Friday, August 12, 2016

Nostalgia Check: Sci-Fi, Love, Death and Transformers

Like many kids from the 80s, Saturday morning cartoons were a weekly feature. The routine probably went something like this for everyone: wake up stupidly early on Saturday, quiet as to not wake up your parents, pour your favorite ridiculously sugary cereal, and turn on the television to catch hours of kid friendly animated programming chock full of targeted advertising.

Even the shows themselves were essentially advertising for toy lines. Pretty formulaic, the shows themselves were poorly written 30 minute spots. Usually each episode was a self contained story, but sometimes there were two part cliffhanger episodes (we had to wait an entire week to get a resolution). and each episode focused on some sort of moral quandary, or held a special message. Some of the shows from this era have become pretty legendary among nostalgic fans, but most were completely forgettable. He-man and She-Ra, GI Joe, My Little Pony, The Care Bears, Rainbow Brite, and the Thundercats have transcended into the pop culture ethos. But there were plenty of other similar pulp trash cartoons like MASK, the Silverhawks, The Galaxy Rangers, the Centurions, the Moon Dreamers, and the Visionaries that are better left forgotten.

And then there was Robotech.

The vision of bringing Japanese animation to western television wasn't a completely novel idea. Voltron was a success the year prior. And shows like the 8th Man and Speed Racer had been around for a long time. But Robotech was something different.

For starters the show wasn't necessarily episodic. This was a long narrative, with a plot that continued to build without resolve for several episodes. There was no such thing as binge watching back then either, we received one episode a week for 36 weeks.

The characters were totally relatable. They had complex relationships. They were people of color. There was a reasonable ratio of male to female characters in a variety of roles. They joked, and argued, and grieved, and crushed on each other. This was the first cartoon with multiracial couples. This was the first cartoon where major characters died on screen. and stayed dead.

I loved this show as a kid. It had the look of an adult show. It had cool characters with cool hair. They fought alien invaders from space, and had planes that transformed into robots!

Rewatching it now, I realize some major flaws with the plot. The show was originally a Japanese show called Macross. The plot of the show was changed when dubbed into English in order to tie in two other unrelated Japanese shows so it could be one entire super show. The reason for this was pretty ridiculous. The broadcasting company wouldn't greenlight a 36 episode show. They needed more episodes. No new show today would get a 36 episode season.

So, instead of a clever science fiction plot that makes sense, about humanity discovering they were created by an ancient planet-seeding culture (which became a major plot point in Star Trek The Next Generation) we got a story about Earth caught up in the middle of an interstellar struggle for a renewable energy source.

The first few episodes deal with the crew of the giant reclaimed alien spaceship trying to get back to Earth after stranding themselves by mistake near Pluto, and taking an entire island city (Macross) with them. Realistically, picking up an island and dropping it in the middle of the Kuiper Belt, even with the population hiding in bomb shelters, should end in death for all people involved. But somehow the population of Macross not only survives, but rebuilds the city inside the massive spacecraft. They are able to relocate everyone, rebuild the city, and set up an intricate infrastructure within two weeks.

Speaking of realism, the giant battleship has to travel back to Earth presumably at less than light speeds, fighting a hostile alien fleet all the way there. But even though they are outmanned and outgunned, they manage to continue fighting with seemingly unlimited resources. How do they maintain supplies of ammunition? or food? Especially for a city of people that aren't supposed to be there? The alien navy should have been able to just wait it out until everyone on board starved. The city seems to be self sustaining, with simulated weather, unlimited supplies, and sophisticated broadcasting abilities. But the crew of the battleship can't figure out how to communicate with their own planet. Also, apparently a movie star somehow gets onboard for a beauty pageant. Has she been there this whole time?

The second season was a giant waste of time. So I won't say anything about the Southern Cross. I'm sure the original Cavalry Southern Cross show was a good stand alone series. But it made no sense as a sequel to Macross.

The 3rd season was originally Genesis Climber: Mospeada. I'm sure the original show is a much better overall experience. The plot seems to make more sense. This show, like Macross, had some things that no other animated kids show dared to do. There were complicated relationships among characters, and stages of grief just like in Macross. There was a transgendered character, and no one thought it was weird.
Regardless of the logistics of the series, or the messy legal battles between studios that leaves reboots or sequels doubtful, there is no denying the Robotech series helped create a subculture in America devoted to anime. Robotech led my family to discover Appleseed, and Project A-ko, and all sorts of other cool things. On top of that, it was also proof that the race, gender, or sexual orientation of characters, or who they dated didn't matter to the success of the show. Robotech was proof that sci-fi wasn't just for boys, it could appeal to everyone.