EPISODE REVIEW: Macross Zero: “The Birdman” (Episode 5, 2004)

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Episode four ended with Sara and Aires getting nabbed by the bad guys while Roy and Shin looked on impotently. This one starts out with the two of them being airlifted back to the aircraft carrier Askua, just off of Mayan Island. Meanwhile, back on the Anti-UN submarine aircraft carrier (Which is very cool!), the Professor continues to lecture the women folk about the evils of the UN and how he hopes to use the Birdman to offset the advantage the UN has from managing to nab the Alien Space Ship 1 (AKA the Macross) when it crashed in to South Antaria Island nine years before. Not that he really cares about politics, his ultimate goal is apotheosis, but world domination is a start, right?

On the Askua, Mao is all better and is running around virtually naked in one of those damn hospital gowns that are open down the back, climbing all over the hunk of the Birdman that they’ve got aboard. It glows when she touches it, and evidently activates the hunk of the Birdman that’s on the Anti-UN ship as well, since it generates a hologram that allows Shin and Roy to see what’s going on over there. Shin sees the Professor lecturing the girls, and Roy sees that the basically amoral scientist Aires is repulsed by her even-more amoral onetime hero. The two of them decide to go off on an unauthorized Starbuck-and-Apollo mission to rescue the girls and save the day, but the flight controller won’t let ‘em go until Edgar - still gimpy from his earlier adventures - clubs the launch officer over the head with his cane. They’ve got experimental booster/weapon pods strapped to the tops of their planes, effectively giving them each a third engine.

With both hunks of the Birman now active and warming up, both sides of the coming conflict report gravitational anomalies that are freaking them out. The Anti-UN Submarine aircraft carrier launches its fighters when the sub starts to surface and they can’t stop it. The sub doesn’t stop at the surface, either, but keeps on going in to the sky, finally hovering a few thousand feet in the air. Meanwhile, just as soon as Roy and Shin get off the Askua, that carrier and her support ships start floating, too.

A massive air battle ensues, but from a narrative point of view it quickly degenerates in to Ivanov and Nora vs. Roy and Shin. It’s a grueling and impressive dogfight which you can watch here,

but Shin manages to outfly Nora while Roy takes the heat for both of them. In the Anti-UN sub-carrier, the ship lurches while the Professor is going on about how he wants to use the Birdman’s power for his own benefit, and Sara is able to get a gun. She knows that she’s the agent of destruction, without her the machine won’t function, at least not until Mao comes of age, so she puts the AK-47 to her head to kill herself when Shin busts through the hull of the ship to rescue her. Aires reflexively shields the professor. Nora blows the head off of Shin’s battloid, causing it - and him - to fall out of the carrier to the earth below.

Overcome with grief and shock and pain, Sara screams and the Birdman comes to life. The fragment on the Askua breaks free and punches a hole in the side of the ship. The fragment on the Anti-UN carrier absorbs Sara and breaks free, too. In a strangely pretty sequence, the pieces fuse. The Birdman asks Sara questions about humanity - are they good? Have they hurt each other? Have they harmed the earth? How is the experiment proceeding? - and Sara answers truthfully: we suck. Very well, then: The Birdman begins shooting and destroys most of the Askua’s support ships in just one shot. Mao screams for Shin to wake up, and strangely he does. He flies to the Birdman, but ends up dogfighting with Nora again while The Professor lies dying unrepentant in Aires’ arms.

The Birdman - causing Sara to see everything as demons - fires again, and this shot catches Nora, causing Ivanov to go bat guano insane. Roy attacks the Sub-carrier and rescues Aires while Shin goes after the birdman with the insane Russian on his tail. The Birdman sees them as demons, and kills Ivanov, while Shin gets a good look at Sara plugged in to the biomechanical beastie. He, too, goes nuts, and prepares to destroy the thing and put her out of her misery when Mao runs out on the flight deck of the Askua, and shouts for him to stop. Once again, he hears her telepathically. He charges the Birdman, but drops all his weapons in the process, and suddenly Sara can see him as human again, not a demon. Suddenly she’s in control of the machine, at least partially. He hovers right next to her and pops the canopy, and it looks like we might get a happy ending, but then the Askua fires at them. Mao yells “No,” and both Sara and Shin hear her telepathically.

