Hold on to your blazing sword, because rooting out the origins of Voltron is steeped in myths as confusing as the mighty robot itself.
Imagine a world without cable, where cartoons of every stripe are not available at all times. After school, you watch what's on channel 5 or you watch nothing. More importantly, imagine a world without Google, where quick keystrokes can't explain why your toy Voltron is labelled “Voltron III” when you don't remember “Voltron II” or “Voltron I"!
Voltron has a lock on the psyches of people exactly my age (like the members of the Wu-Tang Clan, I suppose) and I'm now convinced part of its hold was that we intuitively knew we were only getting part of the story. The Japanese import, a syndication mish-mosh of other shows stripped of its violence and loaded with fig leaf repurposed footage, was part-serialized story, part-robeast of the week, part-kiddie show cuteness. The dialogue and voice acting is atrocious, but the explosive animation remains quite striking by any measure.
The story of Voltron (later known as “Voltron III,” just hang with me) is about five peace keeping space rangers from Earth who reawaken the legendary Voltron to protect the besieged planet of Arus from Evil King Zarkon of Planet Doom. Zarkon, with the witch Haggar at his side, has an army of vicious robeasts led (at first) by his doofus lieutenant Yorak, then later his lovesick son Lotor. Zarkon kinda has a blue fish face and the robeasts, obviously a portmanteau of robot and beast, all tend to look more like beasts than robots (I suspect the “robo” is in there so American kids wouldn't see the weekly slaying of sentient beings.) The robeasts are shuttled around in coffins called “beastcrafts” and that's the greatest thing ever.
The five space rangers follow an almost one-to-one parallel with a show that helped prime the pump for Voltron: Battle Of The Planets.
Battle Of The Planets, quickly nick-named G-Force (and later re-cut and distributed that way) was an American cash-grab after Star Wars. It took a popular Japanese cartoon (SCIENCE NINJA TEAM GATCHAMAN) that was set in space, chopped it up, added an R2-D2-ish character (that would be the lovable 7-Zark-7 from Center Neptune) and fed it to kids crazy early in the morning. I distinctly recall watching this show at 6 am when the rest of the home slumbered.
Battle Of The Planets had an earnest, charismatic leader, a laid-back second-in-command, a Princess in pink, a shrimpy kid and a fat guy. When they got in their color-coded special vehicles they would join together to form a super-vehicle, the Phoenix.
Voltron had an earnest, charismatic leader, a laid-back second-in-command, a Princess in pink, a shrimpy kid and a fat guy. When they got in their color-coded special vehicles they would join together to form a giant robot called Voltron. But there were two other key differences.
The first was that the pre-robot vehicles weren't just rugged tanks or jets – they were mechanical lions.
When American distributers wanted to adapt the Japanese show for kids they requested “the one with the lions” from Toei Animation. They actually wanted a different robot lion show (Mirai Robo Daltanious) but ended up with Beast King Golion. It was one of the greatest misunderstandings in animation history.
Golion is big, colorful and gorgeous and there's something innately awesome about five robot lions joining to become a behemoth with growling metal jaws for fists and feet. The origin didn't matter too much because the American adaptors weren't planning on telling the same story anyway. For starters, they'd have to cut out a lot of the blood, guts and death. Which leads us to the second big difference between Voltron and other shows we were used to: Sven.
I remember many school bus rides arguing about who the heck Sven was. He was part of the original team, some swore. Some claimed he wasn't even real. Again, you gotta remember how we first saw these shows. They weren't shown in order – odd, because there is something of a narrative. (Indeed, it takes FOUR WHOLE EPISODES of Voltron before they actually form the robot.) The first blue lion, before the Princess took the seat, was this nice enough fella named Sven. (Note to Toei Animation: not many dudes named Sven have such dark eyes and hair, but we'll let it pass.)
Sven, about whom I spent a lot of time arguing (because I saw an episode with him, I swear!) was a horrible, horrible character.
Despite Peter Cullen's intro, the voice acting is poor all over Voltron. Lennie Weinrib voices Hunk (the fat guy in the yellow lion) as the world's worst Fred Flintstone impression. Michael Bell's Sven sounds like an 8-year old who won't stop mimicking the Swedish Chef until you threaten to send him to his room. When the team's cross-chatter is pumping themselves up to “really give it to” a threatening robeast, Sven just blurts out “Give Him!!!!” It's absurd.
(To be fair, I must salute Jack Angel's voicing duties of Commander Yorak. He sinks his teeth deep into wonderfully absurd lines like “Stupid robot lions, do you think you can defeat the great Yorak, commander of all the evil robot forces of the Galaxy?!? Fooooools!!!” with all the relish such poetry deserves.)
Anyway, the point is that after a few episodes you didn't have to deal with Sven too much. He was attacked by Haggar's blue cat with electric eyes (!) and fell down injured. Hovering over him, team leader Keith says “there is a doctor on Planet Ebb” and then Sven disappears like Poochie going to his home planet.
In the Japanese version Sven dies. In the American version, Sven comes back to much hoopla far later in the series. That wasn't actually Sven. That was Sven's twin brother, but the American distributers brushed that all aside.
Turns out the Japanese version had a hell of a lot more violence (and slave abuse and piles of dead bodies), which is why each episode ends with the robeast getting killed in almost the exact same way. Recycled footage took care of that, and when there was too much of a hole to fill in they could always cut back to Earth's home base known as Galaxy Garrison.
