"TRANSMUTE!"Where does one begin when discussing a series as revered and adored as Battle Of The Planets (1978-1985)? How about we begin by providing over one hundred images from the first episode. For this writer it remains on a pedestal of which the art work is second to none.
And why Battle Of The Planets anyway? It's a glorious title to be sure. It's certainly meant to elicit a connection between it and the space-faring adventure tales akin to the likes of Star Wars (1977). But when you really think about it those similarities are essentially superficial. Battle Of The Planets, extracted from Gatchaman (1972-1974), was an entirely different animal altogether. And what about all of those battling planets? It was actually Earth Vs. Spectra. Mind you, many of the battles do take place on far away distant planets. But are planets really battling? It may not be the most logical title, but by God it was perfect as a kid. There were planets. There were battles. And that was good enough for me. So Sandy Frank got it right. But Gatchaman was essentially taking place on Earth. Frank mixed it up with a child-like imagination for Battle Of The Planets.
Battle Of The Planets was launched in September of 1978 beginning with the now iconic Episode 1, Attack Of The Space Terrapin. How fitting Tatsunoko's Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972-1974), or Gatchaman for short, should introduce the series with a Gamera-inspired space Terrapin a la Mechani-Kong (1967's King Kong Escapes) or Mechagodzilla (1974) which also makes the translation for the first episode of Battle Of The Planets.
Some say redacted or bastardized, but, for me, Battle Of The Planets, the Americanized version of Japan's animated classic Gatchaman still remains beautiful perfection. Of all the treatments, edited, dubbed, re-cut, spliced or generally monkeyed with regarding the creative work to yield from the Pacific island nation of Japan, Battle Of The Planets remains at the top of a very short list to make that move overseas successfully in an altered form.
Perhaps it's timing, maybe it was my age, or the talent involved, whatever the case may be Battle Of The Planets was a stunning sensation and remains so today for me. Gatchaman and Battle Of The Planets together remain two of my all-time, top ten favorites when it comes to the best of animation from Japan. In fact, that rule applies when it comes to animation period.
It's a bit like Gerry Anderson with his many puppet creations over the course of his wonderfully varied career. No puppet was more perfect than the ones created to perfection for Thunderbirds (1965-1966). I'm not alone there. The Japanese love Thunderbirds.
Later, following Gatchaman, the success of that series led to two off-shoot sequel series in the form of Gatchaman II (1978-1979; arriving in Japan around the time Battle Of The Planets was just splashing down stateside) and Gatchaman F (1979-1980) or Gatchaman Fighter. Gatchaman resulted in 105 episodes. Gatchaman II logged 52 episodes. Gatchaman Fighter recorded 48 entries. All of them have their strengths and shortcomings, but of all of them Gatchaman and Battle Of The Planets retains that forever special something. It has all of the magic. All of the concepts, ideas, characters, music, color palette and artistry that went into that series managed to strike a cord of perfection that has yet to be duplicated. It's an original.
Likewise, despite the addition of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman or G-Force's computerized coordinator, 7-Zark-7, and the insertion of poor American animation to boot, as well as the deletion of some of the more graphic moments from the original Gatchaman series, Battle Of The Planets manages to retain all of the magic of the Tatsunoko classic. Much thanks goes to Sandy Frank for ensuring Battle Of The Planets would be a much heralded success and stand the test of time.
The late, great Frank, who passed away in 2012, was largely responsible for infusing Battle Of The Planets with a voice cast that remains a standard bearer to end all voice casts. Frank invested over five million dollars in Battle Of The Planets to lure the talents of Casey Kasem, Ronnie Schell, Janet Waldo, Alan Young, Alan Dinehart, Keye Luke and the music of Hoyt Curtin. These figures were instrumental in making Battle Of The Planets a potent force in animation. Frank, and producer Jameson Brewer, introduced the world to a style of animation it had yet to truly experience and a commanding voice cast to sell its characters and stories with a dynamic score to propel American children into a world like no other. It was that experience for me.
