In UC 0079, a Zeon Zaku II and Big Gun emplacement hide amidst the ruins of the space colonies that made up Side 4, Moore. On the Earth Federation Forces transport ship Beehive, Ensign Io Fleming plays chopsticks to a jazz beat inside his GM‘s cockpit while waiting to launch. Mechanic Cornelius Caca tells him to use headphones to listen to his pirate radio, but Io wants to feel the sound himself. He imagines the sounds and movements of the GM as though they were part of the music. From the bridge, Acting Captain Claudia Peer tells the pilots that their mission is to destroy the Zeon snipers hiding in the debris because they’ve already lost 40 allied units in one month. She says that regaining control of the Thunderbolt Sector will help change the tide of the war, now in its final stage. As he prepares to launch, Io tells himself that his birthplace is tying him down again. Io expertly maneuvers through the dense debris field, but the lightning-like Minovsky particle reaction distracts one pilot and causes him to crash into debris. A beam cannon sniper shot destroys the top portion of Io’s GM, but he manages to eject in time. The squad commander is killed, followed by many other pilots. Zaku pilot Daryl Lorenz snipes a GM until his gun’s barrel reaches his limit, so Rick Dom pilot Hoover Aisla keeps firing instead. He gets a warning message that his communications are going down, and suddenly his cockpit manually opens. Io shoots Hoover in the face and tosses his body into space. With communications still open, Io tells the Zeon pilots that their taste in music sucks. He then makes fun of Daryl’s prosthetic legs and boasts that he’s going to cruise back to his ship via their blind spots. Daryl vows to not let him get away next time, and Io mentions that the sound of jazz means he’s coming. Io detaches from the Big Gun and uses his machine gun to destroy it.
A Gattle flies over and docks with Daryl’s Zaku to relieve him. Elsewhere, only a few damaged GMs manage to return to the Beehive, but the crew are surprised to see Io return with a stolen enemy mobile suit. After recovering Hoover’s body, the Gattle returns Daryl and teammates Fisher Ness and Shawn Mitadera to the supply ship Dried Fish. The team is instructed to take Hoover’s body to the lab so that the data in his prosthetic arm can be studied first. Professor Karla Mitchum comes over and cries when she sees Hoover’s body. On the Beehive, Vice Captain Graham informs Claudia that data is being extracted from the Rick Dom, which might include deployment patterns. He also informs her that some mechanics have returned with the test unit, which he figures will go to Io. Claudia summons Io and tells him that he’ll be piloting the prototype mobile suit because everyone ranked above him just died in the last operation. She tries to slap Io, but he stops her and instead kisses her. The bridge crew complain about Claudia and Io being privileged elite, especially since he’s the son of Moore’s former leader. Graham thinks that makes them effective as sacrifices for the Moore Brotherhood because they’re young heroes dying for their ideals. Claudia tells Io that she won’t love him anymore and wishes she could order him to die. Io wants an order to launch because he’s captivated by mobile suits. Karla visits Daryl and asks him to kill Io for her. He asks her for painkillers because he says his prosthetic legs hurt. Io prepares to launch in the Full Armor Gundam on a mission to confirm the Zeon sniper locations extracted from the Rick Dom. Io is amazed by the Gundam’s power and tests its maneuverability and speed in the debris field. He declares that this is the power he’s always wanted and blasts a large piece of debris with his twin beam rifle. Later, Daryl and the other Living Dead Division pilots watch a flight recorder video of a Zaku being destroyed by Io. Captain Burroughs points out that the Gundam destroyed three Zakus and dodged all Big Gun attacks. Shawn mentions to Daryl that jazz music was playing, so Daryl is sure the pilot must be Io.
