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"Robotech" Rocks

by on January 30, 2012

Robotech is a sweeping sci-fi action adventure epic that thoroughly deserves its standing as one of a very rare breed: a genuinely good 1980s American cartoon show. As a gateway to Japanese animation, the program was no less consequential than Star Blazers or Akira for the American market, and beyond that the show earned itself a devoted, substantial subculture of fans that persists to this day. Now Harmony Gold has partnered with A&E Home Entertainment to release this classic in a new definitive collection that should please fans of all kinds.

Robotech is literally a product of its time, as it was improvised to suit the contemporary American syndication market. Producer Carl Macek saw potential in localizing certain Japanese series, but they were too short for the sixty-five episode requirement for syndication. So Macek improvised and created Robotech, fusing three distinct anime into a unified, eighty-five episode production: The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Superdimensional Calvary Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada. To make it work, each series was adapted to be one act of a three-generational saga, thereby justifying the presence of different characters and settings. The tale begins with the “Macross Saga” in 1999, when an alien spaceship of unknown origin crashes on Earth. In the aftermath of this event, humanity soon comes together under a single government to prepare for what’s out there in space. Years are spent restoring the vessel and adapting it for human use while our study of it brings about substantial technological progress, until finally the time comes for the maiden voyage of the newly-christened SDF-1. Unfortunately that same day an alien race known as the Zentradi come looking for the lost battleship, which turns out to be immensely valuable as their last known source of the “Protoculture” energy source. To divert the alien invasion the ship’s Captain Gloval orders the first-ever space fold jump, but it doesn’t go as planned – the SDF-1 travels much too far and takes most of Macross island with it, leaving the vessel far from home but with a city of civilians to take care of. So begins the SDF-1’s voyage back to Earth as it fends off the dogged assaults of the Zentradi, an event that will alter the fate of both races forever.

Localization changes notwithstanding, it’s striking how loyal Robotech is to its Japanese origins and how different it was in theme and tone compared to other American programs. Broadly speaking, all three sagas run in a cycle of sorts. An alien invasion strikes; we humans counter it as best we can. In the process we come into contact with the other side, and this event disrupts and influences the alien faction to varying degrees as long-standing cultural norms and preconceptions are challenged. In the Macross saga, for instance, the heroes are horrified to learn that the military might of the Zentradi is mind-boggling; they are a warrior race and any technological advantage the humans might have is dwarfed by their overwhelming numbers. What makes the difference is the Zentradi’s exposure to human culture–particularly music–every aspect of which is fascinating and alluring to what had been a culture-free race. Ultimately this lays the groundwork for an alliance between humanity and most of the Zentradi fleet that once hounded them, which just barely makes survival possible against the rest of the Zentradi armada.

Meanwhile in the second saga Earth faces a new threat from the Zentradi’s creators, the “Robotech Masters”, who are now growing increasingly desperate to replenish their proto-culture in order to fend off the Invid – yet another alien threat that’s even worse. Theirs is a race whose members operate in triads and their culture values order over individuality, but they too are gradually subverted from within thanks to a starcrossed romance and the rebellion of Zor, who is sent to infiltrate the human ranks only to end up sympathizing with them and learning some terrible truths about himself and the history of his race. Even so the Robotech Masters’ stubborn leaders and the militaristic human military brass lead their respective sides to a final showdown that takes its toll on humanity’s defenses, leaving Earth ripe for occupation by the Invid. The final Robotech saga tells the tale of a small rebel force fighting the good fight while a far-off expeditionary fleet makes its way back to Earth to liberate the planet. There are alien converts here too, though ultimately the Invid are not so much defeated as coerced off the Earth via a combination of force and dialogue. So ultimately, for all the flashy battles between transforming human mecha and alien war machines, it’s no stretch to say that Robotech takes a very skeptical view of armed violence. Force of arms is clearly essential to survival in the face of overwhelming and frightening threats, but ultimately it’s also not the sufficient solution. Instead the way forward is always humans trying to understand their way out of the problem, and when they can’t the consequences are devastating. Even if there weren’t substantial dialogue from leading characters across all three sagas expressing dislike for war or distaste for humanity’s warlike ways, the message would be pointed and clear.

