When TV distribution syndicates upgraded from film to videotape, the colours and sound of anime made a big splash and Voltron led the way.
Following the Japananese sentai (battle team) tradition, the Voltron Force are a group wearing multi-coloured uniforms and are more archetypes than complete characters: the leader; the rebellious sidekick; the big guy; the child and a girl or two. They combine their futuristic vehicles to form the giant robot Voltron and do battle with massive, mechanical 'RoBeasts.'
Sentai serials comprise just one of many well-established genres in Japanese television. The joy of these shows is to a small extent the reliability of perfected formulae but mostly in the creative ways the programmes differ from each other. Voltron puts these similarities and differences into sharp relief.
A pair of sentai anime programmes were combined to form Voltron: Their Japanese titles were Armoured Fleet Dairugger XV and GoLion, King of Beasts. In the latter, the vehicles are huge, lion-shaped robots that run and fly about. In the GoLion episodes particularly, the influence of Britain's Thunderbirds is felt as that team use special chutes to reach the five lioncraft cockpits.
As was the American practice of the time, the anime programmes were reworked as 'cartoons.' Character deaths were omitted in dialogue translation and gruesome imagery cut from running time. Another odd edit – at the end of the Dairugger episodes – serves to tie the two programmes together. It's a re-used clip of the youngest Dairugger pilot reading a letter, only this time it's an introductory message from his brother, who we are told is the youngest of the GoLion pilots.
Contrary to my own taste, the GoLion episodes were by far the more popular of the two chapters. The mighty Dairugger robot was demoted to 'Voltron III' in toy stores, with the go lions ('go' means 'five' in Japanese) labelled 'Voltron I.'
The mysterious 'Voltron II' toys were from a third anime series: Lightspeed Lightning God Albegas. It was initially slated for dubbing but new episodes of GoLion-style Voltron were commissioned instead. Unfortunately, the style and skill of the original GoLion animations was painfully absent from the supplements.
The sci-fi designs and combat action of the initial 104 episodes gripped me as a teenager but I didn't care for Voltron's formulaic storylines. So why did every spare corner of my videotape collection end up full of this stuff? Availability.
As a cable television subscriber in Connecticut I had access to dozens of broadcast channels trailing from Boston, Massachusetts down to New York City. I also happened to have a pair of VCRs and was a past master at programming their timers. Three stations ran Voltron morning and afternoon, making a total of 41 episodes available per week.
The episode I have the most copies of happens to be my least favorite. It's devoted to the Space Mice: little creatures that got up to mischief and hijinks, occasionally helping the Voltron Force save the day. Naturally, the broadcasters kept scheduling that episode because the young'uns loved it.
Going back through my tapes, I find more value in interesting 80's commercials than in Voltron but to be fair, the giant robots themselves are still pretty cool to me. Voltron was very impressive for its time and was the first show of its kind to be made in stereo. The DVD has gone one better, expanding the soundtrack to 5.1 channels of audio. No point bothering about all those episodes I captured to monaural VHS, then. Ah well – easy come, easy go!
Edit: I've just arrowed through an image search of 2016's Voltron: Legendary Defender. The lion robots are better proprtioned, to combine more believably into Voltron. The crew are more distinct from each other and seeing the fandom that surrounds them, they must be loads of fun as characters. Even better is that Princess Alura and Minister Coran – who've always been inhabitants of the far-flung planet Arus – are clearly alien life forms now. Nice one, Voltron LD – good to see parts of my past safe and well lately.