There’s one episode of Voltron Legendary Defender on Netflix that sums up the series as a transcendent piece of science-fiction: In Season 2, the heroes of Voltron need a crucial “Teludav” — a device that creates wormholes — to stand a chance against King Zarkon of the Galra Empire. Princess Allura’s advisor Coran knows the only place to get it: a dangerous trading outpost, home to a wretched hive of scum in a corner of the galaxy where baddies do business.
Dressed in apocalyptic disguises to assimilate among the shady pirates, the heroes arrive at the outpost… and it’s a mall. As in, a space mall, with a food court and bored teenaged employees. You wouldn’t think a marketplace on a distant intergalactic planet would look like New Jersey. And it’s inside this surprisingly suburban space mall where the Paladins of Voltron, who survive danger and emerge victorious almost every episode, escape the clutches of a rent-a-cop, Varkon, a schlub who fancies himself as King Zarkon’s “Number Two.”
In any other show, this 22-minute romp would be filler. But this is Voltron. As the characters engage in subplots that advance their stories — in particular Shiro, the leader, who confronts Zarkon himself for the first time — Voltron reminds its audience that space is a weird, funny place. Just because there’s a war going on doesn’t mean you can’t shop for video games.
If it’s slipped by you for whatever reason, stop everything and watch Voltron Legendary Defender on Netflix, the fourth season of which hit Netflix on October 13. In spite of its nine-syllable a title, the series is a delight of stunning animation, textured characters, and an unfolding science-fiction universe that mixes danger and the humor of a space mall. In every way an improvement over the 1984 original anime, Voltron Legendary Defender is the TV equivalent of a bowl of Saturday morning cereal without the sickly feeling of nostalgia — or an afternoon sugar crash.
Here’s the basic story: In the future, five pilots are summoned to become Paladins of Voltron. They’re ace pilots whose individual mechs — beast machines who “choose” their owners, in an undefined spiritual sense — link up as one. Together, Voltron is a weapon to fight evil, which in this case is Zarkon, who seeks to make the galaxy great again by conquest.
Voltron Legendary Defender makes no bones about what it is: a kid’s show. It’s just that it’s also a very smart, very thrilling kid’s show that will, in time, earn its rank as “important” TV. When it does, it will be because of its characters — square-jawed Shiro, bad boy Keith, loverboy Lance, science whiz Pidge, large-and-in-charge Hunk, and Allura and Coran — who feel more alive and more human than any of the moody royals of Game of Thrones, or the grunty survivors of The Walking Dead.
A common praise given to the most acclaimed cartoons, like Batman: The Animated Series, Samurai Jack, Avatar: The Last Airbender or Netflix contemporary BoJack Horseman, is when critics and viewers say they feel like they aren’t watching a cartoon. Batman introduced a generation to film noir, Samurai Jack was boldly experimental, Avatar taught everyone yoga, and BoJack Horseman is an existential crisis burrito covered in anxiety sauce.
But then there’s Voltron, a cartoon that embraces the medium and all it comes with. Executive produced by Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery (veterans from Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra), Voltron doesn’t rely on fleeting moments of darkness to appeal older viewers. Nor is it adults-only, which it could have been given that original Voltron fans are people in their 30s, a lucrative demographic in a nostalgia-driven economy.
Voltron is for kids. Its rigid moral compass, a staple in kid’s TV, is its best asset. There aren’t many sides against Zarkon. He’s bad, his minions are bad, anyone who supports him are bad. The good guys are with Voltron, a warrior robot that becomes a symbol of hope and rebellion in the galaxy. It’s been a long while, but Voltron’s heroism is refreshingly simple.
Its characters too are simple, and this is good. After four seasons and more than 50 episodes, the heroes of Voltron are more or less the same as they were in the pilot. Walter White was full-blown Heisenberg by Season 4 of Breaking Bad, but in Voltron, the only changing elements have been the roster. (Keith, the Red Lion pilot, exits in the most recent season, replaced by Allura in pink armor. And it’s only temporary.)
Yet there’s something about the characters of Voltron. Perhaps it’s just chemistry: the sharp writing, the actors who demonstrate the full spectrum of emotion through sound; Voltron works in concert. These are 2D ink drawings animated by computers, but you can imagine an entire conversation between them as if they’re alive.
Because of the Netflix model, it’s an accumulative familiarity fans have of Voltron. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of many outstanding singular moments. Not that the show is lacking — Shiro versus Zarkon, Lotor’s introduction, Keith’s trial with the Blades of Mamora, Pidge’s reveal, Lance milking a cow to Coran and Allura’s horror — but as whole seasons can be swallowed up in one or two binges, it’s the impressions I’m left with, instead of isolated moments.
Voltron works, and I’m also not the only one to say so. Just ask the show’s army of female fans. One glance at Voltron’s fandom and you’ll see that its all-ages appeal is true. Based on the cosplay community, Voltron has a thriving female audience who have surrounded their favorites with fantasy “ships” (romantic pairings). So many of Voltron’s female fans want Keith to hook up with Shiro or Lance, the absence of almost any sexual energy in the series has afforded its fans to indulge how they please without official canon getting in the way.
No show is perfect and neither is Voltron. Its rigid identity is, at times, suffocating. The darkest moments of Avatar, Batman, and BoJack give those stories weight to offset the action (in the case of BoJack, hysterical gags and focused jabs at a vapid Hollywood culture). After four seasons, Voltron does not yet have its “Blood Bending” moment, and it’s overdue.
But in the waning years of the newest golden age of animation, which began with Avatar, peaked at Korra, and is winding down with Rick & Morty, Voltron Legendary Defender is a show that continually champions actually decent old-fashioned values like progress, teamwork, and diversity, in a sandbox universe where its characters let fans play however they wish. Voltron is a toy, and right now, we need to have some fun. Perhaps a trip to the mall is in order.