Battle Of The Planets is the story of G-Force, five fearless young orphans, dedicated, inseparable and invincible. Those five orphans, Mark, Jason, Princess, Keyop and Tiny, were also augmented with cerebonic implants. Each character was infused with a kind of arch-type but also exhibited a depth of character not often experienced in American animation. My hope is to expose the "Oshii-sque philosophical bent," as noted by Jeffrey Kauffman in his review of Gatchaman at Blu-Ray.com, the series was filled with these moments which made the series so special. There was a "sweetness and moral certitude" to the series and those moments are a pleasure despite those who might find the moments on the "quaint side." Together the team was guided with a steady hand by Chief Anderson and (in Battle Of The Planets), 7-Zark-7 with 1-Rover-1 and Susan in tow.
Each member of G-Force is endowed with special talents and weapons. Each pilots their own vehicle in the form of G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, which comfortably reside within the confines of the G-5, the Phoenix, for their travels to distant planets in an effort to battle the evil Zoltar, the Luminous One and army hordes of Planet Spectra. Together they generate special powers like the Whirlwind Pyramid and the Fiery Phoenix.
The series focused on a number of central conceits much the same way Toho's Godzilla series handled its extended themes. Like Ishiro Honda and Hayao Miyazaki, the impact of the the post World War II years and a concentration on care for the environment is continually echoed and revisited throughout the series. Environmental devastation, technology unleashed, and most importantly the dysfunctional and functional dynamic of human relationships, loss, weakness and frailty remain at the forefront of the series.
The introductory Attack Of The Space Terrapin (the American counterpart to Gatchman, Episode 1, Gatchaman Versus Turtle King) also served as the key plot element to the reimagined comic book series by Alex Ross and Top Cow not to be confused with the older Gold Key comics.
Our heroes are first forced to face off against a space terrapin that probably looks less like Gamera and a little more like Moguera which made its first appearance in Toho's The Mysterians (1957). Though the terrapin actually first appears off the coast and near a lighthouse much like Gamera first appeared in his origin picture Gamera: The Giant Monster (1965). Gatchaman's first episode, Gatchaman Versus Turtle King arrived in October 1972 launching the first in a long line of mecha, a popular staple within anime, for this series and many to come.
This inaugural entry does a splendid job of introducing all of the characters and their respective vehicles. Those vehicle/ mech designs are something to behold too. They were quite possibly some of the coolest vehicles a child had ever seen at the time. Like the Thunderbirds, Tatsunoko's creations remain some of the finest ever designed.
We quickly discover that beloved Keyop was, not a robot, but "manufactured" and grown from a single embryonic cell. Keyop had that terrific voice, the kind you wanted to mimic out of pure joy like Twiki from Buck Rogers In The 25th Century (1979).
The creators and animators take care introducing the team and establishing the process by which The Phoenix assembles the team. It literally picks up each and every member and their respective vehicles before plunging into the ocean in pursuit of the enemy combatant. And once again, the process by which the vehicles are assembled is filled with imagination. Real thought was put into the series and it's demonstrated throughout these wonderful, colorful sequences. All of the vehicles are delightfully and carefully detailed with their respective colors: the red and white G-1 Sonic Jet, the blue G-2 Race Car, the yellow G-3 Sonic Motorcycle, the orange G-4 Helico Buggy. And of course these aren't any ordinary vehicles. Like the Godphoenix with its Bird Missiles, these ships are well-equipped as you'll witness in the future.
Much is left to the imagination too. The traditional "Transmute" mechanism by which Mark, Jason, Princess, Keyop and Tiny alter appearance into their respective bird uniforms from their civilian clothes is manipulated through the power of suggestion. TRANSMUTE! Suddenly Mark transforms. How? We never really cared. We simply accepted it because the creators did such a magnificent job with that swirling twirling animation effect - we simply just believed. In much the same way Wonder Woman twirled her way into super star status, Gatchaman does the same. Even their respective, ordinary vehicles are transformed into amazing super weapons. How? Again, we don't care, but somehow we are mesmerized and we believe in the power of this high tech organization from Center Neptune and the tools at their disposal as G-Force. Science Ninja Team Gatchaman or G-Force is no joke and they are more than capable of making things happen because they are simply brilliant. The science behind the transformation can be found in the book G-Force: Animated: The Official Guide To Battle Of The Planets.
