The latest show I’ve binge watched is Knights of Sidonia, the anime based on the manga by Tsutomu Nihei (which I’ve not read). It’s a “Netflix Original” in that Netflix produced and has exclusive distribution rights to the English language version, but is actually a production of Polygon Pictures. As for the show itself, it’s a mecha anime with a relatively hard-SF bent and a distinctive CGI animation style. The premise is that humanity scattered after the Earth was destroyed by giant mysterious space monsters. Hundreds of years later the generation ship Sidonia is alone in space, training mecha pilots to fight off monsters, when a mysterious, uniquely skilled, biologically unusual boy is discovered who quickly becomes the key to the ship’s survival.

There is, frankly, almost nothing in it that I haven’t seen somewhere before, and often done better. (The Left Hand of Darkness-esque androgynes, in particular, are criminally under-used.) There’s a ton of Gunbuster in here, some heaping spoonfuls of Evangelion, and a steady stream of familiar beats and thematic gestures from both anime and written science fiction. But for all that it doesn’t feel particularly original, the mix is pleasing, the pacing tight, and the willingness to kill off established characters admirable. And while it has the usual, eye rolling, fan service-y cliches that make watching so much anime feel like a mildly guilty pleasure, it at least goes to some effort to justify their inclusion in the show. All the women are drawn to the main character because he’s a biological oddity who is constantly saving all their lives. (And one of them isn’t a woman, it’s an androgyne, but so far that only functionally means “shy, flatter-chested character who corrects people when they say ‘you’re a cute girl.'”) The gratuitous nudity is because all of these people photosynthesize for most of their nutrition, and need to disrobe and expose their skin to the light frequently. So the show feels like it’s at least trying to meet me halfway in not being a total embarrassment, which makes it palatable enough for me to stick around for the high velocity space battle goodness.

My biggest problem with the show, really, is that it’s a mecha anime at all. The ubiquity of the genre convention that the right tool for any hard job is a giant robot shaped like a human body is mystifying. The better the rest of the science fiction world building gets, the more the mecha stand out as simply odd. No reason is ever given why intricate mecha are a superior option to, say, space fighter planes. It’s not like those huge mechanical wrist joints actually get used in battle very often. In space, no one can feel you throw an elbow. One of the many, many things I loved about Cowboy Bebop was that I was finally getting space opera without all the damn mecha. I was supremely disappointed when Attack on Titan turned out not to be about orbital sorties above the moons of Saturn. Anime seems the perfect medium to tell big, crunchy, engineering-heavy, interstellar science fiction stories, if only these series could get past spending 30% of their time on teaching space warrior to bend their hydraulic knees.