Jupiter is attacking Earth! What's more, they're pounding us into dust. Earth's last chance is the Nadesico, a space battleship built by the private defence contractor Nergal and staffed by freaks and idiots. The captain is Yurika Misumaru, an airhead who's also a genius at battle tactics. The computer expert is Ruri Hoshino, an eleven-year-old prodigy. Then the cook and back-up fighter pilot is Akito Tenkawa, a refugee from the Martian colonies who has everything it takes to excel at combat except the slightest desire to do so. He signed up as a cook and that's all he wants to do. Can these people save mankind?
This show struck me as less than the sum of its parts. It's full of ideas. There's some intriguing backstory with Akito, who somehow managed to teleport unaided from Mars to Earth after his parents were killed. Neither he nor anyone else has any idea how this happened. It's also highly self-aware. Several characters are fans of Gekigangar 3, an anime-within-an-anime which parodies Giant Robot shows. There are even specific sub-species of fan, e.g. the fangirl who draws her own doujinshi manga, or the hardcore geek who's based his entire life on Gekigangar 3. One episode sees them holding an anime convention, complete with cosplay, merchandising and a swimsuit contest. Even the communications officer used to be an anime voice actress.
The show also deliberately employs various anime cliches, e.g. alien invaders, time travel and lots of women having the hots for Akito. Naturally these cliches tend to get subverted.
This may sound worth checking out and indeed Nadesico seems to have been something of a fan favourite, but I found it a mish-mash. It's flippant and self-aware, but at the same time it wants to do tragedy and the seriousness of war. If you want to do something like that, you've got to get the tone right. Martian Successor Nadesico doesn't. It randomly flip-flops between comedy and serious drama, to the detriment of both. I've seen funnier comedies and more dramatic dramas. It grew on me, but only gradually. With some anime, you can't stop yourself watching episode after episode until you're dead on your feet and the clock says 4:30am. Not here. I enjoyed Martian Successor Nadesico, which is good fun with a few genuinely strong episodes, but I was never tempted to keep going with the next instalment.
It has some lovely characters. Ruri is a scream, being this sarcastic little genius who (rightly) thinks she's surrounded by idiots. However it also has too many underdeveloped characters and too much undercooked drama that's undercut by coming straight after silliness. In its favour, this show can be genuinely surprising. It loves to turn on a sixpence and throw out story developments from absolutely nowhere. Cliches are indeed overturned and I can see why the show has many fans. It's certainly a decent show by any reasonable definition, but I find it merely likeable. It's good for a laugh, but I ended up re-selling my discs.
However even that much I can't say for the movie, which I actively disliked. They've poured money into the animation, resulting in stunning space battles (yawn) and more realistic character designs that drain away all the charm and make the show look flashy but dreary. I've seen the same phenomenon with Rurouni Kenshin spin-offs. As for the plot... well, it has moments of fun, but by and large it's afraid to go near the TV show's light touch and goofball charm. Frankly it's depressing. I see no good reason for the film to do the things it does. I simply didn't enjoy it, especially given what happens to Akito. It's also not particularly good! The best I can say about it is that it left me thinking better of the TV series.
Incidentally a further spin-off is Gekigangar III, a 1998 OVA which turns the anime-within-an-anime into an actual anime. I haven't seen it and I'm unlikely to do so, since I've yet to hear anything good about it.
In fairness I've yet to see a Space Battleship show that I like. However this particular example strikes me as being better at subverting the conventions of the genre than at creating something else in their place that's worth watching. Akito doesn't want to fight! Good for him. I can see the joke, but unfortunately it doesn't make him particularly interesting since we know exactly where that's going to end up. The tone and the storytelling are messy, especially when it comes to the ending. I don't have much good to say about the climax of the TV series, although in fairness compared with the film it's a masterpiece. It's ingenious and full of ideas, but not particularly satisfying.
This isn't a bad series. It's nice to look at, it's often funny and it has some strong episodes. One's also pleased to see a show that fails through overambition and trying too much, which is at least an error in the right direction. There's a lot to enjoy here, but I wouldn't advise bringing great expectations.