Being a cartoon from the ’80s, you’d be forgiven for automatically assuming Robotech doesn’t hold up. I mean come on, have you tried watching any of those ‘classic’ 80’s shows recently? Sure they’re nostalgic and fun, but do they really hold up to scrutiny? Can they come close to matching the sophistication of today’s kid shows? Usually not. I mean look, I love me some classic Voltron and even some very select episodes of He-Man, but on a whole they’re kind of a dumpster fire.
Robotech was different. It was a pioneer not just in sophisticated story telling for kids, but helping to solidify the slowly growing anime fanbase in America. With rich science fiction world building mixed together with soap opera romance, to this day Robotech continues to offer something new every time I watch it. It’s not without its problems (the Max and Miriya “courtship”, am I right?) but on a whole it’s an emotionally engaging ride. (I love it so much so I’m even doing a podcast about it where I rewatch the series episode by episode with someone who’s never seen it, the RoboSkull Cast.)
To get some facts out of the way, Robotech was a combination of three different anime series into one huge universe. This immediately set the groundwork for what became a saga. Three generations of heroes fighting three successive waves of alien invaders. With the help of some clever editing and voiceover, the three series more or less work as a whole.
The following list isn’t so much one that tells the whole story of Robotech. The series is heavily serialized so it’d be near impossible to give you a list that hits all the major plot points. This also isn’t a “best of” list. This is more a list that will give you a taste of what Robotech has to offer. From the romance, to the world building, to the memorable characters, to the action, this list will give you just enough to hopefully get you hooked on Robotech.
Some spoilers are ahead but nothing that should horrifically impact your viewing. If you do want to go in fresh, just start from the beginning. You’re in for a wild ride. For everyone else? It’s time to activate the hyperspace fold jump!
Robotech: The Macross Saga
Episode 4: The Long Wait
While tempting to just start from the beginning, I prefer to lead with the episode that subverts your expectations. I mean come on, you see all the promotional art and think, “Right, robots and mecha pilots. Whatever.” “The Long Wait” instead dives head first into drama, with the good-natured Rick and naïve Minmei trapped in the bowels of the space battle fortress SDF-1.
There isn’t a single moment of mecha combat. It’s almost a two-person stage play with Rick struggling to be the mature one while Minmei alternates from happy go lucky to downright terrified. It is here we get the first glimpses of Minmei’s immaturity that would come to define the character and Rick’s budding feelings for her. It’s a full on soap opera and for a show that could have been seen as just for boys? It’s great to see emotions on display so early on.
Episode 15: Homecoming
Who needs aerial combat when you can have political machinations? So after two years that ship I mentioned, the SDF-1, has finally made it back to Earth with its thousands of refugees. How two years fits into the span of fourteen episodes is beyond me, but Robotech timelines have barely ever made sense.
Great! Time to go home for all the refugees right? WRONG! The Earth government is like, “Yeah, so we didn’t want anyone to panic about the whole alien invasion thing so we covered it up. If we let the refugees go they’ll tell everyone and we kinda don’t wanna look bad. Can you just fly out into space and act as a distraction for the enemy? THANKS.” The immediate sense of dread from the SDF-1 crew makes this episode. Their own people have betrayed them. And here they thought their only enemy was aliens.
For all you DRAMA fans out there, we’ve got Rick escorting Minmei around. A lot has changed since their near death experience. Rick signed up for military duty while Minmei became a pop star. Minmei prattles on all about herself and never bothers to let Rick talk. It’s a great bit of character work and even though Rick is clearly annoyed by these changes, he’s still attracted to her. Rick may have aged on the battlefield, but he’s still a teenager at heart.
Episode 18-19: Farewell, Big Brother/Bursting Point
Okay, here’s some action for you. These two episodes feature spectacular dog fights but thankfully they have an undercurrent of emotion. You know, like the desperate struggle to get these refugees off the ship before they riot! From the title of Episode 18 alone, you can guess SOMEONE is going to die. I won’t spoil who, but it’s a game changer. Robotech pulls no punches. It also features a hilarious line from a Zentradi spy who’s been invited to a disco in Macross city,
“Do you suppose this disco thing is a form of Micronian torture?”