Multiple Salamis and Magellan open fire on Musais in the Thunderbolt Sector, while several Zaku Is easily destroy Saberfish fighters. Io wakes up from a dream where he found his father’s body after he committed suicide. Cornelius comes up the Gundam’s cockpit and notes that Io is listening to the song his father liked, so Io abruptly turns it off and says it’s a bad song. Daryl thinks back to an earlier time when he saw Karla on stage receiving honors at A Baoa Qu. After having his leg adjusted, Daryl gets into the Psycho Zaku to test the Reuse Psycho Device System, which should allow him to control the suit as though it was his own body. Researcher J.J. Sexton has Daryl test moving the limbs before moving on to running in place. Daryl thinks of himself as a child running on the beach with his real legs, followed by a memory of losing them in ground combat. After completing the test, he tells Karla that the system is magnificent and will allow him to do more than being a sniper. She notes that there are better prosthetic legs than the ones he uses, but he counters that the Reuse P Device performs better than if he had real legs. Karla asks if he’s trying to get another medal and comments that she loathes war before leaving. Elsewhere, Io flies through space with the Gundam to perform speed tests. Gattle pilot Layton helps Daryl set up his Zaku I and Big Gun for sniping and asks if he believes in ghosts at Side 4. Layton is bothered that Daryl was given an old Zaku out of necessity, but Daryl explains that snipers don’t need mobility. Daryl picks up Io on his sensors and warns Fisher and Shawn, so they open fire. Io dodges their attacks and returns fire with missiles. He then fires his cannon to destroy Shawn’s Big Gun. Fisher searches for the Gundam and takes some damage, but Daryl fires at Io before he can make the killing blow. A lightning bolt strikes near Io, which deflects the shot from Daryl’s Big Gun.
Io leaves Fisher behind and uses Shawn’s Zaku II as a shield to approach Daryl. Io vows that his jazz will be the last thing that Daryl hears and fires missiles at Shawn’s suit, creating a distraction so that he can attack Daryl from behind. Io pins Daryl to colony debris and tries to stab the cockpit, but Daryl uses his hand to partially deflect the beam saber. He then sets off a blinder cracker, which forces Io to fall back. On the Beehive, Claudia directs the fleet’s attack as the Zeon forces pull back. Graham is pleased that they sunk two Musais, but Claudia isn’t happy about it and leaves the bridge in tears. Daryl has a dream of being a child at Christmas and getting a vintage radio from his father. He then wakes up on the Dried Fish and is shocked to see that his left hand is gone. Burroughs receives a grim status report on their remaining forces, so Sexton requests that he allow the Reuse P Device to be used in combat once the last piece is in place. Sexton tries to convince Karla that they should use it for their own survival, and she notes that the device requires the pilot to have all four limbs connected. Sexton mentions that Daryl recently lost his left hand, so all they have to do is amputate his right one, but Karla doesn’t want to use him like a lab animal. Sexton tells Karla that if she doesn’t contribute to the war, bad things will happen to her father, who is imprisoned for treason. Karla gives in, and Burroughs delivers the news to Daryl before the operation begins. At the same time, the Psycho Zaku’s armor and thrusters are attached to prepare for launch. After the operation, Daryl is hooked into the Psycho Zaku and launches at high speed. He believes he now has the power to take down the Gundam.
