WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Voltron Legendary Defender season 8.
With the end of Voltron Legendary Defender Season 8, the most hardcore fans of the franchise finally got what they wanted. A direct acknowledgement of Vehicle Voltron. For all the new fans however, you’re probably left scratching your head. What the hell is Chip? Why is there a giant helicopter?
Well I’m here to help. Let’s take a look back at the forgotten entry in the Voltron franchise, Vehicle Voltron.
So, sit yourself down and really ask yourself… what do you know about Vehicle Voltron? Can you name any of the characters (besides Chip)? What was their goal? How many vehicles made up the combined Voltron? What were the Vehicles?
Unless you’re a hardcore Voltron fan you could maybe answer one of those. Ask the same questions about Lion Force Voltron and even the most casual of nerds could answer most of them.
Why does no one remember Vehicle Voltron? It came out at the same time as Lion Force Voltron and actually alternated airing with it in many markets. Why does Lion Force endure with two sequels, a Netflix reboot, and endless pop culture references while Vehicle Voltron has only managed to scrape out one Robot Chicken sketch and a wink and nod reference at the end of the new series? Why does everyone gravitate to the lions instead of the vehicles?
I kinda answered my own question there, didn’t I? Let’s get real; it’s easier for pop culture to get behind five primary color lions instead of fifteen boring vehicles.
But just because Ryan Reynolds isn’t trading in tickets for a sweet Air Team Strato Fighter ring, doesn’t mean the show is totally without merit. After all, lots of great shows fail to break into pop culture.
In a precious break between seasons of Voltron Legendary Defender, I decided to give Vehicle Voltron a shot. I knew people didn’t like it as much as Lion Force and that made me want to love it more. Hey, I’ve always rooted for the underdog.
What Went Right With Vehicle Voltron
Okay, so the story of the series is basically that Earth is overpopulated so they send out a team of explorers, with Vehicle Voltron, to find a new world to colonize. They quickly come into conflict with the Drule Empire, a race whose world is dying and they’re also looking for a new planet to colonize. The two groups often fight over habitable worlds all while various commanders in both forces vie for peace.
That’s an awesome concept, right? Moral ambiguity. Compelling motives on both sides that don’t just boil down to good versus evil. It’s a story engine that provides a lot of variety in plots. There’s no shortage of political machinations, exploring, and action.
In an early episode, Vehicle Voltron discovers the planet they’re exploring is being terraformed by the Drules and they have a serious discussion over whether they should take the planet for themselves. One of the explorer scientists points out the Drules need to expand as much as the humans do and that the Drules are actually repairing the environment of the planet. Some of the Voltron team members protest, but the assertion that “We’re space explorers, not space pirates” wins out in the end.
It’s the kind of discussion you’d expect on a good episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Speaking as someone who sat through every episode of Lion Force Voltron, this sort of mature storytelling was shocking.
One could actually argue the Drules are the real main characters of the series. Many episodes are devoted to the society of the Drules and they slowly reveal to the audience that most of the Drule population is caught in the middle of this war and wants no part of it. The political leaders of the Drule Empire would rather score a major victory over the Galaxy Alliance instead of tend to the needs of the people and their dying world.
Commander Hazar, the main Drule, constantly tries to initiate peace talks with the Galaxy Alliance but is rebuked at every turn by his superiors. Hazar is loyal to his people and won’t disobey them, but over the course of the series he learns he may have to betray his people in order to save them. It’s shockingly compelling stuff.
On the Galaxy Alliance side, we actually get some elements that Lion Force was lacking. You know how the subtitle of the series is “Defender of the Universe”? Well the Lion Force team never seemed to do a whole lot of defending of the universe. They mostly chilled in the Castle of Lions and waited for Zarkon to show up.
In Vehicle Voltron, the team is out and about in the universe. While they aren’t technically defending it, they are trying to find a new world first and foremost, they do come to the aid of many alien species, far more then we ever saw in Lion Force. I’m a sucker for space travel, especially in animated series, and Vehicle Voltron has plenty of it.
