Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 1 Review

 

Voltron

For some reason, no one could nail a solid reboot of the original Voltron: Defender of the Universe.

There were attempts before, and my understanding is that they’ve been lackluster. Strange, because the original show adhered to a relatively simple premise; a group of space explorers for the Galaxy Alliance are captured by the Drule Empire and taken to Planet Doom. After escaping, they make their way to Planet Arus where Princess Allura helps them discover five legendary robotic lions. These assemble into Voltron, who defends the planet from King Zarkon.

The American version of the original series stuck to a formulaic approach. After the movie-long introduction of Voltron and the team, each episode resulted in the appearance of a huge robeast (robotic beast) who would then perish to Voltron’s sword. Occasionally the team would face a real problem, such as one of the team being injured or some espionage that prevented forming the eponymous hero. Other times actual changes to the plot would drive events, such as the introduction of Prince Lotor, or the transformation of Commander Yurak into a robeast followed shortly thereafter by his legitimate death.

But the original Voltron did have a huge impact on other media and pop culture in general. Gestalt combinations of robots were integrated into the Transformers series, and there’s no doubt where the concept of Power Rangers came from. And to this day, the phrase “And I’ll form the head!” can still invoke laughter from those in the know.

All of this is why Netflix and DreamWorks Animation’s new series, Voltron: Legendary Defender, shocked and awed by possessing a forward-thinking story, subplots, great character development and solutions that don’t always revolve around slashing kaiju in half. And as if it being green-lit for season 2 wasn’t awesome enough, we’ll be getting it January of next year.

This review will avoid spoilers, but the same cannot be said of the links. Click with caution.

Voltron TeamThe show opens with the abduction of Shiro (a re-envisioned Sven) and his research team during first contact with the alien Galra Empire. A year later, Galaxy Garrison space cadets (in both rank and metaphor) Hunk, Pidge and Lance prove themselves a crew in need of cohesion.

But just as Pidge lets on that he knows more about the events of the universe than they’re being told, the trio go to investigate an incoming distress call. The emergency proves to be an escaped Shiro, who the Garrison is about to take into custody and quarantine. With the help of academy wash-out Keith, the five escape the garrison forces. And by combining their knowledge, they are eventually led to the hiding place of the blue lion who auto-pilots them to Planet Altea. There, a desperate Princess Allura and Coran instruct them in reassembling Voltron.

If this synopsis of the first episode sounds a little rushed, that’s because it is. The first is also the longest of the series; almost 70-minutes compared to the ten 23-minute episodes that follow. The pacing relies on the viewers wanting to cut to the meat of series rather than worry about minor details, like how Princess Allura happens to speak the same language as the earthling team. Or the Galrans too for that.

GalraBut it’s the following episodes when the show really begins to shine. Unlike the original series, the Voltron force doesn’t stick around to play some ridiculously prolonged defensive campaign. The Castle of Lions is actually a modified spaceship that is grounded, and the team embarks on a guerrilla campaign to free the galaxy from Galran control.

And this is no small task. In the opening episode(s), it is revealed that the Galran Empire is a huge sum of galactic space but has yet to come into regular contact with humanity. The showrunners actually treat the empire realistically too, with infrastructural concerns like refueling stations for their fleets, production and mining facilities— economic considerations light years ahead of what Defenders of the Universe ever pondered. The ten episodes barely scratched the surface and yet they’re off to a bang-up start.

But more than the “evil empire” trope, all of this is unexplored territory for a bunch of earthlings who have never been outside human-controlled space before. Although how they overcame language barriers isn’t explained, there is plenty of culture clash. Hunk learns what the Alteans consider food the hard way , Pidge questions their concept of time and there are many alien races out there to meet. And if culture is the “little stuff,” then there are bigger discoveries out there such as the colossal Balmera, which not only add to the depth of the universe but also serve as interesting story elements themselves.

HunkGoofiness seems to be the most defining characteristic of much of the cast. Compared to his Defender of the Universe bonhomme counterpart, Coran is almost over-the-top with ridiculousness. This is strange when mixed with his otherwise traditionalist views and position as the show’s lore-keeper. The rest of the team is prone to rib-poking too, particularly at the expensive of good-natured Hunk. There’s a few times when the humor risks being ill-placed, especially in the first episode. But the series tempers itself to know when to crack a smile and when to hold off.

