By Jerry Chandler
It was the mid-eighties when we first saw Robotech fly onto our television screens. It was officially 1985 that the series was launched in the US, but not everyone had it playing in their area that year. It made its debut the year after Transformers and Challenge of the GoBots, so it was certainly able to catch the eye of anyone who was caught up in the craze for transforming robots. But, other than the surface similarity of having giant vehicles that could turn into giant robots, Robotech was totally unlike those cartoons; or, for that matter, any other cartoon on mainstream American television to that point.
The first episode of Robotech started out showing how in (the then distant future of) 1999 a huge alien spaceship crashed on Earth, and it wasn’t shy about letting you know that people died because of it. While a body count wasn’t explicitly stated, the viewer is told that the shockwaves created untold damage and the animation shows a large city tearing apart as the ship passes over it. The opening voiceover then talks about the devastating global war that was ravaging the world of 1999.The images used in this segment were absolutely clear in their depictions of human death.
That was a little different for American cartoon blocks. Thundarr the Barbarian had an opening that showcased a global catastrophe, even showing damage to cities, but quickly moving past that. It certainly didn’t show up close still images of people being killed. Even G.I. Joe- ostensibly a cartoon about active military combat and engagements with a terrorist organization –bent over backwards to make it clear that no one ever died in their combat situations. So, yeah, as I said, that was a little different for a lot of people used to the tamer US cartoons.
From there the first episode story moved into something that seemed more like lighter, daring-do adventure storytelling. It introduced the viewers to a series of characters who would become beloved regulars, and did so with comical introductions for each of them. Even after the immediate introduction of our alien threat and the scrambling of combat units, the writing kept a comical feel to it as our lead character, the young Rick Hunter, gets thrust into the fight through a series of mistakes. Even when his friend, combat pilot Roy Fokker, discovers that Rick is there and in a combat situation with zero training and experience, his attitude is more one of just making Rick his wingman with zero worries.
Things take a more dramatic turn when Rick is shot out of the sky, crashes into the city, and later is almost killed by an alien soldier. He’s saved by Roy when he shoots and kills the alien. Here’s the thing with that- Roy kills him on screen, and they never try to do the cartoon copout seen in other Americanized properties if that time of claiming the alien is a robot. We’re told and shown on no uncertain terms that the aliens are basically giant humans. It was established upfront that when alien or Earth ships were blown up, living beings died.
The mainstream American television cartoons of that time did everything they could to get around ever having that scenario play out in the average episode. Spider-Man and his amazing friends would always save the day before the first life was ever lost, Cobra never managed to kill anyone no matter how deadly a threat they were claiming their latest scheme for world domination was, and even shows like Transformers did everything they could to avoid casualties of the very humanized robots despite multiple blazing gun battles with laser beams punching holes in everything else around them. Even Voltron was written in its Americanized form to have the deaths be drones or robot piloted ships. Not here though. People could die in Robotech, and that raised the stakes a bit.
That was something that would really be hammered home as the series went on. While delivering great action, fun adventure, reasonably well plotted intrigue, and romance for those inclined to want that in their show, Robotech also showed that greatly loved fan favorites could and would die in the war depicted in the show. That was probably something that caught more than a few viewers, not to mention the ever easier to anger parent’s groups, completely off guard. Robotech had one of its main characters, a huge fan favorite, injured in combat and die on screen. Even other common to this time shows of this type, Americanized anime, tried to avoid doing that in the rewrites. Star Blazers killed several characters off only to have them discovered alive again down the road. Even one of that show’s most significant deaths, the Captain of the Argo, was later reversed. Voltron in its original form killed a major character, a member of the team. The Americanized version was rewritten so that he was merely injured so badly as to have to be sent back to Earth for prolonged recovery. His twin from the Japanese storyline was then later turned into him returned to the story with a different role in the Americanized rewriting. It was beyond rare to see a cartoon on American television during the children’s television block of programming have a character, let alone a major hero in the story, die on screen and have his wounds cover his clothing with his blood. Robotech did just that.
Robotech also did something that didn’t get as talked about as much- if at all -back then. Interracial couples were not all that common on television in the 1980s; certainly not in cartoons. When you did find interracial couples on TV, more often than not, the fact that they were an interracial couple was very central to the storytelling. Whether the series was a comedy or a drama, a large amount of the storylines around interracial couples at the time were about showing the issues they faced because of everyone else- sometimes friends, often family, certainly society at large –reacting to them being an interracial couple and having a problem with it to lesser or greater degrees.
Robotech had two interracial couples in its story, and, certainly with one of them, the fact that they were an interracial couples was never a big deal to plots. They were simply written as couples no different than any other average, ordinary couple in the series. I don’t want to use the word “revolutionary” when describing it. That’s a word that gets overused all too often and even more often is misapplied to the things that people are discussing. But, it really was in a way. In an era where I still had schoolmates who would shout racial slurs at interracial couples or at the children of interracial couples and where interracial couples in entertainment were used for hammering messages over the viewing audience’s heads; Robotech had Claudia and Roy there for kids to see on screen as nothing more or less than just another average, ordinary, loving couple with no big deal made about it in any real way at all.
But all of that would have meant nothing if the show didn’t entertain and thus keep and grow its audience. Fortunately, Robotech managed to do that very well.
Robotech managed, over its 85 episode run, to tell an amazingly entertaining and surprisingly complex multigenerational story. It was so well done in fact that it reportedly started drawing more of an older audience than a younger one. However, that level of quality was a mixed blessing. Supposedly, the quality being what it was and drawing the audience that it did is why we only ever got the one, 85 episode syndicated season.
Children’s television shows being produced for first run syndication at that time were in part surviving not only on ratings, but on how much money their toy lines made. The failure of the Matchbox toys based on the series to become greatly coveted items by the fanbase of the time has been cited by many as one of the main reasons a follow-up series, Robotech: Sentinels, was never put into production. There’s almost an odd bit of irony in that little factoid when looking back on it with 2017 eyes. It’s incredibly hard from a 2017 perspective to wrap your head around the ideas that it was actually detrimental to the show’s future prospects that it was good enough to draw in viewers older than the originally targeted demo as well as the fact that those older viewers weren’t spending a paycheck or two on Robotech merchandise each year.
Possibly the most surprising thing about Robotech being such a well done, watchable show was the fact that the 85 episodes and the various story arcs were cobbled together from three different Japanese anime. To be a first run syndicated cartoon, a show had to have a minimum of 65 episodes because they were sold as thirteen week, Monday through Friday products. Of the shows Harmony Gold USA had the rights to, no two of them together reached 65 episodes. They finally put together into one package The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada and hired a team of American writers to create a story and scripts unifying the three anime into one series. Given the legacy and enduring love for the show, I’d say they did a pretty good job with it.
If you were a teen when Robotech first hit the airwaves, it was an amazing show to have on the air. It was a thrilling, amazing, entertaining series that was a truly serialized story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending that didn’t write down to its intended audience. It was filled with characters that you could immediately find appealing and those characters inhabited a world full of the type of technology that every teenage science fiction fan could not help but to fall in love with. It was also filled with a lot of little things that most of the younger audiences wouldn’t have noticed or appreciated at the time, but are certainly interesting to see from an older perspective or from one decades removed from when it first aired.
Robotech is currently streaming on various services like Netflix.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.