I appreciate a little levity in my episodes filled with death and destruction.
Episode 27: Force of Arms
Ah, the big climax. Explosions! Declarations of feelings! MILLIONS OF SPACESHIPS. It’s still shocking to me just how much happens in this episode. The way the characters are able to defeat the Zentradi is nothing short of brilliant. Not only do they blow stuff up, they also SING. Yeah, singing brings down an alien armada. Only in Robotech, people.
Even after the main conflict is over Rick speeds to help his new romantic foil, bridge officer Lisa, escape from the crumbling Alaska Base. To describe this episode in any more detail would ruin it, so go check it out for yourself.
Episode 29: The Robotech Masters
In any other series, “Force of Arms” would have been the finale. But nope, we get nine episodes of fallout from the war and it is glorious. The Earth was turned into a wasteland and humanity has to pick up the pieces. The peace they’ve made with the Zentradi is tenuous at best. Some of the Zentradi are still giant sized and don’t like having to conform to a human lifestyle. Khyron, who survived the final attack, uses this growing dissatisfaction to rebuild his army. Like any war, the aftermath can be just as hard to navigate as the conflict itself and there aren’t any easy answers.
Also, Minmei’s star is slowly falling and her relationship with Lynn Kyle has quickly turned abusive. Not just physically but emotionally as well. It’s tough to watch but it finally makes you feel sympathy for Minmei. Much like soldiers in the war, she was thrust into the spotlight at an early age and it’s done some real damage to her psyche.
Plus, we get some glorious set up for The Masters Saga.
Robotech: The Masters Saga
Episode 37: False Start
We again kick off another saga of Robotech by skipping its first episode. You didn’t miss anything; it’s just a clip show. Here we meet our new lead character Dana Sterling and she instantly makes an impression. The daughter of Max and Miriya from the Macross saga, Dana on the surface seems carefree and a bit of brat, but as the episode plays out we see there’s more to her.
This is where the melding of the three series really starts to shine. With Dana having to live up to the reputation of her well respected parents, she’s constantly having to prove herself and fight an uphill battle for recognition. Plus, she hasn’t seen her parents in years. This girl has a lot on her shoulders but no matter what she keeps on smiling. The Masters saga gets a lot of crap from Robotech fans, but Dana is criminally underrated.
Episode 44: The Trap
Robotech hasn’t had many video games but I’m kind of shocked we never got one based on this episode. Dana’s squad runs around the interiors of an alien ship that’s clearly modeled after ancient Rome! Forking corridors, mysterious alien labs, and closing gates blocking your escape! This episode has got it all! The team comradely is on delightful display as they banter and bicker while exploring. It’s just a fun outing that sets up the strange world of the Robotech Masters. Plus, Bowie flirts with an alien cause she has a dope cosmic harp. My man.
Episode 47: Outsiders
Ah, characters dealing with deep emotional issues. My favorite! Dana doubts herself right from the start and while Sean mocks Dana and Bowie for falling in love, he then goes to extreme lengths just to see Marie in the hospital. That’s right, the soap opera level antics didn’t end with the Macross saga! Ah, Sean Phillips. One of my favorite character archetypes. The ‘cool’ guy who acts like he never has a problem with anything but secretly is hiding a boatload of insecurity’s.
We also get some of that classic Robotech world building with Major John Carpenter returning from his mission with Rick Hunter. Yep, between sagas Rick and company flew off on a quest to find and make peace with the Robotech Masters.
Spoiler: it didn’t work out so well and Carpenter gives them all the bad news. They won’t be getting relief from the SDF-3 mission anytime soon. Hinting at further adventures we don’t see on screen excites the imagination. Even if we can’t see the Macross characters, thanks to the footage not supporting it, we at least know they’re still out there.
The Robotech novels would have a field day with this.
