Binge 'n' Purge - Vehicle Voltron
“From days of long ago, from uncharted regions of the universe comes a legend…”
If you grew up in the 80s, well, you’ll recognize this as the opening of Voltron: Defender of the Universe…and when you hear that name, you more than likely snap to a very specific image, the robot formed from five separate lion ‘bots. After all, this was the basis for not only the show in the 80s but also the CG-animated Voltron: The Third Dimension show from the 90s, the Nicktoons 2-season sequel series Voltron Force and the currently running Netflix reboot Voltron: Legendary Defender [Which you still need to write at least SOMETHING about. – Ed.]. But what many have forgotten (although some can remember with just a little bit of prodding) is that this isn’t the only Voltron. No, World Events Productions (WEP) licensed two other Japanese shows to air on syndication. Their plan was that the Lion Voltron we’re all familiar with was to be the Voltron of the Far Universe, while their two other series, Dairugger XV and Lightspeed Electroid Albegas were to be the Voltrons of the Near Universe and the Middle Universe respectively. You can see this plan in play from the mid-80s Matchbox toy releases. But while Lion Force Voltron became one of the most iconic toys/shows from the 80s, Vehicle Voltron failed to meet the expectations established by its predecessor…so much in fact that the plans for Gladiator Voltron were completely scrapped. The question needs to be asked, does Vehicle Voltron deserve the niche status it currently has? Was it truly a bad series…or was there something else at work here?
As mentioned above, Lion Voltron was adapted from an original Japanese series just like the Vehicle Voltron but unlike Lion Voltron, the story behind Vehicle Voltron was surprisingly mature. The livable planets within the Galaxy Alliance have become overpopulated, so a fleet of ships, with Voltron as their guardian, are sent to find worlds that can sustain life and be prepped for colonization. All the while, the Drule Empire, which the Galaxy Alliance fleet has entered in their search, is suffering from a similar problem but to add to that, the Drule homeworld has fallen into environmental ruin…with the destruction of the planet imminent. Add to that the fact that a high-ranking official within the Empire finds himself at odds with the ruling class in wishing to work with the humans for mutual benefit as opposed to fighting them and on the surface we have here something that would be incredibly dense for an adult, to say nothing of a wee cartoon watching lad or lass. Thus, we have a story wherein our protagonists are not completely on the side of right…after all, they’re trespassing as well as engaging in a potential war that they started by doing so…and our antagonists, the Drules, aren’t all evil with some of them even wanting to work in cooperation. In context, this wouldn’t be too different to the complex stories Harmony Gold’s Robotech was doing at around the same time. [Strangely enough, another US series that was made up of three completely unrelated anime series. – Ed.] Yet Robotech continues to live on in fandom while Vehicle Voltron remains vaguely remembered at best.
Probably the biggest reason for this is the sheer popularity of the first series: the Lion Force. Sure, there’s the whole overshadowing thing, but there’s more to it than that. My first argument would be that given the runaway success the first Voltron series became, the folks at WEP didn’t want to stray too far from what they felt to be a winning formula: problem of the day, robeast, Voltron, done. While that’s the most simple version, also factor in a smaller regular cast (the 5 lion pilots, Corran and Nanny, King Zarkon, Prince Lotor, Witch Haggar) as well as fixed antagonists (Zarkon, Lotor and Haggar were always evil…always) and we see that Vehicle Voltron is a much different show and story, hell, just with the sheer fact that there are FIFTEEN pilots now, not to mention their support staff and commanding officers! Not only does this end up impacting the story (with the potential for more than three times the number of character arcs) but the logistics of the show as well. You see, Vehicle Voltron retained the same voice-over cast as the Lion Force Voltron did…so you’ve got the same number of voice actors having to create many more voices. Sure, this cast had some voice acting legends in it (Neil Ross, Michael Bell, Peter Cullen, Jack Angel, BJ Ward and Lennie Weinrib) but even they can only do so much! And since we’re talking about character arcs, the fact that members of the Drule Empire actually have arcs that transition them from serving their Empire to wanting to broker peace with the humans against the Empire’s wishes might have been a complication. Think about the other cartoons airing at the time: no Cobras ever joined the Joes, no Decepticons ever shed their sigil for that of the Autobots (okay, there was that instance where Blitzwing almost did but didn’t) and even with Lion Voltron, no one from Zarkon’s side [Weren’t they ALSO Drules? – Ed.] transitioned over to the side of the Voltron Force. The sides of good and evil were clear cut and never to be intertwined…I think maybe Robotech might have been the only other series to attempt this back in the day. [And we’ll be referring back to that series quite a bit before this is all said and done. – Ed.] Then there’s the matter of confusion that has been brought up and I can see the point that can be made here. Given the popularity of the Lion Force…as well as the fact that it aired first…that group of space explorers and their robot became readily identifiable as Voltron. So when a new robot shows up with a whole new human cast to go with it, sure, this would give rise to some befuddlement. And yet…Robotech managed to pull this off better. [Are you sure? Everyone remembers the Valkyries/Varitechs from the Macross section of it while the other mecha are met with the same hazy recollection as Vehicle Voltron is usually met with. – Ed.] Okay, let me rephrase: this charge of confusion isn’t levied against Robotech the way it is against Vehicle Voltron. Perhaps this can be addressed in two ways: first, Robotech had some narration that tied all three series together (granted, this reasoning doesn’t work for viewers that missed the first episode of subsequent series, i.e. the Robotech Masters saga and New Generation) and second that the viewership for Robotech skewed older than that of Voltron…which leads to the next point.
