When I purchased the first "Ultimate" set of Astro Boy DVDs several years ago, I was taking something of a shot in the dark. Not that I hadn't done this sort of thing before -- I purchased two volumes of THE CARL BARKS LIBRARY in 1985 on more or less of a whim. Back then, however, I had at least read some Barks adventures in digest form and was pretty sure that I'd like other Barks stories. In the case of Astro Boy, the presence of the Kimba dubbing cast and my positive impression of one Astro episode were basically all I had to go on. Historical interest, these eps would certainly possess. Consistent entertainment value? I wasn't so sure.
The first 52 episodes of Astro Boy were far more cheaply animated than a polished later effort like "The Terrible Time Gun." An average of only 4500 cells were used per episode. For a science-fictiony adventure cartoon, that didn't seem to promise much in the way of visual excitement. The earliest eps of the series are in fact rather "stiff in the joints" when it comes to action and (not surprisingly) voice performances. It was sheer novelty value, more than anything else, that convinced local stations to purchase the Astro package. With "Strange Voyage," however, the series first began to flash the qualities of "Heart" and thematic sophistication that would come to define it (and which Americans only got to see a portion of; NBC purchased 104 episodes for American distribution, but the Japanese series lasted 193 episodes, with many of the later plots achieving remarkable levels of complexity). The voice acting also begins to "ramp up" right about here, as Ray Owens, Gilbert Mack, and Billie Lou Watt begin to settle into their production routine.
Much like DuckTales, many of the early Astro episodes were based directly on Tezuka manga adventures. "Strange Voyage" was an adaptation of a 1959 tale, "Ivan the Fool," which was inspired by early Soviet successes in lunar exploration. Tezuka drew from H.G. Wells' THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1901) in hypothesizing the existence of a sublimating lunar atmosphere and the existence of exotic plant life that had adapted to the cycle of the lunar day. Arthur C. Clarke's EARTHLIGHT (1955) and Herge's TINTIN story EXPLORERS ON THE MOON (1954) had been kicking around similar ideas earlier in the decade, but Tezuka's take on the notion is particularly clever.
When adapting the story for TV, Tezuka made a small but important change: he relocated the action to a remote asteroid on which Astro and a small band of humans must land after a lunar trip has been aborted. Tezuka also eliminated the subplot in which a rescue ship is dispatched to save the castaways, which forces the group to use their own wits in an attempt to escape their celestial clink. These alterations has the side effect of lending even more emphasis to the subtheme that truly puts this episode "over the top" as a classic: the believable interactions among a diverse group of characters that are forced to cooperate to survive, a la John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). As in Stagecoach, the identities of the "good guys" and "bad guys" are not quite as clear-cut as it appears on the surface... and the ending packs more than its share of "justice served" in a manner that must have seemed shocking indeed to a contemporary audience used to happy, sprightly Hanna-Barbera cartoons and the mock-serious adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, King Leonardo, and others. It is for these reasons that I flag "Strange Voyage" as the first truly great episode of Astro Boy.
Note: This episode has been remade twice: once during the original run of the 1963 b&w Mushi Studios series itself (Episode 142, "Minya's Star") and once in color by Tezuka Productions in 1980 ("The Wreck of the Titan"). The original manga story can be found in Volume 4 of Dark Horse's ASTRO BOY reprint series.
In all other versions of "Strange Voyage," Lucky Louie the Lug (Ray Owens) is a short, dumpy man, while little Marble (Billie Lou Watt) is a young boy. Who knows why? Also, why are all of those men seeing off the haughty Mona Toujours (Watt)? We never learn her profession, but I have some uneasy suspicions on that score...
The opening announcement of "the first commercial flight to the Moon" -- not to mention the Taurus' brief flyby of a space station -- are strongly reminiscent of 2001 (1968). I wonder whether the passengers on the Taurus had the opportunity to enjoy Howard Johnson's cuisine and to "phone home" using The Bell System.
At this stage, Billie Lou Watt's Astro Boy voice is still somewhat "ball-shy." (For an explanation, see here.) Oddly enough, the higher-pitched voice -- which reminds me a bit of the lead singer of the Ran-Dells -- does seem to fit the wider-eyed, more doll-like visual version of Astro that we are provided with here. This would seem "cute," except that Marble (who makes Webbigail Vanderquack seem positively pessimistic and cynical) has already cornered the market in that particular area.
So why wouldn't the gatekeepers be given a physical description of Lucky Louie in case he tried to bluff his way onto the ship? Sometimes, Chief McLaw's (Owens) police force can be as dense as the police forces of Duckburg and St. Canard. The castaways don't get away easily on this score either; the first place that I would look for stolen diamonds would probably be an innocent kid's teddy bear. Blame my suspicions on this Duck story.
Billie Lou Watt does a super job delivering the tape-recorded message from Margo Polo (or Pogo, depending on source), but the time frame posited here seems a bit sketchy. One might be able to buy a mission to Mars "by 1969" -- the "Space Race" was galloping at a speedy enough clip at the time that anything seemed possible -- but a functioning sentient robot, even one as dense as Kris Kringle (Ivan)? Kris' physical appearance betrays the fact that he was designed and built by the Soviets, and, indeed, the female space traveler in the original manga story was a Soviet cosmonaut.
It may seem somewhat surprising that Tezuka would use overt Christian imagery (the cross on Margo's grave), but, in a late episode, the plot centers on a "crying" statue of Jesus! That one did not make the cut for American syndication.
This is one of the first eps in which Astro Boy formally assumes a leadership role, albeit out of sheer necessity. I wonder whether Tezuka was trying to draw an explicit contrast here between the selfless actions of the robot and the all-too-human bickering and "back-going-behinding" of the human cast. At least most of Our Gang wises up in time to make the flight out, with the singular exception of the greedy Rocco Gibraltar (Gilbert Mack). Lucky Louie may wind up in jail once the passengers get back to Earth (and why wouldn't he -- it's not as if his noble actions cancel out his thievery), but he will undoubtedly emerge from durance vile a better man, much like the safe-cracker Scrap in the later episode "Contest in Space." The ending does seem somewhat rushed, but, for 1963, this is a remarkably sophisticated piece of TV cartoonery.
Up next: KIMBA KONNECTIONS presents a musical drama by Billie Lout Watt... and then we return to KIMBA with Episode 18, "The Runaway."