“From days of long ago, from uncharted regions of the universe, comes a legend. The legend of Voltron, Defender of the Universe.”
As a kid growing up in the 1980s I was naturally attached to cartoons. That’s one of the defining characteristics of late Gen-Xers/early millenials (I’ve seen us referred to as a crossover generation, but isn’t everyone really?). For me, those cartoons were GI Joe, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and Voltron. I’m sure I’ll tackle the first two at some point in the future, but Voltron is at the forefront of my mind today because one of my best friends sent me a special birthday gift for my 40th birthday (May 4th): LEGO Voltron. (Thanks Kyle!)
Voltron is a mecha series of the super robot subgenre. The show follows a group of five pilots from the Galaxy Alliance, an organization at war against Zarkon, the King of Planet Doom and ruler of the Drule Empire, who is expanding his territory by capturing and enslaving worlds. The first episode follows the pilots as they’re caught by Zarkon’s forces, but escape into a captured slave ship, which is subsequently disabled and ends up crashlanding on planet Arus. After crashing, one of the pilots, a young man named Keith, tells a tale of Voltron, a legendary giant robot that was beaten by Zarkon’s forces and then cursed by Haggar, a witch working for Zarkon. Keith thinks that Arus may be a resting place for the robots that made up Voltron, a set of five giant lions that could combine their power into the legendary Defender of the Universe.
The rest of the series follows a pretty clear monster of the week story sequence, where Zarkon’s forces, with the help of Haggar and her “robeasts,” attack Arus, attempting to capture the world for the Drule and to defeat Voltron once and for all. There are subplots where Zarkon is betrayed by his greedy son, Lotor, where one of the pilots is seriously injured and replaced by a princess of Arus, and an overarching structure whereby the Galaxy Alliance begins launching counterattacks to beat back the Drule Empire, but the basic flow of each episode is pretty similar, as is the case with most procedural tv shows. The challenge comes to Arus, the pilots get into their lions and fight, the lions start to win, a robeast grows and begins to beat the lions, and the lions form Voltron, who beats the robeast, sending Zarkon and Haggar back to the drawing board.
The original series was not in fact created in the format Americans first saw it, something I didn’t know until I was in college and someone told me about Beast King GoLion, the original Japanese animated show. In retrospect as an adult it is quite obvious, as there are animation “errors” and plot holes that arose from restructuring the series. But I went back and watched all of Beast King GoLion a few years back and it’s not as though it’s clearly superior or Voltron is obviously a lesser product. In fact, based on finances, Voltron is by far the more popular property.
After the moderate success of the Lion Force, a subsequent series pulled together from a different Japanese show, Armored Fleet DaiRugger XV, became the Vehicle Force version of Voltron, and was focused on Earth rather than Arus. It was not as successful nor as memorable as the Lion Force, and it’s not the Voltron I attached to with any significance, but I do remember having some of the transforming toys to go with my Transformers and GoBots figures. There were apparently plans for a third Voltron series based on yet another Japanese anime, but those were scrapped after Vehicle Force’s perceived failure.
The pulp appeal of the Voltron series is absolutely in its action-forward sensibilities where warring empires fight each other over territory, rights, and responsibilities. The heroes and villains move forward based on their own aspirations and foibles, and the show is rarely left to the navel-gazers, layabouts, and self-pitying ne’er-do-wells. The main cast drives the plot, ideological differences aren’t mere policy disagreements, and identity-defining conflicts result in the sorts of systemic changes that are necessary to impose individual wills on society. It helps that there are giant transforming robots, space battles, alien empires, sorcery, laser blasters, and giant frickin’ broadswords.
The rap genre of music is not where my heart lies (although there are some exceptions), but the nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot (who I first heard mention of by the creators of the Penny-Arcade comic strip) made a loving parody song poking fun at Voltron and some of the infighting that would likely result from deciding who is the boss. I’ll probably be listening to this on repeat when I get to the point where I’m assembling LEGO Voltron’s head in a few weeks.
I’m not caught up on Netflix’s reboot series, but I did watch the first season. Since the series has come to an end as of December 2018 with its eighth season, hopefully this summer I can catch up on it. The animation is stronger than the original series and less built upon reusing cels the way all older animated shows were, and the basic story beats seem more coherent, which is no doubt a product of the story preceding the art instead of the inverse, as was the case for older American translations. I’ve read about some kerfluffle over gender and sexuality portrayals in the modern version, with criticism aimed at Joaquim Dos Santos, one of the main showrunners and veteran of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra (which also had a todo about its own portrayals of gender and sexuality), but I’ll make my own judgment when I get to those scenes. In any case, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen and want to go back and finish it, especially as Avatar and Korra rank among my favorite animated series of all time.
 Super Robots don’t make any attempt to explain their physics. They often seem to incorporate magic, as Voltron does. The other major subgenre is Real Robots, where the robots pay at least lip service to laws of reality. This subgenre owes a lot of credit to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, especially the foundational anime series Armored Trooper VOTOMS.
 Coincidence? I think not!
 In fact, Avatar has a place among my favorite tv series of all time, alongside shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Babylon 5, The Wire, and Oz.