The recent reveal that Frieza would rise from the dead in the new film Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection of F has made me a bit nostalgic for my childhood, running home from school to tune into Toonami block on Cartoon Network for the “newest” episode of Dragon Ball Z. And I ran even faster when it came time for the ultimate battle for the galaxy.
Imagine me as a kid, on the edge of my seat, as the evil galactic overlord Frieza faced off with Earth’s mightiest hero and the strongest Saiyan, Goku, in season 3 of Dragon Ball Z. I was 8 years old back in 1999 (this fight first took centerstage in 1991 for Japanese audiences), and had for so long awaited the inevitable confrontation.
After all, everything I’d ever seen on this show had led to this exact moment in time: Goku as the mysterious boy with a tail in Dragon Ball, the arrival of Radditz, Vegeta, and Nappa — the last Saiyans in the galaxy — on Earth in the first two seasons of the show in search of Kakarot (Goku’s Saiyan name), Frieza’s reign of terror over the galaxy, and the mass genocide that set all of the events of the entire series in motion.
Frieza and Goku both had winning records before their fight. Goku had defeated three of the strongest Saiyans (the only ones powerful enough to survive Frieza’s genocide) in the entire galaxy and taken down the Ginyu Force, Frieza’s elite squad of minions. Frieza had a much bigger body count: not only had he erased most of the Saiyan race from existence, but also murdered Vegeta and Krillin in fights that he won without breaking a sweat.
Only Goku stood between Frieza and the galaxy’s doomed fate. Now, after four years on the air, Goku was ready to face off against Frieza. What proceeded was 4+ hours of fighting…
Dragon Ball Z had an almost indescribable talent for extending 30 minutes-worth of plot into a multi-episode extravaganza that kept kids watching until the very end. Some would call it melodramatic, others would call it unbearable, but for me, this was peak dramatic form, as the fighters digressed into long monologues about their plans, backstories, and motives. Soliloquys, moral disputes, perfectly-timed moments of wit that relieved the tension for a few minutes. The always-welcomed pan out to reveal both fighters standing on opposites sides of a wide landscape ripe for the destruction. You never get used to the fighters punching each other through mountains or buildings.
Of course, the amount of time these guys actually spent punching each other was microscopic when compared to the build-up. All foreplay. And Frieza vs. Goku I is perhaps the best example of the Dragon Ball Z setup that we would see again in the sagas ahead. Gohan vs. Cell and Everyone vs. Majin Buu might’ve lasted even longer, but to lesser effect.
Frieza later returned in season 4 during the Trunks Saga, which really moved the show forward into new territory. Frieza, now known as Mecha Frieza after being rebuilt by his father, King Cold, returns to conquer Earth. But Future Trunks, the son of Vegeta and Bulma, shows up from the (you guessed it!) future to slice Frieza in half.
Dragon Ball Z then moved into time travel, alternate histories, and villainous androids, just enough of a tweak to keep kids invested for the long-haul. Not that little 8-year-old me needed much convincing. He waited countless hours for a confrontation to begin and even more hours for it to reach its conclusion.
It’s just the unique beauty of this show.