Let’s Cook a Series: Outlaw Star

I think one of the really fun things about Outlaw Star is that from a narrative standpoint its construction is totally obvious. It’s fun and it’s goofy, and it has good characters and Aisha’s enormous AHEMs; those are the reasons to watch it, so far as I am concerned. But when you break it down into narrative parts it makes a great example of how to construct a great series from a simple story.

Let’s take it apart quickly. Okay, first, the main characters, Jim, Gene, and Melfina, form a Mind, Body, Soul trio. That defines their interrelationships quickly and easily. They also form a Hero, Sidekick, Girlfriend trio that drives certain plot arcs.

They get deployed with Aisha and Suzuka, who affect the basic trio in typical ways: Aisha is a classic noisy kid who drags the others into conflict with outside forces, and Suzuka is the eminence gris…she’s promised to try and kill Gene…but at the same time her zen-like nature means she has a calming influence on the core characters.

Plus there are the MacDougalls, who are straightforward antagonists, and a meta-plot that calls for Melfina to find the Leylines. That is The Quest with a side order of Overcoming the Monster: Melfina quests for the Leylines with the MacDougalls as the monster that needs overcoming.

Yeah, when you look at it that way it’s pretty straightforward. And it is. That doesn’t mean that it’s not good. It IS good. You’ve seen it. You know it’s good.

So, how did they put these parts together?

So, at the start there is the space trucking company Starwind and Hawking; Gene and Jim are a Hero/Sidekick pair, but here comes Rachel/Hilda and her mysterious suitcase containing Melfina. This is the Inciting Incident that drives the meta-plot forward.

The next several episodes are invested in setting the stakes, that there are bad people who also want Melfina, and that Melfina can drive the ship. (Aisha also pops up, tying her to the plot.)

But at the end of episode four Hilda dies, dies heroically, and dies tragically. All anime characters should die so well! But what that does is transfer Melfina’s needs from Hilda to the boys. Now they aren’t taking her somewhere any more; now they are taking CARE of her. This is where the actual meta-plot starts to head forward.

Now the story is in its central phase: conflict. They duke it out with the Kei Pirates (ultimately leading to Suzuka signing on), then race in the Heifong, where we meet their antagonists, the MacDougalls.

Outlaw Star Plot

The gang. From left, Aisha, Gene, Melfina, Jim, Suzuka

Now everything is set up for the climax, but SURPRISE! It’s only episode twelve! So they go off on some adventures that are fun, and sometimes funny (remember the psionic cactus?) but don’t do anything to advance the meta-plot. Can you say “Filler”? Sure you can.

In episode seventeen the MacDougalls make an undercover entreaty to Gene about the Leylines. This sets the plot in motion toward the conclusion.

You know you’ve done something wrong when it’s the antagonists that put the plot back on the tracks! But it gets the job done. From eighteen on, they wander around to a certain degree, but always pointed generally toward the end. Aisha wrestles and they get money, they save Duuz and get dragonite, they meet Wong and get the coordinates to the Leylines, they go to the vacation world and get caster shells (and the audience gets to see Aisha’s spectacularly hot bod). Although it’s slow, their progress in this section is inexorable, each episode a step toward the end, conflict ratcheted up by several more appearances of the MacDougalls.

Episodes twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six: the denouement. It’s a cool story but in the end Gene rescues Melfina (Princess in Peril trope) and the gang goes on, rejoined at the end by Suzuka and Aisha. This fulfills all the functions of the ending of a narrative: the conflict is resolved and the loose ends tied up.

There’s nothing special about the narrative structure of Outlaw Star. There are a few red herrings, and some very minor plot twists; there’s some filler near the middle of the story. But those things aren’t important.

What’s important is that it’s a very simple story in terms of structure, but it’s still REALLY REALLY good. I mean, seriously, is Outlaw Star a classic or what? What it tells us is that these common structures WORK. They are the product of thousands of years of stories told by people (like Homer, for instance) whose livelihoods depended on telling interesting stories. Maybe the structure has been done. So what?

It’s not about how much novelty there is in the structure of the narrative.

It’s about how good the story is.

So, how did they make Outlaw Star?

They did a couple really clever things. The first is that they structured Gene, Jim, and Melfina as two separate trios (Mind, Body, Soul; Hero, Sidekick, Girlfriend) simultaneously, giving a certain level of complexity to their relationships. Go back and read my post about that. Then they gave them two more interesting partners to drive the story forward – Aisha’s impetuous nature in particular takes them places they wouldn’t ordinarily go.

The second is that they varied the obstacles and roadblocks the Star crew had to overcome. If they were always fighting that would wear thin after a while, so they are given a race to run, and the notorious psychic cactus. Aisha wrestles to get the money, Gene has to take nude photos of a goddess to get his caster shells, and the MacDougalls are as likely to try to outwit the crew as beat them up. (The MacDougalls are extraordinarily well-constructed as antagonists, devious as well as strong, and that helps, too.)

What that means is Gene, Jim, and Melfina (with Aisha and Suzuka) have to team up, pool their strengths and weaknesses, to overcome each challenge. Each challenge is different, so each solution is different. So the middle section of their narrative, the conflict, looks varied and fast-paced even though about half the episodes are filler.

The end is bog standard as a story, but it works because we like Gene, we want Melfina to be rescued, and we want the MacDougalls whupped once and for all. Gene takes all the parts they’ve put together and solves the problem, and because he uses all the parts, the ending is satisfying.

It worked for me, through repeated viewings. How about you?

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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