But unlike the original series, showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery proved willing to build on both the heroes and villains, and found subtle ways to indicate a willingness to lose them as well. For the pilots, the two biggest changes have been Pidge and Shiro. The latter was given a great backstory with forward-moving motivation, while the former slowly unravels the mysteries of what happened to him during his abduction. Lance and Keith primarily provide rivalry and personalities this season, while Hunk becomes more personally involved in one mission the team undertakes. Even Voltron itself gets more of a backstory.

Then there are the villains. Except for more litheness than the past, Space Witch Haggar is relatively untouched in role and menace. Her services to Emperor (a welcome promotion from “King”) Zarkon are the same; advising and creating new technologies and robeasts. For fear of spoilers, the changes to Zarkon himself will not be addressed. Still, these alterations exemplify the ethos of the show to rarely come out and say something. Rather, Voltron: Legendary Defender prefers to show the audience the pieces and allow the mystery to reveal itself on its own time in a rather organic manner.

But it’s Princess Allura who received the most revisions. The prior series cast her initially as something of a damsel-in-distress who eventually steps up to the plate to become a lion pilot. This time, she and Coran are in charge of the ship, and she takes a commander’s role to Shiro’s captaincy. She also reveals that Alteans are not space humans and, perhaps in the biggest piece of foreshadowing, suffers a personal loss halfway through the series.

Voltron GangThis loss was of a cornerstone element of Defender of the Universe. While not really a “death,” this event may subtly indicate that DreamWorks is willingly to write permanent changes to the course of the plot. As Sven (Shiro) was killed early in the original Japanese series, it is not impossible that other deaths may follow. Time will tell how much everyone’s favorite robot show has matured.

Whether you’re a fan of 80’s nostalgia, good anime or just something family friendly, check out Voltron: Legendary Defender before the start of the second season.

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Cultural Sabbatical for June

It’s been a while. Writing projects have kept me and the team remarkably busy. I’m happy to announce that we’ve finished the first round of edits for our novella series. More on this later, perhaps even as soon as next week. But for now, a little of what I’ve found time to enjoy.

TMitHKBooks

As the fictional adventures continue, I have a tendency to rarely return to the same author within a year. This happens for many reasons; to prevent burnout, to keep my head filled with new ideas, and to rotate the geek-with-the-chic. Sometimes you get books that can blend those two things together, but this doesn’t usually happen until the novel transitions to the the screen, big or small.

But on that point, the “no author more than once a year” guideline was violated twice this year by Philip K. Dick, with The Man in the High Castle and my current read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which is rapidly disappearing in my hand. The story is a blitz that is hard to put down, interesting in its own right though vastly different from its film adaption, Blade Runner.

PKD was, and pretty much still is, the “idea man” that made science fiction what it is today. While many such authors tend to focus on the more academic sciences, the beauty in Dick’s concepts are their psychological inspirations. His themes ooze and seep, capable of invading any genre no matter how timeless. It wasn’t so much about androids, but what androids tell us about us. It wasn’t the facts and dates of Nazi occupation of America, but rather how we live in such times, how we felt and why we do. PKD used his head to tell it from the heart.

On the subject of fast reads, I’m also rather impressed with the vanishing act performed with The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which I finished over last weekend. The book was the perfect mix of fantasy and fairy tale, tying its carefully woven mix of behind-the-scenes theological suggestions with the philosophies of its characters. It spoke with such depth that one’s life felt changed after reading.

American GodsThe final achievement on the literature front was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods which I purchased before even knowing about the upcoming television series. The novel was my first book by Gaiman (outside of the movie Coraline and the graphic novel The Dream Hunters with Yoshitaka Amano), and I truly appreciated the effort he put into researching and cultivating the world’s mythologies and not just the most common, such as Greek and Norse. The overall story is fairly satisfying on its own, although there is a sense that there should have been more to the story at times.

Perhaps that’s something that Starz will soon rectify.

