Voltron: Defender Of The Universe - Collection One Review

From days long ago, from uncharted regions of the universe, comes a legend: the legend of Voltron, defender of the universe. A mighty robot, loved by good, feared by evil. As Voltron's legend grew, peace settled across the galaxy. On planet Earth, a galaxy alliance was formed. Together with the good planets of the solar system, they maintained peace throughout the universe, until a new horrible menace threatened the galaxy. Voltron was needed once more. This is the story of the super force of space explorers, specially trained and sent by the Alliance to bring back Voltron, defender of the universe!

You have to imagine Peter Cullen saying that.

And so we join five young heroes: Keith, Sven, Hunk, Lance and Pidge, as they defend planet Arus, ruled by Princess Allura, from the invading forces of King Zarkon who resides over the unimaginatively named Planet Doom. Together they must repel the evil witch Haggar’s Robeasts with the help of five powerful robot lions, that when united form the greatest robot warrior in the galaxy.


Like Macross and Gatchaman in the early to mid part of the eighties, Hyakujuu-o GoLion travelled from Japan to America where it was assigned a good ol’ re-formatting in order to accommodate p.c. households, or more strictly television guidelines; i.e. no sexual, overly violent or religious content. Voltron was born from the original Japanese anime after extensive story editing - much like Macross, which became Robotech - that involved splicing together footage from two series of the “Voltron” universe: the aforementioned GoLion and Armoured Fleet Dairugger XV, both animated by Toei Animation. From 1984 to 1985 it aired on national television across the States and became a number 1 hit with children, which soon led to a bunch of merchandising stuff and contributed toward opening viewers’ eyes to the wonders of Japanese animation. The series lasted for three seasons, totalling 106 episodes.

While it may have been groundbreaking to some degree at the time, certainly in the United States, Voltron: Defender of the Universe is nonetheless a typical Japanese show that in comparison to other giant robot anime offered very little by way of innovation; not necessarily in terms of mech designs, but rather story elements which by then had already been done to death. Voltron is one of those series that those of us who grew up during the eighties fondly remember. As children we were in it for the action: five cool lions that get together and form a massive robot that owns a sword which can slice through giant monsters as if they were made of butter. It’s that part of nostalgia that we hold on to so dearly. Today that factor is still strong, but today we’re all adults and we find a part of our childhood that doesn’t seem quite so perfect any more. Watching Voltron today brings back all those memories, but it also reveals a series that’s so inundated with clichéd plots that it’s quite difficult to get through in long sittings. Voltron sets things up with a long four-part introduction from where a series of predictable, seen it all before episodes take over. As with every super robot cartoon, or animation in general we watch our heroes take on the baddies in storylines involving the evil-doers running slave rings or taking to deception and kidnapping, which sees the good guys getting tricked by mysterious visitors and so forth. Of the fifteen episodes contained within this collection I can honestly say that there’s nothing here that I haven’t seen from animation before or since. Furthermore, due to these tweaked U.S. storylines the series is left with some curious plot holes (which I won’t bore you with by going into) and an awful sense of repetition whereby nothing is learned and developments are slight, with only a couple of characters exiting and new ones replacing them fairly quickly. The reason that several other cartoons (which I’ve mentioned in this review) that surfaced during this era continued to work so well is that there was some kind of progression and moral values to be had; a greater sense of involvement that I just don’t see happening with Voltron.


Sadly, even if we stray from the scripts for a moment, there’s very little in terms of exciting action to get worked up about. Being dramatically toned down in terms of violence Voltron therefore has little to work off, with the main draw being the legendary robot himself. As with most of the episodes there is a considerable build up until the final minutes which involves the crew getting into a big fight. Truth of the matter is is that Voltron is a bit rubbish at fighting; he’s always getting his ass handed to him on a plate until Keith yells out something to the effect of “Right, fuck it! Form the energy sword.” Voltron then forges the blade from his hands and with one swipe cuts down the naughty beast before the credits roll. It all feels so anti-climactic these days, which I’ll admit is a great disappointment from a series that I was so sure I’d still enjoy twenty years later. Still, at least the series looks fairly nice; it has all of the classic Japanese tricks that makes it so distinct, so fans of Robotech and G-Force, like myself, will settle quite easily into it. In addition Voltron is an attractive design, one that had many of us wanting the toys. Just why he is formed by five lions remains a mystery though, with each one representing a particular element: fire, water, earth, sand (?) and - err - black lions.

As with the episodic storylines we’ve seen all the players in the past also. Voltron is made up of very familiar archetypes which have long been a staple part of animation. For our heroes we get the foreign one; the fat one who thinks about food all the time; the short guy who wants a little more respect and needs to prove himself to the group for some reason; the headstrong cool guy and the valiant leader who can sometimes be a bit whiny. Joining them is a princess who also needs to prove herself by showing the guys that she can do anything they can do, along with animal comic relief coming from a bunch of space mice. The bad guys are your usual collection of tyrants: the king who wants to rule the universe, his bumbling soldiers and a worn old hag who continually promises him that her next robot will destroy Voltron for good. And yet he continues to employ her. King Zarkon really needs to think about reforming his constituency. At least we have some good voice actors to get us through; very recognisable names such as Jack Angel, Michael Bell, Neil Ross and Peter Cullen, who juggle between roles very effectively. Voltron had one of the smallest cast lists of any series at the time, but they give it their all despite character limitations and some unintentionally funny dialogue, which enlivens proceedings no end.

So now I’ve made it sound totally naff, when in actual fact it’s barely above average, at least as far as these first fifteen episodes are concerned. Voltron is an easily accessible series and has enough variation to please the children, but for the bigger kids amongst us the storylines fail to engage, which in turn makes the show a little laborious from time to time.


