Voltron: Legendary Defender — A Revival Done Right?

If there’s one thing I really can’t abide, it’s the incessant rebooting of older properties for a modern market. More often than not these prove to be cheap low quality cash-ins that fade into general obscurity after a time yet leave a mark on a fandom, reminding it how difficult it truly is to recapture the magic of whatever it is they once loved so dearly. Each reboot is a reflection of the creators running it at that time so it’s not a surprise that old magic remains ever elusive. Please don’t mistake this sentiment as a quality judgment of the progenitor works either. Often old shows we carry a nostalgia for aren’t that great and we remember them far more fondly than we might upon revisiting. Tastes change and as we develop as consumers of media, flaws in works become increasing obvious. I’m certain that if I revisited the original Voltron I’d find a plethora of issues and I’d be forced to reconcile them with the inherent nostalgia I have for the property.

As it stands though, I remember it rather fondly so one can understand why I approached Voltron: Legendary Defender with a sense of trepidation. Voltron: The Third Dimension and Voltron Force were attempts to resurrect the franchise and both failed in doing so. The trailer did little to instill any confidence either what with its puerile humor and objectionable CG. I chalked the show up to being another failure and did what I could to put it out of my mind.

As the June 10th air date approached, I found myself wondering about the show again. I figured it’d be bad and maybe I’d just watch it for a laugh. A part of me wanted to give it a chance though in case it turned out well. I’d done something similar with Bojack Horseman in that I had ignored the show and randomly decided to give it a chance only to be rewarded for doing so. June 10th came about, the show went up, I said, “What the hell, why not?” and decided to give it a shot after all. I’m glad I did as I was pleasantly surprised by what I got.

Voltron: Legendary Defender borrows the core Voltron concept of the lions, the castle, and the battle against Zarkon and his witch Haggar. All the familiar faces are here with Allura, Coran, Keith, Pidge, Hunk, and Lance being present and in their pilot roles. Allura and Zarkon’s designs are the most drastic departure from the original series. Whereas everyone else channels the original design aesthetic to some degree, Zarkon is now evocative of Mass Effect’s turians while Allura has had a drastic makeover to differentiate her from the humans that leaves her looking far more like a brown elf than anything truly alien.

The Sven role is filled by a character named Shiro whose name itself is an homage to the character that became Sven: GoLion’s Takashi Shirogane. The show has all sorts of little nods like this with a random cameo by Macross’ Roy Fokker, the Galra officer armor being reminiscent of Tenga Toppa Gurren Lagann’s gunmen, and Pidge channeling Evangelion’s Gendo Ikari. They’re never intrusive and serve as a nice nod to the legacies of other works beyond that of Voltron or GoLion

The story is what one would expect of a show carrying this title: five kids inherit the power of the legendary weapon Voltron and must battle Emperor Zarkon and the Galra Empire for the sake of the known universe. The writing’s sound for the most part but often undermined by constant wisecracking early on which thankfully clears up once the plot begins moving and idle time disappears.

The animation is serviceable with little in the way of interesting cuts aside from the first time Keith summons the sword and the music is rather uninspired, synth tracks forever droning on like video game background music. Structurally it has problems too as it eschews the 13 episode format for a triple sized first episode. Normally this sort of thing would be welcome but episode 2 is what one might call a “breather ep” where they focus on training. Now this would be episode 4 in the typical format and a welcome reprieve but its place as the second only serves to bring things to a screeching halt early on.

However, the show’s shortcomings fade in light of its strengths as it progresses. Around halfway through episode 4 or so, the episodic storytelling is shoved aside for something serialized which is appropriate for the binge watching format Netflix champions. Things start happening and often the end of one episode leads directly into the next, forming a contiguous chain of events that makes it easy to just let the next episode play. Pidge, Hunk, and Allura are each given small characters arcs, often with overlapping episodes, that contribute to this. While priorities might shift to something more important at the time, the impetus of these characters is never quite forgotten. The humor is also dialed back to something far more manageable as well and begins to function as intended comic relief rather than overbearing rapid fire cracks. In doing so, the action and adventure is finally allowed to flourish and shine through.

Amusingly, another strength of the show is in how sparingly the titular robot is actually used. It’s treated as a weapon of last resort so there’s no forced appearance every episode that might interrupt the flow of the story. Even when it does form, it’s often in a disadvantageous position due to the inexperience of the pilots. There’s a total of two robeast encounters in the show and it’s better off for that, allowing for the action to be varied and uninterrupted by the usual“monster of the week.”

It’s very easy to just keep going once you hit the serialized episodes and that’s where the show shines. Couple this with the show forging its own path by not letting ties to the original show drag it down and you’re left with a good fun space opera that ends with its second season hook all too soon.

Spoilers follow here so tread lightly if you fear that sort of thing:

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By far, the most interesting thing about this reboot is the selection of the first season’s focus characters and their departure from the original concepts in the name of diversity. I think it’s a good thing and not just because diversity should be desired but it also lets the show develop its own identity divorced from the source material.

Hunk’s given a darker skin tone and often the butt of fat jokes from Lance yet he proves to be the most chivalrous of the team. When on a mission to another planet with Coran, he meets the indigenous people that have been conquered by the Galra Empire and develops an affection for one of the women there. When forced to escape, he promises to return and liberate them. Even when the current episode’s focus is elsewhere, this stays with him and he makes it a point to get back to fulfill that promise.

Allura received a rather drastic redesign, second only to Zarkon’s, which removed the fair skinned blue eyed blonde look of her original incarnation. The pointed ears are meant to make her look less human compared to the Voltron pilots. Her skin tone is now a dark brown and she’s a rather competent character in her own right. She’s also the one that endures the most loss in the first season as she lost her father, her planet, and her people some 10,000 years prior, Her big character moment involves the destruction of a corrupted A.I. that was created from her father’s memories which means losing him all over again.

Pidge is the big one as the character has been given a greater degree of agency and competence in this revival. Pidge is also a girl masquerading as a guy in the hopes of rescuing her kidnapped father and brother. It’s something of a character twist for the old fandom that I assume will work for new fans as well since her action girl antics are great. When she reveals the truth to the rest of the cast, the majority feel nothing has changed or outright knew already with the lone exception being a comic relief character acting as comic relief. Nothing does change either as Pidge remains just another member of the team.

While I’m sure Lance, Keith, and Shiro have their own stories yet to share, it’s both amusing and welcome to have the white guys shoved into supporting roles in the first season so there’s room in the spotlight for the two girls and the brown guy.