To support an all-out assault in the Thunderbolt Sector, the Beehive is assigned four Guncannons, 20 GM Cannons and 12 Balls. Graham notes Claudia’s absence on the bridge and comments that the little princess can’t handle it. In her darkened cabin, Claudia injects herself with drugs. Io is shocked to see that all the pilots are practically children, and the young pilots salute when they see the Gundam. Cornelius tells Io to take good care of the pilots because they’ll be under his care. Io barges into Claudia’s cabin and angrily slaps her when he sees her drugs. She cries and says she understands what Io’s father felt for being responsible for the deaths of Moore’s citizens. She screams that she’s going to send children to their deaths as cannon fodder and tells Io to be in her shows for once. On the Dried Fish, several soldiers drink to celebrate Daryl’s promotion. The mood becomes sullen over Daryl’s amputated hands, but he tells everyone he was honored to be chosen. Cornelius visits Claudia and looks at her pictures, which reminds him of the old Colony Air Race they won with Io flying a P-51 Mustang. Cornelius tells her that drugs won’t bring back those old days, and he comments that Io doesn’t actually enjoy fighting, but he only feels alive when his life is on the line. Io addresses the young pilots at a mission briefing and explains that he won’t be fighting with them because his mission is to take down the enemy fleet and their ace sniper. He comments that they live in a twisted world where people are honored based on how many others they can kill. He then declares that he loves mobile suits because they make him stronger. The bridge crew are surprised to see Claudia report for duty. Io wraps up by telling the pilots that he’ll drink with them if they survive. He then launches in the Gundam after the pilots deploy. As Karla plugs Daryl into the Psycho Zaku’s cockpit, she explains that her father is a historian and is currently being imprisoned for desertion, unless she helps the war effort with her research. Daryl thinks they should hope for a better future and says the enemy isn’t the other side, but rather the irrational world they live in. Karla gives him her scrunchie, and Burroughs reminds him that their fate depends on his results in battle. Karla salutes as the Psycho Zaku launches.
A Zaku II destroys a GM Cannon, causing the young pilots to panic and blindly open fire, with some being hit by friendly fire. Several more units are taken down before the pilots regroup and destroy the Zaku. However, their victory is brief due to an attack from Fisher’s Rick Dom. Daryl hooks up Layton’s Gattle to the Big Gun and leaves him in charge of sniping a Federation ship. Sexton tries to convince Karla to escape with him and their research, but she insists on staying and takes position in a gun emplacement. Karla opens fire when the Gundam shows up, and Io destroys the neighboring gun emplacement. Layton fires a shot that cuts through the Beehive, but the returning fire kills him. Daryl begins his attack and damages the Beehive‘s bridge before destroying several Salamises. Io destroys two Musais and then turns his attention to the Dried Fish, destroying its bridge. Sexton pretends to help an injured man and instead gets into an escape pod by himself. Io destroys some of the launching escape pods. Claudia pulls Graham out from some wreckage and tells him that she’s issued an evacuation order. Enraged at the failure of elites like Claudia, Graham grabs a gun and shoots her through her normal suit. The bridge is then exposed to space, with both of them sucked into it. Cornelius and some of the crew escape in Space Launches just before the ship explodes. Elsewhere, the pilots attacking the Dried Fish spot the explosion of the Beehive in the distance. Io declares that the battle isn’t over yet because he hasn’t seen Daryl around. He then cuts up colony wreckage with his beam saber and attacks the incoming Daryl.
Several Chibe ships launch Gelgoogs as reinforcements for the Living Dead Division. Inside colony wreckage, the Gundam chases the Psycho Zaku and dodges its machine gun fire. Daryl switches to a bazooka, but Io dodges and fires missiles and his beam weapons. Daryl is amazed that he has more control over the suit than his own limbs. The surviving crew aboard the Space Launches decide to raid the Dried Fish since there isn’t enough oxygen for all of them on the lifeboats. The thought of having to fight makes Cornelius realize why Io listens to music in the battlefield. The crew deploy inside the ship and begin searching for Zeon soldiers. Io continues to dodge Daryl’s attacks, so Daryl hides and fires a bazooka round, causing Io to miscalculate and crash into a building. Another bazooka round damages the Gundam’s head and one of its main cameras. Cornelius is ordered to take several men to the engine room to seize control and repair the engines. Io hides among colony debris and ejects his large backpack. The Moore crew pull their guns on the Zeon crew, who are gathered in one room and listening to music. In the engine room, Karla and several other crew prepare to blow up the ship. Io manages to damage one of the Psycho Zaku’s arms, but his shield takes damage as well. Cornelius interrupts Karla’s group and pleads with them to stop. He asks how much longer everyone has to hate and kill each other. The Zeon say this is revenge for their loses, but Cornelius counters that he’s also experienced loss because his home colony was in this area. One of the men behind Cornelius uses a targeting scope, and as Karla steps away, a GM Cannon rams its beam saber through the hull, killing the rest of her group. Karla is sucked into space and grabbed by the GM Cannon, but she cries in shock over what happened. Io purges the rest of his armor, leaving him with only a shield and a beam saber. The Zeon soldiers trade weapons fire with the Moore crew, and one of the Zeon blows himself up to take out enemies.