While a part of me is looking forward to the book’s television rendition (considering it stars Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle), there’s reason to be cautious. Especially since HBO attempted the script with three writers and just couldn’t get it down, eventually giving up. Still, although HBO generally employs good writers, the somewhat prematurely finished show The Leftovers would suggest that the channels struggles to engage its audiences in matters of theological consideration. Well, since we’re on that topic…

Television

On the live action front… I have a horrible confession to make ladies and gentlemen. I have never seen Orange is The New Black

“What?!” Some readers might be screaming. “The show is amazing! How could you not see it?”

For me, Orange is The New Black is kind of suffering from a form of TV debt. Simply put, right now there is actually too much great television these days. HBO and Showtime used to have the corner to themselves, then AMC came along and proved that ordinary cable can deliver, followed swiftly by the lineups at Netflix. Now, it seems every channel has at least one hit show of some kind. USA has Mr. Robot (of which I’ve seen season one). PBS has Downton Abbey (currently I’m on the third season). The History Channel has Vikings (unseen but on the to-watch list).

With so much television out right now, it’s difficult to really catch up on golden oldies and prior seasons of current hits. OITNB is just one of those shows I put on the back burner to spend time on other projects. I may pick it up.

PrintHowever, disappointment abounds that the third season of Penny Dreadful is the final of the series. I didn’t see this coming at all, but my understanding is that this was premeditated long ago.  I’ve yet to begin watching it, although anyone who is familiar with my blog knows how much I’ve gushed over seasons one and two.

I intend to start Penny Dreadful shortly, but have been catching Game of Thrones first whenever possible. It’s not that I value the latter series any higher but simply because thoughtless fools on social media continue to ruin it, spoiling events if I don’t rush to see it. This has happened twice this year alone due primarily to memes. I am truly looking forward to the finale however, considering how awesome the last (ninth) episode turned out.

A couple of years ago, the last thing I expected was to be pulled back into anime ever again. But here I am, working my way through both the new and old; the third season of the classic Armored Trooper Votoms and Netflix’s latest, Voltron: Legendary Defender, of which I’ve seen the 69-minute initial episode (I will be watching the remaining, 23-minute episodes later). The short lengths of both series’ episodes, and the fact that they’re all immediately available, is a factor in my watching them.

I can’t really explain what it is that keeps me hooked on Votoms. At first glance, one would think it’s a show about mecha– large, combative robots often in a war-drama that justifies their usage. Mecha shows are often characterized by the “tech creep” of an arms race through improvements or new models, and a “boxing title bout” mentality between pilots. But Votoms bucks these trends hard.

After the signing of a cease-fire, war veteran Chirico Cuvie is tricked into a mission against his own side. Unable to trust anyone and now a fugitive, Chirico makes reluctant friends with a group of smugglers and lovable low-lives while trying to stay under the radar of a corrupt police force. But Chirico’s quest for survival transformers into a hunt for the truth, which threatens to reignite the fighting all over again.

AT VotomsGritty is the best way to describe the series. Jaded Chirico Cuvie barely forms attachments to anyone or anything, as he burns through ATs (Armored Troopers) like popcorn. They’re merely tools, to be used and discarded when no longer useful. They don’t upgrade as much as they adapt; swapping out weapons and parts to adjust for battles in space or underwater. Repairs and replacements are fairly grunt work and commonplace.

Voltron is the exact opposite in every way. While Votoms is gritty, cynical and hard science fiction, Netflix’s new series is more mythical, hopeful and exponentially more humorous. The disposable nature of the ATs gives way for the unique and important lions. The always-on-the-run survival exchanged for a defensive campaign. And yes, Votoms is for adults while Voltron makes itself appropriate for the whole family.

Cheekiness is Voltron’s best element, with plucky characters who can’t stop poking each other in the ribs. But peppered between the jibes comes a moderate amount of personal drama to punch up the plot lines; Pidge seeks his missing family while Shiro (a rechristened Sven from the original series) can’t remember his life while he was a prisoner of the Galran Empire. Elements like these are ideal for preventing the gladiator match episodes that the first series became known for.

But two weaknesses dog the new series. First, the humor can sometimes be ill-placed and over the top. And second, the pacing was fairly rapid in the rush to establish the universe, such as how everyone shares the same language or why the main characters could be trusted with a considerable amount of power.

Here’s hoping the Game of Thrones finale is one to remember this Sunday.