Here's the thing about Galaxy Garrison. This footage, mostly comprised of men sitting around a giant table saying “how will we help the Voltron Force?,” is actually taken from another show entirely.
The Galaxy Garrison sequences were lifted from Armored Fleet Dairugger Xv, and after Voltron ran out of material from the original Golion show, the American producers just decided to switch over to footage from this show entirely.
This is where the mysterious “Vehicle Voltron” comes from, which, if you bought the toys was bafflingly called “Voltron I.”
Imagine coming home from school one day, and, after winning the fight with your sister to watch the show you want (take THAT stupid Little House On The Prairie) your five favorite space explorers and their lions are gone. In their place are FIFTEEN space explorers divided into three groups – the Air, Land and Sea Teams – and when the whole group comes together they form a different robot.
Of course, this new version still had a shrimpy kid, a fat guy, a Princess-surrogate and a leader who looked and sounded just like Keith (or Jason from Battle Of The Planets) but it was impossible to know everyone and all we wanted was our old characters back. Plus, all fifteen of the vehicles could fly, but Land could also ride over rugged terrain and Sea could go underwater. Air could just. . . stay in the air. How is that cool? And that's the one the leader is in? No thank you!
(To be fair, the Sea Team had this blue guy with a weird voice who kinda sounded like. . . oh my God. . . Michael Bell? Kirik the blue Sea Team dude was Sven! Aghhhhh if I could go back in time and tell the kids on the bus this!!!!)
This second iteration scored poorly, so new episodes with the Lion team were commissioned. To make sense of the continuity it was explained, in a crossover later released as a 45 minute VHS called FLEET OF DOOM, that the Lions were from the “Far Universe” and the Vehicles were from the “Near Universe.” This may lead you to ask “what about the 'Middle Universe?'” And here lies the greatest Voltron mystery of all.
There was a kid on the bus who swore, swore, that he had a cousin in Ohio that had “Voltron II” toys. And it was called “Gladiator Voltron.” Whereas Vehicle Voltron and Lion Voltron were comprised of fairly obvious components, this rumored, half-truth of a Voltron was, supposedly, a collection of three middle-sized robots that became a Giant Robot like we knew and loved. And if we just waited, the show would be starting any day now.
The show never came, but the legend of “Voltron II” (like the stories of the mighty robot of Planet Arus itself) had some validity. An adaptation of the Japanese show Lightspeed Electroid Albegas was planned but later dropped.
And, eventually, VOLTRON slipped away from afternoon television. Or maybe I just grew up. (I'm sure I didn't go do something outside, as my mother screamed at me to do, I can tell you that much.) So it wasn't until I took a look back at these shows online that I realized just how obviously Japanese they were.
Forgetting the hallmarks of what we now recognize as an anime style, there are noticeably non-Western moments all over the place. Whenever the Voltron Force encounters a tomb or a holy place, they clasp their hands and bow their heads as if in Shinto prayer. There are also these giant-eyed space mice running around interrupting the story, a fine example of “kawaii” - the emphasis of cuteness in unexpected places in Japanese culture. I mean, there is a fierce robot versus monster battle in outer space and the show frequently cuts to shots of an adorable, pudgy pink mouse named Cheddar. There's also a lot of bondage play with the Princess. In just the first few episodes she is tied to a chair by her surrogate father and later spanked by her (German?) nanny while the entire Voltron Team laughs. I don't know that this is specifically Japanese, but I submit it as a compliment that anything sexually deviant has a way of having double impact when you know it comes from Japan.
Due to the cuts and translations there's plenty that comes across as strange while watching as an adult. Why does King Zarkon refer to our heroes as the Voltron Force before they actually present themselves as Voltron? He even has a line to Haggar (and her cat) ranting about the Voltron Force, then mere seconds later seems shocked that the legendary Voltron may have returned. Furthermore, the nobles of Planet Arus can't operate Voltron because they don't know how, but as soon as our guys show up they say “we'll do it” and then somehow they know how to drive these crazy robot lions. It makes no sense. And why is it that just by tunneling to the lions' secret locations they'll emerge in their uniform? (Though I guess you can say the same about the Bat-Poles.)
In 2011 there was a surprisingly decent modern update of Voltron called Voltron Force. While I'm hardwired to dislike any show that uses the word “epic” (I much prefer the original and its lines like “fire the Crypto-Ray!” and “Our mission is simple - to destroy everything on the planet!!”) I must confess that it is peppy, fun and fairly true to the original. Or, at least, the hodge-podge of Beast King Golion and Armored Fleet Dairugger Xv and censorship cuts that eventually joined forces to become (cue Peter Cullen): Voltron! Defender of the Universe!
Oh, there was also a horribly rendered CG atrocity from 1998 called Voltron: The Third Dimension that was so wretched I turned it off after three minutes. Woe be to the millennials who have nostalgia for this artless affair as opposed to the kaleidoscopic, tableaux-rich animation and hazily spliced stories of robot versus robeast from my misspent youth.
This was originally published in the "Beasts vs. Bots" issue of Birth.Movies.Death in honor of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, in Alamo Drafthouse theaters now. Also this is the last week you can catch Pacific Rim at the IMAX!