One of my favorite lines about the original Star Wars was uttered by none other than SF luminary Frederik Pohl: "It may not be Bach, but it is Offenbach. It delights." The same could be said about Outlaw Star, released the same year as Cowboy Bebop and produced by the same animation company (Sunrise Inc.), although offering a somewhat poorer man's version of that other show's raffish thrills.
Star does not quite soar into the same stratospheres as Bebop. It's too much of a sitcom as opposed to a space opera, and it suggests more possibilities than it actually fulfills. It's more pop-pulp than it is space-noir, more Offenbach than it is Bach. But more often than not, it delights. And it's a delight to have it back in print.
The big out there
Most high-concept entertainments are a pastiche of some kind: a bit of this, a bundle of that. Outlaw Star mashes together ingredients drawn as much from Westerns (bounty hunters, gunslingers) and wuxia adventure stories (techniques that draw on mystical forces, wielders of enchanted weapons) as it does space opera or pulp SF. Its hero, though, is straight out of the pure-pulp-SF likes of E.E. "Doc" Smith: Gene Starwind, a cocky, gangly, gingerheaded young man who runs a jack-of-all-trades business with his sidekick, the eleven-year-old James ("Jim") Hawking.
Gene's worldview is that nothing can't be settled with a fist or a bullet in the right place, that one big score is always somewhere just over the horizon, and that there isn't a lady alive who can't turn him down. He's sometimes right about the first one, rarely right about the second, and mostly wrong about the third. Jim's the more mature and practical of the two out of necessity — after all, someone has to keep the books balanced and the work coming in — and is in perpetual despair of his big-brother-cum-boss ever getting his act together. For them, it's always one damn thing after another.
One fine day Gene and Jim pick up an assignment that changes everything. A woman purchases their services as bodyguards. She is "Hot Ice" Hilda, a mercenary (in this world, an "Outlaw" with a cap O), and she is the custodian of two treasures that eventually pass into their hands and make them all targets for homicidal space pirates. The first is Melfina, a synthetic human — young, pretty, naïve, and all the more mysterious for having no memory. The second is a prototype of an advanced spaceship — the name Gene provides for it becomes the show's title drop — that Melfina was designed to integrate with and pilot. (She works in tandem with the ship's AI, Gilliam II, who has the voice and personality of the most painfully patient flight attendant you could ever fly with.)
All this is the catalyst for a slew of adventures that put Gene, Jim, and Melfina in and out of harm's way as they attempt to line up whatever work they can find and not starve. Some adventures are about the characters' pasts, as when Gene realizes a pair of mercenaries called the Macdougall Brothers, responsible for his father's death, are on a collision course with him and his crew — which is just fine by him as long as he gets to settle old scores. Some are about the characters' presents, as with Aisha Clan-Clan, a fiery member of the catlike species the Ctarl-Ctarl, who suffers a humiliating demotion for losing out to Gene and company. She ends up struggling to make ends meet by way of busing tables, a problem when she has a tendency to Hulk out and destroy those who challenge her, along with most of the scenery.
Some are about the group's future as a team, as they pick up enough people along the way to constitute a team, sort of. Aisha ends up in their company when she can't make ends meet by way of busing tables and the like; at least with the opportunities Gene brings in, she has that many more chances to save face. Another entrant is "Twilight" Suzuka, a female assassin with a wooden sword as her weapon of choice. Originally dispatched to kill Gene, she ends up working with him, because apparently hanging with him and his crew is more interesting than anything she could have been paid to do.
Space, the funny frontier
Most of my problems with science fiction are not about concept but execution. An SF story with a bad idea and a bad execution is insufferable. A great idea can be executed poorly, not just by being a badly thought-out idea, but also by skimping on the story part of the story. And sometimes a story with a bad idea — or no real idea at all — can make up for it by dint of just being fun. This last case is typically what happens when you're using SF as flavor or color — in short, if your real aim is pulp adventure or raucous comedy, and not science fiction as such.
