I loved the first episode. It's beautiful, elegant and magical. However that was entirely thanks to Studio Gainax's animation, while the script was just your average magical girl storyline.
Having now finished it all, I'd give a similar assessment of the whole show. It's fine. Storywise, it's nothing special. The last episode's a bit confusing and does something I don't wouldn't generally advise in SF-related fiction, but it's also light and happy. There's nothing wrong with the show as a whole and it's a warm, enjoyable magical girl story that's doing a few noteworthy things.
Incidentally, the show has a surprising origin. It was originally a 2011 net animation that Gainax did in collaboration with the Japanese carmaker Subaru. (The show's heroine is called Subaru and all the girls' "broomsticks" look like mechanical spare parts, even making vehicle noises as they fly along.) It comprised four six-minute episodes and you can watch them on YouTube. I'll be doing so. Anyway, I'm not sure why a car manufacturer decided to sponsor a magical girl show, but they did and it's since been expanded to this 2015 TV series.
The story involves five girls: Subaru, Aoi, Itsuki, Nanako and Hikaru. Subaru's starting junior high school. She likes astronomy and she's planning to join the stargazing club. However she ends up spending all her time at the cosplay club instead, where everyone transforms into a magical girl and flies into space in search of the fragments of the spaceship of the club's unintelligible octopoid president. Oh, and the school observatory is also a magical kingdom in which lives a boy (?) that only she can visit.
It's a pleasant experience. The girls are all kind and supportive, while the show has no villain. There's an antagonist, but he's not evil and his goals are the same as our heroines'. (Everyone's trying to collect the same spaceship fragments, so Antagonist Boy is a rival.) Admittedly the president's spaceship will destroy the Earth if they can't rebuild its engine, but that doesn't make anyone evil. You could show this series to anyone. It's a throwback to a kinder, gentler age of magical girl shows, including in one surprising way that I'll be addressing below.
For me, the show's noteworthy aspects are:
This show is fascinated by something that's almost disappeared from popular SF, which is real astronomy. Our fiction will cross the universe in the blink of an eye and meet a million alien races. This show's having no truck with that. It's into reality. It loves the solar system. It loves looking at the constellations and teaching us what we'll see if we go outside and look up. The moon, the sun, Saturn's rings, the Oort Cloud... it's all here and we're going to go and visit them. How big do you think the solar system is? Well, you're wrong. It's bigger than that. When Nanako goes to its outer edge in ep.8, she can't break the light-speed barrier (although she can get so close to it that she experiences time dilation) and so it takes her three months. (In fairness there's a debate to be had here about how to define the solar system's limits, but what we have here is a perfectly normal interpretation. Is it the heliopause, or is it the outer edge of the Oort Cloud? If it's the latter, in fact, you could go even further to 3.2 light years.)
I loved all this. It was educational, even for me. I loved the throwaway visual of the width of Saturn's rings in ep.5, for instance. Admittedly the last few episodes go off into more magical impossibilities, but they keep coming back to real science. There's a black hole in ep.12. Furthermore, the main character is an astronomy nerd.
If anyone does discover that hypothesised giant planet beyond Pluto, I hope they call it Apate.
2. THE MAGIC IS MAGICAL
...and yet, side by side with all that, it's also magical. Even with the motorbike sounds of the girls' drive shafts.
This is a magical girl show with a sense of wonder. When our heroines fly, the skies are gorgeous. There's a delight in seeing them soar and spin against sumptuously detailed night skies or starscapes. Similarly, Subaru opening a door into a room that's not there to talk to Minato is like stepping into a fairy tale. Magical energy can sprout leaves and flowers under your feet, or dance around your fingertips.
The magical girl genre is old these days. Some of its offshoots have grown cold and hard. Even its happier, more childlike modern examples aren't taking this kind of joy in rediscovering themselves.
3. OTHER KINDS OF RETRO
There's heterosexuality, which was slightly startling. Great tranches of anime have been moving away from that. There's been a drift towards all-male or all-female casts, with homosexual subtext (or more) for the otaku audience. Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Lyrical Nanoha, Yuki Yuna is a Hero, Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya, Senki Zesshou Symphogear... the only magical girl show I've seen recently where it's not screaming at you is Sailor Moon and that's a 1990s revival. (And that's only because Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune haven't shown up yet.) It's even true of child-targeted shows like PreCure, thanks to playing to their peripheral demographics, although there it's firmly kept as subtext and you can also expect a handsome prince.
Here, though, the niche choice is being done quite sensitively. She also has a lesbian childhood friend who likes her, though. (That gets addressed quite sweetly at the end too.)
It's just a nice show. Minato and Subaru being friends and helping each other is lovely. That thing I was talking about in the slightly confusing finale is being foreshadowed in the early episodes, with those memories. However it's also got that educational space lecture angle, with both Subaru and the show itself being in love with space, stars and the solar system. It should be great for small children, by the way. I don't remember anything inappropriate happening in it at all. It has exciting magical flight chase scenes, but no violence, cruelty or pain. At the end of the day I don't think the show's as memorable as I wanted it to be, thanks to a gentle and deliberately old-fashioned story where the magical girls aren't even fighting evil. However I'm terribly fond of Subaru and Minato, while Gainax's animation is enchanting.