Following a grand battle that left neither side undamaged, season 3 of Voltron Legendary Defender has the feel of starting a new book in an ongoing saga. The “Paladins” of Voltron are no longer green and ready to take the fight to the Galra Empire, which is itself left uncertain by Emperor Zarkon incapacitation from his bout with the mighty robot. And yet one victory doesn’t win a war, and a regime that has reigned for millennia is not so fragile that the loss of one leader will break it easily. Meanwhile, the season opens with team Voltron needing to bringing disparate races together into a cohesive fighting force even as they’re forced to cope with the mysterious disappearance of team leader Shiro. Without Shiro to pilot the Black Lion, Voltron cannot be formed, and the Paladins don’t have the luxury of rest or time to search for him because so many look to Voltron as a symbol of rebellion.
Netflix screened the first two episodes of this 7-episode third season for review: “Changing of the Guard” and “Red Paladin.” The title of the former is apropos for the theme of the entire season, which seems intent on shifting and evolving the mission of the Voltron team. In the first two seasons, they were a small group fighting on its own and often on the run, engaging in a guerilla war against an overwhelming force. With the hard-won victory against Zarkon, new challenges go along with greater opportunity. Surgical strikes and survival will no longer do, as the team now has entire races and planets in open rebellion that need protecting from Galra reprisal. Having introduced hope to an oppressed galaxy, our heroes are now compelled to show that it wasn’t misplaced. Doing that demands leadership, and the first two episodes of the season are preoccupied with sorting out the new composition of the team and the new Black Lion pilot. The matter definitely concerns Keith And Allura the most. The past season revealed Shiro’s longtime desire for Keith to lead the team in a worst case scenario — a burden made worse as Keith feels inadequate to the task and devastated by his loss. Meanwhile, Allura is burdened with developing a nascent resistance movement around a legend she can’t show while she aches at the notion being on the sidelines.
Amid the team drama over ownership of the Black Lion, the show still doesn’t miss chances for a good joke, such as calling back to Hunk “calling the head” of Voltron or Pidge being too short to even reach the controls. It’s refreshing that there’s no real animosity or selfishness at play in the process. Even the established immature rivalry between Lance and Keith easily gives way to the weight everyone feels over Shiro’s absence. Finally, it’s wonderful to behold Allura’s motivation for testing her compatibility with the lions, simply reasoning that she should be willing to volunteer to do what she’s asked of others. As always, her leadership and selflessness is a highlight of this series.
On the villainous side, the highlight of the season is inevitably and undoubtedly the arrival of Prince Lotor, who was the primary antagonist of the original series. Here again, as in so many other areas, Legendary Defender manages to revamp and improve upon the 1980s vision of the character. Classic Lotor was a man of ambition and cruelty, but above all defined by an obsession with Allura that constantly threatened to render him a one-note character or, even worse, merely one more in a too-long line of incompetent cartoon villains. The new Lotor, for his part, is not his father’s son; we learn quickly that his summoning by the witch Haggar marks a return from “exile” at distant frontiers, but soon learn that he is every bit as formidable in his own way. Charismatic and cunning, he can work a crowd in one moment and stab a hapless political rival in the back from the shadows in the next. This is a man that can prepare and fight on his terms, and who knows that studying and knowing your enemy are key steps on a road to victory. Where Zarkon was capable and willing to keep his subjects in line with an iron fist, Lotor is an expert at coercion and declares that “every new ally makes us stronger.” That line comes from a calculated speech, but Lotor also practices at least some of what he preaches, as he bucks convention by surrounding himself with talented female underlings from other races. In this, he is a formidable opposite force to Allura and deadly to her hopes of a lasting anti-Galra alliance. Voltron is sure to have its work cut out earning that “Legendary Defender” title.
Beyond the broader issue of Allura vs. Lotor, there are hopeful indicators that other plotlines won’t be forgotten. Pidge’s search for her family gets some further attention, and fans should be glad to know that the business of the Black Lion’s pilot is well resolved by the end of the second episode to keep the season’s plot moving. It’s implied that Lotor’s presence doesn’t sit well with Galran traditionalists, while Haggar strives to keep the severity of Zarkon’s condition a secret. It’s also fascinating and sobering to see the early difficulty in the good guys uniting to fight. In the early going, at least Voltron’s prospective allies are worryingly dependent on the robot in its legend, which can only be at one place at a time for a resistance movement meant to span the galaxy. Meanwhile, the team’s first and most competent allies, the Galran members of the Blade of Marmora order, are overlooked at best and mistrusted at worst by members of other races that look at them and only see the faces of their oppressors. It’s a meaningful contrast to the resources of he Galra Empire and Lotor’s established ability to bring people together for his own villainous cause, so once again we see the Voltron Force fighting from an underdog position this season. Which is fine by me; it’s that position that has kept Legendary Defender such an engaging and thrilling experience from the start.