I’m going to reveal a not-so-secret secret. I was a young teenager in the mid 80s. The general pattern for a typical day after school was that I would ride my bike home from school, do my homework, watch a few cartoons, then head outside to play with my friends, either until dark, or if we were playing in the neighborhood, until my Mom came out and yelled that it was time for dinner. It was different back then. I would be gone for hours and it wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t have to worry about strange things happening to kids. We didn’t have to be chaperoned or watched every minute. Heck, we didn’t even have cell phones back then. It sure was a different time, and so were the cartoons.
I’ve always been fascinated with animation. Even to this day it peaks my interest. The visual style of modern animated films and TV shows, and the physical modelling capabilities of computer animation software is something that is truly impressive. But I am going to take you back to a time when none of this existed. It was a time when artists had to hand draw every single frame of a cartoon. I’m going to take you back to a time when I was a young teenager…and I discovered Voltron: Defender of the Universe!
Keep in mind, we didn’t have a billion cartoon networks in the mid 80s. Our family didn’t even have cable for a long time, so I basically got to watch whatever came on at a particular time on one of the over-the-air networks. One of the shows that used to come on after school was Voltron: Defender of the Universe. The general premise of Voltron is that there are 5 mechanical lions, each piloted by a single person, and they defend the universe from evil. When things get really sticky, these 5 lions would join together and form a super robot called Voltron. In the first season, which is the only season I got to watch as a kid, Voltron was tasked with defending the planet Arus from the evil King Zarkon and his motley crew. As a kid, I remember being mesmerized by this show. In every episode, Voltron would have to form and fight one of Zarkon’s wild beasts. He would form his Blazing Sword and cut the beast in half, keeping planet Arus safe until the next episode.
I had such fond memories of the show, I recently decided to watch some episodes on Netflix and rekindle those childhood emotions. In some ways I wish I wouldn’t have done this. Watching episodes back to back, it’s apparent how formulaic it was. Zarkon seemed to have one and only one idea on how to destroy Voltron – send a new wild beast. In addition, there were many situations where it was painfully obvious they reused footage and sound effects. The voice acting always seemed slightly “off” for some reason. Still, there were some things I continued to enjoy, mostly around sound design. For example, when they would cut to Zarkon’s lair and the creepy music that accompanied that. The forming of Voltron and his Blazing Sword. Peter Cullen as the narrator (Ironically he also voiced Optimus Prime in the Transformers at around the same time).
While some of my childhood memories about the show were diminished rewatching episodes, I still enjoyed it on the whole. It wasn’t until I read some history about the show that I gained a whole new respect for it.
As it turns out, the first season of Voltron was based on a Japanese animated show called Beast King GoLion. The producers of Voltron had licensed material from the Japanese show, but they didn’t know Japanese and had no way of translating dialog. Since they had no way of translating dialog, they had no idea what the plot was for the particular episode they were working on. So, they created the plot and all new dialog strictly from the visuals alone! That’s crazy impressive to me. I have to admit that many of my criticisms of the show have changed a bit knowing what the producers were faced with. It must have been a daunting task just to get a single episode out the door.
I must say that going into this review, I was just hoping to elicit some fond childhood memories. I came away with a bit more than that. I’m not trying to be melodramatic, but knowing what the producers of Voltron had to go through gave me a whole new perspective on the show. Yes, it’s still cheesy. Yes, it’s still repetitive. Yes, the voice acting is still off. But even though this young teenager has grown up, yes, I still enjoy…
Voltron: Defender of the Universe