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Voltron Legendary Defender Episode #1 REVIEW – The legend is back

Every brand revival has to fight against its past. Whether it’s Transformers, Jem, or whatever else you can imagine, it has a history and a fanbase that adores selective parts of that history. Get it right, and you might have a mega-hit on your hands. Get it wrong, and you might find yourself writing off some pretty big investments.

No show has that problem, perhaps, more than Voltron: Defender of the Universe. Very specific pieces of it have entered the cultural lexicon to the degree that people who have never even watched the show understand certain references.

People have tried to revive it over the years at least once or twice, but so far nothing has stuck. As we go into this new revival, Voltron Legendary Defender, it feels like a losing battle. Nothing can ever live up to the version of Voltron that lives in our heads, right?

Well, not if Legendary Defender has anything to say about it.

While the show doesn’t launch for a few more days yet, we had the chance to check out the 68-minute first episode, and what we’re seeing so far suggests that we’re in good hands.

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Voltron Legendary Defender is being tackled by Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery, who have worked on dozens of DC Comics shows and movies and, most recently, Legend of Korra. Check out our interview with them and cast member Jeremy Shada (also of Adventure Time) for the full background what they wrestled with while creating the show.

In short, though, they knew what they were getting into and instead of trying to avoid it, they took the show’s biggest problems head-on. The weird, choppy dissonance of the original, created by editing two shows together and censoring one of them, are gone. What we have in this first episode is a cohesive, coherent, and downright enchanting pilot.

The human race is just beginning to venture out into the stars. Voltron isn’t a name whispered in hushed tones – no one even knows such a thing exists, yet. It’s not until the return of a missing explorer and discovery of alien technology on the planet – a giant, robotic, blue lion – that anyone is aware alien life exists. This is the setup for Voltron Legendary Defender.

VOLTRON: LEGENDARY DEFENDER

Through this, we’re given a fast, but surprisingly organic introduction to team Voltron, made up of Lance, Pidge, Hunk, Keith, and Shiro. Shiro takes the place of Sven from the original Voltron, his name a reference to the original Japanese character’s name, Takashi Shirogane.

As we meet each of these characters, it’s easy to see which archetypes they fulfill, but it’s not long before each one is given additional layers of complexity. Shiro has a layer of mystery that’s literally built in right from the first time he meets the other members of Team Voltron. Pidge bristles at any mention of the missing Pluto expedition that kicks off the show. Lance has something to prove. To everyone.

Even characters that were there just to move the plot forward in the original are given full personalities. The Royal Advisor Coran, charged with much of the show’s exposition, is voiced by Rhys Darby, a New Zealand comedian. Darby adds tons of personality to the character that was never there. Instead of being a headache worrywart, he’s a primary source of humor for the show, and he manages to steal any scene he’s in. He bounces especially well off characters like the blue pilot Lance, as their insecurities bounce and clash against each other.

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If you’re looking for the show to echo specific parts of your childhood memory, though, be prepared for a little bit of disappointment. Having rewatched pieces of both Voltron and GoLion recently, I can promise you this is for the best. A lot of the more formulaic elements of the show – the transformation sequence especially, with all its particular shots and lines of dialogue – stick out as things designed to help sell toys.

And, if the $150 Voltron toy standing next to my television is any indication, it worked. Credit where credit’s due, and all that.

But Voltron Legendary Defender isn’t trying to sell us toys. Instead, it builds on the themes that made the original so much fun, with teamwork close to the core.

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The characters, as I mentioned, didn’t know what Voltron was before the show started, or even that aliens existed. They’re as much outsiders as we are. This makes for fun opportunities to pick at some of the elements of the show that we’ve long since accepted. Hunk is very conscious of the fact that he’s essentially piloting a leg, for example.

As this is a Netflix-length show – 13 episodes – it necessarily moves a bit faster than the original. The team is piloting Voltron by the end of the pilot. It feels tight and keeps our attention. One thing that Voltron shows off especially well, and one of the biggest differences between television-style animation and something like this, is the lack of dependence on commercial interruptions. Television cartoons, naturally, were designed to keep kids watching between commercials. Stories were designed with those interruptions in mind, and were filled with overly tense cliffhangers.

Here, the story unfolds more organically, and it makes a difference. We get interesting characters and compelling story instead of melodrama intended to make us hold our breaths until we turned as blue as Lance’s helmet.

Where the story will go from the pilot is a bit tough to tell, and that’s a good thing. I can make some guesses based on events of the original, but while there are shades of Voltron: Defender of the Universe here, Legendary Defender is different enough to make its own path while remembering its past.

Voltron Legendary Defender debuts its 13-episode season on Netflix on June 10.


Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...

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