Animation Block: Saber Rider & the Star Sheriffs

Can lightning strike twice? World Event Productions hoped so. Voltron had been a smash hit for the production company, but plans to introduce new giant robot programs under the same banner fizzled with the lukewarm reception to the so-called “Vehicle Voltron”. Opting to retrace their steps for their new series, WEP saw potential in a short lived Japanese television series called Star Musketeer Bismarck, created by Studio Pierrot in 1984. The series was a mild disappointment in its native Japan, but WEP saw potential with its heroes struggling against an evil empire and the use of giant robots.

Set in the distant future, humanity has spread out among the stars. Taking cues from American history, these new planets are dubbed the ‘New Frontier’. The Star Sheriffs are tasked with patrolling and protecting the people of these new worlds from the threat of the Outriders. The Outriders, strange beings made of vapor instead of flesh, are inter-dimensional claim jumpers who constantly seek to conquer the new planets. Lead by the enigmatic Nemesis and his trail bosses, the Outriders prove to be nearly unstoppable.

The Star Sheriffs are the only group capable of fighting the evil Nemesis and his band of outlaws. Lead by the titular Saber Rider, the sheriffs are comprised on Fireball the racecar champion, Colt the bounty hunter, and April Eagle the scientist. Piloting their transforming robot Ramrod, each week the Star Sheriffs would fight to project the people of the New Frontier and stop the Outriders.

The show was rather violent for its time, and this may have been the first instance of an anime character being “sent to another dimension” when shot. The show was radically altered when it was brought to the States. In Bismarck, the character of Fireball was the main POV character, and Jesse Blue was given an entirely new origin. Instead of simply being one of Nemesis’s generals, Jesse now had a character arc as a former cadet of Calvary Command turned bad. Story arcs were still new at this point in animation history, at least to the American audience. Episodes referenced previous episodes and nearly every character had his/her own story arc as well as individual episodes devoted just to them.

The cast, featuring almost a who’s who of voice acting talent, really sells everything. Rob Paulson, Neil Ross, Pat Fraley, Townsend Coleman, and Peter Cullen just add a nice touch to every character, although why someone would make a giant robotic cowboy sound like Optimus Prime does raise some questions.

The show is presently available in several DVD formats and can be found for a reasonable price. Is it Voltron? No, but it is pretty darn good and it could be argued that it may have set off the whole ‘space western’ genre, making its American debut the same year as Bravestarr and coming hot on the heels of the Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers.  As a funny bit of trivia, the success of this program overseas helped save the financially troubled Studio Pierrot, which in turn helped them develop their other shows like Bleach and Naruto. It is worth checking out if you have an interest in anime or any show from the 1980’s.