I missed the boat on Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was airing back when I was almost out of college and had reached an age where I thought I didn’t have time for children’s cartoons anymore (I don’t recall the exact moment, but the realization that I no longer cared to get up early on Saturdays to watch cartoons came with more of a shrug than anything else). When I started my first job out of college, which was as a programmer of programs in BASIC that were designed to automatically print out all the pertinent information on various auto dealership contracts and sales forms, I had a few coworkers who, despite being dudes in their thirties and forties, were gaga over this Avatar show. I had seen commercials for toys and such, but I couldn’t figure out what was so great about the show. Attempts by my enthusiastic coworkers to explain it to me always fell flat; I couldn’t see the appeal a show targeted at nine-year-olds could possibly have for an older audience.
Many years later, Netflix had the whole Avatar series streaming, and on weekdays when Rachael was out getting groceries with a friend of ours, I would pass the time watching episodes of this show that I had always heard was a total delight. At first it was mostly just background noise while I’d fold laundry or surf the internet, but gradually I got really into the show. I was really invested in it by the end of the final season, and I spent the next few years trying to persuade Rachael that, no, it really was as good as everyone said it was (I had flashbacks to the ineffective proselytizing my coworkers had done years earlier). Netflix didn’t keep the streaming rights for more than maybe a year, and the chance to watch Avatar with Rachael without paying extra money for it passed.
Most of the core cast celebrating a big victory. (Image credit: Netflix)
Flash forward a few more years, and the creative team behind Avatar, having recently finished their sequel series The Legend of Korra (I still haven’t seen that one, although I’d definitely like to) announced they were doing a series for Netflix, and it was going to be a reboot of the old ’80s giant robot anime series Voltron. Like probably many people my age, I had an inordinate fondness for giant robot shows as a kid, and Voltron was pretty high up there. One of my daily rituals in elementary school was to record the morning cartoons that played because I had to go to school, and I always hated that I had to leave halfway through the Voltron episodes. You can imagine how dissatisfying it must be to have an adventure story interrupted halfway through all the time. I was elated by the news because I’d seen this team’s work before, and now they were going to be doing their take on a piece of nostalgia that hadn’t soured for me even if I knew objectively that the old show likely didn’t hold up to contemporary storytelling standards.
When the first season released, I was gleeful. Here was a series created by the Avatar creators, and I had a chance to try to hook Rachael into watching it as well. I put on the pilot one evening, and while I was totally into the opening gambit of a bunch of misfit Earth kids getting dragged across the galaxy by an alien ship, the premise didn’t really resonate with Rachael. I finished the first season on my own. It was good enough that I was excited for the next season to come out, and then the next one after that, and before I knew it, new seasons of Voltron were one of the highlights of my TV watching life.
The show started out in the way that most kids’ series begin: there was a lot of high adventure and hijinks thrown together while the main cast slowly got to know one another and learn to work together to fight off the resident evil empire. These were plucky rebels trying to save the galaxy, a very easy setup to find engaging. As the show went on, it transitioned from the Voltron paladins being sort of underdogs in the fight against the Galra to leaders of a growing coalition of allied planets that turned the small rebellion into a full scale galactic war. The central conflict of the series constantly shifted in the later seasons as the focus shifted from defeating the Galra to allying with them to try to establish a non-imperialist galactic peace to trying to stop the big bad of the show’s final season from destroying the multiverse. All along, the tenor of the show was mostly built around themes of extended warfare and the struggles to establish trust when nothing feels totally safe. The high adventure, while still present in sporadic bursts, gave way to more of a military drama feel in the final two seasons. A given episode might focus more on the lives of people who were dealing with the nitty gritty of futuristic warfare and resistance than on the paladins in their brightly colored suits and space magic technology (I, for one, was totally in for every experimental and nonstandard episode the series threw out there).