Like its preceding series, Vehicle Voltron had any blood and death edited out and anyone still shown to die on screen was either a robot, had escaped off-screen or had passed out and would be rushed to “Space Hospital”. [Alas, poor Sven… - Ed.] Any attack ships that were sent out that I think we can all safely assume were piloted vehicles…those too became “robot ships” or “robot fighters”. While noticeable, it doesn’t really impede the story of Lion Voltron which had a blend of both fantasy and sci-fi elements and tended to skew younger. With the more serious sci-fi disposition of the Vehicle Voltron series, this type of sanitation ends up coming across as tone deaf in nearly every instance where it occurs. It becomes clear in watching the first handful of episodes that Vehicle Voltron feels more like Robotech and, as such, perhaps WEP should have allowed the show to be more geared toward an older audience. Combining the change in titular robot with this dramatic shift in tone, abandoning the lighter/younger tone of Lion Voltron, and the aforementioned case for confusion seems to make sense. Sure, Robotech is very clearly three unrelated series stitched together, yet the narrative thread of that stitching and the fact that the three series feel similar (thanks to them all being produced by Tatsunoko Productions) somehow makes it work. The Voltron franchise was set up similarly: three series produced by Toei Animation brought to the US by WEP to be adapted as a singular story with Galaxy Garrison proving to be the central hub of the wheel. While the third series focusing on Gladiator Voltron (from the aforementioned Albegas series) was never adapted, killed due to the poor performance of Vehicle Voltron, one cannot help but wonder if WEP had aimed this series more toward tweens and teens and less toward kids if we would have gotten that third series. [You’re forgetting that toy sales were a vital factor too. That’s what killed Robotech, for example. – Ed.]
Enough speculation though, how is the show as a whole? Well, the concept I described above is pretty cool and at times it does live up to that more mature premise…however the show can get bogged down in a few ways. First, it tries to adhere too much to the formula of the Lion Voltron shows that came before it, as stated before, and it feels a little too forced. Perhaps the best way to explain this is in an analogy: Lion Voltron is to Star Wars as Vehicle Voltron is to Star Trek. Star Wars is better at some aspects of storytelling given its roots in mythology while Star Trek is better at other aspects of storytelling given its more grounded scientific approach. While I’m sure there’s some room for crossover, for the most part you wouldn’t want to tell a Star Wars story in a grounded Star Trek sort of way any more than you would tell a Star Trek story in a grandiose mythological Star Wars way…and this is the crime Vehicle Voltron ends up being guilty of. A side note to this is that the “Robeast of the week” formula gets awfully old, again, especially given the more mature plot set-up we’re given. The next point ties in with the more complicated dispositions of the protagonists and antagonists. While this makes for a more engaging narrative…well, unfortunately it can get confusing for both the viewer and, as becomes very apparent in some of the episodes, the writers as well. For example, the main Drule commander seeking to make peace with the Voltron Force, and thus Galaxy Garrison, is named Hazar…yet there will be episodes where he seems to completely abandon this wish, attacking the Voltron Force, only to return to it in time for the next episode. Given the serial/sequential nature of the storytelling, this can result in some serious confusion. Not helping matters is the fact that Vehicle Voltron, like many imported anime series to the US, can have episodes that are constructed from scenes taken from more than one episode of the parent Japanese series, also resulting in some continuity kerfuffles. While it sounds like I’m being all negative, again, I have to state that the core premise of the show is great and even though getting to the end can be a bit of a slog, it’s worth it to get there. Sure, the series climax is hamstrung by the whole ‘no killing/they escaped’ thing, but overall I felt it to be pretty satisfying. For its age, I have to admit that the animation still holds up and the visuals hold their own and occasionally surpass those of Lion Voltron.
To wrap up, if we’re honest with ourselves, neither Voltron series is as good as we remember it being. Seriously, go back and watch the Lion Force stuff again if you think I’m being harsh. And while flawed, I don’t think Vehicle Voltron deserves the bum rap it has gotten all these years. Yes, it’s VERY different from Lion Voltron but that’s not bad. In fact, given that it tries to tackle a very complicated and fairly mature premise, it really deserves more credit than what it gets. Still, I can’t deny that Vehicle Voltron falls victim to being a square peg being forced into the round hole that Lion Voltron established before it. A self-imposed formula toward the plot, a rule against death/bloodshed and an oversimplification of the story to pander to a younger audience ends up holding Vehicle Voltron back from greatness and as such, ends up depriving viewers and fans of a third chapter that will never be. I certainly can recommend the series for those who have ever been curious about this offshoot to what has become a very Lion Force Voltron-centric mythology. If you’re coming at this with the more sophisticated perspective of age, well, this might be tough to get through…but with the complicated antagonists that are the Drule Empire, I’d still argue that Vehicle Voltron is still worth an attempt to get through if for no other reason than its attempt to introduce some moral grays in an era of children’s cartoons that was replete with nothing but black and white absolutes.
Tracking this series down on DVD might be a little difficult, as Amazon has the first volume, the Air Team, for approximately $500 so you'll probably want to scour ebay or the wide array of stores on the internet...but the remaining two teams, the Land Team and the Sea Team are pretty cheap.