Recently, I was going through some older anime magazines and saw a blurb about the impending release of the Vehicle Team Voltron DVD sets… accompanied by a pic from the Lion team. I started looking through other publications and it occurred to me there’d been very little coverage of these sets other than on one or two websites, which is very sad considering this was a pretty cool mech series in its own right and it’s never gotten the respect the Lion series has been given for a long time now. This might be attributable to the low amount of promotion series owners World Events Productions gave it.
I’ll have to give a personal anecdote to illustrate my point here. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, where World Events was based. As a kid I got to see lots of promos on KPLR-11 about this new series where robotic lions would form a big heroic gestalt to kick butt and save the universe. I was as addicted as every other adolescent until a few weeks after the premiere. One of my friends started telling me about another Voltron show that came on late nights, but I hadn’t heard of it so I didn’t believe him. Then, late one Saturday night, after the weekly dose of Three Stooges and uncensored episodes of The Bizarre Show (yeah, the one with Super Dave Osborne), there it was: this Voltron show about fifteen vehicles that could stack up and fight some other set of villains.
I’d told friends about it and word spread and we all got to see some episodes of this show. Initially, it only came on very late on Saturday nights with new episodes premiering every few weeks, until KPLR eventually gave it a daily slot. During that time I was able to enjoy this show’s best elements, which were still enjoyable when reviewing these recent box sets released by Anime Works.
The first such element is the story, which when you get right to it will make or break a big mech show, sometimes even more so than the fight scenes. The premise here follows a fleet of explorers working for the Galaxy Alliance, who are looking to find a new planet for humanity to colonize since Earth is becoming more unlivable due to depleting resources and overcrowding. At the same time, a warrior race called the Drule Empire is also looking for new worlds for its own population. Their military is led by Commander Hazar, who initially throws fleet after fleet, scheme after scheme at the Earth group, only to meet defeat each time.
These defeats come at the hands of Captain Newly and Commander Hawkins, who lead not only the exploring ships but also a special team called the Voltron Force made of fifteen fighters which can separately assemble into three sub-units manned by the Air, Sea and Land teams. When things get really bad (as they often do) or when the enemy launches a new robot monster (ditto), the teams do their stack-and-attack bit to form the mighty Voltron, thus guaranteeing another good fight for the week.
Like any super robot show, audiences tune in to see the big fights typically taking up the last five minutes of the episodes, and in that respect Vehicle Voltron doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. Series director Kozo Morishita worked his magic on this show’s Japanese production, Armored Fleet Dairugger XV, for a couple years at Toei Animation before moving on to Transformers, and in the process created some excellent battle sequences for the big ‘bot to tackle. They’re well-paced and get pretty active in later episodes. This Voltron’s weapons, such as the spinning laser blades and electro therma-blast, are fun to watch, but if you were a kid any time during or shortly after the '80s you probably know that Voltron (and just about every super robot’s big finish) was a Blazing Sword meant to cut the enemy in two (or four, depending on Voltron’s mood I guess) to end the fight. Still always fun to see, though.
But I did say the story here was the big draw here and I maintain that. The characters don’t develop much for the most part. The fifteen Voltron Force pilots are led by Jeff, the hothead Air Team captain; Cliff, who drives the Land Team; and the stoic Crik, the Sea Team’s alien leader. Between them, the head honchos, and the Drules, there's not much time for character exposition. However, there’s a pretty good subplot dealing with The Drules' increasing paranoia and anger in the face of desperation, as well as Hazar’s own change of heart in seeing that he needs to do all he can to help his people leave Planet Drule and rebel against The Empire itself. These things are actually good for maintaining viewer interest.
This show was pretty cool for the time period and audience it was geared toward. The ongoing story was something that wasn’t seen much in '80s cartoons outside of Star Blazers and Robotech. Still, both Voltrons were products of the hack-and-slash era of scriptwriting where all violent elements had to be toned down, if not outright deleted, much like Japan’s Gatchaman compared to the U.S. counterpart Battle of the Planets. This series does have a slight edge over Lion Voltron in that there were a few deaths from the Dairugger series that they couldn’t write out. Still, the original scripts were often hammily rewritten.