Episode 48: Déjà vu
Quite possibly one of the funniest episodes of Robotech, “Déjà vu” lowers the stakes a bit and the biggest conflict of the episode is whether the characters can sneak into a hospital. It’s nice to see everyone outside the stressful rigors of day to day military life. They get to have fun! Act wacky! Make silly voices! My favorite bit is when Angelo gives their excuse for sneaking in and Louie calls him on just how stupid it is,
“Maintenance wants us to fix a ruptured ion gun in one of your x-ray units.”
“By the way, ion guns guns don’t rupture.”
“Rupture-schmupture, it got us in didn’t it?”
This is as good a time as any to point out that by all accounts, when Robotech goes up on Netflix it will be the remastered version of the series. There’s a lot of fanboy nitpicking to be had about this, but basically back in the mid 2000’s the show was cleaned up and included “additional footage not seen on television.” That footage was mostly extended bits of violence and random segments of nudity and “fan service.” This episode includes one of those when Dana is scaling the wall and you can briefly see her panties. There’s no reason for this shot to be included and it takes you out of the episode.
If you can, seek out the original broadcast versions of Robotech, available on Amazon. While they aren’t as sharp looking as the remastered versions, they at least don’t have these needless shots and they also include the original sound effects. This a fan nitpick, but if you’re getting into the series for the first time it’s something that should be mentioned.
Episodes 59-60: The Invid Connection/Catastrophe
Like I mentioned, The Masters saga gets crapped over by a lot of Robotech fans. Which is a shame, because it actually has the best finale of the three arcs. New Gen’s still doesn’t make much sense after all these years. “You shouldn’t hate the Invid because your girlfriend probably would have been killed anyway.” What. Macross’ is good but it lacks the comradery seen here. After spending so much time with this team, we’re sad to see them face such a desperate final battle. Macross might have the more memorable characters, but they sometimes felt a little disconnected from each other. The Masters team is right in it till the end, even when they lose some of their own.
We also get a classic Robotech infodump with all of the backstory about the original Zor and a brief glimpse of a sister Dana never knew she had. More world building goodness! Plus, the final moments are devoid of hope. That’s a ballsy move, to have your characters basically fail in their mission, but it perfectly sets up the New Generation and gives it an incredible amount of weight. The Earth is screwed.
Robotech: New Generation
Episode 61: Invid Invasion
This is without a doubt my favorite episode of Robotech. From the opening seconds it has an atmosphere that’s never been recaptured in any form of media. The stirring and truly alien score. The haunting narration. The abstract visuals. Some have called the narration in Robotech overdone, but I love it. It perfectly recaps everything that happened between the two sagas and again leaves the door open for further adventures.
“The armies of the Southern Cross, weary from constant battles with the Robotech Masters, are no match for the inspired battle hungry Invid.”
Yeah, a whole comic series was written about that. The soldiers sent to liberate the planet at the start of this episode were born in outer space and have no connection to the Earth. When Scott Bernard, our leading character, lands on Earth? He hates it. He seeks shelter from the rain and despises the forest.
“The Earth’s native splendor is lost on me. There’s too many places here for an enemy to hide. Give me a scorched Martian desert any day.”
As Scott shivers in the cockpit of his mecha, he doubts his mission. Is he in over his head? Can he survive? Well, you’ll have to watch and find out.
Plus, he’s got a transforming motorcycle that becomes battle armor. Sure, mecha’s are cool, but I prefer the Cyclone’s. Ground based combat always makes me care about a character more than zipping around in spaceships.
Episode 63: Lonely Soldier Boy
The great thing about New Generation in compared to the other sagas? They have a small cast. No endless generals, bridge crews, or enemy commanders. Just a small group of freedom fighters with distinct designs and personalities. Here we get the full team with the addition of Lunk, Rand, and my favorite of the bunch, Yellow Dancer/Lancer.
Yeah, I’m just going to spend this whole entry talking about Lancer because he’s amazing. Having a crossdressing character in an 80’s cartoon show is near unheard of, especially when it’s never treated as a joke. Lancer crossdresses and makes fun of anyone who doesn’t take it seriously. When he straight up fucks with the team at the end of this episode with a wink and a smile, you know this dude is comfortable in his own body whether he’s wearing a dress or pants.
