Well, in traditional House of Bella and Baron style I am sharing my thoughts about an experience a bit late; in this day and age of instantaneous information sharing this isn’t probably the best modus operandi when you are trying to stay current.
I have to be honest when discussing my processes on analyzing certain content for an article, or examining certain content for my own purposes. I’ve learned that I sometimes need a little time and a little distance before I start smashing away on a keyboard or smartphone screen to carve my opinions, experiences, and miscellaneous thoughts into the permanent ether of the interweb. It’s all about living in awareness and trying to dig deeper beyond my primal responses: I sometimes feel its part of my own ethical and moral code to try and get at the crux of why I feel a certain way about certain content. This is typically a guideline and not a rule. Sometimes things do just click with my enteral geek clockwork; sometimes things are indisputably corrosive. Or, I am comfortable about sharing initial thoughts because my investment is not of the same pedigree as those closest to the subject matter and therefore my passions may not burn at the same temperature…but they do burn.
I guess what I am trying to say is depending on the severity of internal conflict I am feeling at the time of an experience I will initiate various pathways in which I tussle with that conflict.
Voltron, Legendary Defender was content I needed time with. If you are new to Voltron I’d suggest spending a bit of time here to learn more to come up to speed. In particular check out the opening of the show provided on the site.
However, the quick snap shot is this: In the 1980’s American audiences were introduced to an animated series birthed in the giant Japanese robot genre that was gaining popularity in the west at the time. A team of five young people were placed into positions to pilot five giant robot lions to defend the galaxy from the evil forces of Planet Doom, whose desire to conquer the galaxy was threating earth and other allied planets. These giant robot lions were kept on planet, Arus, where Princess Allura and her trusted advisor, Coran, stood as custodians of the lions. The fun part? Almost every episode the forces on Planet Doom would create some kind of giant monster, called a RoBeast, to challenge the giant robot lions….who, when necessary, could all combine and transform into a giant humanoid robot warrior- Voltron, who’d readily dispatch the RoBeast and thwart the forces of Planet Doom. All of this was accomplished through dynamic animation sequences that would always get my adrenaline flowing.
Voltron was a large and enjoyable part of my childhood. And this is why I was so excited about the topic for this entry into the “experiences” articles. Dreamworks has done, what is so often done now: acquired and reimagined a show for a new generation. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you: Voltron, Legendary Defender (available now for steaming on Netflix).
From this point forward I am making two assumptions about you, my dear reader, and they are this: 1. You have binge watched the majority of Dreamworks Voltron, Legendary Defender and are familiar with the characters and stories, and 2. You have at least a periphery knowledge of the source content, primarily in the form of the original 1980’s series.
If you don’t meet these two criteria you should read on anyways in my sincere hopes that you will explore this content, both old and new, and at the very least watch the pilot on Netflix tonight. You may become a fan and then take issue with some of what I will share below. Regardless, as long as you heed my obligatory spoiler warning, read on.
I watched the entire first season and the visceral reaction I had was one of a child looking for a new bicycle on his birthday and instead being gifted a skateboard. Both are fun and you can get up to wonderful tomfooleries with both, that increase the sales of kneepads and helmets nationwide, but at the end of the day, even though they both can be ridden on pavement, the alternative surfaces of transit they are designed for are often not the same. The skateboard takes the kid in areas he didn’t really want to go…. and at the end of the day, the kid wanted a bike.
My issue with Voltron, Legendary Defender, from the outset was tone. And I will, at my peril, invoke two television shows in an attempt to demonstrate my point of view. The tone is unbalanced and the show doesn’t know what it wants to be. It is one-part Batman, The Animated Series and one-part Teen Titans Go. Now, I understand that as a 40-year-old fan of animation there have been many trends, especially in Anime, over the past 30 years that have created unique styles for translating characters’ emotion and thought to an audience that I am not as receptive to. Regardless, I am going to stick pretty close to my heart on what follows even though I think some of what I have to say may be influenced by those trends and that I just don’t think they belong in Voltron. This may give cause for my feelings, but also, I’ve had nearly a month to process these feelings. And a lot of these feelings are directed towards tone.
I find it hard to invest in a story that can’t quite find its footing. What does Voltron, Legendary Defender want to be? Who’s the audience? I am by no means suggesting I am a key demographic, but at the same time, I am an academic in theatre…drama…I teach dramatic structure, tone, conflict, character development, and well…you get the idea. I feel a bit informed enough on these concepts to offer an opinion that doesn’t stem directly from my demographic.
Voltron, Legendary Defender introduces what could be potentially engaging conflict, storylines, and characters that could allow an audience to grow and mature with the show, especially in a serialized format. And it does so by not shying away from subject matter that has some real depth. However, it just as quickly can enter the realm of comedy with explorations into slapstick that jar me from the story. I am by no means suggesting that levity and comic relief should be absent from this venture, but the boat got rocked a lot for me in my viewing, and like my assessment of the show’s initial impact upon me I felt I was often losing my footing. The tone of the show felt out of synch with itself. This can best be seen in two of our heros.
