Nostalgia is tricky. What you remember as epic fantasies may have actually been cheap Saturday morning cartoons, hastily made by studios under tight network deadlines. But seen through a child’s eye, these half-hour toy commercials became grand heroic serials that have endured for decades, evidenced by the lasting appeal of ‘80s icons like Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Now, it’s Voltron’s turn.
Premiering June 10 on Netflix, Voltron Legendary Defender will reintroduce the 1984 anime classic Voltron — wherein five pilots control five color-coded robots to form Voltron, the galaxy’s greatest defender against evil. The target audience is broad: everyone, young, old, and in between. There’s no question kids love robots, but adults? To appease older fans and stray newcomers, showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery set out to recreate the fun: that exciting epic they remembered, not merely the same show they saw years ago.
“When you go back and watch that original with adult eyes, you realize the product of the time,” Dos Santos told Inverse in a phone interview. “As nostalgic we are, you can see they were making the best of what they had. The memories you have are vivid and fill in a lot of the gaps that weren’t there. We were trying to make that show, that our child brains remember.”
“We weren’t trying to make Avatar or Korra [either],” says Montgomery. “It’s a different show. We wanted a different feel. It was the most broad strokes we stuck to, things people actually remember. You really don’t remember the storyline, you just know there was a bad guy that Voltron would find. You’ll see those things, but there’s a lot more in our story.”
Best known for their work in the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, its spin-off The Legend of Korra, and a variety of DC Comics animations, Dos Santos and Montgomery now oversee a reboot they hope passes “the squint test” (i.e., recognizing big elements in an instant). Dos Santos and Montgomery noted their new show will retain the spirit of the 1984 original while changing enough to launch the mythology into the next generation.
There are a lot of changes in Legendary Defender, namely to Voltron’s roster. There’s ethnic diversity, much like in 2011’s Voltron Force, but now the pilots are all guys. What kind of stories are you hoping to tell with this dynamic?
Montgomery: We didn’t make the decision to go with all guys for a specific “This is all dudes!” thing. We were starting our story in one place and we knew we had 13 episodes and we knew we were going to evolve to another place. What we’ve seen in the first five episodes isn’t what’s going to be canon for the entire series. It’s a starting point.
You’ve changed Voltron’s leadership. Keith is not the leader, Sven is, and his name is Shiro, his original name from the Japanese GoLion series. What made you do these shake-ups to the mythos?
Montgomery: The problem in the original was we had three cool, hero-guy characters: Keith, Sven, and Lance. They had slight differences but when we stand back they’re kind of the same. We needed to broaden the personalities, we didn’t want people getting our guys mixed up. As we were re-watching Voltron, Sven to me was just a cooler character. He did the most heroic thing and gave his life to save Lance. That’s the biggest G thing you can do. He seems like the most heroic of them all, so we put him in the “hero” and [that put] Keith in a very different place. Again, we build a show that is going to allow these characters to evolve, where any of them start is not where they’re going to end up.
Dos Santos: The weirdest thing happened to me. While I was working on the show, [Montgomery and I] were having a conversation before a public speaking thing about Voltron, and I was like “Shiro was the leader in GoLion.” Lauren was like, “No, Shiro wasn’t.” I think because he was the eldest of the group, the elder statesmen, I put him in that role and it seemed to fit. Your brain fills in this stuff that feels right, that was this weird gray area in the original.
The mixed color coordination of Voltron used to infuriate me, but you’ve simplified it in Legendary Defender. Were you hesitant to change it just because it’s been that way for so long – even though it didn’t make sense?
Montgomery: A lot of it was just [about] making sense. For me, we switched up the palettes and the lions because I have color OCD and I wanted everyone to match. Keith could always be the leader in every other Voltron incarnation but, for some reason, when I was a kid watching the show I always equated Keith to being red more than I equated Keith being in the [leading] Black Lion. That was the result of why Keith ended up in the Red Lion [in Legendary Defender] because I’m selfish and I don’t want to do it that way.
We’d seen in other versions of Voltron, they would change the color of the pilot [uniform] so Keith would be wearing black and Lance would be red. Again, my selfish childhood brain, I always remembered Keith wearing red and Lance wearing blue, so when I would see them in these other colors it would feel strange. I wouldn’t recognize them. So it [was] just [about] tidying things up and make things make sense.
There’s a lot of humor and wit in Legendary Defender that even the original didn’t have. Why did you pursue this tone? Was it ever explored to make the show “gritty” to appeal to the over-30 viewers who grew up on Voltron?
Dos Santos: That’s the style we gravitate toward. When you’re in the development phase, you’re fielding all ideas. From the executive level, some were focused on a video game aesthetic, a Halo kind of thing. There was some push to go gritty. [But] it’s not territory we wanted to go into. We have dramatic moments in the show, but Voltron itself is a colorful thing and that’s what makes it memorable, these primary colors that come together. So that idea sort of spread throughout.
This is something the Marvel films do well: If there’s an idea that seems like it’s pushing boundaries [of ridiculousness], if you can make fun of it or be self-effacing, it takes a lot of the edge off. One of our characters, Hunk, when they first form Voltron he screams, “I’m a leg!” It’s the craziest idea in the world and the fact that he realizes that it’s crazy, helps it be palatable.
Montgomery: There was a lot of drama in Korra and we have a lot of drama in Voltron, but you also want to make sure there’s a ton of fun because ultimately it’s about a colorful robot made out of five robot lions. If you take that too seriously, it kind of contradicts itself.
As much as people love Voltron, it doesn’t have a beloved story beyond its premise. I assume you were given a lot of freedom, but how much room were you really given?
Montgomery: We definitely didn’t need to stick closely to the original. As Joaquim said earlier, the original was a product of its time. They were limited by what they had. We don’t have those limitations. We’re able to expand on things and create more of a mythos, things that didn’t exist in the original that we can do because we don’t have those same limitations.
I know it’s early, but what could we expect in a possible Season 2?
Dos Santos: Honestly, besides, being contractually obligated to spoiler alerts, we’re just so focused on just the thirteen [episodes] right now and making sure they get out as good as they can be. What we can tell you is that the show will continue to evolve and things will get bigger and badder.
Voltron Legendary Defender *will premiere on Netflix June 10.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.