Last year, I watched the Netflix animated show Voltron: Legendary Defender, a remake of the classic anime from the 1980s. I liked it! Or at least, I think I did? I mostly liked it. It was ok. It was fine. It was pretty good, I guess? I have a lot of complicated feelings about this show.
Unlike the other animated Netflix shows I’ve watched recently, both of which I loved, I have a lot of mixed feelings about Voltron. It was enjoyable, but fell short of its peers. This is a little surprising, given that Voltron is a sprawling science-fiction space opera, a genre that I usually love. But it never fully lives up to its potential. Both She-Ra and Kipo always had a sense of coherence, a sense that the writers knew where it was going and what it wanted to be. Both of those shows had compelling character arcs, well-addressed and well-articulated themes, and tightly-knit plots that (mostly!) made sense from beginning to end. With Voltron, you had moments of genuine brilliance, the occasional great episode, but also a lingering sense that the writers were making it up as they went along. Almost the entire time I was watching it, I was enjoying myself, but when it added I couldn’t help but feel that the whole was somehow less than the sum of its parts. Let’s talk about why.
(SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING BTW)
- Voltron has a very simple premise. Five humans–Lance, Pidge, Hunk, Keith, and Shiro—three of them cadets in Earth’s space force, one a juvenile delinquent, and one an older astronaut, inadvertently stumble upon one of the Lions of Voltron, ancient robot weapons that hold the key to saving or destroying the Galaxy, and become the new Paladins of Voltron, the defenders of the universe. They find themselves far, far from home, tasked with mastering this strange technology, aided only by Princess Allura and Coran, last survivors of the ancient Altean race, exterminated by Emperor Zarkon a thousand years ago. Together, they must stand against the all-powerful Galra Empire that seeks to conquer the Universe. Basically, they have robot lions, they combine into a giant Robot Man, and they have to fight an Evil Empire. It’s not complicated! “Teenagers with robots” is about as basic a plot as you can get, which is not a problem. It’s an interesting foundation from which to build upon. The question is, what do you do with it?
- So, the first thing to note is that the animation is gorgeous. Voltron takes place in space (duh), and the show does a wonderful job depicting alien planets and mysterious creatures and the vast sweep of the interstellar void. The keystone to a show like Voltron is the transformation sequence (when all the little robots form into a big robot) and Voltron has a great one, that really emphasizes the tactile nature of how all these different machines lock together. Something I really appreciated that I want to emphasize is that the ships looked like ships. By which I mean they’re not just cool-looking shapes, they all have recognizable weapons batteries and launch bays and shield generators and other equipment that stay consistent throughout the whole series. It’s just a really cool-looking show.
- One of the things that really surprised me about Voltron was how unapologetically science-fiction-y it gets. There’s a willingness to go beyond the the cliches and boundaries of the mecha anime genre from which it was born and indulge in some pure SciFi nonsense that I didn’t really expect but really enjoyed. They go to parallel universes! There are alternate dimensions! Magic! There’s an evil clone of one of the heroes! Space whales! Time travel! Earth gets conquered by aliens! It’s over-the-top and ridiculous, and mixes and matches different tropes from every corner of the genre, but it’s a genuine delight.
- For the first few seasons, the story of Voltron proceeds routinely. Our team of paladins struggle to get along with each other, learn to be friends, rescue aliens-of-the-week, and fight a succession of giant robot monsters sent by Emperor Zarkon to destroy them (personally I would have tried dispatching one of my massive battle fleets instead but hey, you do you my man). Starting in around around season three, however, the scope and scale of the story starts to grow. Our Heroes link up with the Blade of Mamora, a secret organization of space ninjas who’ve been fighting the Galra Empire from the inside for centuries. They start working together to liberate planets and muster troops, to ally with existing rebel groups and start trying to overthrow the Empire in earnest. Meanwhile, the Galra are convulsed with political struggles between Zarkon, his wife Haggar, and their son Lotor. By the finale of season four, there’s a full-blown interstellar war being waged, with fleets in motion and converging attacks on dozens of planets and complicated schemes and strategies. It’s kind of fantastic. At it’s best, Voltron turns into what Gundam would look like if it was also Star Wars, which is something I hadn’t known I needed until now.