Realizing she has no choice but to destroy the world or leave, Sara pushes Shin and his plane away while the charges blow up all around her. She transfigures or apotheosesizes or whatever to some higher form of life, and flies away.

On Mayan Island, Roy’s managed to land with Aires. She lays dying in his arms, and confesses that she loves him. He’s pretty broken up by her loss. Meanwhile, Shin is falling out of control to the ground, his plane dead. He gives up and resigns himself to die, but suddenly the ghostly arms of Sara appear over his, and pull back on the controls. The plane comes back to life, zombie-life anyway. It’s still dead, yet flying on some kind of magical external power. He crashes in the water just short of the carrier, and everyone thinks he’s dead, but then a flock of flying fish spring out of the water, with Sin’s plane among them. He buzzes the carrier and flies off in to the distance, on his own course now, independent, alone, changed by what he’s been through, and changed by his contact with a new goddess. Metaphorically, he’s become the Bird Human that the Mayan islanders always believed would save them and the world.

THE END

OBSERVATIONS:

We get our first - and last - really good look at the Anti-UN carrier in this episode, and it’s pretty amazingly cool. It’s huge, and it launches fighters like a real-world sub launches Polaris missiles: vertically out of tubes while underwater! It looks a bit like the body of an Earforce Warlock-Class Destroyer from Babylon 5. I have absolutely no idea how they recover the fighters, there’s not a runway deck on that thing.

Everyone in the UN forces wears more-or-less conventional fight suits, or navy Khakis - basically indistinguishable from US Navy service dress - but we get a cameo of those odd over-the-top uniforms from the original Macross series when we see the captain on the bridge of the Askua: Evidently they’re the class A uniforms for the UN Navy.

When Ivanov and Nora go out to fight, they give each other this “Today is a good day to die” look that’s a little distressing. They know full well that they’re both probably gonna’ die, and the seem disturbingly turned on by it. Or maybe I’m just reading too much in to this, given the way Ivanov freaks out when she actually does get killed? Maybe their wry little smile simply meant “Today is a good day to murder innocents.” Actually, now that I think on it, that makes a bit more sense. They’re more Mickey and Mallory than they are Romeo and Juliet.

In any event, it’s interesting that the whole series was spent setting these two up as arch nemesis for Roy and Shin, but then *neither* of them got killed off by their rivals. In both cases, they were killed - almost incidentally - by Sara/Birdman. This is an interesting deliberate twist, as it shows very clearly that the old order has ended and the old animosities - and make no mistake, the UN/Anti-UN conflict is basically a NATO/Warsaw Pact or East Vs. West conflict - no longer apply. Get past it, or die and get out of the way of others. Alien contact has an interesting way of completely de-railing people’s own personal sense of destiny, and this is a repeated theme of the series. The bad guys in this episode clearly are the stars in their own story, but the meta-irony is that they’re barely a footnote in the larger epic that’s about to begin, and when they get bumped off practically no one notices. If Ivanov will be remembered at all, it’s simply because he’s the guy who taught the legendary Roy Fokker to fly, and no one will remember poor Nora at all…

Mao’s telepathy appears to only be line-of-sight. She can only talk to people she can see, no matter the distance. Out of sight, out of mind, literally. Again, rather like a B5 telepath, and just like in B5 their telepathy is a direct result of alien genetic manipulation in the distant past.