Episodes

Disc 1:

1) Space Explorers Captured
2) Escape to Another Planet
3) A Ghost and Four Keys
4) The Missing Key
5) Princess Joins Up
6) The Right Arm of Voltron (actually it should be right leg. Dunno what they were thinking)

Disc 2:

7) The Lion Has New Claws
8) The Stolen Lion
9) A Pretty Spy
10) Secret of the White Lion
11) Surrender
12) Bad Birthday Party

Disc 3:

13) The Witch Gets A Facelift
14) Yurak Gets His Pink Slip
15) Give Me Your Princess


The DVD

Anime Works has gone all out to provide Voltron fans with the best possible DVD release. Not only do they supply spanky new transfers, but they’ve also put out some interesting packaging to boot. Collection 1 contains three discs which are encased in a regular digi-pack with series artwork; this fits into an embossed metal tin which depicts the blue lion, piloted by Princess Allura. Very nice indeed.

A/V

Voltron went through a difficult restoration process. Anime Works originally received tape masters that exhibited all kinds of problems, not least of which was a great deal of softness which they found was too much to work with. In Japan, however, the original series had just undergone restoration and was shaping up nicely. This presented a big problem though; the series had to be transferred to computer where the crew at Anime Works then had to painstakingly cut out all the appropriate scenes and match them perfectly to the original Voltron U.S. broadcasts, essentially reconstructing the series. What we end up with is a very nice looking show on DVD that’s been cleaned up quite nicely.

Presented in its original 1.33:1 ratio Voltron, I can safely say, looks as good as ever. Detail is solid and colours are suitably eye-catching, but it still presents some problems which seem to be unavoidable. You’ll still find specks and the occasional wear and tear which has been cleaned up as well as it could be; some instances show damage that while not entirely impossible to fix would no doubt require a lot more time, effort and money, and you’ll spot those instances many times as it’s usually recycled material that exhibits them the most. It’s certainly up there with Robotech on which they did a sterling job. Unfortunately they let themselves down on the authoring front; the discs are interlaced and feature a small amount of edge enhancement, aliasing and blocky artefacts (mainly showing up in the transformation sequences). But on the whole this looks great and is well worth the upgrade if you’ve had all those shows on tape for years.

In addition to a remastered picture the guys and girls over at Anime Works have put together a brand new 5.1 surround track, in addition to keeping the original stereo track as another option. Voltron was actually the first show to be broadcast in stereo in the United States, with sound effects, music, dialogue etc placed on multiple track tapes. This means that today all of these elements are easily separated for the 5.1 experience. Anime Works has remixed the entire series to make it sound as powerful as ever. Dialogue is clear and remains the central focus, while certain sound effects have been channelled slightly to the rear and the music takes up multiple channels. Despite all of their work it’s not an amazing sounding show but it is a solid sounding one that in this rare instance might actually be preferred by many over the original track.

I’m afraid though that I have to knock off an extra point due to the company’s complete disregard for those hard of hearing. At the time the show aired closed captioning had not been created for it and so Media Blasters/Anime Works were not able to provide such an option. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have provided new subtitles and like some of the other recent animated shows to have hit DVD recently this is unacceptable. A big disappointment and something that needs to be addressed by all companies in future.

Extras

Original Pilot: The Voltron Trilogy
Included here are two test episodes that World Events Productions were hammering away on as they were trying to decide which of the three series to take on board for the long haul. After a brief intro to each series the episodes get into the Voltron we all know. These are essentially the same episodes as those seen early on in the series, with the exception of a few editing tweaks and alternate endings. Unless you’re a rabid fan though it’s not an essential watch, although it’s nice that Media Blasters has acquired it, regardless of the relatively poor transfer.

Staff Interviews: The Birth of Voltron
This provides a great insight into the genesis of the American production of the series, featuring contributions from Ted Koplar (President of WEP), Peter Keefe (Executive Producer), Franklin Cofod (Director), Marc Handler (Story Editor), Bill England (Logo Design) and Paul Vitello (Stereo Sound Effects). Naturally it covers all bases, from how WEP purchased the rights to the series and what direction they intended to take it in. We get a lot of input from each participant who provide plenty of interesting technical titbits, which gives us a firm understanding of how an animated series is developed. It also momentarily gets into the series merchandising and television success, overall being a very solid inclusion for fans of the show.

Making of the DVDs
A short feature, but interesting all the same. This takes us to Anime Works’ studio where we learn about the restoration process; how they acquired new masters and what they needed to do to fix up the series and present it as we used to know it. This includes a lot of hard work, from extensive editing to creating brand new 5.1 digital masters.

Robot Chicken: You Got Robo Served
This is a sketch from the U.S. comedy series which lampoons popular television and world events. They just so happened to do a Voltron parody, which has been included in its entirety. Voltron gets into a fight with a Robeast via the magic of stop-motion animation. It’s not very funny though.

Anime Works trailers round off the disc.


Overall

Perhaps I’ve been far too cynical when judging Voltron today. Perhaps I can blame over indulgence in Japanese animation throughout the years, or that frankly it’s just not the same series any more, coming across as being quite lazy in several departments. I’d wager that most of these DVD units are going to be purchased by adults hoping to satisfy their nostalgic needs and I’m sure it’ll please many who might even wish to introduce their children to it. For me it just doesn’t stand up as well as the likes of Robotech, Dungeons & Dragons, Ulysses 31, Dogtanian and Thundercats, but I’m sure that my review won’t deter those who have anxiously waited for such a release; it’s certainly been wonderfully handled. Anime Works has done a sterling job in re-mastering these episodes and presenting them in an attractive package. This is one that’s strictly for the hardcore fans.

Film
6 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
7 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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