In 1980, Yoshiyuki Tomino's groundbreaking anime Mobile Suit Gundam had just been prematurely ended due to low ratings and sponsor dissatisfaction. However, the critical acclaim the series received was considerable, and he had little trouble gathering another group of sponsors for his next anime.

Whereas Gundam had created a new subset of anime, the Real Robot genre (featuring robots as mass-produced tools, designed and built by humans), in some ways Space Runaway Ideon was a step backwards. It featured a Super Robot as the main attraction, the titular Ideon. Designed by Submarine, this giant red robot was discovered by the protagonists on the colony planet of Solo, an artefact left by an extinct alien civilisation. The Ideon had a regular crew, and like most Super Robot shows, these were young characters for the most part. It was significantly more powerful that just about anything else the enemy had, and even had what could loosely be defined as special attacks.

However, Tomino infused the old Super Robot cyphers with many of the elements that had made Gundam so different. Firstly, characterisation was given much attention, with characters on both sides given considerable ongoing development - not just the crew of the Ideon, but around a dozen other colonists on their Solo Ship as well. Secondly, the political machination present in Gundam was also seen in Ideon - notably with aggressors the Buff Clan, but also present onboard the ship and with the rest of the Earth forces.

Another unusual thread was the colonists' uneasy relationship with the Ideon itself - a constant theme throughout the series is the attempt to investigate the powerful Ide energy that drives the robot and the Solo Ship, rather than simply accepting it at face value. The Ide turns out to be a sentient force in its' own right, attempting (more or less benignly) to manipulate the two factions. As with Gundam's Zeon Empire, the Buff Clan are presented fairly, with numerous hints that they genuinely believe they are acting in the right way.

Another ongoing theme is that of racism. Frequently the series points out that the Solo Colonists and the Buff Clan are identical species only separated by their culture. While exactly how this came to be isn't addressed (Is Buff a long-forgotten colony of Earth? Is Earth a long-forgotten colony of Buff? Is it parallel evolution? Were both races created by the Ide?) is raises a few questions, and Tomino paints an unflattering, but probably accurate, picture of the human race.

The show's format featured several similarities with Gundam - the ongoing plot of the Solo Ship under constant Buff Clan attack is reminiscent of Zeon's pursuit of the White Base in the first cycle of Mobile Suit Gundam episodes; Cosmo Yuki/Amuro Ray is the young, callow, headstrong pilot in charge of the unbeatable robot; Bes Jordan/Bright Noa is the junior officer left in charge of the ship through attrition; both ships have hapless refugees (including a group of mischievous kids) from a settlement wiped out in the opening exchanges. However, Ideon takes a turn for the grim midway through, when it finally makes it back to Earth.

The stakes gradually rise as the series progresses, with the Ide (and thus the Ideon) growing ever more powerful, gaining a trio of super-weapons (the Black Hole Generator, the Ideon Wave Leader Cannon and the Ideon Swords) along the way. The Ide begins to assert itself as an uncontrollable force, with the feeling that the colonists are its' helpless passengers growing, and casualties mounting as the Buff Clan begin to throw more forces and ever-more powerful mecha at the Solo Ship.

The series was well-received, taking the third Animage Grand Prix for the second half of 1981 by a landslide for Best Anime Series, and probably only failing to take the prize for Best Episode and Best Character (four Ideon nominations made the top 10 in both categories) due to a split vote. The opening and closing theme tunes filled the top two places in the Best Anime Song category to boot, while Tomino received the directorial award.

However, like Mobile Suit Gundam before it, Space Runaway Ideon was not a big hit in the ratings. Once again, cancellation loomed. Unlike with Gundam, an extension wasn't granted, with only 39 of the planned 43 episodes made. Tomino had to compact four episodes' worth of plot into the closing minutes of the final installment, shown on January 11th 1981. The resulting conclusion was, needless to say, a little bizarre and abrupt. Thankfully, a solution would come up.

Shortly after Ideon was cancelled, the first of the reedited Gundam films was released, and became a huge success. Like Gundam, in re-runs Ideon had cultivated a loyal fanbase clamouring to see the full conclusion, and shortly after the Gundam compilation trilogy had been completed, Tomino began work on a similar treatment for Ideon. The resulting two films - The Ideon: A Contact and The Ideon: Be Invoked - were released to Japanese cinemas as a double bill on July 20th 1982.

A Contact was, loosely, a compilation of the first 32 episodes of the series. However, a large number of subplots were disposed of (such as the Ome Foundation) and/or compacted, and a fair amount of new animation was made. Character deaths were changed to fit this new layout (including those of Damido and Daram), and several characters (notably Gije and Bes) had a much-reduced role. The funk-based soundtrack of the original series was also replaced by a new orchestral score.

Be Invoked very briefly used elements of episodes 24 and 38 to give some sense of time passing since A Contact, a compressed version of the main body of episode 39, and then around 70 minutes fully expanding the conclusion. The film portrays the decisive final attempt of the Buff Clan to destroy the Solo Ship and Ideon, and swiftly became notorious because of its' ending.

While the films were a success, and garnered good reviews, Ideon largely faded after the films were released. Tomino had purposefully made a sequel impossible, while the merchandising aspect hadn't caught on to the extent it had with Gundam. The action figures for Ideon were handled by Tomy, new to Super Robots even at this late stage, and weren't big sellers. While a number of plastic model kits were produced by Aoshima, they never caught on either, possibly because they necessarily concentrated on the Buff Clan's idiosyncratic designs, thus avoiding the quasi-realism that had made similar kits such a success for Gundam.

Today Ideon is something of a curiosity, famous for its' creator and its' ending. This is a great shame, as while the series takes a little while to pick up speed, it's generally of a very high standard. Like Gundam, it avoids black and white, dealing largely in shades of grey, while it manages to create a fair number of interesting, well-rounded characters from the regulars right down to some of the more short-lived players.

Ideon has yet to receive a Western release, and 28 years on looks unlikely to ever do so, the closest being dodgy Chinese DVDs with butchered English subtitles. However, fan organisation ShinGetter did release a superb set of subtitled episodes (plus the two films), which can still be found online at various torrent sites. It's highly recommended - show patience through the slow early episodes and you'll be rewarded by an intelligent, dramatic series.