We’re Off To Audio Space

A Look at the Star Blazers Audio Drama

It seems this is the season for comebacks in both Japan and America. With Space Battleship Yamato rising back to life after far too long, you might be asking if the same can happen with Star Blazers and the answer is, it already has. Star Blazers fan fiction has been around for decades, but in the spring of 2010 it finally stepped into the next logical medium: a fan-made audio drama produced by superfan Devin Cox and Forward Momentum Productions. And Here is Devin himself to tell you what it’s all about.

“All crew! Don… headphones…”

by Devin Cox

In the year 2202, Prince Zordar of the Comet Empire left the Andromeda galaxy and invaded the Milky Way. Bringing the Earth to its knees, Zordar was defeated at the last instant by the final surviving Earth Battleship, the Argo. But Zordar was only a Prince, after all…

After a decade of silence, the Empire returned. The Earth Defense Forces fought bravely, but the Imperial Armada blotted out the very stars. Earth was quickly and decisively defeated. Ever since, humanity has lived beneath the Emperor’s boot. The Comet Empire stripped our world of all resources, mineral wealth, ambient water, and anything and everything of value.

Now, they have decided that is not enough. The Empire has dispatched a Planet Killer, a massive dreadnought of immense firepower, to sterilize the surface of our world and exterminate humanity. Earth’s only hope lies with the last underground remnants of the EDF and the battered hulk of the Argo, secretly salvaged after it was seemingly destroyed years before.

But can one ship defeat the greatest war machine of the Andromeda galaxy?

Sea of Stars: A Voyage of the Space Cruiser Argo is a fan-made audio drama set in the Star Blazers universe, fifteen years after the events of Final Yamato. While it uses the Star Blazers names for ships and characters, it incorporates all three TV series as well as the Yamato movies.

An audio drama is basically the same as a radio drama; a play performed by a full cast of actors and actresses, layered over music and sound effects. The end result is that you, the listener, actually participate in the story by visualizing the action as it happens. The best audio dramas create the proper mood through subtle cues and let your imagination take it from there.

The series has been in the works since 2007. The story underwent several iterations before it reached its final form, but the original inspiration came from Tim Eldred’s web comic, Star Blazers Rebirth. I’ve been a huge fan of Star Blazers since I was five, when the show premiered on American TV, but I’d drifted away from it over the years. Rebirth rekindled the fire. I decided to tackle an original Star Blazers story for my next audio drama. This was going to be a very interesting challenge.

My first work, Knights of the Old Republic: Outcasts was set in the Star Wars universe, and it was very different in terms of production. Outcasts was much smaller for one thing, running only seven episodes. It also had a much simpler galaxy to play in. All you need for a good Star Wars story is a Jedi, a villain and a smuggler. Yamato has a much more defined world, a stricter story structure. But it also had a major advantage.

Every Yamato movie was, in fact, first experienced by Japanese fans as a radio drama so it should be no surprise that Star Blazers lent itself very well to this particular media. Despite being so visually rooted, the music and sound effects are very iconic. The music is a character in its own right. Certain themes contribute more than mood to a scene; they cast subtle shading over the emotion of the actors.

There were certain things I wanted to accomplish in the story. It had to maintain the same feel, the same ethos as the original. If it didn’t, then it was an insult to Yamato. I also wanted to incorporate some of the ideas that originally formed Yamato. I wanted the characters to represent Earth as a whole, to come from all over the world. It couldn’t be a simplistic story of good and evil. The Empire had to have a reason for what they did, even if it’s not readily apparent to the other characters.

It had to be logical, but it also had to be Star Blazers.

The Process

To create a fan audio drama, you need four things: story, dialogue, music, and sound effects.

I very much wanted to keep the new Star Force connected to the original, so I borrowed a page from Tim’s book and sprinkled some of the original characters into a crop of new ones. I also tied a few of the new characters into the lives of secondary characters from the anime. The captain of the ship would have to be Derek Wildstar, but some of the other characters are a bit more obscure. The chief engineer of the Argo and the new executive officer is Jordan (“Jordy”) Venture, the younger brother of Mark Venture. Several stories of the Star Force set in this time period show him as a young man, but I thought it’d be better to make him a more mature character. Jordy went from hero-worshiping little kid to elder spokesman for the ragtag group of young officers.

It was really important to me that the audio drama be pleasing to the life-long hardcore fans, as well people who had never seen a single episode. This is why Sea of Stars is set so far after the original, and one reason why only a few characters from Star Blazers appear in it.

Before too long, I had a cast of characters and a rough idea of what life was like on occupied Earth. From there, it was a matter of figuring out how the new Star Force would deal with the problems before them. The story literally began to write itself.

I started by turning any story problem into an opportunity for growth. “How does an underground resistance force get a full fighter squadron out of nowhere?” This question became a long-running subplot which blossomed into one of the most interesting character relationships in the whole show, not to mention a good, old-fashioned fist fight.