Anyone complaining about modern anime dubs really should listen to works from this decade or the '70s or so and realize that modern anime fans have it pretty good by comparison. Voice acting was cheesy at times, with unnecessary high pitches or incredibly fake accents, but could be quite bearable when done by, say, Peter Cullen (famousl for voicing Transformers
’ Optimus Prime) who voices Commander Hawkins very competently. Cullen’s voice seems to have been one World Events really liked in that decade and he makes the most of it in this show.
People wanting to learn about old school anime and dubbing might want to grab these sets. People who are interested in video restoration and cel techniques, however, should definitely grab them. Anime Works / Media Blasters did a hell of a lot of work taking masters from the Japanese Dairugger series. Not only did they restore the color and crispness, they also retained the original audio, enhancing it to higher levels, much like they did on the Lion Team Voltron and Golion boxsets. There have been older shows put on DVD which haven’t had this kind of treatment, or they had their video restored with the audio completely replaced. Anime Works put a lot of effort toward giving Voltron the best possible presentation, and the results are pristine. The enclosed guidebooks are good extras to have for learning about the original airdates and episode titles, but sometimes the DVD and books don’t always match up, so finding a given scene can be a bit of a chore; a minor quibble.
All in all, it’s a shame this series has remained a bit of a hidden gem for many years, even after getting the R1 DVD treatment. It was clear from behind-the-scenes documentaries and the promotion World Events gave in their hometown that they didn’t totally believe in the show, and that’s too bad. Even if initial marketing tests among kids showed more favor toward the Lion show, the Vehicle series probably would have been received better had it been given the same amount of initial consideration. As it stands, many folks either think of it poorly compared to Lion Voltron or never got to see the show as kids. If you want some fun '80s mech time with quality production efforts, grab the Vehicle Voltron boxsets. You won’t be disappointed.
One thing that will disappoint however, even accounting for everything mention in the Vehicle Voltron review is the Voltron: Fleet of Doom movie, which we’ll discuss briefly here.
Fleet of Doom
is a mini-movie commissioned by World Events Productions, designed to get both Voltrons on screen for a big-money team up. They gave the movie a big marketing push with a prize-filled prescreening for kids at local movie theaters and the like. On paper, it was a smart business move. The results, however… not so much.
The movie largely follows the Lion Team as both they and the Vehicle Team are called to fight off a combined attack fleet created by King Zarkon and (what’s left of) The Drule Empire. The Voltron Teams are called to a Galaxy Alliance outpost which needs help. The Vehicle Team heads in, but they have to deal with a meteor shower (off screen) for the majority of the film while The Lion Group must deal with the Fleet, as well as Hagar the Witch’s plot to kidnap princess Allura. Lion Team leader Keith rushes off to rescue her, so the team is divided and can’t form their Voltron. On top of that, evil Prince Lotor has a special set of robot monsters (Robeasts) designed to deal with both Voltrons by doing their own stack-and-attack combo into a huge evil super-robot. Can the Voltron forces defeat the Fleet of Doom? Oh my…
Yeah… that’s the reaction I had when I viewed this movie again after so many years. Oh my lord…. I actually liked this a bit when I was a kid. But seeing it now and hearing the squeaky voices underlining the incredibly stiff animation is just a pain. The difference between the GoLion
animation teams as opposed to the Fleet of Doom
production house is quite obvious and somewhat jarring. Even the big battle when everything comes together moves… as… slow... as… this… sentence. No… I’m… not… kidding.
This last bit is the most recent of the Voltron shows to be released and so this review is designed to give the whole thing a bit of closure, but honestly, unless you’re a die-hard Voltron fan or just want to relive some memories (which, once again, Anime Works did a decent job in releasing to R1 DVD), it has to be said that The Fleet of Doom crashes and burns almost immediately after launch.