With Netflix adding Robotech to their roster this month, I got to take a trip down memory lane to re-experience my favorite show growing up. At first, I was afraid it would be a victim of confronting nostalgia, far better to remember than view again, but it holds up surprisingly well for three, unrelated, early 80s anime series being parsed together, re-cut and dubbed. That isn’t to say its not without its problems, but with Sony acquiring the rights to the franchise last year, the time is ripe to give this show a full remake or film universe. It’s not just a potentially good idea, if Sony’s attempt stays true to the series’ themes, this is the best possible franchise to build a cinematic universe around; to compete with Marvel, DC and Star Wars.
Its a given that any property with designs on being a film franchise needs to reach a broad audience, but Robotech doesn’t get the head start Marvel and Star Wars had by already being popular. It had a few runs on TV (most notably Toonami), some VHS/DVD releases, a decent video game and that’s about it for the US. Despite that, it has a dedicated enough following for Sony to think it was worth the pick-up, and having mostly fresh eyes on a new release is a likely boon given its content. Its original narrative focus gives it a chance to reach even further than its war-obsessed counterparts, because the civilian angle was always front and center. Its not just about the pilots of jet fighters that turn into giant robots, or the bridge crew of the SDF-1, their capital ship, that also turns into a giant robot. One of the central protagonists is a civilian non-combatant, and a pop singer at that, who holds the key to ending the conflict more than any other individual on the show. That’s not the typical narrative focus for a show featuring humans in giant robots fighting giant aliens with more proportional robots. However, a positive and empowering treatment of Minmay’s character holds the key to drawing in a broader audience than the typical Sci-Fi nerds and Robotech die-hards.
While the show gives the appearance of being just another humans vs. aliens, fight for survival conflict (and delivers on that score), what its always been about is smashing arbitrary gender divisions and forming/fostering positive relationships with others. Romance, friendship and finding common ground with those vastly different from you take center stage, with the combat serving as set dressing, a way to raise stakes and create or relieve tension. Those who aren’t down with space dogfights will have plenty of character drama to enjoy, and a wholesome message about bridging the cultural gaps between people. With Star Wars being all about religion, government and high concept morality plays, it wouldn’t hurt to have a big Sci-Fi franchise focus on the more basic aspects of human relationships, the ones we all encounter day-to-day.
How many people wanted to be a fighter pilot, ship’s captain or astronaut when they grew up? How many people wanted to make First Contact? How many people wanted to be the most famous and inspiring pop star/celebrity in the world? Robotech caters to all those aspirations.
It Sends the Best Message
Love, togetherness, and acceptance are an easy sell, who wouldn’t want that? If everyone wants it, why hasn’t it been achieved? Some people, through their experiences, don’t know how, some choose to cast it aside to pursue their self interest and a few just want to tear it all down. Robotech makes a point of exploring that on both the systemic and individual levels. To see how, one need only look at the Zentradi, the leading alien species.
They’re genetically identical to humans, but bred in cloning vats to be fifty feet tall and have a sole focus on combat. All vestiges of the culture they once were had been stripped thousands of years ago, with males and females existing almost completely separate from one another and Zentradi leadership stoking a violent rivalry between them. Their culture is so committed to violence, they don’t even have support or maintenance crews on their ships, just sealing off sections of their cruisers that were breached and exposed to space instead of repairing it. Despite that, there are no gender divisions in terms of roles performed in combat, which is something humans haven’t even achieved.
While fighting the humans, they eventually send spies and pick up transmissions of beauty pageants and concerts. Stunned by sights of pleasant exchanges between males and females, revealing clothing and music, the spies aren’t sure what to do with themselves. What was once a picture of fascist unity aboard Zentradi vessels devolved into petty bickering, longing for more culture and outright defection. For those who have been through puberty, this ought to sound eerily familiar. Its no accident that many of the central protagonists pilot or operate vessels that change into forms resembling adult humans. Its always been a messy transition, and Robotech makes sure not to insult its audience by pretending anything else.
Which brings about the three central protagonists (and primary love triangle): Rick Hunter, Lisa Hayes and Lynn Minmay. Rick begins as a cocky flying ace with strong anti-war leanings and an unwittingly chauvinist attitude. Lisa is the preeminent tactician aboard the SDF-1, coming from a centuries old lineage of military commanders, but is constantly teased by her female compatriots for not doing enough to get a man. Minmay fled her parents in Japan, who demanded she get married and take over their Chinese restaurant, to pursue a singing career. From these snippets alone, it shows that while the Zentradi may be outlandish in their gender divisions, humans do plenty on a individual/institutional level to impose such restrictions on themselves. Those limitations and impositions are what form the true antagonist of Robotech, and the characters only grow once those walls begin crashing down.
