Voltron: Defender of the Universe: Lion Force Voltron Edition (1984).
I fully admit that I don’t totally understand all of the differences between original, Japanese VOLTRON (in any of its forms) and Americanized VOLTRON. I don’t say that because I don’t have any interest in the original version, but that just reading the Never Wrong entry for VOLTRON gives me a headache. VOLTRON is apparently cobbled together from two different anime: “The original series was created by Peter Keefe in 1983 using material he had licensed from the Japanese cartoons Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. The producers had no means of translating the Japanese series into English, so they surmised the plots and created all-new dialog, editing out the more violent scenes and remixing the audio into a stereo format.”
First, that sounds like a good time. Who wouldn’t love to buy a property they didn’t understand and then, instead of hiring a translator, just make stuff up? I don’t know who Peter Keefe is, but he sounds completely awesome. He’s some incredible combination of a five year old playing with action figures in his backyard and Dr. Dre, writing stories and blending samples. For the purposes of this post, however, I’m just dealing with the Americanized VOLTRON. Why? Because I grew up with Americanized VOLTRON and I’ve just watched Americanized VOLTRON and that’s what I’m going to talk about. If Netflix had Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV, I’d give them a whirl, but right now they don’t.
And when I say I grew up with the Americanized VOLTRON, let me be clear – I wasn’t a huge fan of the show. Childhood memories tend to intersect and merge, but I was primarily a four cartoon kid: Starblazers in the morning before school, G.I. Joe and Transformers after school, and Scooby-Doo on weekends. There were other cartoons I liked, of course: Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Speed Buggy, Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch, Hong Kong Phoeey, Herculoids, Mighty Heroes, Thundarr the Barbiaran, some anime with a big robot dragon (Force Five?) … I’d throw VOLTRON into this mix. I didn’t like it as much as I liked Battle of the Planets but I liked it more than Jabberjaw.
I mean, if nothing else, VOLTRON had robot lions.
While technically all of the “Lion Force” VOLTRON episodes are “Season 1,” they’ve been split up into multiple volumes to better allow you to fork over your money. That’s cool, and that’s how I’ll be looking at them.
VOLUME 1 (Episodes 1-15)
Volume 1 covers both the best and worst aspects of VOLTRON. On the positive side, VOLTRON does display a decent amount of long-form storytelling. While nearly every episode does fall into the “bad guys attack, good guys respond, bad guys can’t be stopped without good guys forming Voltron,” I really feel like I’m watching a story unfold here. Part of this is due to the way VOLTRON begins – we barely even see the robots or the lions at first, as the show takes a few episodes to establish the back story, the characters, and the conflict.
As the series opens, Voltron is in cold storage. The evil witch Haggar forced Voltron apart in some previous battle and no one has reactivated the lions or the robot. Enter the Space Explorers: Keith, Lance, Sven, Pidge, and Hunk. Keith is the leader, Lance is the wise guy, Sven is soon to get “injured” (he dies in the original version), Pidge is the small one, and Hunk is the tubby one. They convince the locals (including Princess Allura and her royal advisor, Coran) to relaunch Voltron and so they all go off looking for robot lions to pilot.
However this series was cobbled together, I really do appreciate the storytelling at play here. It would be easy enough to start with the Voltron Force already in action, but the show doesn’t do this. Each of these characters develop distinct personalities and while the show sacrifices a bit of this long-form storytelling in terms of characterization when they do get Voltron up and running, the story as a whole almost always feels like it’s building towards something.
That bring the bad part of the series to mind – it’s a kid’s cartoon. Whatever it was originally, the Americanized VOLTRON is assuredly done for kids. The characters tend to be little more than their immediately recognizable personalities and story points are repeated endlessly. Poor Princess Allura suffers the most from this formulation, as she gets pigeonholed a bit as a weepy girl trying to be a woman.
I think they play the theme music 14 times an episode. The opening titles give the show’s back story, which isn’t a bad thing, except it’s too long and more detailed than we need. We get the whole history instead of just being told the essentials and we get it every single episode.
For the kids.
At least it’s Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) doing the narration: “From days of long ago, from uncharted regions of the universe, comes a legend. The legend of Voltron: Defender of the Universe. A mighty robot, loved by good, feared by evil. As Voltron’s legend grew, peace settled across the galaxy. On Planet Earth, a Galaxy Alliance was formed. Together with the good planets of the Solar System, they maintained peace throughout the universe until a new horrible menace threatened the galaxy. Voltron was needed once more. This is the story of the super force of space explorers. Specially trained and sent by the alliance to bring back, Voltron: Defender of the Universe.”
We get the Voltron transformation nearly every episode, too, which isn’t unexpected or a bad thing, necessarily, but it does get a little tedious if you’re watching these episodes back-to-back instead of once a week, or even once a day. Every time they go big robot, we have to hear: “Activate interlock! Dynotherms connected! Infracells up! Mega thrusters are go! Let’s go Voltron Force!” Which is immediately followed by: “Form feet and legs! Form arms and body! And, I’ll form the head!”
Not exactly, “Yo, Joe!,” is it?
Through Episodes 1-15, we see the Space Explorers become the Voltron Force. We watch them learn how to become a team. We see the injury to Sven and Allura replacing him.
Allura is the best character in the show. I mentioned earlier that she gets pigeonholed a bit as the weepy girl trying to be a woman, but at least there’s an arc here. She has a real backbone and while the other characters in the show often look at her like she’s some precious object that needs to be protected at all times, she wants to defend her planet and she’s willing to put her life on the line to do that. I love that about her.
The bad guys are led by King Zarkon and live on Planet Doom. His two main allies are Haggar, his witch who has a blue cat, and Lotor, his son. Zarkon is a bit of a loudmouth who’s more than happy to give orders instead of getting his own hands dirty. Haggar is the one who keeps creating giant monsters to battle Voltron. Lotor is the best villain of the piece; he’s the classic cocky prince who wants to be King and he’s obsessed with Allura. If Lotor could write his own script, he’d marry Allura and overthrow his dad.
There are a few frustrating things about these early episodes, some meaningful and some not. The villains really drive the action here, which is fine (except it makes the good guys look like they don’t do anything except wait to become Voltron), but they’re plans tend to be the same: create something to destroy Voltron. There’s no imagination to it. The series gets a bit flat until Lotor enters the picture, and then you start feeling like someone here sees the long view instead of the short one. At the same time, Allura takes a more central role, and even though she still cries too much, she’s a woman of action when most others seem to be characters of reaction.
On the nitpicky side, why does Keith drive the black lion but wear the red uniform? Why does Lance pilot the red lion but wear the blue uniform? Why does Sven pilot the blue lion but wear the black uniform? And why does Allura replace him in the blue lion but wears a pink uniform? And why does Hunk pilot the yellow lion but wear orange? Why does only Pidge get the right lion/uniform color combo? I don’t know. This is a show for kids, right? Keep it simple!
There’s also a few bits here that make you scratch your head. Allura’s father (King Alfor) is dead, but his ghost shows up every once in a while to give advice. Thanks, Dead Daddy! Also, there’s mice. The mice don’t talk, but they’re always around and always willing to help out.
And that’s the end of Volume 1. With each volume I finish, I’ll add that write up to this post, so if you want to hear about later seasons, check back every so often. Until then, here’s the opening theme: