“Reality TV” Ron Simon, an American Television Studies academic, says “could be posited as the first post-modern genre, where nothing-identity, lifestyle, or relationships-is fixed; everything is a construct for radical transformation”. Simon in ‘Thinking Outside the Box’ postulates about the development and growth of the genre of Reality Television and how that genre is blurring the lines between other genres also.
In a novel move director Takashi Watanabe cleverly takes ‘Starship Operators’ and weaves a story that is both the synthesis of reality television and science fiction and a very subtle satire about the genre of reality television and its impact upon the people subjected to its pressures. Adapted from the novel by Ryo Mizuno the story revolves around the fate of the seventy third class of the Defence University of the Planet Kibi. They are essentially exiles from their world when they become the locus of the Kibi resistance when the Kibi government surrenders to the Kingdom, a huge superpower.
This first volume concerns the crew as they buy the ship from the Kibi government and begin to mount their defence of Kibi, although perhaps only the spirit of Kibi since the planet has surrendered. However at what cost? The former students in order to mount this defence by buying one of the greatest battleships in existence, The Amaterasu, has to sell the rights of their war to the Galaxy Network, one of the largest interstellar broadcasters, in order to fund their resistance.
Incidentally this funding is one of the core ways reality television shows control their contestants. Ron Simon begins his piece by writing about a reality television programme created by psychologist Allen Funt called ‘Candid Camera’ (first broadcast from 1948 and sporadically through to today). This lead to the pioneering of one of psychology’s most infamous experiments: Stanley Milgram’s study into obedience. The study involves the manipulation of a ‘teacher’ to inflict their ‘student’ with an electric shock every time they get something wrong. This manipulation often involved the use an ideology the ‘teacher’ believed in to get them to capitulate.
In this first volume of ‘Starship Operators’ the level of manipulation is clearly high from both the Galaxy Network, The Kingdom but also clearly from the crew. Indeed the puppet master of this piece appears to be Hollywood executive dictating from his in the comfort of his office and effectively arranging for the fights and big drama to begin. In spite of this various members of the crew are fairly manipulative. Take the example of Sanri Wakana who’s use of youthful need for company expertly rebuilds the shattered bonds that was splitting the crew into two different camps in episode three. A staple of modern reality television programmes manipulation is one of a collection of subtle undertones that are paramount to the story and its continuing development.
In spite of this fantastic concept underpinning ‘Starship Operators’ it is the story that matters. Indeed like recent episodes of ‘Big Brother’ I do have criticisms of the show in spite of its fabulous undertones. The actual show feels a little bit slow. Although we see the story unfolding as a neutral observer, not being manipulated by the Galaxy Network, the story is a little thin. Indeed apart from episode three the episodes follow the same basic ‘monster of the week’ format: the Amaterasu is moving towards its destination, it finds the existence of a different ship and blows it up. This does not make ‘Starship Operators’ insufferable because the show is decent and the cast, although ironically representative of anime stereotypes, is watchable. In some ways the crew inherent some of the ‘Gundam Wing’ syndrome by which characters act in exceptionally weird ways for no real reason. Adequately shown by the way in which Takai Kiryu rescues Alley Hisaka from a malevolently acting sun. Obviously this does not mean that all the characters are psychopaths but rather are slightly quirky in a post-‘Gundam Wing’ style.
Also contributing to this feeling of slowness is the soap opera feel that also characterises the show. Indeed all the women and very stereotypically ‘girly’ whilst all the men are very much more closed and unemotional. The end of episode three where Sanri declares her undying love for Takai is the pinnacle of this volume’s soap opera vibe.
However I feel that the genuinely deep parts of ‘Starship Operators’ make it a really good science fiction show and the synthesis of that genre coupled with reality television makes it of reasonable calibre. Ironically however I feel that although the show is a reaction against reality television and its results on the images of people, that of putting people into a label and selling them as that, is just what happens within the anime anyway because it is so reliant upon the stereotypes that underpin anime.
So in conclusion ‘Starship Operators’ is a show of decent calibre it is also a show that is a bit slow because of its dull melodramatics but also its ‘monster of the week’ formula it takes the shape of. Its redeeming features are its deep themes underpinning the show and making it fascinating to watch yet the show still feels a little slow but around the corner there will be something big as we find out who is the big manipulator behind the plan to use the Galaxy Network in the first place…