In a world where an American Presidential candidate brags about sexual assault, and his retainers brush it off as “just guy talk”, its high time a show makes that attitude itself the bad guy. Then kills it with both love AND lasers. To give the appearance of being about this:
But really being about this:
Cleansing the Legacy
If any of the above seemed unbelievably progressive for an 80s cartoon about giant robots shooting aliens, unfortunately, it is. At the time of its release, more was made about the normalized interracial relationship between Roy Fokker and Claudia Grant. That’s appropriate, because for as much as the major themes are about bridging the gap between gender and sentient species, women are often treated poorly by the show and the “why”s aren’t explored enough. Its a common enough problem in most older media, but this is an opportunity to change that and make it even better than it was before. It wouldn’t even be that difficult, and some of the sexism needs to remain as a point of conflict for the characters to address and grow out of.
Having a bridge crew staffed entirely by women, but then being commanded by a male captain who often finds himself getting bailed out by said women (particularly Lisa), is a strong visual signifier of the gender divisions that need combating. Same with Minmay’s parents trying to marry her off for business reasons. Or Rick being a jerk to Minmay because she’s recording an album and can’t drop by whenever he’s off-duty.
What is not okay is having Minmay, as a minor, getting lusted after by adult protagonists who say “She sure doesn’t look 16″ (Episode 9, Miss Macross) as a one-off line without any type of examination or recourse for that attitude. Or, in the very first episode, having Minmay run back to an evacuated city (currently bombarded by alien lasers from space) to get her diary because she’s afraid someone might read it. That’s a huge disservice to a character that’s otherwise presented as competent and driven. Or when Rick tells Lisa there’s “certain jobs that just shouldn’t be given to women” (Episode 11, First Contact) without much consequence. Hell, it wasn’t even Lisa’s fault her plane crashed in the first place. Anyone viewing those interactions, without the tractor beam of nostalgia guiding them, has ample reason to stop watching. It can be so much more without those examples of implicit sexism dragging it down.
Minmay can be a much stronger character if consistently portrayed as the diva her role in the story is, instead of being shackled by having to stay Rick’s love interest. That’s not to say the love triangle should be broken up, but all too often her character was defined by her relationship to men.
One hitch is that to truly explore gender divisions and sexuality, it cannot solely be between heterosexual characters, and the Macross arc of Robotech (the first and best known) doesn’t have anyone currently to fit the bill. The final arc features a trans character that’s coded as normal, in the sense that other characters who freak out about it are considered the weirdos, but that’s about it. That said, there are a wealth of opportunities in the characters already presented to touch on these themes because their sexuality is never explored. In particular, Breetai and Exedore would serve as excellent candidates for a gay coupling:
It could be argued that having the aliens form the homosexual coupling is problematic since it still “Others” them, and that’s a fair point. My counter argument is that these particular aliens have no real culture beyond war, and once its introduced, there is no implicit stigma against homosexuality preventing them from revealing their feelings to each other. Humans do not have the same luxury.
It also generates a lot of opportunities to explore the secondary themes of the show in greater detail, since the original episodes only had about 18 minutes of content apiece. The conflict of institutional vs. personal loyalty is inherent in the premise, but there’s a lot to delve into on the civilian side of things. The trappings of fame and dealing with insurmountable pressure (the fate of two sentient species literally depends on Minmay’s singing), the uneasy balance of being a citizen-soldier and achieving multiracial/species harmony all get touched on and now have the potential to be explored further. They’re the type of themes that can draw in an audience that’s never heard of a Veritech Valkyrie.
Looks That Kill
Watching this the first time as a six year old, I picked up on precisely none of larger themes written above. I watched it because it was F-14s that turned into giant robots and blew up aliens, and damned if it wasn’t one of the cooler looking shows to feature that basic premise. But in the 80s, lots of stuff had the blocky, primary color explosion look: Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turles, Jem and the Holograms, GI Joe. It’d take a second glance to tell Robotech apart from its contemporaries.
Today, the Transformers look like they’re a bunch of razor blades stapled together, the Turtles got uncomfortably photo-realistic, Joe and Jem haven’t done anything of note beyond a mediocre movie from the former. Hopefully they won’t update Robotech’s look too much, its as timeless as Star Wars and also thematically appropriate to have it remain. Almost all the technology featured in the series is salvaged from the aliens and repurposed, which is exactly what its characters do to the arbitrary cultural divisions imposed upon them.
It pairs especially well with Minmay’s arc, which features all the glitz, glam and light shows resplendent in 80s pop. Given that Sony has a music division, it wouldn’t hurt to hire an ascending pop star to provide at least the singing voice. Her concerts, spliced with vicious and desperate space combat, created many of the original series’ best visuals and it can only get better with 30 years worth of advancement in animation technology.
A premise as outlandish as Robotech’s is an excellent invitation to push the limits of said advancements in animation. Breathtaking vistas of space, neon tinged city streets, badass mecha all wrapped up with positive exploration of gender issues and a “love conquers all” optimism is exactly what the world needs right now.