The character of Coran, in particular, whose was a noble statesman in the original series, is really set up here to be the comic relief and this relief often manifests itself in such an impactful manner that it borders on the energy you might find in a Looney Tunes short. Its not that it cheapens the story, but it just feels out of place. Especially when juxtaposed with the de-facto captain of the lion pilots, Shiro. His backstory is one with gravitas and establishes thoughtful character development that shies away from silliness. The challenge for me is we don’t stay in a moderate area of tone for long before we dip one way or the other a bit too much.
The show is certainly self-aware of our current cultural climate. Its evident to me that a sincere attempt has been made to ensure racial and gender identity are being addressed through subtle methodology such as the skin tone of the characters. But, at the risk of raising the ire of social justice warriors or, in turn, being labeled a social justice warrior, I do take issue with, Hunk. Where there has been a deliberate and valued move by the writers and producers to ensure the female characters of Allura and Pidge are represented as strong, capable, and valued members of this new Voltron team, working hard against outdated stereotypes that don’t belong in modern storytelling…the show slips in its handling of a character of size.
The first few episodes contained a couple of comedy bits involving this character and food. Perhaps I am being too sensitive, or I am misreading the cues. If I am then I own up to it. With this being said, I am still wrestling with this perception after my initial viewing of the show. It’s a very subjective perception…but here I am a month later and it still kind of bothers me the show seemed to go there. This being said, Hunk does have a strong story arc within the first half of the season, he feels like he is the heart of the team, and so the writers and producers don’t fail at breaking what could be a real stereotypical concrete block to break out of, but If my perceptions on the inferences I made are correct I hope the writers and producers will do better.
But, in terms of breaking stereotypes, as stated, the show succeeds as Allura is not only a princess but someone who exerts the authority and wisdom to carry the mantel her character must- no damsel in distress here. Pidge happens to be my favorite character so far…and it may be her resourcefulness and motivations that keeps me invested if there is to be a season 2.
As I’ve touched a bit on most of the Voltron team at this point I’ll take a moment to address the last two key members of the team. Lance feels like an honest and refreshing homage to his original character of the 1980’s. He’s fun and cute, in that boy-next-door kind of way, that every group of friends need (I guess I am committing the sin of stereotyping now).
Then there is Keith. Keith’s character in the original series had the position and purpose that Shiro’s character now seems to fill. They’ve remolded Keith into a bit of a maverick who exudes brashness. I had a bit of a hard time connecting to him, and I suspect that’s because I have his original manifestation so engrained in me. It will be interesting to see how this develops, but I can’t help but wonder if they were going to supplant him with Shiro and reinvent the character why not go go further.
I think it’s easy to criticize things and far harder to find value when analyzing something you just can’t connect with emotionally. I think there is real potential for the show; it hit some really strong storytelling notes; and like so many first seasons of televisions shows the audience, the writers, and the producers are probably trying to figure out what works and doesn’t work.
I find the following hard to say because I jumped on the Voltron bandwagon pretty quickly when this new series was announced. My expectations were quite high. I also think what I wanted and what I got (bike vs. skateboard) plays a big part in how I am navigating this experience.
I am just not invested…. but I leave myself open to be convinced otherwise.
I also have to wonder, in terms of tone, whether or not there is a place for a show like this now with the unbalanced tone I suggest it has. There is no doubt the caliber of talent (a lot of whom were instrumental in the highly praised The Legend of Korra series) behind Voltron high; nor would I suggest otherwise.
But, maybe the past decade of animation has led to a search for a new formula for success. Maybe when new show are developed there is a worry in regards to the lack of success shows like Tron Uprising and the reimagined Thundercats suffered from. While I was a huge fan of both of those shows one could argue they took themselves too seriously and may have alienated their audiences by doing so. I also look towards shows like Rick and Morty or Gravity Falls as well, and while less familiar with these shows I’ve had enough exposure to understand their appeal and they are simply fun and filled with levity. But, I am not sure Voltron would work in either of those veins. So, is what I am inferring the producers are doing ultimately the correct move for success? I am not sure. I have to look at a show like Star Wars Rebels where the conflict, storylines, and character development are presented in an environment where the tone knows how to navigate the thick and the light- and does it successfully. I kind of wish this was the path Voltron, Legendary Defender followed.
I will say this to close: I have encouraged others to check out the pilot and have not dissuaded anyone from doing so. I’ve shared my impressions, and have also expressed to my peers they spend some time with the series and draw their own conclusions. For me, I think I am off the bandwagon for now, but I’ll leave the proverbial door open to rapprochement in the future.
Until next time I bid thee love and merriment.