Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 76: The Robotech Episode

Episode 76 Website CoverIn the mid-1980s, one of the seminal anime series to ever cross over to American television was watched by children across the country. Combining mecha with a love story and an intergalactic war, Robotech was a sweeping saga that makes it one of the most memorable series of the decade. For this episode, I sit down with Donovan Morgan Grant (The Batman Universe, The Next Dimension, Questions No Answers) to talk about The Macross Saga, and then I come back and take a brief look at the Masters and New Generation sagas.

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Here’s some bonus stuff for you to check out.

First, my 2010 blog post about the Jack McKinney novels, “Mecha, Minmei, and a Decade-Long Fight for the Future.”

The original (1980s) intro to the cartoon, featuring images from all three series:

The Toonami intro (h/t to Donovan for sending me the link):

The current intro to The Macross Saga (as seen on Netflix):

The current intro to the New Generation (as seen on Netflix):

Fleet of DOOM!

Clearly, the Voltron cartoon series and the associated toys are a benchmark in my childhood, the first time that I ever felt I’d “discovered” something really cool, something that I hadn’t been told to like by commercials.  And as evidenced by the lengths I went to get the lion Voltron and the fact that I was one of a few people so fully vested in the cartoon that I also had the vehicle Voltron, I was one of those kids who watched the show religiously, even when both cartoons had cycled completely through and WPIX began re-airing the original lion stories.

But as Voltron fans, my second-grade friends and I were not fully satisfied by what we were seeing on television.  After a slew of lion stories , what seemed like an interminable amount of vehicle stories, and endless debates on which Voltron could win in a fight, we wanted a crossover.  I mean, He-Man and She-Ra could do it (and later on in the 1980s, G.I. Joe and The Transformers would do it) so why not the lion and vehicle Voltrons?

In 1986, we got our wish with an extra-long episode entitled Fleet of Doom, although I don’t know if most of my friends knew it.  I first learned about the crossover episode when my dad took me to Video Empire one day and my sister and I spent a few minutes combing through the children’s section looking for something other than the same five Disney cartoon tapes we’d rented since the day the store opened in 1984.  There, two shelves above my head, were two or three Voltron video boxes.  I jumped up and got them down, then studied the synopsis on the back of each (I have loved reading the back of videocassette/DVD boxes since I first stepped into a video store).  Two of them were shows I had already seen—the original five-parter and some of the episodes hat immediately followed—but the third was called “Fleet of Doom” and was about a team-up between both the lion and the vehicle Voltron.

I was sold.  I went home, watched it, and apparently remembered very little about it because when I watched it last week (thank you, Netflix) it really felt like I had never seen it before.  I mean, even with American Ninja, which I hadn’t seen in 25 years either, I at least had some flashbacks to when I originally watched it.  Fleet of Doom?  Nothing.  No memory of what it was about; honestly, I can see why.


Cars and Trucks and Things That Go!

The vehicle Voltron, an also-ran in 1980s anime-based giant robots.

When the casual observer hears the word “Voltron,” he definitely thinks of the famous robot that was formed from five lions; however, those of us who watched the show religiously every afternoon know that “Voltron” can be either one of two robots: the famous lion robot and one made of many vehicles (and the truly hardcore know there was a third Voltron, but I’ll get to that later).

The vehicle Voltron snuck up on the country as quickly as the lion Voltron did.  One day, we were sitting down to watch the mighty Voltron fight King Zarkon and Prince Lotor and the next, there were a bunch of people we’d never seen and a completely different robot.  This one had fifteen characters to follow, all of whom made up a Voltron force that fought against the Drule empire.  It was kind of like a mash-up between Voltron and Robotech, and it would have made sense if it seemed like it had anything to do with the other series (like Robotech did — each series took place after the other), but there didn’t seem to be much of a connection except that both robots were named Voltron and the people who piloted the vehicles were cheap knock-offs of characters on the other show.

So the introduction of the vehicle Voltron after the lion Voltron never really actually ended seemed abrupt, like they were interrupting everything to push something else on me, or trying to Coy and Vance me.  I think that’s one of the reasons this one never caught on; the other was that with fifteen characters behind fifteen parts of Voltron, it was really hard to remember who was who.  Sure, there was a land, sea, and air team that altogether formed the mighty robot, but whereas I could recite the entire lion transformation scene and knew exactly who I wanted to be when we “played Voltron” on the playground, telling my friends that I wanted to be “Cliff” from the land team seemed really awkward.


