Voltron: Legendary Defender succeeds where most reboots fail because it isn’t a slave to the source material. While the original ’80s Voltron is a fondly remembered piece of pop culture history, on rewatch it obviously can’t hold up to modern day storytelling.
Part of that is because at the time it was made, cartoons just didn’t do complicated arc based storytelling for the most part. The other element that held the original series back was the slapdash adaptation of the original Japanese anime Beast King GoLion. When you aren’t making your own show and have to edit around a sometimes extremely violent Japanese series, you’ll lose something in translation. Even the last batch of original Voltron episodes that were specifically commissioned for America were hamstrung by what had come before.
So making an original series should remove the problems, right? Well, when Voltron was brought back in 1998 as Voltron: The Third Dimension and 2011 as Voltron Force, both series were original productions. The problem was they heavily drew on the mythology and tone established in the American Voltron. While both series have their fans, they failed to really connect with a mass audience. They were too devoted to the patchwork series that had come before.
When executive producers Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery came on to create Voltron: Legendary Defender they knew there wasn’t much to draw on with the ’80s series. “Our first experiences with Voltron were very superficial because we didn’t remember anything deep about it,” Dos Santos recalls. “We remembered the visuals and remembered big pillars and story arcs. When we went back there wasn’t a ton there because they had to edit it all crazy style.”
However, when they went back and watched Beast King GoLion? “We went whoa. This is crazy.” Both Dos Santos and Montgomery quickly seized on the depth of GoLion although story editor Tim Hedrick confirms that GoLion really only influences the tone of the series and not any of the plot points. “(We’re) taking more of a serious approach than the American version which was more fluffy then the original Japanese which was very heavy and serious,” says Hedrick. “We try to pull those kind of stakes out of that and maintain that.”
The team behind the series was aware of how iconic Voltron was so they made sure to maintain the surface elements that made the American Voltron so popular including most of the character names, certain catchphrases, and the sense of teamwork.
What about Vehicle Voltron or its Japanese counterpart Armored Fleet Dairugger XV? Both Montgomery and Dos Santos cop to being Lion Voltron fans, although Dos Santos admits, “we looked at imagery of what we now know as the Galaxy Garrison in the original 84 series and that seeped in there without us really realizing it.” For those not in the know, the footage of Galaxy Garrison in the original Voltron came from Dairugger.
Dos Santos does admit that, in revisiting Vehicle Voltron, he did find some merit in it. “There’s this big fleet in space aspect to it. I think anything is on the table in terms of whether he (Vehicle Voltron) shows up or whether versions of that show ever shows up.”
So if the original Voltron only inspired surface elements and GoLion the tone of the series, what other sources did the team draw from?
“All the things I love,” answers Montgomery. She points to to the epic ’80s science fiction animated series Robotech as a huge influence on Voltron.
“I love Robotech. A lot of our Galaxy Garrison influences are very Robotech based. Going out into space and having these incredible space battles. A lot of that is stuff we watched and loved in Robotech.”
Dos Santos adds that Robotech was his first introduction to depth of character in an animated series. “Characters had relationships, like genuine romantic relationships and it wasn’t to sell a million toys, it’s because it was the right thing for the characters.”
Dos Santos is also quick to praise how Robotech handled death, “People died and stayed dead. That was really important. It sounds cheesy, almost hokey now, but that was a life lesson for me as a kid. That was something I had to absorb and deal with and come to terms with.”
A tribute to Robotech can be spotted during the opening episode of Voltron: Legendar Defender. As Lance sneaks out of the Academy he passes by a character that strongly resembles Roy Fokker, a main Robotech character.
The series is a “giant pillar” for both Montgomery and Dos Santhos but it isn’t the only anime series they drew influence from. They count Cowboy Bebop, Gurren Lagann, and many of the Gainax series amongst their Japanese animation inspirations. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is also huge for both of them. Montgomery says, “we have a lot of technology based things and screens popping up and there’s just so much in our show from Ghost in the Shell that we use a lot.”
Dos Santos also marvels, “they were doing stuff in the 2000’s that we’re still looking at and going, ‘how did they do this on a TV budget? How did they pull this off?’ It’s crazy!”
The two also reference many non-anime series as well, Montgomery comparing the Enterprise from Star Trek to the Castle Ship. Dos Santos tries to mimic the “unabashedly over the top” types of aliens Star Wars had. “We weren’t limited like the original (Voltron) series was were you had to do a very humanoid characters all the time with different styles of antenna we could go any shape, any style we wanted.”
Dos Santos also points to the reimagined Battlestar Galactica as a template they used for updating Voltron.
“I’m nostalgic for the original but the new series took that concept and took it to a whole new level and we’re trying to do something similar with Voltron.”
By bringing in these influences from other series, along with the surface elements of the American Voltron series, and the tone of GoLion, the people behind Voltron: Legendary Defender were able to make the Voltron franchise feel fresh and new.
It’s no longer just a fond nostalgia trip from the ’80s. It’s not shackled to the original series’ story lines, universe, and characters. Voltron: Legendary Defender is its own powerhouse series that has the potential to run for years.
Check out some of the series the Dos Santos and Montgomery mentioned. They’ll help you understand why Voltron: Legendary Defender is the best series on TV.
Shamus Kelley needs more Robotech references in Voltron. That or a “Women of Voltron” ad. Follow him on Twitter!