- Thus far, I’ve been talking about the parts of Voltron that I liked. Now we get to the……less successful aspects of the show. Of which, the most fundamental is the main characters. They’re fine. I didn’t dislike any of them. But for an ensemble show like this, one that puts the bonds of friendship of a team of mismatched heroes at its core, those character relationships and personalities have to be really strong. Instead, they’re all over the place. Hunk and Corron are never developed past being comic relief, Princess Allura is a cipher, Shiro is a Generic Space Leader, and Lance is……a mess. Of the protagonists, only Keith and Pidge have actual character arcs. With Pidge, it’s her quest to discover the fate of her father and brother, who vanished into interstellar space years ago. For Keith, his discovery that he’s half-alien, his joining of the Blade of Mamora and training to a Space Ninja, and his eventual discovery of his long-lost mother. Both of these are decent motivations and sources of character development, which is why Pidge and Keith are by far the most interesting characters. They have reasons for doing this, something that is never really provided for anyone else beyond a sort of generic heroism and desire to save the Galaxy. And even with them, the show stumbles with a really weird sense of timing. For example, we don’t really know that Keith has a mysterious past until he starts uncovering it. The episode where he meets his mother for the first time and has to travel through a quantum time nebula on the back of a space whale with her (when this show’s good it’s great) is one of the best episodes in the series I think…….but the revelation at the end that he’s now resolved his sense of abandonment and resentment would have hit harder if we’d known he had those issues beforehand. Which we didn’t. The pilot episode hints that Keith and Shiro have a preexisting relationship, something that is then never mentioned again until season eight. It’s super weird!
- Speaking of Shiro–oof. He has probably the weirdest character arc of anyone. Shiro starts out as the team leader, the experienced astronaut who pulls them together and trains the Paladins into an integrated force. Then, at the end of season two, he dies heroically in combat during a mission to try and assassinate Emperor Zarkon. The team is plunged into chaos trying to adapt to his absence, but then, like, five episodes later he shows up again! Then, after a few seasons, it turns out that that Shiro was actually an evil Galra clone sent to infiltrate the team. But it turns out that the original Shiro’s soul was still trapped inside his Lion so they just transfer that soul into the evil clone body (which is ethically questionable I think) so then Shiro’s back! For real this time! The backstory behind all this seems to be that the writers wanted to kill him off but the producers vetoed it because he as a popular character, but the result is a total muddle. I’m not intrinsically opposed to SciFi shenanigans like evil clone imposters and souls-being-trapped-in-robots and whathaveyou but the problem is that none of this has any narrative payoff. There is a multi-season long build-up to the revelation that Shiro is actually a clone, and then the entire situation is resolved within, like, two episodes. I like Shiro, I was happy to see him come back but…..killing him off and exploring the ramifications of that on the Paladins had been potentially pushing forward the story in really interesting ways, setting up a whole arc about Keith trying (and failing) to fill Shiro’s place. Instead, we get a reversion to the status quo. Adding insult to injury, they do the whole thing where they reveal that Shiro is gay but his boyfriend died off-screen in a flashback, which is honestly just ridiculous at this point. Voltron takes a pretty decent character and then just……meanders around with him for eight seasons.
- Lance is another character who suffers from this kind of confusion. Simply put, I have no idea what he’s doing here. In the pilot episode, he’s kind of framed like he’s going to be the series protagonist. This is unfortunate, because he’s really annoying. Then, after season one, he just sort of fades into the background? There’s kinda an arc about him clashing with Keith, but it’s really not very well-done and it doesn’t really go anywhere. I think the writers realized that he’d become a totally directionless character, because there’s a whole episode about him having a crisis about not knowing what his purpose is. He eventually decided he’s the team sniper and that satisfies him apparently? Ok. In season eight, he kind of goes back to the protagonist, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, he starts dating Princess Allura, and then he retires to become a farmer after she sacrifices herself to save the universe. The best I can say for him is that initially I thought I would hate him, and I ended up thinking he was…..fine? But he has no real character development or dramatic arc. Like so much of this show, it’s just a mess.
