When Netflix announced a reboot of the Voltron franchise, the inner child in me jumped for joy. More, I felt an instant connection to my identity as an Asian American. You see, when I think of Voltron, I’m instantly transported back to the 5th grade where I spent my time insisting to my American friends that, in the Philippines, Voltron (and a live-action TV show that turned out to be Super Sentai) was a thing before the Power Rangers. My friends wouldn’t believe me and would only laugh harder when I’d proffer that not only was Voltron a thing, but that it was actually better than the Power Rangers.
Voltron is tied, then, to that part of me that identifies as distinctly Asian American and to finally see a reboot that introduces this great franchise to a new generation is such a treat. That the first episode starts off with such great quality makes it like TV lumpia for me. Clocking in at just over an hour, the ambitious attempt to set and sketch the universe that this iteration of Voltron in is not only given space via quality writing and animation, but also time in this outsized episode. More, a roster of recognizable names lead by The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun as Keith, along with delightful surprise Rhys Darby as comic relief via Princess Allura’s (more on her in a bit) right-hand man, Coran.
The first episode, “The Rise of Voltron,” begins with a bit of a prologue, showing a crew on Kerberos extracting scientific examples from this far off moon. We’re introduced immediately to Shiro (voiced by Josh Keaton) as he’s the only one of three crew members named before they are abducted by aliens.
The episode shifts to a simulated flight featuring familiar faces Lance (voiced by Jeremy Shada), Hunk (voiced by Tyler Labine), and Pidge (voiced by Arrow’s Bex Taylor-Klaus). The flight does not turn out well as the three characters bicker and Lance’s confidence is clearly a bit misplaced as his hubris forces their craft to crash. That evening, as Hunk and Lance try to get access to the flight simulator to sharpen their skills, they find Pidge sneaking off. They elicit that Pidge, who’s shown a fierce response to any mention of the failed Kerberos mission, actually believes that there’s an impending alien invasion.
Shortly after being told that the alien chatter is related to a word — “Voltron” — an alien ship crash lands near the barracks. Shiro, of the Kerberos mission, has apparently survived and is being held by military scientists for observation. They mention that his right arm has been replaced by a cyber prosthetic. They don’t mention, that he’s pretty damn dreamy. (Hooray for attractive depictions of Asian men!)
Keith makes his first appearance after being referred to by the commanding officer indicating that Lance only has a place in fighter school due to Keith having washed out. It appears that Keith is trying to free Shiro. The rest of the crew rush down to help and, after a pretty cool futuristic bike chase through the desert, they make it to Keith’s hide out. There, Keith indicates that after washing out of flight school, he felt compelled to start researching strange cave markings depicting lions and some sort of power source. Hunk then reveals what turns out to be a map for the source of Voltron.
The crew set forward to find this area and, after using Hunk’s “Voltron Geiger Counter” (a machine meant to detect the elemental frequency of alien minerals that they take to be related to Voltron), they stumble upon the Blue Lion. It responds immediately to Lance (who also immediately responds to it), and we learn that the lions create a sort of mind-meld with their pilots.
Soon, the lion is drawn to an alien ship and is in its first fire fight. Again, the animation and flight sequences of the episode are truly well done. After a short exchange, the crew and the lion take off at hyper speed. The lions, it turns out, move faster than any human ship. They see a portal and, pretty immediately, they defer to Shiro who is clearly the heart and soul of the team. They decide to move through the portal and, for the moment, manage to outrun the alien ship.
The crew lands on an earth-like planet called Arus and are drawn to an abandoned castle. Once inside, they are introduced to Princess Allura and Coran, the last of the Alteans. I cannot overstate how incredibly inspired the performance of Rhys Darby once Coran appears. He gets some of the best comedic lines in the entire episode — even including Hunk and Lance.
Princess Allura’s introduction, however, is not without its own surprise. Voiced by veteran voice actor (and POC) Kimberly Brooks, Allura’s features are distinctly different than in previous iterations of the show. Gone are her traditional blonde tresses, replaced with white hair — and pointier ears. Moreover, her skin is noticeably darker. So, this iteration of Voltron is already doper by way of its diverse cast AND diverse depiction of characters.
While discussing the lion, we are introduced to the big bad alien: Zarkon, leader of the Galra Empire. Soon, we are introduced by Princess Allura to the different lions and who they will be piloted by (Blue = Lance, Red = Keith, Black = Shiro, Green = Pidge, Yellow = Hunk). The crew learn that the lions are scattered throughout the universe and must find them before the alien force locate them on Altea.
The crew split up and are able to locate the Green and Yellow Lions, and it’s known that the Black Lion is hidden under the castle, only to be activated when the other lions are present. However, the location of the Red Lion is still a mystery until we learn that the Galrans are holding the Red Lion onboard their ship.
Really digging the new #Voltron on @netflix but why'd they have to demote Keith from the Black Lion tho? 😞 pic.twitter.com/RKKYhld7AI
— Keith Chow 周樂文 (@the_real_chow) June 14, 2016
With the Galrans steaming towards Altea with an intent to secure the remaining lions and destroy the planet, the Voltron team devise a plan to trick the Galrans into thinking that they are surrendering the Blue and Yellow Lions. Meanwhile, Pidge will pilot the Green Lion with both Shiro and Keith onboard with the intent of locating the Red Lion. Before enacting the plan, the new Paladins are given their suits and their unique hand-to-hand weapons, called bayards. Shiro, tellingly, is not given one as they fear it had been lost to the other paladin.
The plan works to perfection. Pidge, Shiro and Keith make it onboard while Lance and Hunk draw fire from outside of the ship. Pidge and Shiro find some prisoners and as he fights off guards to release those prisoners, it is revealed that Shiro’s prosthetic arm actually seems to have extra special powers. Keith, meanwhile, eventually finds the Red Lion and, after a brief stand-off, he is able to win over the Red Lion and pilot it away.
On Altea, the crew release the Black Lion and we are finally in that space where we might see the lions get in formation and make Voltron. The castle is under attack and the laser pulses from the Galran ship are breaking down the force field. The team race out and try to form Voltron but, uh, no one knows how (there’s a lesson here for organizations with no transition plans, yo!).
After a bit of dallying, the team is able to mind meld to each other, exhibiting faith in each other, that allows Voltron to form. Once they combine, the team defeats the Galran ship and prevents the destruction of Altea.
All told, this episode was a terrifically crafted work that went beyond what I’d expected for the reboot. There’s lots of promise here and I look forward to the rest of the series.
A Hunk of Notes:
- The greatness of Shiro’s team leadership is pretty difficult to understate. The moment he shares with Pidge, for example, is such a great Dad-ish scene. Great depth there.
- Speaking of Shiro, he’s referred to as The Champion by the prisoners on the Galran ship. Is it possible that he fought his way to freedom and, in some way, lost his arm? Or is it possible his bayard IS his arm? That’s my favorite theory at present, but, regardless, it appears that Shiro’s time on the alien ship will be the big mystery of the series.
- The design of Voltron (and the colors of the series) look really, really great. This is a quality rendering of the classic anime that most grown fans of the series will enjoy, but there’s enough crispness that makes it feel like it would resonate in the modern age.