About halfway through the first disc of ADV Films' Robotech DVD collection, it occurred to me how far TV animation has come, and how in some ways it hasn't budged at all—perhaps even regressed a little, in fact.
came into a TV world dominated by He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
, GI Joe
, and Transformers
, shows that often had less imagination than the kids who were supposed to play with the toys they were based on. The formula wasn't much different from the one used in so many bland cartoons like Tarzan
, Flash Gordon
, and Blackstar
: good guy(s) courageously fight a bloodless war against bad guy(s) with unwavering moral certitude. These half-hour toy ads made merchandisers happy, and parents' groups and politicians were kept content by the public-service-style messages to kids at the end.
was a much-needed breath of fresh air. Featuring a serial structure with three major story arcs, it aimed for pathos, action, and drama. To its credit, it largely succeeded. Here was a war story with the epic scope of the best science fiction and the humanity of the best... well, any kind of fiction. In the show's first few minutes, an alien spaceship materializes in the sky and crash-lands on an Earth gripped by global conflict. Putting aside their differences, the world's nations rebuild the spaceship and prepare for the possible coming alien invasion. When the Zentraedi attack does come, it's more staggering than they could have imagined—setting the stage for three interstellar wars spanning 85 episodes.
Visually, the show was incredible. At its best, it featured ambitious animation, editing, and scene compositions that still top much of today's TV animation. Aurally, too, it was often a cut above the rest, with a well thought-out sound mix and original soundtrack sharing screen time to good effect. And much appreciated was the logical use and design of the mecha—fighter planes and tanks that transformed into giant robots—which definitely made suspension of disbelief much easier.
But more than technical competence, I've always liked how the show's characters had something extra compared to the bland purity or one-note evil of those populating other shows. Roy Fokker is a roguish fighter pilot who is happy-go-lucky to the casual observer, but who understands and embraces the pain of the career soldier; Breetai, a commanding officer among the Zentraedi, is thoughtful, respectful of his opponent, and very, very dangerous.
Best of all is Rick Hunter, the show's central character. Over the first 36 episodes' three-year span, we see him mature as he goes from amateur pilot to fighter pilot, and watch as his simplistic attitudes towards war change once he's on the front lines. Most important, we see him wrestle with these changes as they slowly creep up on him. In the sixth episode, he comes face-to-face with an unarmed Zentraedi and can't bring himself to pull the trigger. But if he has qualms about taking a life, he wonders, why has it become so easy to destroy enemies whose faces he can't see? (By lingering on the terrified Zentraedi's face, the scene also bore something of a Robotech
trademark: humanizing the enemy.)
was originally three completely unrelated anime series: Super Dimensional Fortress Macross
, Super Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross
, and Genesis Climber Mospeada
, all by Tatsunoko. Story editor Carl Macek combined the three through the linking device of protoculture, an organic fuel source, and having each series represent a separate war in Earth's history, each a result of the previous one. As such, Robotech
is not a strict translation, something Macek has taken plenty of heat for since the show's debut in 1985.
But everything's relative. Prior to Robotech
, almost no one bothered to release wholly faithful translations for the American market; at the very least, some of the more violent scenes were edited out, or story aspects made more juvenile. A good example is Battle of the Planets
, also being released on DVD by Rhino Records. Originally born of another Tatsunoko production, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman
, it didn't have the sophisticated storytelling of Robotech
, aimed as it was at a younger audience in both of its incarnations. The end result is something with a lot more camp value: undeniably good heroes and undeniably bad villains, all of them working for their respective secret organizations and wearing bizarre animal-themed apparel. The good guys, G-Force, at least looked kind of cool in their bird costumes; Zoltar and his minions' canine-themed outfits were a little more laughable, though Zoltar's somewhat glam outfit matched his sexually ambiguous features (there's a reason for that, but I won't spoil it).
The stories were simpler, but they had an edge that saved them from the boring morality that characterized American toy-based shows. Battle of the Planets
featured non-stop action, ranging from fisticuffs to ship-to-ship combat. Even though some of the more violent parts were excised—in Gatchaman
, the good guys had no problem with hurling henchmen out of ships miles above the ground or stabbing them to death, and attacks on Earth left plenty of casualties—there were still moments which, these days, would require an advisory if they appeared on any kind of TV show airing before 10:00 PM.
G-Force itself also had a weak link: Jason, the dark and brooding team member who chafed against Mark's leadership. With his costume all deep grays and blues, you could feel death hanging in the air whenever his scowling face entered the room. I remember being scared of him as a nine-year old, thinking that at any moment he would spell the team's destruction.
In the earlier days of anime fandom, it was generally known that new, somewhat juvenile footage involving a robot named 7-Zark-7 (and his robot dog 1-Rover-1) was added to Battle of the Planets
to make up for the footage edited out for extreme violence. However, a surprisingly persistent rumour also held that some of the original Gatchaman
footage featured sexual content; more than one person even claimed some of it was quite graphic.
One of the benefits of the Battle of the Planets
DVD is that you can see exactly what was removed or changed from the original: each disc includes the corresponding original Japanese episodes with English subtitles. (It's interesting to note that while Gatchaman
was quite forthright about the presence of nuclear power and weaponry, Battle of the Planets
dialogue danced around the issue by referring to secret bases and the like.) There's also the first episode of G-Force
, a later Gatchaman
adaptation that trimmed less footage but used cornball names like Dirk Daring and Ace Goodheart and inserted cheesy techno music, presumably to modernize the soundtrack.
discs don't include original episodes (AnimEigo has the rights to Macross
, which should be released around the time you read this); in fact, they don't include any extras at all if you buy them individually. However, if you buy the Robotech Legacy box sets, you get two discs with episodes plus a bonus disc containing pre-production information or rarely seen productions. In the case of the first box set, the extras are a bit uneven: Codename: Robotech
, an 80-minute feature made from re-edited footage; character model sheets, which are obscured by the background design; and clips from the show in five different languages—something I've never found all that interesting, and which seems to appear on all the bonus discs.
will only interest the die-hard fan who has to see absolutely everything, but it also contains the best part: an audio commentary by Macek, discussing the making of Robotech
. Some of it is dry and some already well-known to fans, but a fair bit provides a fascinating insight into the workings of television animation. Macek also genially takes on some of his detractors, explaining the reasons behind some of the choices made and taking issue with fans that consider anything coming out of Japan sacrosanct.
Much as I enjoyed the commentary, it lacked a few things I was hoping to learn about, like network and viewer response to things like the honest depictions of warfare; Lancer/Yellow Dancer, a cross-dressing freedom fighter from Robotech
's final chapter; and the fact that interracial romance was a fixture of most of the series (something few other cartoons touched before or since). One hopes these topics will crop up on future extras discs; in the meantime, the Robotech
and Battle of the Planets
discs serve as great reminders of what TV animation used to be and could be still.