Monday, March 28, 2016

This New Voltron Thing...

Everyone has that childhood show, where even though it hasn't stood up to the tests of time, it's still full of fond memories.

For me, that's Voltron. It aired at 3:30 in the afternoon, so I could watch it if I got home from school in time. It even aired in the mornings at 7am, and my mother would tape it on VHS if I was diligent about my piano practice (though I was disappointed to find out the morning Voltron was the vehicle team rather than the lion one).

At Wondercon this year, a lot of information on the latest incarnation of Voltron was coming out, and having been a long time fan, it's hard being upbeat about any new Voltron media. It's had a terrible track record updating itself.

Voltron: The Third Dimension made a good effort to reach out to fans in those early days of the internet, but good intentions and even the presence of half the original cast and one of the original writers couldn't fix a clunky script or the fact that computer animation was just not ready at the budget they were willing to work with, resulting in characters who were wooden in both personality and movement. (I specify the budget because by the time it came out Square had already released the ballroom dance scene for Final Fantasy VIII and it was light years ahead of what The Third Dimension was doing, so the tech definitely existed.)

Voltron Force was better. I could tell the writers really loved the original, and they likewise communicated with long time fans, but the addition of the three teenage sidekicks, one of whom was a bona fide Voltron fanboy, resulted in a show that was perhaps trying too hard to bring a new fanbase up to speed on the original. While I loved seeing Sven come back for an episode, listening to Daniel info-dump everything (and more) that a new viewer needed to know was tiring even for me. It was a precarious balancing act that never quite found its footing.

Dreamworks' new Voltron: Legendary Defender is going to be my third ride on the "Let's bring Voltron back" merry-go-round (not counting comic books), and I have to wonder, is it even possible to bring back that feeling from when I was a kid again?

Certainly enough people are trying.

One of the problems is that the original material hasn't aged well. Outside of major story arcs (beginning, end, and maybe two or three multi-parters in the middle), it's a very by the numbers show. Zarkon or one of his followers hatches a plan, a robeast shows up, Voltron is formed, and then the robeast dies on the blade of the Blazing Sword. All in under 25 minutes.

I am a bit hopeful for the Netflix/Dreamworks version for a couple reasons though:

1) Unlike the other series which have tried to be sequels to the original, the Dreamworks version is going to be a reboot. This allows new fans to get in without the burden of getting up to speed on the original. After watching the previous two series try to accommodate existing canon, I think this is the best option.

2) The producers and the animation studio previously worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, which played very well to both older and younger audiences. They might be able to better bridge the gap to engage older viewers without alienating kids.

The one decision that stands out at me though is what they did with Sven.

In the original Japanese GoLion, Sven is killed off early in the series, but in the American dub, he's shipped off to another planet to heal and returns later in the series as a scavenger who eventually falls in love with Princess Romelle and helps lead the ground forces in the attack on Zarkon's castle (the returnee is actually his younger brother in the Japanese version).

For someone who is absent most of the series, Sven is a rather popular character. For both The Third Dimension and Voltron Force the common question that came up while the shows were airing is "What happened to Sven?"

Since he's no longer one of the five pilots it's understandable that sequel shows did not have an easy way to accommodate him as a recurring character without also bringing Romelle into the picture (since Sven went to live with her on her planet rather than return to the Voltron Force in the second season). Voltron Force managed a guest appearance with him and without Romelle, but then awkwardly gave him a son, which brought up the question of who the mother was. (One of the scriptwriters later confirmed it was Romelle, but that they didn't have room to introduce her as well.)

Rebooting everything changes this, and I am cautiously hopeful that they do intend to do more with Sven.

It would have been hideously easy to have cropped Sven out of the reboot. Or to kill/incapacitate him again. But oddly enough, they renamed him, which seems an odd measure to take for a dead man walking.

He's Shiro in the reboot, after his original name Takashi Shirogane (Shirogane being the last name), and news sites are reporting that the story will focus on "Keith, Lance, Hunk, Pidge, and Shiro" which makes him sound like he's part of the main cast. His voice actor is in the same promo shot as the VAs for the other four pilots and Allura's is not, even though she is the Blue Lion pilot for most of the original series.

It's encouraging that the production staff seem to have consciously rolled him back to Japanese to avoid having a bunch of white dudes. I have no problem with this, no matter my childhood fondness for the American dub. Of all the original pilots, Sven always came across as more Asian than the others. If you watch Sven's duel against Haggar in the original episode 6, his concentration sequence is very much out of a martial arts movie.

Less encouraging is that reboot makes him the team leader. On the one hand, yay, there is an Asian dude as the team leader, but on the other, everyone knows Keith is the leader of the Voltron Force, so it likely means bad things in store for Shiro to make that hand-off happen. This is not the first time Sven's been placed in charge of the team (Brandon Thomas's Voltron Year One comic also makes Sven the team leader), but that was a prequel. People are going to expect to see Keith in the driver's seat and I'm not sure how long he'll be second fiddle.

My hope is that due to the name change and extra attention paid because of it, Shiro will not be killed/sent off to heal where he disappears the majority of the series. Perhaps he could be incapacitated long enough that Keith has to take command and they eventually leave that as the status quo, but this is an opportunity to do more with a beloved character.

I realize that keeping him on the team would also make it an all dude Voltron Force, which is not ideal either, but he doesn't necessarily have to be a pilot. Just keep him around. Give him other things to do. He's a capable guy. And if there's a season 2, let him meet Romelle again. It'll be fun.