Science Fiction is big in the mainstream again this Century, with DOCTOR WHO and STAR TREK having a resurgence in popularity and various shows like the STARGATE franchise continuing to hold cult audiences, not to mention BATTLESTAR GALACTICA holding the zeitgeist in its hands during its peak. Aside from DOCTOR WHO, the other shows have been space operas that are earnest and idealistic, which is all well and good, but what if some of us like to take a little piss out of all the seriousness?
THE IRRESPONSIBLE CAPTAIN TYLOR is a little gem from the 1990s that pokes everything that the space opera holds dear, and deserves a look-in. It’s a worthy entry in the small but honourable comedy corner of the subgenre.
Space operas are a particular Boy’s Own Adventure genre that many of us are quite fond of but hard to do well. It tends to be one of the first things punters think of when they hear ‘Science Fiction’ mentioned, and usually think of STAR TREK and STAR WARS. They tend to be about warfare in space rather than diplomatic relations and negotiations, despite STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION’s earnest liberal allegories. The recent revamp of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA pretty much fits the archetypal model with its gritty space battles. The space operas of different countries tend to reflect their respective wants and ideas: STAR TREK reflected the Kennedy era’s liberalism backed up with military might, STAR WARS was really a medievalist fantasy about kingdoms, mysticism and rebellions set in space. The model for Japanese space opera is SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO (aka STARBLAZERS), an allegorical fantasy about regaining nationalist pride after their defeat in World War II where an underdog ship defends the homeland against an overwhelming invasion. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is an updated reflection of the American anxieties post-9/11, taking its cue from YAMATO. Britain, it seems, never seemed totally comfortable with the earnest militarism of the genre after the initial post-war idealism of DAN DARE, preferring to question the militarist ethos of the genre or indulge in the whimsy of DOCTOR WHO, which dabbles in Space Opera occasionally while spending more time traipsing through history. The most interesting treatment of the subgenre for me is in the complex moral and political thrillers of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels for the real connoisseur.
And then there’s the interesting little corner of the subgenre: the Space Opera Comedy. These stories tend to be quite subversive because they’re about poking at the militarism and pomposity of the genre. The stereotypical space opera is less the STAR TREK model than the po-faced and frequently right-wing novels published by Baen books. We’ve had Harry Harrison’s BILL THE GALACTIC HERO and THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT books, RED DWARF, which was the roommate sitcom transposed to a spaceship and the BBC’s recent satire HYPERDRIVE, which is a spoof of the STAR TREK model where the British heroes basically fuck up everywhere they go.
THE IRRESPONSIBLE CAPTAIN TYLOR takes the militarism of the YAMATO narrative and gleefully punctures all of its po-faced nationalism with a stick. Adapted from a series of novel by Hitoshi Yoshioka, it takes the premise “What if the captain of the last starship to save Earth from a galactic war was a total slacker?” in a more serious light, such a character wouldn’t last two minutes, but here, the operative word is Farce. Justy Tylor is an unemployed slacker in a future where Earth is at war with a massively overpowered alien armada. Rather than bury his head in the sand, he decides from watching the glamourous recruitment advertisements that he should entire the military, land an officer’s commission and get a cushy life. Tylor seems to be one of the universe’s charmed children who seem to effortlessly fall upwards. Through a series of ridiculous circumstances where he should have been either arrested or killed, Tylor ends up commanding an entire starship, albeit a clapped-out one expected to get utterly annihilated in battle.
Instead of the virile and commanding archetype you expect a starship captain to be, Tylor is so laidback he’s almost comatose half the time. He has no interest in commanding his troops and more in organising swimsuit contests to boost crew morale or taking a nap in his command chair. He expressly prohibits the firing of a single shot and avoid fights altogether, infuriating his gung-ho careerist lieutenant who’s just aching to get blooded in an all-out space battle. He seems completely oblivious to any attacks or counterattacks, yet still manages to come out on top and become a feared legend amongst the enemy.
The face… of a galactic hero?
Unsurprisingly, most of his crew thinks he’s a flaming idiot who’s going to get them all killed. And yet… And yet they don’t die. The enemy keeps dying instead. Corrupt officials that try to send him to his doom all come a cropper. The brass starts to wonder if Tylor isn’t just an idiot but some kind of tactical genius pretending to be an idiot. The enemy dissect the outcomes of his battles to determine how he and his pathetic little ship could have trashed them so thoroughly. When they finally capture him, the mystery only deepens. One Raalgon officer has a conversation with him and remarks with a shudder that “if he were my commanding officer, I would KILL MYSELF!!” Tylor is so laidback and Zen that even after they wipe his memory, he’s no less unflappable and laidback than before.
And guess what? He wins. That’s not a spoiler. He’s the hero, after all.
What’s interesting about TYLOR is that you have a hero who manages to triumph over an overwhelming enemy without throwing a single punch or firing a shot. He’s an avowed pacifist who’s either worked out how to out-think the enemy or simply let their own impulses defeat them, which is very Zen Buddhist. He never says a mean thing about anyone and just wants people to be happy, and somehow the universe ends up eventually agreeing with him. He’s probably the closest the Japanese have ever come to their own Doctor Who. At a time when pop culture is all about killing as many baddies as possible, TYLOR is even more subversive as ever, and well worth remembering.
The DVD of the 26-episode series of THE IRRESPONSIBLE CAPTAIN TYLOR is now available in the US.
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