The show had a mixed record with queer representation that felt really promising initially, and then tapered off into something slightly inadequate. One of the major twists of the first season is that Pidge, the pilot of the green lion, is actually the daughter of a scientist who went missing after Earth’s first contact with alien life (or something like that; I’m fuzzy on the details right now), and they had been using an assumed identity to get into the military academy where they hoped she might find more information about what happened to their father. Because of their presentation, everyone just assumes for most of the season that Pidge is a boy, and there’s a whole episode devoted to the rest of the team parsing this new information and then deciding that it doesn’t matter. The story beats around Pidge’s identity are heavily coded as a trans narrative in the early seasons (one episode where the team takes a break to go shopping in an alien mall has Pidge standing outside two public restrooms that are labeled pink and blue with alien gender icons, unsure of which one to use), but as the series progresses and Pidge reconnects with their family who have been lost in deep space, the gendered aspects of Pidge’s identity recede into the background. Their family tends to call her by her given name, and the Pidge identity turns into more or less a nickname that exclusively their friends use.
At the same time that the show stops using Pidge to explore gender presentation, it starts to invest more in Shiro’s personal life. Shiro, who is the leader of the paladins early on, is identified late in the series as gay. In flashbacks we see that he had a long-term boyfriend, Adam, on Earth who was unhappy with his decision to volunteer for another deep space exploratory mission (the one that would result in Shiro being abducted and experimented on by the Galra for a couple years before his escape kickstarted the beginning of the series). The positive representation of a gay man as a central character in a children’s show is still a big deal and was a positive step that the show took. It’s marred by the fact that in a war story that features remarkably few deaths by named characters, Adam is killed off screen during the Galra invasion of Earth that preoccupies the seventh season. The show walks right into the extremely overplayed and problematic trope of queer tragedy for one of its leading characters. There’s an attempt to correct this mistake in the denouement of the series finale, but it feels like it comes too little too late with no screen time devoted to working through the story beats necessary for Shiro’s ending to feel deserved on any level besides the meta one where the creators really stepped in it and are trying to make amends.
Spoilers for the ending of Voltron: Legendary Defender‘s final season follow.
The resolution for Shiro points towards a problem that the show generally struggles with in its final season. When you have only thirteen twenty-minute episodes remaining to wrap up the big conflict established at the end of the previous season while also setting up sensible resolutions for a relatively large cast of characters, some things are going to be lost. You would expect that each episode would be packed with plot relevant stuff to maximize the time you have available, but even in this last season the creators can’t resist doing at least one concept episode that’s a lot of fun in terms of format but also does virtually nothing to develop what’s happening with the main characters. This filler feels noticeable when you consider the structure of the season’s final third and realize that if that one episode had been used differently, there would likely have been enough time to expand on the resolution that happens after the final battle in a way that makes narrative sense. As it is, once Honerva is defeated and the paladins are faced with the problem of how to restore the nearly destroyed multiverse, Allura realizes on the spot that she and Honerva can work together to fix everything, but it’s going to kill them. There are plot justifications for why Allura and Honerva can do this, but it’s a character beat that feels off somehow. The season focuses heavily on Allura’s sense of alienation from the other surviving Alteans and pushes hard to establish that she’s veering into self destructive territory in order to stop Honerva’s plan. Despite those beats, it sort of comes out of left field that Allura has to sacrifice herself at the end. The only way it makes narrative sense (at least to me) is that the eighth season begins by establishing that Allura and Lance, who have been circling each other romantically for about half the series, finally get together, and since this is a war story there has to be some bittersweet element to the final victory, so why not give Allura the heroic sacrifice, Lance the tragedy of true but brief love, and call it a day? It’s a tonally weird ending for a series that’s embraced a noblebright sensibility (all the villains get redemption at the end) and a stubborn refusal to kill off any central characters up to this point. Like, I’m not sure I’m mad that Allura dies at the end so much as confused that the writers felt this was the best way to end their story.
On the whole, I’m really glad that Voltron: Legendary Defender exists. It’s an exceptionally good action series for kids that manages to explore some mature themes in easy to understand ways, does some really positive things in terms of representation, and tells an engaging story from beginning to end. The bumps it encounters along the way are disappointing, but overall it was well worth the time I put into watching it.