Go Lionbot Force! Wait … that doesn’t sound right.

The Matchbox-produced lion Voltron. According to the package, he's the "king of the space jungle."

In your childhood, I guess there are phenomena and there are milestones where toys are concerned.  And then there are flash in the pans, those toys that are insanely popular for most of a school year but get shoved to the back of a toy closet by the summer.  My first experience with a flash in the pan was Voltron.

 In a couple of weeks, I’ll talk about the cartoon series that spawned this particular toy, but it’s worth mentioning that I only know what voltron was because an early episode was on at my neighbor’s house one afternoon when I was in the second grade.  I didn’t know what the cartoon was, just that five robot lions that formed a much larger robot were pretty kickass.

 Soon after watching those first few episodes of the lion Voltron (the vehicle Voltron came later), my schoolmates and I were compoetely hooked.  We played Voltron just about every day and very often I was Keith or Lance and on at least a couple of occasions, my friend Lori wore her hair like Princess Allura.

Still, the tie-in toys alluded us, which was weird considering that every single cartoon we watched in those days was essentially a 30-minute toy commercial.  Even some of the movies—Star Wars, for instance—had a toy line.  But nobody, when those first few shows aired, owned a Voltron.  That’s probably because we never saw television commercials for Voltron toys.

In fact, I would not come across any toy related to Voltron for the better part of six months, when I would be at a local stationary store, Sayville Card and Gift (which may have been known as Unique Cards and Gifts at the time), browsing through the toys while my dad was two doors down buying Chinese food, and spotted something called “Lionbot.” 

But what was inside the “Lionbot” case was a die-cast metal Voltron lion.


Mecha, Minmei, and a decade-long fight for the future

While I have extensive experience with superhero comic books, my experience with manga is relatively small.  I know that my local Barnes & Noble has a significant amount of shelf space devoted to manga, and that quite a number of my students are often seen walking around with Tokyopop trade paperbacks.  I once flirted with anime a little bit, but going so far as to dive head-first into that particular world of fandom was never something I even attempted.

That being said, I am sure that I’m not alone in my generation by mentioning that as a kid I had exposure to Japanese comics and cartoons through Voltron and Robotech.  I suppose I’ll get around to talking about Voltron some other time, but Robotech seemed to have far greater reach, at least in terms of manga/anime as a whole.  Of course, I think that “true” fans of the genre and the work refer to it (or at least part of it) as Macross, but considering I have spent my life being nothing but mainstream, I’ll just go with Robotech.

My first exposure to Robotech was when  the animated series ran on WPIX 11 every afternoon when I was in elementary school.  It was an enormous show that had more episodes and storylines than I could count, but to be quite honest I wasn’t interested in the plots or character development when I was eight years old.  I just thought it was awesome because the character flew around in planes that transformed into robots that looked exactly like the Autobot named Jetfire (or was it Skyfire?  There was an enormous debate between my friend Evan and myself about this when I was a kid.  Evan, at one point, even claimed that there were two separate toys and he had the other one … but never produced it).  There was a comic book series put out by Comico that retold the television series verbatim (it even had a little “As seen on TV!” box in the middle), which you can probably pick up in a dollar bin somewhere; and a toy line put out by Matchbox which was compatible with G.I. Joe (I had the motorcycle).

However, Robotech was for the most part forgotten after it went off TV and toys were relegated to that “aisle of random and forgotten toys” in Toys R Us.  None of my friends ever really got that into it and so I was kind of alone in my love of the mecha series and gave it up to concentrate on the Joes, movies like Aliens, and baseball. 

Then, when I was in the ninth or tenth grade, a new store called Bassett Book Club opened up next to K-Mart on Sunrise Highway.  The place was huge, several times bigger than the B.Dalton and Waldenbooks I used to frequent at the mall, and the first time my mom took me there, I went straight for the science fiction section to check out their selection of graphic novels and Star Trek books.  After marveling at the fact that the store had the novelization of just about every movie as well as books that I’d only seen listed in my Star Trek Fan Club magazine, the spine of several books with “Robotech” written on the side caught my eye.