Beginning very early on in this introductory episode alone real tension between Mark and Jason over decisions being reached is established almost immediately. There is clearly a sometimes combative relationship in play between the two. Additionally, Keyop teases at the suggestion of a romantic connection between Princess and Mark. This potential liason is on the table from the start.
As the story culminates in action heating up, Mark and Princess of G-Force fly gracefully into the fray and infiltrate the Space Terrapin. Viewers are treated to some of the most remarkable hand drawn animation to ever grace the screen next to Walt Disney. The characters are drawn with thick black pencil lines and details often missing in today's modern CGI-enhanced animation. Backdrops and still shots which the camera often holds on are impressive and a joy to absorb here.
As the story unfolds it is revealed that Princess is something of a master tinkerer, the real techie in the group capable of sabotaging any information system and rigging explosives with care and technique. She's an explosives expert and computer hacker, talents that will serve the team well into the future.
In a truly gutsy move, Mark opens the Space Terrapin's landing bay doors allowing Tiny to dock the G-5 inside. Together, always five, acting as one, the group is free to wreak havoc and take down the mechanical turtle, but not before facing hordes of Galactor goons first who are expecting their arrival.
The team unites to form a "jet spiral" later dubbed the "Whirlwind Pyramid" (an actually first named as such by the evil Commander Gorock) against the forces from Crab Nebula. It is also suggested by Mark that these "invasions" have gone on for some time. So we are indeed entering a war that has raged against alien invaders for a good period.
Enjoyable was Kauffman's observation that Gatchaman (or Battle Of The Planets) could be "thought of as a pre-Apocalyptic drama, one where the Science Ninja Team is attempting to keep Galactor from getting their hands on enough uranium to do some real damage," a topic certainly ever relevant today. His point certainly remains applicable here to Spectra on Battle Of The Planets. It's also a nice approach and the antithesis to many of the post-apocalyptic animes that have populated the landscape from Blue Submarine No.6 (1998-2000) to Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996). Earth annihilation hasn't happened yet and G-Force is Earth's first line of defense to ensure that apocalypse never happens.
Additionally, Kauffman doesn't get it entirely right in his review when he notes that "good wins out in the end" every time. That's not entirely true. The battle between Earth and Spectra is ongoing and G-Force or the Science Ninja Team often must settle for a draw. The battle results are often split or at least nothing more than a small victory, a battle won in the much larger war effort against Spectra. The series isn't drenched in happy endings. In fact, some conclusions are rather sobering as it moves ever so steadily "toward a fairly thoughtful denouement." In fact, if I'm to be honest, that denouement is probably more satisfying if you commit yourself to the Gatchaman series. Battle Of The Planets has its moments at 85 episodes, but unfortunately never completed the classic 105 episode run which shortchanges the fans stateside. I digress.
So, the group using all manner of weaponry takes down the Spectran goons. He of sweet, supple lip, Zoltar, adorned with what appears to be lip stick or lip balm always suggesting to kids something was a bit off about this villain from the very beginning, is played brilliantly with a male voice by Keye Luke.
Zoltar reports to the Luminous One who makes the final call on dooming the Space Terrapin and accepting a stalemate against G-Force, the first of many to come.
As I mentioned, Battle Of The Planets rarely demonstrated a victorious G-Force or Spectra, no matter how brilliant their respective powers or kaiju-sized creations. Actions had consequences and they were often demonstrated to young viewers. And sometimes, no matter how hard the good guys tried, they weren't always successful, but it was always back to the drawing board. If at first you don't succeed try, try again. What tremendous lessons for a generation.
Zoltar calls the great one's word "law." The Luminous One notes Spectra will need "much deadlier weapons" and "more brilliant strategy" to overcome G-Force. It sounds like the voice of any number of wildly rogue powers today.
