I wanted to do something in honor of the tenth anniversary of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, other than drink heavily as I consider that the series began a full decade ago, when I was still young and full of hope. I’ve toyed with the idea of watching back through the series and doing an episode-by-episode breakdown; sometimes this has been a solo venture, other times I’ve enlisted others, but each attempt has crumbled before a single word is ever typed.
Instead, what I bring you now is a show that got my attention specifically because someone referred to it as “Battlestar Galactica the Animated Series,” Space Battleship Yamato 2199. Quick history lesson: This show itself is a reboot of the original Space Battleship Yamato, which aired beginning in 1974, and involves a crew of misfit prodigals who, under the leadership of a seasoned military commander who commands exceptional loyalty and respect, must travel far into unknown space to seek a planet that may not even exist.
Sound familiar? Of course it does, and anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of both shows can tell you that the 1978 Battlestar Galactica might not even exist without Yamato, which saw success in the U.S. under the title Star Blazers. While the shows share as many differences as they do similarities, anyone who is a fan of one – and doesn’t have some sort of disdain for animated or older shows, respectively – will probably find enough to like in the other to warrant watching.
Space Battleship Yamato 2199 begins with an engagement by the Earth fleet at the outskirts of the solar system against ships from the planet Garmillas. The Earth forces are completely overwhelmed by the attackers, with only a single ship surviving, but we quickly discover they were a decoy for a secret operation. While the Garmillans were distracted, a ship carrying an ambassador and technology from the planet Iscandar arrived on Mars.
The ambassador doesn’t survive, but the technology allows Earth to complete work on the Wave Motion Engine, finally giving humanity the ability to travel at faster-than-light speeds. Earth has been ravaged by targeted meteor strikes intended to turn the planet into a suitable home for Garmillans; the only hope lies in trying to reach Iscandar and retrieve even more advanced tech that can restore Earth.
This task falls to the crew of the Yamato, a ship built in secret that can use the Wave Motion core for propulsion, defense, and even offense. The Garmillans figure this out, and launch an attack directly at Earth that kills some of the intended Yamato crew, and forces the ship to depart early with some new recruits. The rest of the show involves the Yamato’s journey across the Milky Way and beyond, the struggles of her crew, and even takes time to establish more about the Garmillans and their perspective.
The Yamato is crewed by Juzo Okita (Adama), a brilliant but aging commander with his own reasons for accepting a mission he may never come back from; his XO Shiro Sanada, also the ship’s science officer (Tigh + Baltar); the ship’s young tactical officer Susumu Kodai (Apollo) and navigation officer Daisuke Shima (Gaeta); a hot-headed young female pilot prodigy named Akira Yamamoto (Starbuck); and the regular assortment of engineers, pilots, officers, and staff that fans of the genre have come to expect, most in archetypes you can readily recognize.
There are also the military and political leaders of the Garmillan Empire, which is so blunt in its Nazi imagery that I’m not sure “imagery” is even the right word. The plot weaves through the various intrigues of those surrounding leader Aberdt Dessler, as they try to use the Yamato as a piece in their games. We learn that Earth is just of passing interest to the empire, which spans most of the Large Magellanic Cloud beyond our galaxy; an empire which is experiencing a rebellion that the Yamato is unknowingly becoming a symbol for as it defeats Garmillan forces in battle.
Over these twenty-six episodes, the Yamato encounters standard fair for space adventures: ambushes, strange planets, mutiny, dangerous interstellar phenomena, secret enemy weapons, etc. With a few rare exceptions, each episode wraps up all major arcs before the credits roll, sometimes to its detriment; I can think of a few episodes that could have benefited from the added attention – and tension – of playing out over forty-five minutes instead of twenty-two. There are also a few plot arcs, especially those involving some of the intrigue on Garmillas, which just never go anywhere.
For instance, there is a brief storyline concerning how the initial encounter between the Earth and Garmillan forces years before actually played out, with characters on both sides having to accept that the “enemy” may have been incorrectly portrayed. Over the course of a few episodes, those characters develop in small ways, but the larger scope never changes from “Earth good, Garmillas bad.” More than once, the show dabbles in displaying Garmillan characters as sympathetic, only to then kill them off with little regard.
On the note of killing characters off, my largest complaint about the show – and the place where it differs most from its contemporaries and predecessor – is that “sacrifice” is not a word in its vocabulary. With less than a handful of named human character deaths, the show tells a tale about humanity can overcome all obstacles without having to give up anything. What’s worse, the show dabbles in near-death to build tension, but after a while I just stopped believing that anyone was going to actually die.
There are plenty of battles for these immortal crew members to fight, though, and that’s one area where Space Battleship Yamato 2199 keeps true to its course. The animation quality is unmatched, blending modern techniques with hints of the original’s style. Characters are easily recognizable, the ship designs are original and believable, and various battles play out with appropriate flash and substance. The ship engagements are especially well-done, with genuine emphasis on giving the impression of naval combat being played out in three-dimensional (and four-dimensional) space.
I’m watching various episodes of the new Battlestar Galactica as I watch this review, and in doing so I have to admit that Space Battleship Yamato 2199 is similar in spirit, but lacking in execution compared to BSG. I am genuinely interested in tracking down and watching the original Yamato / Star Blazers now, as the little bit of research I have done in writing this article points to a show that better manages some of the storytelling shortcomings I have mentioned in its successor.
I don’t know that I will ever own Space Battleship Yamato 2199, but I will certainly own a replica of the ship, which will sit proudly next to my replica of the Galactica. If you can track the show down on a streaming service, or with fan-made subtitles online, I would highly recommend it. If that seems like too much work, though, then I can say with some certainty that this title probably isn’t for you.
Regardless, [amazon_link id=”B0036EH3UC” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Battlestar Galactica runs less than $100 on Amazon[/amazon_link], and is available in its entirety on Netflix. Even after ten years, this show is unapproachable by nearly all contenders, and remains my pick for the best sci-fi television ever broadcast.
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