It wouldn’t be Macross without a romantic triangle, of course, and here we’ve got one between Sara, Shin, and her kid sister, Mao. Mao is clearly madly in love with Shin in a jailbait way, and he doesn’t take advantage of it - good for him! Shin is, after all, a good man - but it’s uncomfortable just the same. The scene where Mao kisses the drowning Shin a few episodes back escapes being creepy only because of it’s innocence and strange beauty - she is, after all, saving his life, and it’s not like he’s groping her or anything, but the scenes of her flitting about on the Birdman in a hospital gown seemed a bit leering and just plain wrong to me. Conversely the frequent nude scenes of Mao are sort of idealized “Noble Savage” Polynesian kind of things, generally with her enraptured in some kind of religious ecstasy. The point seems to be to emphasize her own ’naked and unashamed in the garden of eden’ nature, and not just leering. Much. I wouldn’t show them to my kids, but they’re pretty and not pornographic or otherwise smutty.

Curiously, the gravitational anomaly that floats the ships doesn’t affect gravity within them. Curiously, when the Birdman fragments exit the ships, everything in the area continues to float. Curiously, the Askua is given a gentle splashdown, though this is probably Sara’s doing. Curiously, we don’t see the outcome of the super-cool and neat-o Anti-UN carrier.

Every time I see The Professor, I can’t help but think of Davros in his Dalek wheelchair. I have to think that’s intentional. They have similar character flaws.

It’s really nice to see Roy again for the first time. The first time I watched this, I didn’t really care for his portrayal, but the second time through I was actually moved by how he does everything right and still doesn’t get the girl. This is a really good explanation for his behavior in Macross itself. I always liked Roy - though he’s a bit of a jackass - but I feel like I know him now, and I didn’t before. There’s some nice parallelism of Aires cradling the man who made her - her mentor - in her arms as he dies, and then dying in the arms of the man she made shortly thereafter. She was the last link to his past, his early life, his innocence, and now with hear death, that’s all gone.

In fact, the first time I watched this I felt the ending was rather abrupt, but now I feel it’s a perfect culmination, a kind of “Get real, people! The end is coming, put your petty squabbles aside!” moment before the real deal-changer comes. All three of the core romances in the show end in tragedy: the fundamentally messed up relationship between Ivanov and Nora, the Fokker/Aires affair, and of course the sacrificial tragedy of Shin and Sara that saves the world…for a little while, at least. Both of them transform to something new, her a new form of life and him - again, metaphorically - a new kind of emotional life. Both of them had to give up their hearts in the process, though. It’s sad, but it’s strangely beautiful, too.

In the end, this miniseries is one hell of a retcon, introducing elements in to the past of the Macross story so as to touch on them again in later chapters. This is specifically the kind of Marvel Comics crap that should piss me off, but it’s handled here with such grace and beauty, such respect, such gravitas that it works. Better than works, it actually makes it hard to imagine how we got by without knowing all this stuff all along. It’s the one prequel series I’ve seen that really works, and despite all the swimming uphill I’ve had to do in order to GET the series and review it, I strongly recommend watching it if at all possible. It’s a vital addition to the Macross story, and well worth watching besides.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS:

* What happened to Sara afterwards? Where was she going?
* What happened to Shin? Did he ever ‘come home’ again? Did he survive the Zentradi war?
* We know from mentions in Macross Frontier that Mao survived and became a semi-revered scientist. Did she ever have any contact with her sister or Shin or Roy again afterwards?
* Was this the end of the UN/Anti-UN war? If *Feels* like it was, but we don’t know for certain.

…and that’s pretty much it. I’m going to continue my attempts to review “The Chronological Macross” - that is, every episode and movie in Chronological order. Now that we’ve got Zero out of the way, and we’re entering the realm of easily available “Macross” itself, I’m hoping to be more regular with this. Also, as an added bonus, I’m going to try and compare and contrast the original “Macross” series itself with it’s somewhat adumbrated American version, “Robotech.” The first saga of Robotech, anyway.

If you’re a fan of Macross, sound off! Give me some feedback here!

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