With any series made of many entries, it’s always a mess of where to start- often, the actual start isn’t the most visually pretty, making it a turn-off for new people. Meanwhile the latest entry, while shinier than its predecessors, will often have so much homework required of it (even if it’s a soft reboot) that in the end starting with those just leads to a very shallow appreciation for the medium.
The Gundam series is no stranger to this curse. With the added complexity of multiple continuities, scholars will likely still be debating “where’s the best place to start” with Gundam after we’ve actually been colony dropped.
As a series that’s just as much about a staunch cautionary anti-war tale as it is about slick giant robot battles in space, Gundam is in a tight spot when it comes to its new viewer experience. Like I said earlier, the original Mobile Suit Gundam is a great watch but won’t exactly pull in viewers with its dated visuals. On the other hand, The Origin stands to face what I like to call the Fate/Zero problem- yes it chronologically precedes 0079, but you’re supposed to go into that knowing where each of those character ends up. Char Aznable being a dick isn’t supposed to be a plot twist- you’re supposed to get through the movies familiar with his brand of loyalty, and just be smiling to yourself any time he’s about to show it.
However this brings us to the crux of my argument- there does exist one series, the perfect taste tester of all the things Gundam is. It’s detached enough from the UC timeline to be its own thing, yet so dripping in the core of Gundam’s main continuity that you could get to the end of it and totally get the appeal of one of the most iconic mecha franchises of all time- Gundam Thunderbolt.
“It’s Just A Box Canyon In The Middle Of Nowhere”
Based on the manga of the same name, the first season of Gundam Thunderbolt is devoid of the globetrotting of your typical UC series. Unlike Unicorn which sees Banagher moving all around the Earth and its multiple space colonies, Thunderbolt takes place entirely in the aptly-named Thunderbolt Sector. The first episode explains it well enough- it’s the wreckage of a Space Colony, and of no particular strategic value. Yet the soldiers who fight there are all bound by their own grudges, be it the prosthetic-using forces of Zeon (an excellent snap of visual storytelling I might add) or the former residents of the Thunderbolt Sector themselves from the Earth Federation.
You only have this one location, and that means you can focus on the main core of the Gundam series- its character writing. Thunderbolt has a fairly small cast- you have the music loving Io Fleming (Federation) and Darryl Lorenz (Zeon), as well as the crews that support them. Darryl and Io are, like many men in their 20s aim to be, defined by their tastes in music.
The incorporation of said music into Gundam Thunderbolt is part of what makes it so powerful from a presentation angle- the epic space battles are set against a chaotic mess of freestyle jazz and soul music, and the ending even acknowledges the juxtaposition of the sort of jazz club banger going against the horrible violence Thunderbolt portrays.
Speaking of horrible violence, boy does Thunderbolt love it. As is your standard UC fare, Thunderbolt doesn’t pull its punches- bad things happen to good people for seemingly no reason at all, but not in a way that feels like it’s just there to shock you. From the onset Gundam Thunderbolt has this foreboding feeling that nobody needs to be in the Thunderbolt sector at all- it’s only the ghosts of their own grudges, their fears of a sunk cost and the idea of the other side being allowed to have the sector that keep them there.
This doubles down right before the big battle of the series where you see the imagery of the Gundam used in one of the most horrific ways- I don’t want to spoil it, but just think about how heroic the RX78-2 must be in the Universal Century. Characters actively remark on this in a moment so introspective that I legitimately think that Thunderbolt is a high point for the Gundam series overall, not just for beginners. It’s gut wrenching in a great way, and leaves you with the kind of privileged feeling that the Gundam series is known for as you feel like the only person in the room who knows that war is bad.
Of course with all the talk of the writing and direction there’s also praise to be had for the visuals as well- Thunderbolt is a fairly modern Gundam series- it looks equally on par with other big feature releases like Unicorn and The Origin. While the art style is a little more manga-esque than you might expect, it’s certainly distinct enough to be more of a praise than a minus.
With all that in mind, Gundam Thunderbolt is definitely a must-pick if you’ve a friend itching to get into Gundam but looking for ways to start. I’d have to add one caveat though, which would be to let them start off with the first season (or its compilation movie), since the second season does expand the world a little more by ditching the Thunderbolt Sector for yet another global romp and even more proper ties to the UC timeline.
It’s a great starter simply because it’s the essence of UC in microcosm- it’s tragic, beautiful and extremely cool. Sadly, watching it isn’t the easiest- Gundam Thunderbolt is one of the more evasive Gundam series, not being licensed for Netflix and only periodically appearing on the GundamInfo YouTube channel.
Still, if you get your hands on it it’s great for a night in- especially since you might walk away from it with an appreciation for freestyle jazz just like I did way back when.