“Robotech” is an interesting sort of phenomenon from the eighties, a show that really didn’t know what it wanted to be and so ended up being about a dozen different things at once. It was pitched and aired as a children’s cartoon in 1985, a serial along the lines of “Transformers,” “G.I. Joe” and the likes. It ran for a total of 85 episodes (the original “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” cartoons ran for 98 and 95 as a point of comparison), but creator Carl Macek had envisioned a grand epic spanning 260 episodes, which would wrap around in a circle such that the final episode ended at the beginning of the first. Rather than airing episodes once per week, as “Transformers” or “G.I. Joe” did, “Robotech” burned through all 85 episodes in less than four months by running them every week day.
So you’re thinking about now, “why am I reading a review of a four month kid’s cartoon from 1985? What’s next, ‘The Existentialism of My Little Pony?’” Well, the catch is that “Robotech” was never really a child’s cartoon, which is why it has enjoyed cult popularity for the last two decades. The story it told was replete with love affairs, space combat, death, betrayal, and the destruction of the human race. If they were to remake this today with a dark streak like Nolan’s take on Batman and the “Battlestar Galactica” reimagining, they wouldn’t really have to change anything to make it edgier, they’d just need to strip out the bad slapstick introduced for kids and have the sex on screen instead of off screen. You can’t get much darker than genocide and killing half the main characters.
Over the years since 1985, the residual popularity has led to all manner of attempts to restart the series in various forms. There were several aborted attempts to produce a feature length film before Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles was finally produced in 2006. Palladium Books put out over a dozen source books for a Robotech role-playing game from 1986 to 2001, which although widely criticized as an RPG, featured quite striking art work if you’re into giant transformable robots, and judging by the success of Transformers, who isn’t? Jack McKinney (a pseudonym of two writers, James Luceno and Brian Daley) novelized the original run in a twelve novel series that added a great deal of depth to Macek’s animated run, in addition to penning an additional nine novels. Several “Robotech” comic book series have enjoyed off and on runs from 1985 to the present day. Amongst other miscellany, the short lived series has also spawned: a collectible card game, a series of art books, several lines of toys, seven soundtracks, four video games, and of course the inevitable DVD box set. Not bad for something most people have never heard of.
Carl Macek edited three unrelated Japanese anime series (“The Super Dimension Fortress Macross,” “Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross,” and “Genesis Climber Mospeada”, you have to love the Japanese naming convention of stringing random nouns into a title) into a three part Americanized anime series. The plots had almost nothing to do with the source material, with Macek writing his own scripts and essentially cut-n-pasting video snippets in order to shoehorn them onto his dialogue and story. Many anime fans revile Macek for bastardizing that source material, while others see “Robotech” as a sort of gateway series to get Americans interested in anime. In retrospect, Macek’s editing and dubbing to create something new is reminiscent of the modern machinima productions that use clips from video games like Halo or World of Warcraft to create the base video for amateur films.
So that’s an interesting hodge podge of history and trivia, but the question remains whether this show is something really worth watching on DVD at this point. I have a fairly unique perspective because I never saw the television show in its initial run. As a kid, my library carried the Robotech novels in its sci-fi section, which I devoured wholesale. In those glorious pre-internet days, I was only vaguely aware that the novels were based on an old TV show. During junior high I played the role-playing game extensively because I wasn’t nearly cool enough to play something respectably nerdy like Dungeons & Dragons. I still have the novels and RPG books on a bookcase in my office, all of which adds up to the fact that I am nostalgic enough about “Robotech” in order to give the show a chance, but not actually nostalgic about the show in any direct sense.
The series begins in 1999 with the Earth in the midst of decade-long world war. Remember, this is from 1985, they thought people from 2009 would be strange future-men with flying cars and robot dogs. The war lurches to a halt when a mile-long alien spaceship crashes on Macross Island in the south Pacific. Its fifty-foot tall crew is all dead, but much of the technology (which they dub the titular “robotech”) is salvageable. A decade passes, the ship is rebuilt, rechristened the SDF-1, and stocked with squadrons of veritechs (fighter jets that transform into robots). Naturally, at the launch ceremony, the big bad aliens arrive in Earth orbit. The SDF-1 opens fire by itself, effectively declaring war, and as the battle deteriorates the command is given to jump into lunar orbit. The jump system malfunctions and the ship instead arrives outside the orbit of Pluto, inadvertently dragging with it most of Macross island and fifty thousand civilians crammed into fallout shelters. The surviving civilians cram into the SDF-1, which begins to fight its way slowly back to Earth.
In retrospect, the setup of the story resembles “Battlestar Galactica,” and it keeps that dark tone throughout. Indeed, that fundamental darkness, that attempt to weave a grand and tragic space opera is what has kept people returning to the story for the last quarter century. But the almost inexplicable decision to wrap that story in cheesy eighties cartoon fodder just wrecks the rewatchability of the show. Without the nostalgia factor, I can’t see any reason to subject yourself to these cartoons. While the animation of the mecha and combat is imaginative and effective, many of the people are drawn terribly, or at least the characterization does not match their appearance. Minmei is supposed to be a sultry sexpot, but if watching it on mute, one would assume she was an irritating pre-adolescent younger sister. That might just be Macek stapling his plot on top of the source animation, but the end result is disturbing. At times it is very clear that the voice over and dialogue have almost nothing to do with the actual visuals, as Macek furiously tries to sleight of hand his way through parts of the story lacking any appropriate video from the source material. The kid’s show goofiness makes it difficult to enjoy otherwise beautiful and tragic episodes.
The longevity of this short lived and not particularly highly rated show on the backburner of cultural consciousness is staggering. It was trying to tell an epic and deep story, but the limitations of being produced for children’s television greatly harmed it. Watching “Robotech” is like reading old Batman comics from the fifties: there’s a rich and dark story lurking under the childish surface that a clever mind might be able to mine. Tobey Maguire announced a few months ago that he had acquired the movie rights to the franchise, so hopefully he can channel Christopher Nolan and not Michael Bay.