In today's exciting episode: Judge Steve Power reviews some classic '80s anime with a set of bitchin' rose-colored shades!
Your destiny will lead you to where the people need you.
Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs comes home after 20 years on the range courtesy of VCI Entertainment. All 52 episodes are spread across six discs in this handsome package, but is the show worth the effort?
Facts of the Case
Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs tells the tale of Saber Rider, a gentlemanly British chap with a penchant for calling everyone "chum," and his band of Star Sheriffs: Colt, a loudmouth American gunslinger; Fireball, a brash Japanese race driver; and April, the attractive brains of the operation. Together they cruise the frontiers of the known galaxy, righting wrongs, while battling Nemesis and his evil Outriders, human-looking aliens from an alternate dimension called The Vapor Zone. They are the first line of defense on the new frontier, and there's little that can stand up to their advanced weaponry, most notably their transforming flying battleship, The Ramrod.
This could be seen as another in a long line of bastardizations based on Japanese product repackaged for young North American audiences. Saber Rider came along in 1987—hot on the heels of Marshall Bravestarr and the Galaxy Rangers—a Johnny-come-lately to the "Space Western" scene, and one of the last gasps of the slowly dying '80s animation boom. If you can recall this one from your youth, you don't need me to tell you that dismissing this show is a mistake.
The series follows a pretty standard formula, with 52 episodes of shootouts (that typically end with a giant robot brawl), western pastiche, and melodrama. Where Saber Rider really triumphs is in its cohesive/consistent animation and the visceral nature of its slick action.
The guys who developed this particular show had the brilliant foresight to make the bad guys alien beings who dissolved back to their own dimension when killed. This allowed for a more violent and visceral feel to the action on display, without stirring up the censors with human-on-human gunplay. Studio Pierrot (the guys behind Voltron) did a bang-up job with the animation, with very few dips in quality and fewer repeated sequences, something animated shows of the period were typically known for. While not quite as "wild west" in look and feel as its peers, Saber Rider did more with story and characterization to hearken back to dusty trails and cowboys than either of the aforementioned series. It also helps that it doesn't get mired in the same ridiculousness; no walking humanoid were-horses or rocket powered stage-coaches here.
The American creative team has done a fantastic job with re-writing and re-editing, turning Saber Rider into a great show that actually trumps its source material. It's not quite Robotech in complexity or depth, but it's certainly an appealing prospect for fans of classic animation. The fact that the show can stand with very little nostalgic support is also a plus. Sure, when you're looking at a series that runs 52 episodes, there are going to be clunkers (the first episode had me very worried), but the ratio is heavily skewed towards entertaining and action-packed. You can tell there was a lot of fun had in developing this puppy. I have to tip the hat to Peter Cullen, whose spirited episode synopses tell us what's going down on "…today's EXCITING episode of Saber Rider!" during each episode's unique opening sequence, and whose John Wayne impression during the Ramrod transformation sequences never failed to bring a smile to my face. Cullen and the rest of the voice cast—including such luminaries as Michael Bell(Duke, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero) and Rob Paulsen (Raphael from the classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series)—all turn in great performances and seem to be having a ball with their characters.
VCI has done about as well as could be expected with Saber Rider. Studio Pierrot's animation was fantastic for the time, far better than many of its peers (if only Robotech had animation this consistent). The transfer is mastered from original broadcast elements and looks about as well as you can get without heavy duty digital restoration. The video source is immediately evident, and there's a smattering of grain and some color bleeding throughout, but source flaws aside, this is one hell of a great transfer. There are no interlacing errors or jagged lines, and not a trace of any compression or authoring defects. It may look older than you remember, but it certainly looks better.
As good as the picture is, the audio is even better. The excellent soundtrack by Dale Schacker punches through the speakers, and the stereo track is booming and clear with no hiss or distortion. Excellent job.
For extras, VCI has provided a few commercials for the show (and some form of contest involving scratch cards) that are more of an endurance test than anything of real value. However, the character bios and theme songs are pretty sweet (and sound fantastic). Also included is an audio interview with composer and sound editor Dale Schacker, who shows a genuine admiration for the show and the work he's done on it. The man did a fantastic job, and I can't stress enough that this particular show has some of the best sound design and music of the era and the genre. There are also a few clips taken from the (radically different) Japanese show upon which Saber Rider is based.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Yes, Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs piles on the cheese. It is, after all, a kid's show from the '80s. Sure, the violence is cranked a little, but the show pummels with heavy-handed morality plays and cheap puns. The western drawl permeates everything, and it isn't the grim 'n gritty wild west of shows like Deadwood. If you didn't experience this one as a kid, or you aren't a devotee of classic animation, there's probably not a lot that's going to appeal to you.
There's a little bit of greatness in Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs. It's a good deal stronger than its anime space-western peers (Bravestarr and Galaxy Rangers are downright garbage in comparison). I'd even go so far as saying it's a better show than Studio Pierrot's Voltron. VCI's treatment is to be commended. This is a better package than any fan could have hoped for.
Going back to Saber Rider after 20 years has been a real joy. The show
has aged better than I thought, and VCI has gone all out. Not guilty!
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