Happy 40th anniversary, Battle of the Planets!
From the beginning, Battle of the Planets was conceived as a Star Wars for television - meant to capture the same type of young audience that was riveted by the film's massive success. In North America, most major markets began airing Battle on September 18, 1978 with the episode "Giant From Planet Zyr" 58.
Television was nowhere near as centralized and coordinated then as it is now, so some areas premiered Battle a little earlier, some later. To keep costs down, Sandy Frank had a limited number of prints made, which stations then shared with one another. This type of distribution was what led to a few staggered start dates and altered airing orders. Because of this, some may recall different airing details than others.
No matter when people saw it nor in what order, Battle left a lasting impression that created scores of fervent fans.
Each had their own way of appreciating Battle - some got together to play G-Force, dressed as characters for Halloween, watched episodes in groups, talked about it at school, rolled their eyes at the latest "Zarkisms," recorded it from their televisions on audio cassettes, investigated the deeper story of its origins, drew endless pictures or scoured stores for toys and comics.
Behind the scenes, Battle wasn't an easy show to produce. Despite having the majority of the animation already completed, the staff essentially worked in reverse order to their normal animation methods. They wrote their scripts to what was going on onscreen, trying to create a cohesive world with little idea what was actually being said. The actors had to read their lines to fit exact times, with no visual cues, to line up with the existing mouth movements.
Plus the time was tight. Excluding the pilot, which was completed in early 1978, Battle was produced from May of that same year through January, 1979. This meant a lot of work for the staff and cast in the same time frame as a normal television production period. In an era where Saturday morning cartoon seasons yielded about 12 new episodes, and primetime series about 24, Battle produced 84 (85 total, including the pilot). It was a ton of work in a very compressed period.
Although all the actors had long and varied careers, Battle would prove to be one of the largest single production experiences for most. Animated or otherwise. That fact alone made it memorable to everyone involved. The long hours and days could have been a chore, but the actors and staff have had almost nothing but great things to say about their time working with each other on the series.
It all came across in the final product. There was simply more going on with the G-Force team than in things like Super Friends. They had incredible, thrilling adventures on Earth and through outer space on alien planets (congratulations Sandy & Co., I bought that angle without question!). But they still felt like real people.
People that went through wide ranges of believable emotions and had some depth to their characters. The art, music and acting were all equally as engaging. Although in the end, it was the stories and characters that stuck in viewer's minds and left them wanting more.
Part of the draw was what the stories left unsaid… the types of things that got under the skin of kids - Did any of the team have last names? Would 7-Zark-7 ever go on a mission with them? Was Zoltar a woman? How big was the Phoenix? What were Cerebonics? Did Spectra know their secret identities? What did Susan look like?
Battle's somewhat mysterious nature encouraged fans to seek out others to find answers through early fan club newsletters, a still-active Amateur Press Association (APA) publication named Bird Scramble! and later a thriving online community of websites and mailing lists. Each gave fans more ways to share their attachments to the series, but more importantly allowed many to find lifelong friends and some even the loves of their lives. Not a bad legacy for a series that some dismiss as less important than later Japanese animation-based titles.
Without question, Battle opened the gates for the second wave of Japanese animation in North America - which is still ongoing. Without it, most of the "more important" later Japanese animated series may never have found homes in the US. Sure, someone else may have come along to develop the first weekday Star Wars for television, but they may not have necessarily looked to Japan, existing content, nor animation to do it.
It's hard to believe it's been such a long journey and I sure hope Battle of the Planets has an equally strong appeal in the future. What's in store for that future? Keep your hopes up and your eyes open - some nice surprises may be on their way soon.
Thanks again to Sandy Frank and everyone who had anything to do with bringing Battle of the Planets to us. It was a show that did what its original creator Tatsuo Yoshida wanted - it captured a lot of kids' dreams around the world!
Happy 40th, and many more to come!
For as long as they last, I have a few copies of G-Force: Animated for sale. The book is now out of print so finding them is getting harder and harder. I have two versions for sale of the updated 2nd edition of the book. A regular version or one autographed by George Khoury and myself. I have very few copies of the autographed version.
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