Outlaw Star is thoroughly, shamelessly pulp adventure at its core, with barely enough SF to pass a sniff test and a generous helping of fantasy elements — e.g., the "Taoists" with their black magic, and the gun Gene shoots with its mystical "Caster Shells". And that's fine, because the resulting show is so eager to entertain, and consistently entertaining enough, that it doesn't feel like it's shirking an opportunity to be "more SF". "Romp" is the word that comes most to mind, both to describe the show as a whole and any one individual piece of action in it. There's never a moment when Gene and Jim aren't in trouble of some kind, whether it's the low-grade simmering of being low on money and looking in all the wrong places for fast scores, or the pitched boil of them being chased and shot at (or doing the chasing and shooting).
This rompish, cheeky attitude reminded me of something, and in a good way: Guardians Of The Galaxy. It's completely fitting how Outlaw Star's U.S. reissue landed right around the same time as the second movie of that not-superheroes-and-not-SF-but-actually-more-a-character-driven-comedy-shading-over-into-adventure franchise. Star has some of the same vibe, and definitely the same attitude. It makes gestures towards establishing its own far-future cosmic mythology and universe-building, but what it really wants to do is give its characters reasons to bounce off each other and throw off as many sparks as possible.
But in a way, that's also one place Outlaw Star feels like it's shirking opportunities. The characters and their conflicts have great sass and exude tremendous potential, but the story they get doesn't bring them all the way to the end of the line. I didn't mind that a lot of what gets left on the floor would have been exploited more thoroughly by a story with genuine pretensions to being SF, because it was clear early on this wasn't that kind of story. But what does get left on the floor is the full potential for how character interactions — not just story and plot development — aren't so much built on as just reiterated.
The sitcom strategy
The best example of this is the way Gene and Melfina grow closer together. By extension, that also includes the way Gene acts a little less like god's gift to all women, and more like a specific friend to a specific woman. In theory, it's a good arc, but the show doesn't really give it to us. It's all by way of implication, rather than stemming from specific evens that happen to the two of them. Then along come the show's climactic episodes, where those changes touch off more or less all at once. Better that they happen late than not at all, I guess, but such a deployment only makes everything that's happened between them up to that point feel all the more like a sitcom. Instead of actual development, or A-B-C-D-E-bang!, we get stasis: A-A-A-E-poof.
I'm not spelling any of this out because I have it in for sitcoms. Done right, they can be funny and endearing and revealing (see: Toradora!). But the space between an average sitcom, and an above-average or extraordinary one, gapes wide. There are many, many times when Outlaw Star does its sitcom best to be unpretentiously funny, as with a "hot springs" episode that manages to zing the expectations of both the audience and the main characters. It's a masterpiece of comedic self-one-upsmanship. The problem is in how the show somehow always seems to be teasing bigger payoffs that never quite materialize — introducing things that seem to have unmined potential, and then never mining them, or letting them just rest there as set decoration.
Another example. One episode has Jim meeting a girl and befriending her, only to have her turn out to be the one who almost took his life in a pitched space battle. It ends on a bittersweet note, but it's also something of a victim of the show's sitcom-isms: that bittersweetness is used more for overall atmosphere (and fleetingly so at that) than for anything that's fed forward into Jim's character or the story generally. And when the subplot involving Gene and the Macdougall brothers finally reaches its own climax, it delivers weirdly few results — the way it's developed feels like it's at right angles to the story's intentions. And Suzuka, as charismatic and potentially hilarious as she can be (there's a great one-shot episode involving her one-upping Gene for a bounty), ends up feeling more like a promoted extra than an actual supporting character. It's something of a shame that a show with so much of its mileage bound up in its characters — and what fun characters they are! — only goes so far to leverage them for their biggest possible payoffs.
Your expectations will play heavily into how you feel about all this. I've got this prejudice, difficult to dismiss but present all the same, that any story with an SF setting or a fantastic premise deserves to do full justice to those things by making good on the ingredients — by showing us something really out of this world. Failing that, it needs to be something that sweeps me off my feet emotionally. I think of Karlheinz Stockhausen's two demands for any composer: "Invention, and that he astonish me." Failing either of those things, the show should be fun. There's some invention here, and a little astonishment, but mostly the eagerness to entertain. And while that's neither inventive nor astonishing, it is endearing, and sometimes you just want to be endeared, and entertained, and occasionally delighted.