Sunday, April 22, 2012

Voltron Force: First Impressions

Nictoons has been offering free viewing of Voltron Force, the new updated ("re-imagined") offering in the Voltron: Defender of the Universe franchise.  The streams are only available to North American audiences, which is a shame in my opinion.  I assume it's being done for legal reasons.  If not, then shame on Nicktoons.

I heard a lot of bad things about Voltron Force.  While I usually try to form my own opinions and not listen so much to the negative reviews--since I have a tendency to like things that nobody else does and hate the insanely popular shows like Battlestar: Galactica and GLEE--I listened to the masses and just put my fingers in my proverbial ears and pretended that Voltron Force didn't exist.

I don't have a good excuse.  I grew up in the 80s, like the majority of people who even know what Voltron: Defender of the Universe is.  The show was formative for me. I'm fascinated by lions and by robots and by space exploration, so a show that incorporates all those things was bound to catch my attention.  It did more than that: it captured a piece of me that I've never been able to define, much less get back.  I'm tired of regurgitated, reimagined, over-marketed franchises. Everything's got to be done over; it's as if no one has the imagination left to come up with a new idea, and the majority of reimagined shows out there have done nothing for me.  So, I passed on Voltron Force and I shouldn't have, especially since the original Voltron was a mash-up of four different Japanese anime.  (In fact it's one of two anime styled shows I've ever found interesting or palatable at all, but that's a whole other post.)

Here's a quick recap of the Voltron story.  Once upon a time, there was a beautiful planet called Arus that was ruled by a wise and benevolent family.  They created a giant robot called Voltron who...well...defended the universe.  Sort of.  Really what he did was defend Arus, but he'd take the occasional field trip to other worlds if people needed him.  Voltron was pretty much invincible, so eventually anybody with dreams of planetary conquest or widespread galactic mayhem just huddled in the farthest, darkest corner available.  Unfortunately, a big gun like Voltron is only effective if it's taken out and waved around every so often.  Sooner or later, people start to think it's just a story or it's not really that big of a gun in the first place.  When that happened, some new bad guys emerged and started beating up on all the poor, unprepared, peace-loving citizens of the galaxy.  An alliance of those peace-loving citizens, appropriately if unimaginatively called The Galaxy Alliance, sent a team of space explorers to go out and find the mythical Voltron.  And, of course, they did.  Sadly, however, planet Arus was in ruins.  What was left of the royal family was in hiding, and Voltron was broken.  He'd been split into his component parts, five elementally themed robot lions, and hidden in the depths of the planet.  Nobody knew how to fly the lions anymore, and worse, one of the keys was missing!  Well, naturally the space explorers could figure out how to fly the four working lions--and once the fifth key was produced by some cute little space mice, the galaxy was on its way to a new day of victory.  Later on, the Galaxy Alliance even builds its own, second Voltron, who is equally awesome in my opinion but never really garnered the same devotion, probably because he was made of little cars and ships instead of lions.

In any case, the initial story arc could have been (and unless I miss my guess, it probably will be) a decent premise for a scifi movie.  The problem, in the 80s, was the impracticality of the giant robots from a special effects standpoint.  We've done four Transformers movies now, so really, this shouldn't be an issue anymore.  After that, the show quickly and without apology falls into a strict formula: bad guys threaten Arus (or some other world for a little variety) with giant robots.  The space explorers--and eventually the Arusian princess, Allura, who are now known as the Voltron Force--are called in to the buzz-room at the Castle of Lions, known as "castle control."  After some brief exposition from the princess's advisor, Coran, each member of the team runs into his or her special transport tube and gets to ride down a tunnel while holding on to a really awesome looking mechanical drop handle.  He or she lands in a shuttle car, now dressed in a flight suit which has magically adhered itself in transit, and the shuttle car takes each pilot down another tube into a robot lion.  The lions look amazing.  They're majestic and brightly colored.  They have cool unique weapons.  For all that, though, they manage to get their butts soundly kicked every time.  When things look their worst, Commander Keith calls out "Okay, team, lets form Voltrooon!"  Members of the audience above the age of three will then ask, "Well, stupid, why didn't you just do that in the first place?"  

The answer, of course, is that the show isn't really about giant robotic bullies and the other, more awesome giant robot who can put them in their place.  The show is about teamwork and unity.  Each member of the Voltron Force tries to tackle the bully (called a robeast) on his or her own, and each one fails.  But when they combine their strength, the power and legendary magic of Voltron is--and always will be--enough to save their collective butts.  The mode of expression just happens to be fantastically detailed drawings of beautiful robot cats, which is more than enough to get the show a free pass for the obvious formula.

As far as the updated show Voltron Force goes, I know that the origin story is slightly different and that there have been some additions to the team in the form of three cadets.   I've only seen a handful of episodes.  I catch them when they appear on Nicktoons or Voltron Facebook page, and sometimes I forget.  That should indicate something about the show.  I forget.  Which means, really, it's not the best thing going.  I have to admit, though: the original Voltron never was either.  I knew, even as a kid, that the show was corny formulaic.  The characters all acted like over-grown children instead of space explorers.  The thing is that it doesn't matter, because the show was magic.   There's at least a small part of that magic still present in Voltron Force.  Is it the same? No.  Can you still jump down that tube into a giant robot lion and go thundering off to battle robot monsters with the fate of the galaxy in your hands? Absolutely.  You just need to pretend that the music is better.   

My first impressions of the show are that the theme of "strength through unity" which was at the core of the original is well represented in Voltron Force. The plots of the episodes is somewhat predictable-but no more so than the original and I think the writing may be a tad bit less corny, which is a plus. Its' definitely something written for today's kids.  Excessive snark is the trend rather than the excessive smarm of the 80s. One is no better or worse than the other for me. Allura seems intentionally different--smarter and stronger rather than "the pretty princess" who was always struggling to prove she could keep up with the boys but got knocked out and fainted way to much. Again, that's in keeping with a show written for a modern audience. Both characters have appeal to me. The main male characters seem to be written much as their original counterparts were. Lance is still a smartass, Hunk is still a loveable thickhead, Keith is still "the leader" and Pidge--thank God--is a slightly less whiny genius kid. I have to say I'm not sure what the point of the cadets is, but overall it's a reasonable effort.

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