It’s also nice that we get a somewhat more diverse group of characters for the Voltron pilots. Some are visibly aliens and some are humans from colony worlds. The diversity could have gone much farther (let’s be real, there are more blue people than any POC) but at least it’s better than Lion Force. Plus the aliens actually look different from humans, unlike Allura who was from an alien planet but looked as human as any of the other pilots.
What Went Wrong With Vehicle Voltron
It was a cartoon in the ’80s.
Okay, that’s a really easy answer but hear me out. ’80s cartoons were not equipped to tell the kind of long form story Vehicle Voltron was attempting. ’80s cartoons were largely structured around one and done stories. Status quo was king. As much as Vehicle Voltron tried to have progression in its plots, every new development in the war seemed to get reset by the end of the episode. Small incremental changes did happen, but they took most of the series to really amount to anything. You basically end up with characters going,
“We should maybe try and talk to the humans.”“We should maybe try and talk to the Drules.”
A meeting between the two happens every so often but it always ends with one of the humans going, “Well, we met one good Drule but the rest are intent on waging a useless war.”
Which is hilarious considering Earth is the bigger asshole in this conflict. What? It’s true! You could maybe file this under good parts of the show, but the way the series portrays the two species is kind of messed up. You see, Earth just needs new worlds. Sure they have an overcrowded population but it doesn’t seem too bad. No one’s starving in the streets or anything.
The Drules on the other hand? Their world is dying out. If they don’t get a new planet soon every single man, woman, and child will be dust. So hey, maybe the Galaxy Alliance shouldn’t be such dicks to them! They make nice with the peace talks but most of the Alliance leaders just want the Drules wiped out so they can get their own planets as quickly as possible.
If this was an intentional plot point I’d be all for it, but the series constantly paints the Drules as the bad ones simply for wanting to survive. Yeah, some of the Drule commanders are pretty evil but they at least have a reason.
Again, it was an ’80s show. We can’t sympathize with our enemy, that’d be crazy!
At least we sort of care about the Drules. I couldn’t care less about the Vehicle Voltron team. Yeah, you know…them. Our supposed main characters. All fifteen of them. Oh dear god. That’s the main flaw of the show. Right there. Fifteen pilots.
It would take a skilled writer in modern kids TV to balance that many characters. In the 80’s? Good luck. The three commanders of the air, land, and sea teams (more on those in a second) get the most development, as much as you’d expect from an 80’s show. The three girls get a little focus thankfully but it’s mostly because two of them maybe have a thing for Jeff, the air team pilot.
The rest of the cast? You might get one episode about them if you’re lucky. Don’t even bother trying to remember their names, as there’s just too many of them. The series is stuck trying to use the same small group of voice actors from Lion Force to voice this entire cast and boy, does it hurt to hear sometimes. Some of the voices are just straight up the same ones from Lion Force or they’re borderline racist caricatures.
Why did anyone in the creation of this show think that many main characters was a good idea? Not only do you have the fifteen pilots, but you’ve also got about ten supporting Galaxy Alliance characters and about ten various commanders on the Drule side. I know I compared this series to Star Trek earlier, but Deep Space Nine this ain’t.
The series also had a horrible problem with ending every episode as light hearted as possible. I get it; in dubbing the show they had to edit out as much death and violence as possible. Totally understand. Vehicle Voltron takes it to another level though. In one episode, the Vehicle team members disobey orders and this leads to a whole squadron getting wiped out. Like legit murdered. There should maybe be some consequences here, right? Time in the brig, maybe? A stern talking to, perhaps?
No, this is what happens.
“Your punishment for forming Voltron without authorization? Eating Ice Cream with vegi-sauce.”
Everyone laughs, probably as those squadron’s family members are being sent word of their deaths. It was in that moment I stopped trying to take Vehicle Voltron seriously.
Let’s talk about the Voltron robot itself for a minute. It’s fifteen vehicles. Fifteen land, sea, and air based vehicles. That’s… really boring. The final combined robot looks fine, but the individual pieces suck. When you’re doing a combining mecha show, it’s imperative the single pieces of that mecha are fun and interesting all on their own.
Here? Man, sucks if you’re Voltron’s inner leg. You look like crap! Plus, that whole land, air, and sea team thing is kind of useless. All of the vehicles can fly! Why do you need an air team if everyone can fly?
