Title: Robotech: The Complete Series
Director: Robert V. Barron
Starring: Tony Oliver, Robert V. Barron, Rebecca Forstadt, Cam Clarke, Tony Clay
Released: Out Now
In the far-flung future of 1999, Earth is in the grip of a civil war which threatens to tear the planet apart. In the midst of this conflict comes an unlikely saviour: an alien spacecraft, which comes hurtling through the atmosphere before crash-landing on Macross Island in the South Pacific. Realising that the potential for alien invasion is far more terrifying than anything they could do to one another, Earth’s nations form a united government and work together to retro-engineer the alien technology and turn the wreck into a battleship capable of defending Humanity. A decade later, Earth’s first Robotechnological ship, SDF1, is complete and ready for launch, but before the ship can get into space the villainous Zentradi arrive in Earth’s orbit, looking to claim the wreck as their own...
Nostalgia, as many have remarked, is a bitch. It’s a huge, drunken, perma-tripping, lying bitch. It whispers in your ear, encouraging you to buy that Voltron box set. “Remember how awesome this was?”, it says. “Remember how much you miss watching it on Saturday mornings? Want to feel like that again? Of course you do!”. Nostalgia makes you part with your money when a substantial part of you – the sane part, the part which treacherously reminds you that you have bills to pay and three weeks till payday, so perhaps you shouldn’t spooge forty quid on the first three volumes of Battle of the Planets – screams at your stupidity. And despite how many times it bites you in the bottom, you’ll never stop listening to her sultry voice, because you, my friend, are a human being, and you are powerless to resist her.
The reality, of course, it that Nostalgia is usually the voice of a marketing department somewhere; one with tremendous expertise in sorting you into a faintly (but justifiably) stereotyped demographic and waving shiny things in your direction. Every so often, their rhetoric actually rings true, the product being sold really is as good as you remember (or in rare cases, better viewed as an adult) and you are rewarded with the Ulysses 31s and Mysterious Cities of Golds of this world; usually, however, you receive nothing so much as an overpriced set of coasters and a crushing sense of disappointment. Robotech, on the other hand, presents something in between and that, quite frankly, is worthy of a little attention.
Geek journos, if they’re not being lazy and using a popular yeast-based sandwich spread as journalistic shorthand, are usually quick to describe Robotech as polarising, and with very good reason: along with the series mentioned above, it was for many people their first taste of Japanese animation – but unlike those other series, it was not a straightforward translation or adaptation of a Japanese show. Brought to the screen in 1985 by Harmony Gold inc., Robotech was originally planned as a direct overdub of the popular Tatsunoko Productions anime Super Dimension Fortress Macross, until producer Carl Macek hit upon a snag. The series was being developed not as an exclusive for a single network, as was common practice in the US, but to be sold directly into syndication; as such, it required a minimum of 65 episodes, otherwise none of the television networks would buy it. Macross only sported 36 episodes, leaving Macek with quite a gap to fill. In a flash of inspiration, Macek grabbed the rights to two unconnected* Tatsunoko shows – the cancelled Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA – and rewrote them as later time periods (or Generations) of the Robotech saga. The plan worked, and Harmony Gold got their sales.
The result is a series which has approximately half of Western anime fans grateful to Macek for pioneering Japanese animation in the English-speaking territories and the other half demanding his head for bastardising the originals. The sad thing is that through all of the hoopla, very few people stop to examine Robotech for what it is, and to take it on its own merits; frankly, Macek’s plan was nothing short of remarkable, and whilst his detractors are fond of pointing out (and at times over-exaggerating) the liberties that he took with the plot of all three donor series, without Robotech they would likely have never seen anything of those series at all. Anime has always been at niche market even at the height of its popularity, and the sad fact is that without an 70s or 80s US dub leaving behind a fanbase, very little vintage anime makes it to these shores, simply because there isn’t a market for it.
Ah, but this review runs the risk of turning into a column, so it’s probably time to talk about the show itself: after all, this is an 18-disc box set with a fairly high RRP, so odds are you’re wondering if it’s any cop (or as good as that irritating cow Nostalgia would have you believe).
Er... it’s an 80s cartoon. In every conceivable way.
To elaborate: think about every cringe-worthy trope associated with 1980s American cartoons, because Robotech features them all. The dialogue is cheesy, the acting hammy, the character development minimal, the plot generally transparent, and all of it conforms to 1980s notions of what it is acceptable for children to watch (which means certain scenes are edited from the Japanese originals, or references to more adult concepts are written out in the dubbing process. Like a lot of English-dubbed anime from the era, it also sports occasional bouts of nonsensical dialogue and/or character babbling as the actors try to make their dialogue fit the movement of the characters’ mouths. It’s not as cool as you remember, it’s not as clever as you remember, and it suffers from poor pacing due to the repurposing of footage (much like the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, in fact). In short, Robotech has aged very, very badly and if your purchase is on the basis of liking it as a kid then you are very likely to end up disappointed.
On the other hand, from a technical standpoint it’s something of a marvel. Robotech contains far more of the original Macross plot then detractors would have you believe, and watching it unfold on screen – noting the changes that were made and how they were implemented, the similarities and how they were integrated – is something of a point of academic interest. This, coupled with the extensive special features included with the full box set (which include modern documentaries, interviews, deleted footage and original pilot episodes), makes this a fairly desirable purchase for a certain type of anime fan. If Japanese animation is your passion, and you have more than a passing interest in the history of the medium’s import before the oft-cited Akira, it’s worthy of consideration. For the rest of us, however, the cheese factor is something of a barrier; either you have enough fondness for the franchise to overlook it (like so many of us have done with Transformers, Thundercats and Visionaries – all of which are, if we’re prepared to be honest, almost uniformly terrible), or you’re better off leaving it on the shelf. Just be certain which kind of fan you are before parting with your money.
*For the pedants: Macross characters did make the occasional cameo in Southern Cross, but the plots did not cross over in any meaningful way.