During the 1970s, Super Robot productions such as Mazinger Z and Getter Robo proved popular on television – this subgenre of mecha focused primarily on stories of alien invasion, with Earth threatened by an extraterrestrial menace and a legendary humanoid robot called upon to defend the planet. In 1979, however, a new subgenre known as Real Robot debuted with the release of Mobile Suit Gundam; instead of a conflict between Earth and an alien civilization, Gundam follows a destructive war between Earth and its space colonies known as Sides, with Side 3 and its Zabi family (tho group who founded the fascist Zeon government) emerging as the most significant. Within this context, the mecha becomes a weapon of war – the average soldier receives a mass-produced unit, while major figures (such as Newtypes and superiors in the Zeon command structure) pilot special units with unique weapons; the titular Gundam unit happens to be an experimental suit constructed by scientists working for the Earth Federation at Side 7, built from a special metal known as gundarium alloy. This aspect of Gundam echoes its Super Robot predecessors – Mazinger Z, for example, features a similar concept with Super-Alloy Z, used in the eponymous mecha’s construction.
While the series does include elements found in its predecessors, Gundam focuses more on the social and political consequences of conflict – the One Year War featured in this series has humans fighting each other, with the Earth Federation and Zeon representing the different sides. The opening narration of Gundam‘s first episode establishes a brief backstory: approximately 50 years after humans established space colonies, one of them (Side 3) declared itself an independent government known as the Principality of Zeon and began attacking Earth with mobile suits and space battleships. As the narrator explains, the first month of conflict led to great devastation on both sides, and a tentative eight-month stalemate followed; the scenes of destruction and war that accompany the narration reveal the measures that Zeon took to decimate their enemy, including an infamous colony drop that destroyed an entire city. This shows how tragic the war became for the Earth – half of its population died in the initial month of fighting, and the subsequent stalemate seemingly does little (if anything) to alleviate tensions. This is perhaps the most important aspect of the series, showing the devastating consequences of combat; previous mecha shows contextualized conflict through the lens of alien invasion, but Gundam was innovative with showing how humans fight each other for political control.
With that context provided, the episode begins with three Zeon soldiers in Zaku II units performing reconnaissance at Side 7, where they discover that the Earth Federation built numerous experimental units in secret; this reveals Zeon’s motivations to defeat the Federation before it can retaliate, as well as the Federation’s desire to defend itself through the use of its own mobile suits. One of the soldiers, Gene, decides to take initiative and destroy the unassembled units before they can be deployed against the principality, despite his colleague Denim’s protests – Gene demonstrates his willingness to engage in insubordination for his own personal goals, as he wishes to rise through the ranks through conduct he believes will earn him a commendation. Gene shows no concern for civilian life through his actions – he sees military performance as paramount, and his callous disregard for the colony’s safety means he will do whatever he can to improve his career as a soldier. This also helps to contrast Zeon with the colony they’re attacking; while Zeon appears as a militaristic culture, Side 7 and its inhabitants are depicted as defenseless civilians simply trying to live their lives as best they could. Amuro Ray, the primary protagonist of the series, appears in this episode as a Side 7 colonist, working on a computer while conversing with fellow civilian Fraw Bow – this presents him as a a regular person, rather than a member of a military structure, with no military experience to speak of. This will come into play later in the episode, where he enters the RX-78-2 Gundam and attempts to pilot it without any training; this inexperience with warfare contrasts with the soldiers he defends the colony against, as he must consult a manual in order to understand the unit while opposing a Zeon reconnaissance team killing civilians and destroying the city.
The episode ends with Amuro somehow able to defeat the Zaku IIs, cutting one in half and breaking the cockpit of another; this results in Amuro accidentally producing a hole in the colony, revealing the great danger he faces if he is reckless in repelling the enemy units (his father, Tem Ray, even gets pulled out into space through the hole his son created). Because he has no experience in either military conflict or piloting a mecha, Amuro must learn how to operate the Gundam quickly in order to protect his home from the Zeon invaders; his opponents, on the other hand, come from a military background, with formal training in mecha combat. Of course, Amuro does sufficiently grasp the Gundam’s controls, allowing him to easily best the Zakus that threatened Side 7; despite his initial victory, however, he has a lot to worry about, as Zeon remains a danger, with the primary antagonist Char Aznable aboard a Zeon ship orbiting the colony. This episode establishes the core conflict that will inform the series, as well as the difficult nature of going to war – rather than the larger-than-life struggles against extraterrestrials you see in Super Robot shows, Gundam humanizes the characters by giving the average soldiers names and voices. Through this presentation, the series illustrates how a war is destructive to everyone involved – the Principality of Zeon is depicted as rather fascist and despotic in nature, with the Zabi family particularly achieving notoriety for their awful rule, and the first episode provides a brief glimpse into the nature of Zeon’s military command (where the average soldier risks their life to defend their superiors). As a contrast to Zeon, the colonists of Side 7 appear as civilians who must deal with encroaching war – they’re suddenly thrust into a battle without much, if any, preparation, and Amuro himself must learn how to control a mobile suit in order to help protect his home and fellow civilians from a tragic fate. This effectively breaks an eight-month stalemate, which followed a horrible initial conflict that killed so many people; the image of the colony drop that accompanies the narration reveals how tragic and dangerous the war was, especially for Earth, and Zeon threatens to continue that with continued reconnaissance on the Federation.