BattleTech: First Somerset Strikers and Sourcebook Retrospective

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I think the BattleTech cartoon was probably as close the franchise came to making the mainstream of popular culture. I could include the videogames (which I have discussed before) but the cartoon took place during a time where big fighting robots were generally in the mainstream anyway. MechWarrior 2, Robot Jox, and of course blockbusters like Terminator 2. Even Japanese distributors were beginning to test the US market with titles like Patlabor and different flavors of Gundam. Big robots were beginning to become as much a staple of science fiction as the space opera. (Some media, like Gundam and BattleTech combined the two).

So how does one market a mech-centric space opera towards children? As seen with other US franchises like Exosquad, don’t sugar coat it. In space operas, there are big wars going on, and people die. 1st Somerset Strikers doesn’t show death like Exosquad does, but one of the plot developments banks on one of the major characters failing to eject from his devastated BattleMech before it explodes and being thought dead by his compatriots for most of the season. Likewise, though it specifically mentions in the official BattleTech canon that the Jade Falcons evacuated the city of Romulus before glassing it with orbital bombardment, it was never brought up on the show.  So the viewer thinks they just watched an entire city of people get vaporized. Heady stuff. I really wish they had made more of a deal of the destruction of Edo on Turtle Bay later in the season, considering that most of the inhabitants in fact WERE massacred by the Smoke Jaguars (one of the reasons that clan was targeted for termination during Operations Serpent and Bulldog)

 

promotional artwork for the animated series

Promotional artwork for the animated series

According to the Designer notes on page 94 of the sourcebook, it took quite a bit of thought to decide on the era and focus of the show considering the massive scope and history of the universe. They needed to keep the numbers of major characters and equipment low. A behind enemy lines recon angle for the protagonists seemed ideal for this, though I still laugh at certain lines, such as Galaxy Commander Vandervahn Chistu ordering Star Colonel Nikolai Malthus to “take a trinary and secure Waldorff V.”

They also wanted to make sure that the difference between the two major factions- Clans vs Spheroids was visually easy. It’s one of the reasons that Enhanced Imaging neurocircuitry was used to cover the Falcon Claws’ faces like 31st century warpaint. Enhanced Imaging was also used as the vehicle to introduce fully rendered 3D computer animated scenes during the heat of battle. The ‘Mech models didn’t take damage other than losing the occasional limb or head during an ejection, and naturally the graphics look pretty ancient these days. But in 1993, this was a pretty big deal.

The decision was also made to allow the writers free reign within the canon by having it take place during the Clan Invasion; the current era at that time. Inner Sphere pride and prejudice was still very much present in the theme of the show, but the plot was moved forward almost entirely based on the external threat- the Clans. It also helped to cement in the minds of any critics that the fighting really wasn’t racially motivated- as the tension between the AFFC and Draconis Combine personnel might have otherwise suggested. Racial tension is still there (just as it is in the politics of the novels or other media), but it’s not a major element in the plot.

In fact, some real friendships are forged between them that mirrored the spirit of the clan invasion time period just as relationships between Victor Steiner Davion and Hohiro (and of course Omiko) Kurita. Even old warhorses like Captain Zachary Hawkins gain a grudging respect for Franklin Sakimoto’s skills, resourcefulness, and outright guile.

1st Somerset Strikers is kind of a microcosm of the whole universe since not only are some of the canon ruling characters represented, but many character archetypes from the MechWarrior RPG. “Patch” McGuire is the unit’s seemingly only tech; who is seen working on not only the Striker’s BattleMechs and Aerofighters, but also on the Dropship Kwaidan and Jumpship Katana as well. Valten Ryder is the resident mercenary picked up on Dustball in the second episode to help fill out the unit. I’m not sure who the voice actor was, but he seemed to be channeling Lando Calrissian’s suave, scoundrel-like charm. Rachel Specter is Major Steiner’s tactical operations specialist. She’s one part computer whiz, one part tactical consultant, and one part plucky sidekick. I’m pretty sure that the concept of ‘Mech Commanders’ as referenced from those games came about from her since she was essentially the same thing for the Strikers. She even eventually set up shop in Steiner’s Awesome when a cockpit command console was installed. Her sister is also a major character in the BattleTech Fallout comic series.