As the Phoenix makes its escape one of its two fuel pods is caught within the plunging Space Terrapin and forces G-Force, together, to transform into the Fiery Phoenix. The Fiery Phoenix that somehow never melts anyone and makes the sound of a flying bird upon completion of transformation. How? Again, we just don't care. Our mouths agape, we watch in awe. Whatever story shortcomings that existed the series more than amply made up for in energy and pure, brilliant, visual escapism.
Sure, 7-Zark-7 is an unnecessary narrator. In fact, you can thank the Action For Children's Television censors of the 1970s for that one. But Alan Young does a fine job steering Sandy Frank's plan for the series as well as embodying the concerned voice of parental reason. Nothing can replace the full-on visceral experience that is Gatchaman as it was originally intended, but Battle Of The Planets is nothing short of astounding with a cast of voice talent that really puts the reason in character. The dubs for other incarnations of the original just don't compare.
And thus the tone of a series was set, a series to remember for the ages. For me, Battle Of The Planets along with Starblazers (originally Space Battleship Yamato) were tantamount to my gateway drugs of choice to discovering anime. Astro Boy and Kimba The White Lion circulated in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was Gatchaman a la Battle Of The Planets that stole my heart away. The series was like the second coming of originality following Star Wars. As a voracious fan of comic books like The Uncanny X-Men and the Fantastic Four, G-Force was a hero group come to life for television with the animation to back it. It completely blew the mind. As kids we recognized that. In hindsight, we can appreciate it even more.
Attack Of The Space Terrapin. Writer: Jameson Brewer. Director: Alan Dinehart.
Science Ninja Team Gatchaman original title: Gatchaman Versus Turtle King.
Up Next: Rescue Of The Astronauts.
Characters: For an in-depth look at the characters for the series click here.
Weapons: For an in-depth look at the weapons used by G-Force click here.
Vehicles: For an in-depth look at the vehicles utilized by G-Force click here.
Voice Actors: Casey Kasem (1932-present): Voice of Mark. Also voiced Shaggy Rogers on Scooby Doo, Where Are You! (1969-1970) and other Scooby Doo adventures (1969-2013) as well as Dick Grayson/ Robin on Super Friends and other series (1968-1986). He was also the unforgettable voice of a generation on American Top 40 (1970-1988) before hosting his own spin off for another ten years (1989-1998).
Ronnie Schell (1931-present): Voice of Jason. Schell's first appearance as Jason is Rescue Of The Astronauts. But, believe it or not, he did not provide the voice of Jason in this debut episode. Legend has it that it could have been Alan Oppenheimer, the second actor to play the part of Dr. Rudy Wells briefly in The Six Million Dollar Man Wine, Women And War. Oddly, Oppenheimer appeared in the American edit of Gammera: The Invincible, ST:TNG, Happy Days and The Courtship Of Eddie's Father to name a few. Schell starred in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1964-1969).
Janet Waldo (1924-present). Voice of Princess. Also voiced Judy Jetson in The Jetsons (1985-1987), Josie McCoy in Josie And The Pussycats (1970-1971), Penelope Pitstop in The Perils Of Penelope Pitstop (1969-1971) and many others through her storied career.
Alan Young (1919-present): Voice of Keyop and 7-Zark-7. He starred in Mr. Ed (1961-1966) as Wilbur Post. He also starred in George Pal's The Time Machine (1960) and among his many appearances even guested on my guilty pleasure series Party Of Five (1994-2000). His career is varied and massive.
Alan Dinehart (?). Voice of Tiny. Voice director on Battle Of The Planets.
Keye Luke (1904-1991). Voice of Zoltar and Colonel Cronus. He voiced villains for Scooby Doo Where Are You!, Brak on Space Ghost (1966-1968) and appeared in Star Trek: The Original Series, Season Three, Episode 14, Whom Gods Destroy. Luke even enjoyed an uncredited appearance in Godzilla Raids Again (1956).
Behold more of the stunning cels employed for this remarkable looking series.
Fan service alert!
It was always fascinating to see the Japanese implement weird, live action, full color, smoke-like shots in the series.