- It says a lot about how muddled the character relationships are that my favorite one ended up being the romance (?) between Keith and Acxa, a Galra general. Their entire relationship consists of them saving each other’s lives and then exchanging Meaningful Glances across a battlefield. This happens, like, five times. I don’t think they actually speak until season seven or so. It’s so stripped-down and minimalist that it works. Whereas the romance between Lance and Allura was just totally uninteresting because neither of them ever had fleshed-out personalities.
- So, when Voltron begins, the main series villain is Emperor Zarkon, ruler of the Galra Empire. A thousand years ago, he’d been one of the original Paladins of Voltron, but he’d betrayed and destroyed his comrades in order to seek universal power. For the first two seasons, he’s the primary antagonist. Then, at the end of season two, he’s badly injured and goes into a coma. His son, Prince Lotor, takes over the Empire in his absence, but clearly has plans of his own. When Zarkon awakens in mid-season four, the two become embroiled in open conflict. And then, early in season five–Zarkon is killed. He’s dead. He’s out of the show. There’s still three more seasons left! This is a really bold storytelling choice. It takes what seems like it should be the central arc of the show–defeating Zarkon–and then resolves it halfway through. It subverts your expectations of how you think the show’s gonna go, and it leads into some really interesting ideas. Zarkon’s death doesn’t bring peace to the universe. Instead, the Galra Empire begins to splinter into feuding warlord states. The Paladins of Voltron find themselves supporting Lotor’s claim to the throne while opposing various breakaway fleets and schismatic provinces that are now tearing the Empire apart. It’s a fascinating exploration of post-imperial collapse. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite pay off.
- There’s a term I use often when talking about TV shows or book series that I like: “escalation curve”. By this, I mean the way in which the scope of events grows larger and more intense over the course of the narrative as the stakes rise. In a good escalation curve, by the end of the narrative the heroes are facing a climax that is far more dangerous than what they initially anticipated, but there’s a clear path demonstrating how you got from that opening premise to the finale. Events cause other events, which lead to still further events. In She-Ra, the eponymous hero is originally fighting against Hordak, who is eventually revealed to be just an insignificant clone of the far more powerful Horde Prime. Hordak’s goal of conquering Etheria is eclipsed by Prime’s goal of exterminating all life in the Universe. In Kipo, the first two seasons see Kippo off facing against Scarlemagne, a mutant-ape-warlord who wants to rule the city of Las Vistas. In season three, she then must confront Dr. Emilia, the scientist who helped create him and who wants to destroy all the mutants in the world. Events escalate as more information is discovered. This……doesn’t quite happen in Voltron. After Zarkon’s death, the next few seasons revolve around the team forming an alliance with Prince Lotor, who wants to take over the Empire. Eventually, he betrays them, and they have to stop him from destroying the universe. Then season seven is about stopping an alien warlord from conquering Earth. Then season eight is about Haggar, Lotor’s mother, who wants to travel to an alternate reality where her son and husband are still alive, no matter the damage she does to the rest of time and space. By the series finale, literally all of existence is at stake but……there’s no real sense of continuity between any of this. You very much get the feeling that the writers weren’t sure how many seasons they were going to get, or where they wanted to go with all this. Events just happen, and then new events do. The only real character arcs have been resolved by the begining of season eight (Pidge has found her family, Keith is a space ninja, Shiro is alive again), so there’s no emotional stakes at play, or investment in what’s happening. Voltron doesn’t feel like an epic quest, culminating in a final showdown between good and evil, it just feels like a series of disconnected stories about some guys who went to space and found some robots. Some of those stories are good. Some of them are great! But it lacks the sense of cohesiveness that marks a really good story, the sense that everything ties together in a way that makes thematic and narrative sense.