Robotech certainly does have its imperfections. Because it is three different shows brought together as a unified whole continuity only exists in dialogue; characters from one saga never personally return in another. The situation is better for human technology, though the lack of the trademark Valkyrie fighter plane during the second arc is an irreconcilable oddity. There are two pointless episodes that entirely consist of a character having a completely bizarre dream, neither of which would have been missed if excluded. Also, while the dialogue mostly holds up, the quality of the series is nonetheless uneven. Even with creative liberty an adaptation is constrained by its source material, and the Macross Saga draws upon one of the all-time great science fiction titles of science fiction animation – Japanese or otherwise. Its characterization and drama were first-class, punctuated by the love triangle between its protagonist fighter pilot, a spirited but immature pop idol star and a career military woman that unfolded against the backdrop of the Macross’ odyssey through space. In the second saga very few are as interesting or as well explored as the Macross cast, while the lead heroine too often vacillates between being a savvy commander and a nonchalant, unserious person. The final arc balances its focus better and presents some of the best standalone episodes in the series, though a big part of the adventure feels like meandering and it’s very fair to see it as the least grand part of the Robotech saga. The animation here also looks its age, being good for its time at best but never great. Even so it has aged respectably and A&E’s remastering is definitely satisfactory; unless you import the upcoming HD remaster of Macross from Japan, you likely won’t see this footage in better shape.

A&E’s megaset includes most extras that existed on the ADV’s old “Protoculture Collection”, plus some welcome new additions. “Carl Macek’s Robotech Universe” is largely a tribute to the late producer, also including some anecdotes from staff and voice actors and actresses who worked on the show. More of these are present in “The Making of Robotech.” Also archived here are Robotech music videos, which usefully present the full original songs worth remembering – and then some. The best belong to Lynn Minmei in the Macross saga, notwithstanding the fact that none of the original Macross songs made it over to Robotech (a shame, that; at the least “My Boyfriend Is a Pilot” would have fit well with this dub). For those interested in the history of program or curious about what might have been, there are some fascinating extras. Alternate scenes of selected Robotech episodes are new to DVD, as is an extended pilot for a straightforward dub for The Superdimension Fortress Macross. Also present are the original pilots for Macross and Mospeada. No effort was made to remaster the footage for these pilots, but they’re a useful study in how little needed to be changed for the sake of making Robotech. Also archived for posterity are Robotech: The Movie and Robotech: The Sentinels, a pair of failed experiments. Robotech: The Movie could have been an adaptation of the OVA Megazone 23, but instead objections from Tatsunoko at the time compelled Macek to excise Macross influences from the story and splice it together with footage from Southern Cross. The result was a muddled mess with a weak connection to the main saga, and due to Megazone rights being relinquished the movie is an edited version with only the Southern Cross footage left. Robotech: The Sentinels is a far more interesting artifact, being intended as a sixty-five episode original project that would have followed the adventures of the new SDF-3 and the Macross saga cast during the second and third Robotech Wars. Unfortunately problems with funding cut it short with only three episodes made, which is a shame given that it was an opportunity to tie the three Robotech sagas together in a way that the original series wasn’t capable of. What there is works best as an epilogue to the resolution of Macross’ love triangle, though the tale is also saddled by major plotlines involving a malevolent Invid reagent and a Robotech Masters outpost that are very difficult to care about.

For established Robotech fans, this box set is definitely the best one yet thanks to its extensive extras and admirable video quality. Beyond that group, in a time where first-rate storytelling has evolved and most anime fans reject tinkering with source material even more than they did during the prime of Carl Macek’s career, Robotech admittedly may appear anachronistic. Yet what it achieved ought not be forgotten, and it should be accurately remembered as a faithful and intelligent show on a higher level compared to an adaptation such as Voltron. In an era when television animation in America was crammed full if simplistic plotting, blundering villains and general mediocrity, Robotech presented viewers with a program grand in scale, one that admirably refrained from talking down to its youthful audience for a change. Its drama and themes are rarely emulated in U.S. productions today, and it remains one of the few American sci-fi programs for all ages that are truly noteworthy. After Robotech nothing followed to rival it until the advent of Exosquad in 1993, and the sci-fi genre has been tragically underserved by the medium in America ever since.

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