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Voltron: Legendary Defender (Episodes 1 - 11)

For thousands of years, the Galra Empire has dominated the galaxy. Lead by the vicious Emperor Zarkon, the Galra have conquered millions of innocent worlds. Enslaving or exterminating anyone who gets in their way. Even the mighty peacekeeping race, the Alteans, were eventually overwhelmed. In order to keep their most powerful weapon Voltron, out of Galra hands King Alfor scattered the five mechanical lions needed to form the robot to the far reaches of the universe. Over a thousand years later, a group of young space pilots from Earth discover one of these lions and are thrown face first into the front lines of this ongoing galactic war. Determined to keep the threat of the Galra and Zarkon far away from their home planet, these five intrepid heroes will become the new Paladins of Voltron, the legendary defender of the universe.

Voltron: Legendary Defender is the 2016 reboot of the 1984 animated series Voltron. The original Voltron itself was an adaptation of several early Japanese animated shows, the primary two being Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. Legendary Defender was animated by Studio Mir (the same animation studio credited for animating Avatar: the Legend of Korra, and the Guardians of the Galaxy television series), and was produced by Dreamworks Animation Television along with World Events Productions. The first 11 episodes of the first season were released simultaneously on June 10th 2016 as the first series tied to Dreamworks multi-year agreement with Netflix.

My excitement in regards to this series release has been no secret for those of you following the podcast news updates. Having grown up with the original 1984 Voltron series, there was a good deal of nostalgia behind my growing anticipation.

Anticipation that was amped up even further when I found out that both Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos, both animated TV veterans (whose credentials include: Justice League Unlimited, Avatar the Last Airbender and the Legend of Korra just to name a few), were co-executive producing the series. That plus the talented animation staff of Studio Mir bringing in their talent at capturing the anime style with their own personal flair, I had a gut feeling that Voltron was going to be in good hands. But after all the hype, did Legendary Defender meet fans expectations?

From most accounts, including my own.

Yes, yes it did.

The animation style used in the series is a perfect fit for Voltron. Both honoring the series anime pedigree but still having its own unique look. The action sequences and the occasional bouts of silly humor are very energetic and seem to pop off the screen.

 Even more impressive is the level of integration between the 3D model lions and the 2D environments and characters. All the action sequences featuring the Lions, the individual paladins and even Voltron himself are always exciting to watch unfold. With each new battle introducing a new ability or tactic that was only achieved due to the characters improved commitment to become a better team. It's no secret that a fully formed Voltron is a force to be reckoned with (the first action sequence featuring him is proof enough of that), but in this show his presence alone doesn't mean an automatic win for the heroes. Forcing them to use both their individual lions and Voltron in smart ways that will turn even the most difficult battles in their favor.

From the get go, I loved the new designs of the main cast. Though it wasn't until the show finally aired that I could really appreciate the characterization and the top tier voice work. Due in no small part due to Andrea Romano's voice direction and the immensely talented cast.

The group is still your typical five-man band. Pidge (Bex Taylor Klaus) is the smart one/team inventor, Hunk (Tyler Labine) is the big guy/muscle, and Lance (Jeremy Shada) is the smug wisecracker. The only real switch from the original series is former team leader Keith (Steven Yeun) falling into the roll of the stoic ace pilot with attitude. All the while Shiro (voiced by Josh Keaton), named after his Go Lion counterpart, takes up the leadership mantle along with the black lion. This is an interesting switch to be sure, though I'm still not 100% certain what the purpose is behind it. Perhaps we will find out later?

Even though each of the characters fit each of the action hero team stereotypes from the get go, they start to become more fleshed out as the episodes continue.

Pidge's motivation to find his father and brother (both of which have been abducted by the Galra) gives him personal stake in the battles to come. Hunk, while initially cowardly and more than a little prone to motion sickness, starts to see all the suffering caused by their shared enemy and becomes more willing to step out of his comfort zone. Even Shiro, the always on task leader, continues to struggle with his memories of his time as a Galra prisoner.

Both Allura (Kimberly Brooks) and Coran (Rhys Darby), though not directly piloting any of the lions, continuously step up to help when they are needed. Allura is still the noble princess, but she is also proactive, enthusiastic and more than willing to get her hands dirty if it means helping someone in need or completing a mission. Even Coran, who I originally wasn't too thrilled with (it's hard to match a role previously played by Peter Cullen) eventually won me over with perfectly timed comic relief and genuine conversations with the Paladins. The only character in the series thus far that hasn't really been fleshed out that much is Keith (though his animosity towards Lance is definitely evolving into bromance territory). Again, part of me wonders if the show's creators are holding back Keith's character growth for later episodes but at this point it is still too early to tell.

On the other side of spectrum, we have the series villains. While definitely intimidating, they are vastly underdeveloped compared to the main cast. Emperor Zarkon, the witch Hagar, and their Galra henchmen (again named after their Go Lion counterparts) are still the evil, dominating empire enslaving destroying entire civilization for no other reason other than just because they can. They are still a legitimate threat however and the show takes time to show just how outnumbered and even outmatched the Paladins are, even with the Lions. While Hagar's monstrous creations put even the mighty Voltron through his paces.

The show has been continuously foreshadowing a deeper connection between Zarkon and Voltron (the fact he wants the robot captured, not destroyed is the exact opposite from how his previous incarnation operated), however, it once again is still too early in the series to see where they will take this new wrinkle in the story. However my biggest gripe with the series thus far is the fact that after featuring one of the biggest battles in the series has seen yet, the last episode ends with a major cliffhanger. From a marketing standpoint, I can understand why. Create enough interest in the show to have viewers keep an eye out for new episode releases. But still, was it too much to ask for just a small stopping point while still teasing events to come? I'm nitpicking, I know, but it doesn't seem fair to have forged new bonds between the characters and the audience, only to leave audience frantically pondering the characters fate until whenever they decide to release new episodes.

As far as animated TV shows go, Voltron Legendary Defender is definitely a cut above the rest, but maybe not as much as people may be expecting. It does what it can to at to bend the usual action series tropes, but it can never really escape them.

But, then again, would it still be Voltron if it did?

I have stated on multiple occasions that despite growing up with and loving the original Voltron (it is still one of my all-time guilty pleasures), it wasn't really that great of a show. The writing was cheesy, the acting was stilted, each episode was extremely formulaic and sequences of animation were reused over and over again.

But with Voltron, it didn't matter. The campy tone was part of what made it so much fun to watch in the first place.

Legendary Defender is no different. The over the top fun is still present but presented in a more palatable way, that both nostalgic fans and even newcomers can get into the action and comedic banter. Much like the series titular character, Legendary Defender has taken both its inspiration and design from a multitude of different sources. The original Voltron, it's original Japanese counterpart, some shades of Mass Effect, and the multitude of giant robot anime that have been released over the past two decades and combined them into one entity. It may still be a bit silly, and hard to take seriously but it's not supposed to be. It is a fun, action-packed, beautifully animated reimagining of an epic battle of good versus evil.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Voltron: Legendary Defender can be found and instantly streamed on Netflix.