“Why was the Empire absent for a decade?” This turned into an exploration of their culture and religion that wound up fueling the entire story.

“What happened to the original Star Force?” Well, let’s save that one for Season Two, shall we?

Once the story was ready it was time to consider casting. In our Star Wars audio drama, there were perhaps five to eight acting parts per episode. In the first six episodes of Sea of Stars (each of which runs between 24 and 30 minutes), there are well over eighty roles, with more coming in Season Two. Getting recordings from five to eight people for an episode can be like pushing a noodle uphill. Dealing with over eighty roles’ worth of dialogue spread across six episodes is like pushing a noodle uphill in a hurricane. This is further complicated by the fact that our cast is literally global, ranging from the U.S. and Canada all the way to New Zealand. This meant that recording couldn’t be done live.

Scripts were encoded as web pages so they could be shared with the cast easily. The cast members recorded their lines on their own schedules and sent me the finished sound files. This took over a year to complete. Still, there is a certain chemistry, a spirit developed in the dialogue, even when one part of a conversation was recorded six months after the other.

The inclusion of characters from the original series presented an interesting problem. I feel that if you bring back an existing character, you should find a voice that is at least similar to the original performance. I was very lucky to get Mr. Joe Harrison to voice Derek Wildstar. I think Joe’s voice has a great, weathered quality that sounds like it could have been Ken Meseroll’s Wildstar after twenty years and some very hard living. (Note: Ken was the original voice actor.)

Another character whose voice had to be a near-exact match was IQ-9. After all, a robot wouldn’t age. I was expecting it to take many tries, but voice actor Jonathan Edward Dolnier nailed it on the first pass.

The rest of the cast is no less talented. Although some were new to this sort of acting, everyone gave it their all.

The next requirement, music, was even more problematic. I owned only one of the Symphonic CDs from a few years ago, which meant that I had to start hunting. Evnetually I found several more CDs, including the 2005 re-issues of the BGM Collections. All told, I probably spent about $300 on various albums.

The final hurdle, sound effects, was the hardest obstacle in the path. They are key to maintaining the proper feel of the original story. Nothing sounds like the Wave-Motion Gun except the Wave-Motion Gun. If the sound effects aren’t right, Sea of Stars wouldn’t be right either. The sound effects add layers of meaning that hardcore fans will pick up on, while adding emphasis for those new to the universe. The echo when the Argo first appears is a great example. It’s a touchstone that simultaneously says “hey, that’s the Argo,” and “something important just happened.”

The process of acquiring them began with DVDs of the first two anime seasons. Segments of the audio were recorded from specific scenes with little dialogue and music. Sound clips were passed through several audio filters to remove as much interferance as possible, then they had to be stitched together. Removing human vocal frequencies also changes the frequency of what remains, which had to be replaced with pieces from the rest of the clip. It’s a mind-numbing, ridiculously labor-intensive process, but I considered it vital to the project.

The dialogue files, music and sound effects were assembled on a computer using a free program called Audacity. This allowed me to mix the tracks so volume was consistent and dialogue could flow evenly.

There was one further wrinkle, however; as we were casting the first six episodes, I suddenly realized that the story, which focused on the present conflict and the immediate threat to Earth, wasn’t very accessible to new fans. If you were familiar only with Star Blazers you might be very confused by the destruction of the Argo, for instance.

The solution was The Argo: Sailor of the Stars, an Episode Zero documentary (one hour, 45 minutes in length), designed to both entertain and inform new fans about the entire saga. It’s ironic that Sailor of the Stars was written well after the first season of Sea of Stars, but was released much earlier. Episode Zero also allowed me to play a bit with some of the things that anime fans accept in stride and hardcore sci-fi fans may have a problem with, such as a World War II battleship flying through space.

Fun little tidbit: Dr. Hewitt from Episode Zero was originally written as Dr. Dubiaius, a minor character from The Bolar Wars. It was changed at the last moment because Dr. Dubiaius was a solar physicist, not a historian.

Bringing it Home

So, why go to all this work? Why invest so much time, effort and cash into something that I can’t even legally call mine?

I could say because it’s fun. I could tell you about how much I love the medium of audio drama. I could tell you it’s because I’m a fan of the original anime. Those reasons are all true, but it goes deeper than that. Yamato and Star Blazers are built on themes that transcend whatever medium they are told in. It is a timeless, archetypal story of hope overcoming despair, and belief in one’s ability to accomplish the miraculous. In some small way, I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to tell a good story.

I hope you’ll listen to Season One of Sea of Stars and that you’ll hang around for Season Two when it come out later this year. Most of all, however, I hope you’ll enjoy this new way to experience the next Star Blazers adventure.

The journey starts with a click right here.

Read about Sea of Stars season 2 here.

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