Ciro Ramirez was the unit’s resident stereotypical pampered noble-born Lyran. He was actually first introduced in Michael Stackpole’s Lethal Heritage; the first book in the Blood of Kerensky trilogy as an outspoken classmate of Victor Steiner Davion during their graduation party at the Nagelring Academy. Ramirez seems to embody everything that Victor dislikes about the snobbish noble-born. Unfortunately for Major Adam Steiner (a distant relative to Victor’s mother from one of the cadet lines), Ramirez is assigned to be his assistant during his tenure teaching at the Nagelring. Adam, like Victor, sidesteps many of Ciro’s verbal barbs. Ramirez eventually parallels Phelan Kell‘s own development when he is taken as a bondsman by the Jade Falcons. He even initially pilots the same model BattleMech, the Wolfhound. Ramirez also eventually joins the clan, but for very different reasons than Kell.

Notable Jade Falcon characters include Natalia, a pretty cut and paste Elemental character that could have done with some character development, Pytor; an aged warrior nearing Solahma duty from being good enough to survive that long but without the luck and prestige of a Bloodname. I liked him, though he was also minimally developed. Kristen Redmond was by far the most competent. She’d earned a Bloodname, took absolutely zero BS from anybody, and I’m convinced if the Falcon’s Claws had been in her hands, things would have gone much worse for the Strikers, and anyone else in her sights. Much of this makes me feel like she was a character clone of MechWarrior Joanna. Which brings me to Malthus.

Hunchback IICs doing what they do best.

Hunchback IICs doing what they do best. Is it me of does Enhanced Imaging make everything look like Tron?

Nikolai Malthus is hands down my favorite character in the show. I’m not sure if it’s due to poor writing or if he was written to just be an insane character, but there are several instances where Malthus makes an absolute hypocrite of himself. On more than one occasion, he condemns Adam Steiner for actions he himself does immediately afterwards. He even goes renegade from the clan to take on a personal vendetta against the Strikers, defying Galaxy Commander Chistu’s direct orders, and even attacking Kristen Redmond’s forces when she’s tasked to bring him in. He is a riot. I almost wish he had turned up in the Malibu Comic BattleTech Fallout, which was written and published as a separate storyline but as a companion to the animated series.

I don’t think there are too many BattleTech fans out there that haven’t seen this show. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. It’s nothing groundbreaking in terms of writing or animation (discounting the CG portions), but I do believe it has been canonized. I often have it on as background noise when I’m working on something. Having grown up with it, it’s just part of the BattleTech Experience.

I would LOVE to see some new official animation come about someday. In this day of Kickstarter and crowdfunding, it really should come down to vocal fans to motivate the license holders’ sharkticons (lawyers) into making it possible.

Well bargained and done.

6 thoughts on “BattleTech: First Somerset Strikers and Sourcebook Retrospective

  1. The Shredder

    At the very least, it is time for this show to be re-released on Bly-Ray. Good-bye low quality VHS rips, hello being able to discern their distinct voices again! Considering some of the shows that made it through this time period, I always felt it was a shame to never get a season 2.

    Reply
    1. Ron Post author

      They could have done so much more with it. Leaving on a cliffhanger sucks on toast as well. I would have mentioned it if I could find a reference, but I remember it being said that the CG is what actually axed the show. It was expensive to do because they couldn’t subcontract to an overseas studio at that time. The animators would actually come in and work off the clock to finish those scenes. I’m not sure if it was due to their wanting to complete a better looking product of if there were unfair deadlines in place. But like I said I can’t remember where I read it so keep that in mind.

      Reply
  2. Escef

    Robot Jox wasn’t really mainstream. And Adam Steiner was shown bailing out, but no information about Somerset made it off-world more than a few minutes after the Falcons hit it (at least in the series). Other than those nitpicks, this article is largely spot-on.

    I tend to think of Nikoli’s insanity as being a mixture of his EI implants and Adam Steiner inspired man-child rage. I don’t know if Nikoli was ever a canon character in-universe or not, but I figure if he was his own bloodhouse would declare a trial of annihilation against him, just to cut off attempts to Reave them.

    Reply
    1. Ron Post author

      I suppose you’re correct about Robot Jox. It never occurred to me about Andrew Steiner ejecting. I probably should have made it more clear I was referencing Ciro. Also true about those implants. I think it was in I Am Jade Falcon where Joanna encounters Pytor, who was pretty far gone at that point due to his own implants.

      I guess there is a price to pay for being too good or too lucky.

      Reply
  3. Alex Ward

    Adam survived, he was temporarily Archon over the Lyran Alliance during the Dark Age stories.

    Reply

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