'And I'll Form ... The Head!': 'Voltron' Reboot Gets (Almost) Everything Right
"Nostalgia," a wise man once wrote, "is the nutrient agar upon which nerd culture grows."
... Reader, it was me. I wrote that. And truthfully, looking at it now, it seems less "wise" than "kind of tortured" in that it leans too hard into the biological definition of "culture" for the sake of a feeble demi-pun, but never mind. The point is: nerds hold on to the things we loved when we were kids. Tightly.
That's why nerd culture so often seems regressive, even reactionary, to normals: as a species, we tend to prize things as they once were over things as they are. It's not our finest quality, and there are many among us — too many — who allow this preference to decay into a kind of rancorous resolve. These are the people who build hills upon which they're fully prepared to die, or at least get really really mad, out of things like the original Ghostbusters movie.
Most of us, however, are comparatively clear-eyed about the stuff we loved as kids. We understand that our memories are colored by that love, and any new iteration of a beloved thing simply adds to, and does not replace, said thing.
We can recognize, for example, when the passage of time has imbued something we love with a certain cheesy quality. But to us, the cheese makes it all the better, richer, more flavorful.
Which brings me to Voltron, an anime series syndicated in the U.S. from 1984 to 1987 that was the top-rated syndicated show for kids for two of those years. Oh my, but it was odd.
For one thing, it was an anime series on U.S. television when such things were still relatively rare; Speed Racer, Marine Boy and Star Blazers had prepared the way, but Voltron's runaway success established a beachhead subsequently overrun by Dragonball Z and, especially, inescapably, Pokemon.
The Voltron (technically Voltron: Defender of the Universe) seen in the U.S. originated as two different wondrously-named Japanese cartoons, Beast King Go-Lion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. Executive producer Peter Keefe bought the rights to both series, cut the violence back, and constructed new plots, dialogue, character backstories, everything.
For 72 episodes — some of which Keefe created out of whole cloth, having run out of old Go-Lion episodes — Voltron was a show about a giant robot.
That wasn't why we loved it, though. Giant robots were nothing special. Giant robots were a dime a dozen.
But this robot ... was made of lions.
Lion-shaped robot spaceships, that is. Five of them. With tails and fangs and ears and paws, the whole mecha-feline schmear, for no readily discernible reason except the only one that mattered: they looked cool.
And when danger threatened, the guy in the lead lion-shaped robot spaceship intoned a battle cry so gleefully cheesy it raised your risk of heart disease, thus:
Form! Feet! And! Legs!
Form! Arms! And! Torso!
And I'll form ... The HEAD!
And that's exactly what would proceed to happen: those lion-shaped robot spaceships retracted their legs and tails to form themselves into limbs that attached themselves to the lead lion-shaped spaceship, and Voltron the giant robot was born.
A giant robot, mind you, whose feet and hands were the heads of robo-lions. Imagine a knight in armor with a Muppet on each hand, shod in boots that Gene Simmons would reject as "too much." That was the look. And we nerds saw it, and loved it, and love it still. (I haven't even mentioned his Blazing Sword. It was a sword. It blazed. It was awesome.)
After those first 72 robot-lion episodes, the series ran for 52 more, which were stitched together from episodes of Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. The lion-shaped robot spaceships were replaced with ... air, land and sea vehicles.
Yeah, kids, we know you like chocolate cake. But have you ever tried a dry fistful of carob?
We do not speak of Vehicle Voltron.
Last weekend Netflix released 13 episodes of an all-new (ALL-LION!!) Voltron series, Voltron: Legendary Defender. It's not the first attempt to reboot the '80s series (noble attempts were made in 1998 and 2011), and there have been there have been several comics and toys over the years.
But this new series is different. Here's why.
1. The Writers Get It
The new series' showrunners, and its head writer, have worked on several animated series, most importantly two little shows called Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra.
Both of those shows combined strong characterization with clever, often funny dialogue. But they also built deeply thought, and deeply felt, worlds teeming with history and mythology.
That attention to both macro- and micro- detail is evident from the first frame of Voltron: Legendary Defender. This time around, character personalities are larger, more distinct, and — interestingly — tied directly to the action: the robot-shaped spaceships, we are informed, serve as reflections of their pilots. As small tweak, perhaps, but one that opens up all sorts of possibilities.
And if you think the all-male makeup of the five Voltron pilots seems like a hoary holdover from the 1980s, just know that showrunners think so too. I'll leave it at that.
2. The Voice Actors Get It
If the cast featured only New Zealand actor Rhys Darby — Murray on Flight of the Conchords — it'd be reason enough to watch. But he's joined by Tyler Labine of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. And Jeremy Shada (Finn on Adventure Time). And Steven Yeun, who plays Glenn on The Walking Dead. They're expressive, energetic, and dependably land the series' many jokes.
3. There Are Characters Named "Pidge" And "Hunk"
Granted, these character names, and personalities, are simply imported from the original series, so are not really new. Even so, this is a show in which the words "PIDGE!" and/or "HUNK!" could — O.K., will — get shouted a lot.
4. It's Not All Good News
It is with a heavy heart that I report the following: in each episode of the new series, when it at last comes time to form Voltron, the writers have made a bold decision.
A bold, hugely disappointing decision.
As before, the pilot of the lead lion-shaped spaceship intones a catchphrase.
But instead of reeling off the halting litany of mecha-body-parts that has imprinted itself upon the cerebral cortex of legions of Voltron fans, (FORM! ARMS! AND! TORSO!) he instead shouts something far less cheesy, less rich, less flavorful.
He says, "Form Voltron."
That's it. That's all we get. "Form Voltron," he says. "Form Voltron," like he's ordering a sandwich.
Seeing it the first time, I felt the familiar nerd-rage begin to churn behind my sternum. "Form Voltron," indeed.
But I'm one of the reasonable ones, after all. So I managed to talk myself down. I reminded myself that this new series only added to, and did not replace, the classic one.
And when that didn't work, I comforted myself by watching these dudes build a real-life replica of Voltron's Blazing Sword. And I was content.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.