Having such a gender bending character is something series (both kid and adult) struggle to include even today, so the fact Robotech had one back in 1985? It just proves how ahead of its time Robotech was.
Episode 65: Curtain Call
This is just another fun one. The stakes are low, just robbing the Invid of some protoculture, but we get a whole crazy plan that involves a concert from Yellow Dancer, balloons, and nearly drowning. Annie is especially hilarious here, stirring the crowd up into storming the stage.
I have a special place in my heart for 80’s synth, and the Yellow Dancer songs perfectly fit there. Michael Bradley absolutely crushes it with ‘Look Up The Sky Is Falling’ as he does with his other contributions to the series. Sure, the singing doesn’t even come close to matching the lip flaps but who cares?
Sometimes you just need a good action romp and “Curtain Call” delivers.
Episode 68: Eulogy
It’s rare when a TV series can create a compelling and tragic character in less than half an hour but god damn, “Eulogy” makes it look like nothing. Jonathan Wolfe, a veteran of Rick Hunter’s mission, is discovered to still be alive on Earth and Scott is overjoyed. Wolfe is Scott’s hero and he’s ready to drop his team in a heartbeat if it means getting to work with someone he holds in such high regard.
No big shocker, but hero worship will always bite you in the ass. It’s a testament to just how memorable Wolfe is, with wanting peace at all costs to the point of betraying humanity, that he’s popped in so many spin off Robotech titles. From the novels to the comics, Wolfe’s backstory has been filled in countless times over and it’s amazing that one episode was able to leave such an impression.
Episode 70: Enter Marlene
Ah, crushed hopes. A recurring theme in Robotech, even if they more or less bounce back every time. Here, Scott thinks the team is heading towards six thousand reinforcements. NOPE. They’ve all been decimated. Scott is not getting any more help. His team rightly gives him shit for taking it out on them. Scott may be the leader, but he’s not absolved of his shitty actions.
With death fresh on his mind, can you blame Scott for wanting to graft the name of his dead lover onto the alien girl they’ve just found? I mean yeah, it’s creepy, but Scott needs something to anchor him. Something to remind him that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
Episode 79: Frostbite
If you haven’t noticed by now, I love when characters just get to sit around and chill. In this case it’s pretty literal as the team makes their way through a snowy mountain. They’re at each other’s throats when they discover an abandoned city. Scott wants to load up and keep moving, but Rand and Annie protest.
“Give it a rest, Scott. I mean I know you were born in outer space and this place may not be very important to you.”“But we were born right here on Earth. This place is an important part of our historical heritage.”
Again we see how much war has changed the human race. Scott’s not even from Earth and struggles to find a connection with it. Rand and the others have known nothing but fighting their whole lives. As is perhaps Robotech’s biggest theme, war isn’t glorious. It destroys people. It destroys lives. Throughout New Gen, we see what the endless fighting has made the human race and what it will take to bring it back to what it once was. Even in that darkness however, there is still hope. There are still people who fight for what’s right even up against insurmountable odds.
So that’s where to get started with Robotech. I could honestly write entries about every episode of the show as they all add new layers to the saga, but I’ll leave it at this. If this kind of storytelling interests you, I highly suggest you seek out the novels based on the series by Jack McKinney. They help to smooth over some of the awkward timeline and translation issues while greatly expanding the scope of the universe.
I can’t stress enough that Robotech is a fascinating series to behold. The more you learn about it, from both an in universe and behind the scenes perspective, it slowly grabs a hold of you. As Roy Fokker said in the first episode,
“This Robotech thing was just so exciting I couldn’t give it up. It just gets in your blood or something, I don’t know.”
Check out Robotech now that it’s on Netflix and see if it gets in your blood.
Shamus Kelley is a pop culture/television writer and official Power Rangers expert. Follow him on Twitter! He also co-hosts a Robotech podcast, which covers the original series and the new comics. Give it a listen! Read more articles by him here!