Netflix has been the source of many a binge-watching show, particularly for this blog—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Sense8 are all programs that we’ve had fun analyzing and celebrating. So when I heard that Studio Mir had a new show on Netflix called Voltron: Legendary Defender, I had to check it out. As usual, I had fun binge-watching it, but… I didn’t really have any strong feelings about it one way or the other. It certainly has potential, but it hasn’t quite blossomed yet.
Slight spoilers for Voltron after the jump.
Voltron: Legendary Defender takes place in a universe torn apart by war. The Galran Empire, led by Emperor Zarkon, has been taking over planets and destroying and enslaving whole species for generations, and the only thing that stands between him and total domination is Voltron, a massive robot formed by taking five slightly smaller lion-shaped robots and sticking them all together. The Alteans, the creators of the Voltron robots, face imminent defeat, and the Altean King, Alfor, chooses to put his daughter and heir Allura into cryosleep and scatter Voltron throughout the universe rather than let Zarkon have them. Ten thousand years on, an unlikely group of Earth pilot and pilot-students stumble across one lion in an Earth desert and find out that they’ve been chosen as the new Voltron Paladins.
As plots go, Voltron’s is pretty simplistic. Zarkon wants to take over the universe, but we don’t really learn any reasons or motivations for his megalomania; he’s just Bad. The Alteans want to stop Zarkon because they’re Good. The main opportunity we get for further characterization comes with our Earth pilots, but unfortunately, most of them don’t get much characterization or character development at all. Lance, the first pilot we meet, is a brash, chatty class clown who thinks he’s a big deal, especially with the ladies; Keith is a rude and arrogant dropout who thinks he’s the best; a lot of Hunk’s character is based around the fact that he’s fat and eats a lot and sometimes throws up at high velocity. Hunk at least has some hints at complexity when he meets an alien girl and is inspired to help her planet fight off its Galran colonizers, but for the most part, these characters hardly grow beyond their one-dimensional stereotypes in eleven episodes. Why are they on the team? Who knows.
Some of the other characters are slightly better written. Shiro, the team leader, was captured by the Galrans before the series began and struggles with PTSD and his new identity as someone with a Galran-built prosthetic. The show doesn’t go as far into his mental issues as would be realistic—Shiro sidesteps a lot of the flashbacks and triggers that he should have because for whatever reason, he doesn’t remember most of his time in captivity. While repressing memories is a real coping mechanism, in this case it feels like a convenient way to not show graphic torture scenes in a show that’s ostensibly for children. I’m okay with giving them some leeway for now, but I hope possible future seasons build on this part of his character. For her part, Princess Allura, one of the last remaining Alteans, has to come to terms with being the last of the Altean royalty and finishing the war that her father and her world died in. She’s the Steve Rogers-esque woman out of time, and struggles to hold herself and the Voltron Paladins together despite having very real, strong emotional reactions to the loss of everything she knew, which the show delves beautifully into in the later episodes.
But the diamond in all this character roughness is undoubtedly Pidge, our last and most mysterious pilot. Pidge starts out as the nerdy glasses character, and I didn’t really have high hopes about the show using yet another trope, but it’s soon revealed that Pidge is not, as everyone assumes, a boy, but instead a girl who hid her identity to sneak into the Galaxy Garrison pilot academy to look for information on her missing brother and father. Pidge’s gender is revealed fairly quickly to the audience and a few episodes later, to her team, and it’s never made a big deal of: her team, save for Lance, all say that they knew or guessed, and everyone gets on with their lives. Pidge is by far the most intelligent of the group and has by far the most agency and the most advanced character background: we understand why she’s so driven and we fully get what she brings to the team.
Voltron is a reboot of a 1984 anime called Voltron: Defender of the Universe, and though I never watched the original, it’s pretty clear from a brief perusal of the Wikipedia page that the creators put some thought into updating the show in all areas of diversity. All the original pilots were male, and Pidge is, as I say above, a very welcome change in that aspect. The original Allura was a white, naive princess; the updated Allura and her father are both dark-skinned, an important change in a world where Black and brown characters, especially women of color, aren’t allowed to be royalty, protected, or pampered. Allura is much less naive than her counterpart seems, as well, and takes part in many of the team’s missions. Other characters, such as Lance and Hunk, have darker skin tones, though their countries of origin haven’t yet been delved into, and Shiro was allowed to keep his original Japanese name (Takashi Shirogane) instead of the unwieldy dub name Sven Holgersson. As for LGBTQ+ characters, we haven’t seen any signs of it yet, but head writer Tim Hedrick had this to say about it:
So it’s quite likely that we’ll be seeing something, at least, in future seasons. I’m pretty satisfied with all the updates made, and I’m glad that it seems like some significant thought went into them. It doesn’t mean that this was as far as they could have gone—I still wish there were more girls and I’m holding out hope for a trans or nonbinary Pidge—but just from reading its Wikipedia page, I would never have watched the original Voltron, and these changes in the reboot make it far more interesting and realistic to me and prospective viewers like me.
Voltron hasn’t been renewed for a Season 2 yet, but despite all the quibbles I had with it, I do hope it gets another season. The show has a good foundation to stand on now that it’s gotten all the pesky worldbuilding out of the way: we know our characters and we know how Voltron and the war work, and it was enjoyable to watch, if not particularly thought-provoking. A Season 2 would allow the writers to really flesh out the other members of the team and give some nuance to the war and the villains as well. I’ll keep an eye on Netflix for sure.