it wouldn’t strike as weird, but here we have a somewhat more realistic setting. It is not supposed to take things so childishly and instead provide a better sense or pragmatic approach. Heck, it clearly shows how many try to exploit the whole event, from firms, to politicians, to military that again makes you believe it is far more realistic than the Power Rangers. And that is the problem; it just pretends it is; the whole reality show/social-political aspect is used very superficially as nothing more than a fancy background decoration.
If there is something good in all that, is how each episode has something new to offer, or to present it from a different angle. It is not predictable, as it keeps introducing and expanding its ideas; as superficial as they may eventually be. There is simply no time to develop them past the introduction, and the final episode feels like they had to end an arc that would normally need dozens of episodes, in just 15 minutes. Politicians nag, generals revolt, the people rebel, shit blow up, and before you know it, it all ends. And along with it, the attempts to build up romances and interesting friendships all go to waste, with barely being told what happens to them afterwards. Well thanks for nothing.
See the series past that and you have yourself the usual stereotypical / idealistic / overhyped / awkward with one another’s feelings youths, piloting a spaceship that never seems to take enough damage or casualties to matter. Most of them are cute girls, doing silly stuff, and blowing ships for the lulz. They get a nice fleshing out but it is trashed by the completely light-hearted presentation. And seriously; those mini skirts just fizzle away all respect you may have had for them without them.
Somewhat standard for its time. They do their job nicely but don’t stand out for their aesthetic details, or the machinery, or the character figures, or the soundtrack. The action scenes are actually very well done, even if it all boils down to laser beams blowing stuff up.
It could have been good but it is handled like a parody of sorts and ends in a rush, leaving you with bad impressions. Not recommended.
And now for some excused scorings.
ART SECTION: 5/10
General Artwork 1/2 (generic)
Character Figures 1/2 (generic)
Backgrounds 1/2 (basic)
Animation 1/2 (basic)
Visual Effects 1/2 (basic)
SOUND SECTION: 6/10
Voice Acting 2/3 (corny but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Music Themes 2/4 (average)
Sound Effects 2/3 (ok I guess)
STORY SECTION: 6/10
Premise 2/2 (interesting)
Pacing 2/2 (every episode is about something new)
Complexity 2/2 (rich context)
Plausibility 0/2 (none)
Conclusion 0/2 (very rushed)
CHARACTER SECTION: 2/10
Presence 1/2 (generic)
Personality 1/2 (typical)
Backdrop 0/2 (practically zero)
Development 0/2 (rushed and superficial)
Catharsis 0/2 (none)
VALUE SECTION: 3/10
Historical Value 0/3 (none)
Rewatchability 1/3 (low because of too little plot)
Memorability 2/4 (the concept is very good but the presentation lacks)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 1/10
Art 0/1 (looks typical)
Sound 0/2 (sounds meh)
Story 1/3 (the concept is very good but the presentation lacks)
Characters 0/4 (forgettable)
After planet Kiba is invaded by a poorly defined "Kingdom," a crew of teenage cadets rebels against their nations surrender by stealing a state of the art battleship and forming a government in exile. After selling themselves to a reality TV network in episode 1 the premise is complete and doesn't progress much farther. After that, much of the series is split between character backstory, romantic interactions, and political posturing. There isn't much time to go around and most of this development is superficial.
Starship Operators delivers very little quality animation, especially for a high action sci-fi series. They cut corners by delivering much of the space combat to you by the ships interface reminiscent of 80s arcade games. You would think a state of the art battleship could manage a better GUI at least. Some of the ship designs are interesting, but the blocky looking CG is terrible. Explosions and weapons are all similar and unimpressive. The sets and backdrops are very generic looking, especially the CG ones. Character models aren't completely bland at least, though most of the costumes look pretty generic again. Character animations are awkward to completely bizarre in outer space - people levitate and move around without effort.
I didn't like either the title or credit songs and the score was generic and unnoticeable for the most part. Sound effects were bland, a common theme for the show. The voice acting isn't terrible, though the dialogue is usually silly and cliché.
While some effort is made towards developing characters, there are far too many of them and not enough time. Characters are introduced and then killed off. The most attachment I felt towards any character would be to hope they were the next to die. With a cast as big as this they would need another 13 episodes to develop them, though I'm thankful they didn't.
Starship Operators attempts to blend space sci-fi with high school romance and reality TV, but instead of bringing you an innovative story it serves up a hodge-podge of tired stereotypes and stale action. The various genres split what little time there is and most of the reality TV stuff has a very naive perspective or is just pointless filler. Everything seems rushed and poorly conceived, the result is painful to watch. I had to finish Operators just to see how bad it could get.
You may enjoy this series because: It's a relatively competent "young-people-in-charge-of-a-starship" series, so if space adventures and combat appeal to you, it's probably a good bet. The story follows a group of cadets aboard the starship Amaterasu as they choose to use the ship to fight back when their home-planet is taken over by a powerful wannabe-empire. As the situation escalates from the empire seeing them as a meer annoyance to being a major thorn in its side, they are faced with a variety of increasingly difficult combat situations.
The handling of the combat scenarios is a fairly strong element in the series. It goes the route of making the space battles somewhat realistic in how little maneuverability the ships have, giving the show more the feel of submarine warfare than your typical shoot-em-up. Watching the strategies of the different players unfold definitely kept me interested, and the climax, in particular, involves some quite great back-and-forth on both the combat and political fronts as various double- and triple-crosses play out.
You may not like this series because: The whole setup puts a major strain on the viewer's suspension of disbelief. Much of the success of the Amaterasu can be put down to the enemy's incompetence, in that they're stupid enough to send ships against her in ones-and-twos early on. It undercuts this supposedly powerful enemy's credibility that they allow a commander in one battle to go with a more risky battle plan just to boost his own ego, rather than taking the safer route that will ensure success.
Added to this, you have the problematic central conceit of the show - that the Amaterasu gets funding for resupply, etc. by turning the whole enterprise into a televised reality-show. This aspect of the series does have its moments... Early on, we're given some hints that there might be something nefarious going on with the show (though those hints fall flat) and it definitely has a significant impact on the final climax... But for most of the series, the reality show aspect just comes across as superfluous and clunky.
Another weakness is how the series deals with its characters when they're not in the midst of battle. Much of the interpersonal drama/romance/etc. is quite wooden and by-the-numbers, and a few of the "poignant" deaths that are thrown in to add pathos to the situation are so blatantly attempting to tug at the heartstrings that they tend to have the opposite affect.
Bottom Line: A moderately enjoyable space opera, if you can get past some of the ridiculousness inherent in the plot setup.