I was interested enough in Armoured Fleet Dairugger XV to keep watching past a point I’d usually give up a series that was not interesting me. It was a super robot show I was not familiar with outside of knowing that it was perhaps the biggest-crewed robot of that era of super robots (with fifteen pilots), that it was (seemingly uncharitably) parodied by Robot Chicken for the length of its stock footage and that it had never featured in Super Robot Wars. And so, when I found out it was receiving official, subtitled streams on Youtube, I decided to watch it.
The best way to start looking at a mech show, especially a less well-known one, is to consider what it aired around, and to see what it may be drawing on or imitating. Dairugger XV is from 1982, putting it just after Golion, Goshogun, Gold Lightan, Godmars, Bryger and Dougram (all 1981), two years after Godsigma, Trider G7 and the more significant to this article 1980 super robot shows Baldios and Ideon. Knowing that Dairugger comes after Baldios and Ideon puts it in perspective, because it has a lot of their DNA in it, with less of perhaps the thematic darkness but a very similar feel. I described my first impressions of the series, after three episodes, as Ideon without the quintessential Ideon-ness. What does that mean?
Before one gets into the spiritual aspects of Ideon, the things that make it what it is and memorably so, consider how it begins, and how the Buff Clan are presented. A lot of the early problems which turn into later, bigger problems in Ideon come from misunderstandings, prejudice and unwillingness to back down. It is a tense, awkward, messy conflict that escalates far beyond anyone’s control as the secrets of the central robot and starship are revealed. Take away all the weirdness of the Ide, and the Solo Ship, but keep the politicking and you get how Dairugger begins. It is worth saying I’m only 13 episodes into the series so far but there have not really been great hints that it will swerve further into Ideon territory. The core conflict is a largely, superficially, unremarkable one. Humanity has expanded into space and is looking for planets to establish settlements on.
Humanity is a colonising power, but presented as an understanding one; the voyages of the Rugger Guard, the mothership in the series, are framed as scientific enquiry as much as armed conquest. The series’ pre-credits narration harks back to the age of exploration, of sailors discovering new lands – and while to more deeply considered analysis this strengthens the colonial themes at play they are not unusual messages or touchstones for stories of space exploration. And, indeed, within thirteen episodes humanity has found precisely one new civilisation – who is not indiginous to any of the planets they have visited. There are not, so far, stories of first contact or dealings with inhabited planets. For all the series cares so far there are four main species in the universe. Two alien empires allied to humanity, presenting it as an amicable, peaceful, multi-national journey of “space survey”, humanity itself, and the enemies of the piece, Galveston. Galveston go to war with humanity not because humanity has wandered into their empire, not even because they want to conquer Earth specifically, but because two colonising powers have both found the same uninhabited planet to colonise, and both believe they have equal claim to uncharted lands. They believe they should be the only colonial power in space, that they have unspoken, unchallengable right to all uninhabited worlds, and anyone who is doing any of their own empire-building is their enemy.
Well, that is an interesting conflict, I feel. Not a war to defend Earth, not an invasion specifically of either side’s territory, but a bigger empire feeling threatened by other powers with similar ambitions. There is not even quite the sense of urgency you would expect from either power seeking a new homeworld, Earth is doing OK, there is no sign that Galveston itself is gone or non-viable. One side is simply heading out into space to see what they can find, and one is trying to conquer planets that nobody lives on. And it is a conflict that thoroughly confuses the human and alien coalition crew of the Rugger Guard. The efforts to coexist before turning to robot-smashing conflict aren’t just lip service but bloody-minded determination from the crew even as Galveston continue to be untrustworthy. And this comes to a head in a double-header of largely stock episodes handled quite well. First the “captured enemy pilot” story, and then a much better episode, episode 13 – “The Enemy Within One’s Head.”
Let’s begin, before that, with the three-part story that begins the series – which made me realise what the show was trying to draw inspiration from. Humanity finds a habitable planet, and goes to establish a settlement there. Galveston attack, refuse all hails, and destroy the colony ships. And then go on to destroy the whole planet. It’s an escalation of scale that’s handled fairly well, feeling quite Yamato or Macross-esque as the survey team escape on their science ship, realising their enemies are significantly powerful. The next arc of the series involves various failed attempts from Earth to send support, raising the stakes effectively, and then there are two quite subdued episodes.
First the downed pilot story. A Galveston pilot crashes on a planet the humans are surveying, they rescue him and despite initial misunderstandings realise that the most important thing is to use this as a chance to be the better species, and show honour and respect. And then at the end of the episode the Galveston fleet kills the prisoner as he is being returned, because they are afraid he has been turned as a spy. It is not a particularly novel episode but it feels well-timed, it strengthens the hateful nature of the villains, and on the whole it would not feel out of place in a more highly-renowned series. That said, it does not, perhaps, wholly hold up thematically – questions about the complicity of soldiers following orders in atrocities committed in war are raised but somewhat glossed over to rush it through to its climax of even the most cynical humans realising the enemy are just like them.
Secondly episode 13, which I liked rather a lot. A Galveston ship is damaged and lands on a planet for repairs. The humans’ ship does the same. Neither side is in a position to defend itself, so if either attacked they would win. The episode becomes two ship captains trying to work out the others’ intentions, their judgment clouded by prejudice and misunderstandings. At the end of the episode, both forces almost come to blows, but are able to talk each other down. There is no fight, merely an episode-long standoff. And it works very well in providing insight into the enemy, and showing that the majority of their officers are very stupid, which explains a lot of the exaggerated villainy. Something worth raising here is how the series has avoided, so far, the traditional hierarchy of villains; there is a commander figure who has a variety of officers who he sends on missions with similar, standardised equipment, rather than a group of specialised lieutenants. The feel here is significantly more like Yamato’s alien empire or a series like Gundam than other robot shows.
So all in all I think it’s fair to say Dairugger isn’t an unfairly obscure masterpiece in waiting, a lot of what it does well has been done better. Nevertheless it’s also probably deserving of a bit more recognition than a Robot Chicken parody and being known as the less good sequel to Voltron. There are a few space opera-ish mecha shows, and it is an interesting subset of the genre – and as this one is getting some time to shine via an official, internationally-available translation, it’s certainly quite possible to give it a try and form an opinion.