It’s also a shame the show doesn’t have a more direct connection with Lion Force Voltron. I understand they’re different shows in Japan but Robotech, a contemporary of Voltron, was able to make three different shows all flow together far better than Vehicle and Lion did. Vehicle Voltron is just off on some other side of the universe and has no bearing on Lion Force’s plot.
So you’ve got bad pacing, underdeveloped characters, and a bad mecha. Those are some huge strikes against Vehicle Voltron but let’s be real, Lion Force suffered some of those same problems to.
Why Lion Force Thrived And Vehicle Force Died
Okay, first off Lion Force clearly had amazing mecha. Those Lions are some of the coolest looking things to come out of the ’80s. You don’t even need to see a single episode of that show to look at those things and go, “Oh hot damn, these are my jam.” No one will dispute how awesome those mecha are.
As for Lion Force’s characters and story? They uh, they kinda sucked. I mean really, what do we know about Keith? Not a whole lot. The characters who ends up getting most of the focus is Allura and that’s only because her backstory is so connected with the lions.
The thing is? At least I kind of care about Allura. Way more then I cared about any of the Vehicle team members, that’s for sure. It’s really hard to care about fifteen mostly blank slate characters. Everyone gets lost in the shuffle. Just look at their uniforms. You can’t tell them apart!
The only character that I ever truly cared about in Vehicle Voltron was Chip, who was rewritten in the English version to be the twin brother of Pidge from Lion Force. In probably the best episode of the series, everyone on the team gets a letter from home except for Chip. He’s scared that not only might his folks have forgotten him, but also they might be hiding some critical news about Pidge. Maybe he’s dead?
To hide these fears from the rest of the team he writes a fake letter from home and retreats into isolation for the rest of the episode. He’s scared of what will happen to him and if he’ll ever see his family again. He of course steps up by the end of the episode with this little declaration, “Just because I’ve been a wimp doesn’t mean I have to stay a wimp.”
But that’s only one episode out of fifty and it’s telling that the main part of Chip’s appeal was solely rooted in him being related to a Lion Force character. While I don’t think any of the Lion Force members got an episode as strong as Chip had, they ended up getting way more to do over the entire run of their show.
The plot of Lion Force was arguably worse than Vehicle Voltron, with way fewer attempts at serialization and even more one and done tales. Those stand alone episodes would also wildly vary in quality, most them being fairly forgettable. The plot was almost always that Zarkon sends down a Robeast and the team has got to fight it by forming Voltron.
But you know what? That formula was succesful. Yeah, it kinda sucks watching it thirty years later, but it works. Especially for the ’80s, most kids wanted that kind of easy repetition. You always knew Voltron was going to form up in the end and bust out the blazing sword. Some fans may protest there’s more to the show then that, but look at what the number one compliant about the new series is from old fans.
“They don’t do the combining sequence and use the blazing sword.”
Those kind of repetitive elements get stuck in our minds. Since those lions were such a cool visual, it’s no wonder Lion Force survived over Vehicle. Sure the characters and plots weren’t especially great in both shows, but Lion Force at least had easier elements to get behind. Fewer characters. A world that had a layer of Star Wars like magic. An easier to get behind fight of good v. evil
For as complex as Vehicle Voltron was, it just wasn’t the right time for it to properly explore those moral grays it set up. It may be interesting now looking back on it, but there’s no way kids of the day were going to stick with it.
I do however believe that a reboot of Vehicle Voltron could work. Hell, it’d be a great sequel to Voltron Legendary Defender. All the elements I outlined in the “What Went Right” section make for some compelling stuff. Actually, if you took out the Voltron elements and just focused on the hard sci fi story it wouldn’t make a half bad Syfy original series these days. Yeah, it’d be kind of awesome! Battlestar Galactica the hell out of Vehicle Voltron!
If you’ve seen Legendary Defender and you’re interested in checking out Vehicle Voltron, I’d first recommend watching all of Lion Force. If after that you’re really into style of old school Voltron, give Vehicle a shot. It has a lot of flaws but it has a lot to offer if you can get past when it was made.