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At the beginning of the July 2016 Camp NaNoWriMo, I was in the mood for some old-school anime. During Camp NaNo in July 2013, I’d inter-spaced bouts of writing with episodes of an anime called Black Jack. Every so many hours, words, or pages, I would reward myself with an episode or two. It got me through the month and it was an enjoyable show. This time, I decided to start watching an anime I’d been eyeing for a while. It’s called Space Pirate Captain Harlock, and I cannot express how hooked I currently am. It’s got that gorgeous old-school look that only anime from the late 70s and early 80s have. The drama is totally over-the-top, the science is out of whack or non-existent, and the plot lurches around like a drunken sailor. But the characters are so endearing and the adventures are so fun that I don’t even mind it. That’s just part of the experience. In fact, I’ve actually had to stop watching it for now because it makes me want to write about pirate ships and space operas, not steampunk or romances. (Oops. Wrong choice for this project’s inspirational material.)
Still, as I was watching the first several episodes of Captain Harlock on Crunchyroll, I started thinking about all of the other science fiction anime and TV shows that heavily feature nautical themes and emphasize the tight-knit family unit that the crews of these ships become. In Captain Harlock, this takes place on board the Arcadia. In Last Exile, the first anime I ever watched, it’s the Silvana. In the original Mobile Suit Gundam, we have the White Base. (The power of the Bright-slap compels you! …*ahem* Yes, well, moving on.) In Space Battleship Yamato it’s… er, well, the Yamato. (Yes, I know that was redundant.)
Then you have all of the English TV shows and films, like the Enterprise from Star Trek, the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, Serenity from Firefly, Battlestar Galactica from… um, well, Battlestar Galactica. (Yes, yes, I know, more redundancy.) And to top that off there are good old-fashioned ocean-going vessels: the Defiant, the Albatross, the HMS Surprise, and Captain Nemo’s submarine the Nautilus, to name a few.
All of these ships have unique ecosystems on board that bond their crews together, not just into a unit that works and fights as one, but into something more akin to a family. That’s what we love to watch as much as (or perhaps more than) the different scrapes they get into. But why does this happen? Why the fascination with characters on board ships?
This is just a shot across the bow in the dark, but I think there are three main elements that make the crews of these ships and the setting itself so fascinating: exploration, isolation, and the Maverick Effect. (Yes, I totally just made up that term.)
Back in ye olden days, ships were the ultimate means of exploration. You walked until you ran out of land, then hopped on a ship and sailed until you found some new land. Ships were the only means of transportation that could break the barrier of the ocean and shed light on the unknown. All those places on the map that were left blank, save for the words, “Here there be dragons,” could only be filled in by intrepid maritime explorers. Even today we’ve barely plumbed the depths of the ocean even if we have criss-crossed its surface with a net of longitude and latitude. Space is seen as the ultimate ocean, the final frontier to be explored, and there’s an infinite amount of it. You can’t really walk in space, but you can sail through it, and now that’s where the eyes of explorers have turned. There’s a level of excitement and romanticism that is hard to deny.
A ship on the sea or in space is a self-contained island that must provide the crew with everything they need to survive because the environment surrounding them is so hostile that death is almost assured if something is overlooked or goes wrong. A storm, a punctured fuel cell, doldrums, or miscalculation in weight means almost-certain death. The sea is a harsh mistress and hard vacuum has no mercy, only cold equations. That sense of isolation and dependence on one another binds a crew together. Everyone must pitch in and do their part to survive in these often less-than-ideal circumstances, and that breeds camaraderie like no other. (And throwing challenge after challenge at characters to test them, to see how they respond under such conditions, is wonderful fodder for plot and character development.)
While this doesn’t apply to every ship, most of the ones I listed are running on the fringe. There isn’t a huge support system for many of these ships, which forces them to be independent. A hallmark trait is that the captains and crews of these ships often employ risky, unorthodox, or shady tactics in order to survive. The Arcadia is a pirate ship. The Silvana is a rogue steampunk battle ship. The Yamato is the only one of its kind and the only bulwark against human extinction. The Galactica is trying to protect the rag-tag remnants of humanity from an enemy that has them on the run. The Albatross is a privateer preying on Spanish galleons. The Nautilus is the embodiment of Captain Nemo’s revenge on humanity’s warmongers. The Millennium Falcon and Serenity are home to scoundrels and smugglers whose captains have a borderline-unhealthy obsession with their ships. And even those who technically have support or are part of a larger group, like the White Base, the Enterprise, the Defiant, and the HMS Surprise, are often placed far from home and thrown into situations where there is no way aid will arrive in time. They are on their own and will live or die according to their own wit, guts, and luck.
We LOVE those kinds of stories. We love rooting for the underdogs who are outgunned, outmaneuvered, but not outwitted. They refuse to give in, regardless of the odds. Many have the moral high ground, even if their methods are questionable. Intelligence often trumps brute force, and we adore seeing that. Combine the Maverick Effect with the exploration and isolation inherent in ships of the seas and ships of the stars, and we may be closer to understanding why this themed setting turns up in so many tales, a fascination as inexorable as the tides.