Daryl imagines that he’s able-bodied and running on the beach to see Karla and kiss her. Io rushes in to stab Daryl’s suit, which is inactive and laying atop a destroyed building in colony ruins. However, lightning strikes the colony, and the energy courses through the Psycho Zaku, reactivating the suit and waking Daryl up. He’s able to fire a sturm faust at the last second, which beheads the Gundam and continues on before hitting part of the colony. Daryl cries and says that meeting Karla was his miracle. As the two suits drift through space, Io and Daryl exit their cockpits, and Io can’t believe he lost to a cripple. Several Gelgoogs arrive and capture the Gundam, while the Psycho Zaku is set to self-destruct to protect its technology. The heavily damaged Dried Fish explodes. Daryl is reunited with Karla on another Zeon ship, but she’s catatonic. With the rest of the Moore Brotherhood crew captured, Cornelius tells Io that Claudia probably didn’t make it. Daryl thanks Fisher for calling reinforcements and regrets the loss of the Psycho Zaku. Fisher notes that the Reuse P Device works and could be mass produced, thus preventing more suffering Daryl’s fate. Daryl thinks the system could turn even the most mediocre pilots into super soldiers – if they get amputated like him. Daryl visits the brig as two soldiers finish torturing Io. Daryl confronts Io, who asks how he could control a suit with his butchered body. Daryl says that he thought killing Io and destroying the Gundam would free him from this nightmare, and Io accuses him of playing the victim. Io notes that Daryl gave up his body to gain the power to defeat the Gundam, and he adds that people simultaneously loathe and crave war. He believes that the two of them are destined to fight each other, and he laughs because the war isn’t over yet. The Zeon ships approach the space fortress A Baoa Qu. As the fighting begins, the Chibe carrying Karla crashes, but Daryl uses a Gelgoog to evacuate her medical pod. He then fights a GM and has difficulty controlling it with his prosthetic hand, but he’s saved by another Gelgoog pilot and Fisher’s Rick Dom. Elsewhere, a still naked Io breaks free and kills multiple guards to rescue Cornelius and the others. Later, Federation soldiers investigate the interior of A Baoa Qu and are surprised to find three more Zeong units under construction.
December Sky is the movie compilation of Gundam Thunderbolt, but it doesn’t bring that much new to the table. Because of the short running time for each installment, all four are combined here with nothing removed. The final confrontation between Io and Daryl has been extended a bit, with both their suits fighting inside what looks like a large shopping center in the ruined colony. I was bothered by the abrupt and inconclusive ending to episode 4, which is remedied only slightly here. There’s about an extra minute of animation showing some battle scenes at A Baoa Qu, but it’s a mixed bag. The new footage lacks and spoken dialogue and has stills mixed in, all set to some really grating music. Cowboy Bebop jazz this isn’t. The new footage completely glosses over the particulars of Io’s escape and rescue of his comrades, but to be fair, the manga did the same. Given that there’s so little new here I can’t see any conceivable reason why this ending is exclusive to this version, except as a reason to force people to buy this release. I don’t know if Sunrise intends to continue Thunderbolt into the post-One Year War era, but nothing about December Sky helps set that up, so perhaps they intend to leave it as solely a OYW side story. December Sky is nothing special in the end, but the marginally improved ending makes it the preferred viewing choice over the original version.