Here is everything I knew about Voltron prior to hitting play on the first episode of Voltron: Legendary Defender:
- Lion spaceships
- A giant robot
- Wade Wilson likes it.
Here’s what I know after watching every episode of Voltron: Legendary Defender: I’m a BIG fan.
Developed by DreamWorks as a live action movie, the project evolved into an animated series with a hell of a pedigree. The showrunners are Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos, who are best known for their work on Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra along with Tim Hedrick, the show’s lead writer. The animation talent is just as impressive with Team Mir, another Korra alumni, front and center.
So, behind the camera things look good. How about out front?
Well, the same basic premise as the original Voltron remains; five young cadets discover huge lion-shaped spacecraft that can combine into a really huge lion motif-ed robot warrior and fight an evil galactic empire. Their only allies are a pair of aliens just out of deep hibernation, some weirdly psychic mice, and each other.
So far so Hero’s Journey (with psychic mice), right? But the show gets its weighty premise on deck very fast and doesn’t fail to acknowledge its goofier elements. And yes, that means the psychic mice are both explained and have a couple of surprisingly plot-centric moments. Likewise, Princess Allura, the team leader, goes through some momentous changes. She starts off as a pretty off-the-shelf magical princess but by the end of the season the slightly sketchy perma-damsel has been replaced by a surprisingly hard-edged, take-charge leader. That change is aided hugely by the fact she’s voiced by Kimberly Brooks, best known as the voice of Ashley in the Mass Effect games. So, if you’re still feeling bad about Virmire, then definitely check out the show. It’s what Ashley would have wanted.
Allura’s aide Coran is the only weak link, remaining a mostly one-note comic relief character throughout, but even he has his moments. Plus, brilliantly, Coran is voiced by Flight of the Conchords alumni Rhys Darby whose endless, slightly officious enthusiasm is a perfect fit for the role.
But this is a show that lives and dies on its lead voice talent, and the five Paladins do not disappoint. The first characters we meet are Lance, Pidge, and Hunk. Hunk is an amiable, gentle-hearted engineer who loves food, gadgets, and gadgets that make food. Pidge is a fast-talking technical genius who isn’t telling the others everything, and Lance is the greatest pilot in his whole entire jacket. The first time we meet them, they’re crashing. Lance is totally cool with it, Pidge is trying to fix the mess, and Hunk is puking.
It’s a great scene, not just for the punchline but for how well it sets all three characters up. Lance, voiced by Jeremy Shada, is absolutely secure in his own abilities. He IS the hero the universe deserves, he IS the best pilot the world has ever seen and he does have a rivalry with Keith, the other professional pilot on the team. The fact Keith hasn’t actually heard of Lance does nothing to offset this. Soon the world will know Lance. Soon the world will NEED Lance.
Pidge, voiced by Bex Taylor-Klaus (who had an excellent guest turn on The Librarians and is great on Scream), is the most sensible of all them and uses that common sense as a shield to hide behind. Hunk, voiced with mildly sleepy charm by Tyler Labine, just really wants to live. And maybe grab some lunch.
Then there’s Keith and Shiro. Keith, voiced by The Walking Dead‘s Stephen Yuen is the show’s grim loner. Or at least he is until he and Lance are on screen together, at which point he turns into one half of the show’s giftwrapped present to Shippers everywhere. Yuen, along with Josh Keaton as team leader Shiro, has the hardest job of the five leads. They are required to do most of the dramatic heavy lifting and both handle this role tremendously well. Keaton’s Shiro, brilliantly described by author Jen Williams as the show’s “Tolerant Space Dad,” is especially good. One of the first humans captured by the Galra, Shiro had an arm replaced with a cybernetic substitute during his time in prison and has holes in his memory. The constant tension and survivor’s guilt he feels are the foundation for many of the show’s best scenes, especially in “Crystal Venom.”
The show’s riff on the “Evil Computer Virus” story gives Keaton a chance to show the damage Shiro is concealing, as well as giving Brooks a chance to flex her acting muscles and the show a chance to tie off one of its goofier elements. “The Black Paladin,” the season finale, gives a similar opportunity to Yuen. There, Keith’s refusal to back down from an unwinnable fight not only exposes his true nature but aligns him far more closely with Lance than he first seemed to be. The two hotshot, reckless pilots have a lot more in common than either wants to admit. Now if we can just get them on a date in Season 2, we’ll be golden…
That constant unwrapping of characters’ natures is key to the show’s success. Pidge is hit with a major development in the first three episodes that’s the first time I’ve seen something like this handled so delicately and with such sweetness. Allura’s understandable tendency to lean on the AI ghost of her father is both acknowledged and challenged, too, and every character has a moment where they become more than their stereotypical position in the show. My favorite example is Hunk, because Hunk’s my favorite character and he’s great. He’s also initially set up as the comedy fat guy but quickly morphs into something much more interesting. An early gag about his weight is closed off with a moment of absolute triumph and he’s quickly positioned as everyone’s big brother. He still REALLY wants food most of the time, but it comes from a place of pragmatism, not gluttony. Besides, anyone who asks whether they can pee before going on a long space journey will always have a place in my heart.
In fact, there’s constant growth for everyone (even the psychic mice!) and the show clearly has countless cards up its sleeve from the moment it starts. There’s real depth and intelligence to the writing, performances, and design, and this makes the first season of Legendary Defender an immensely satisfying viewing experience.
Not to mention a gorgeous one. Voltron itself is a fantastically burly and fluid robot that moves with speed and grace despite its massive scale. Given the astounding fight choreography and action this team worked out for Avatar and Korra, it isn’t a surprise that the action sequences impress, but it’s nice to see them working on this scale. “The Black Paladin” in particular has an incredible rolling multi-level fight that stands with Battlestar Galactica at its best and has the same kind of emotional stakes.
That intelligence in design is present at every level. The Paladins’ suits are functional and Mass Effect-esque while their Bayards, signature weapons, nicely reflect their true natures. The same is true of the fighting styles and relative sizes of their lions. Lance’s Blue Lion is as exuberant, fast and reckless as its pilot, while Hunk’s Yellow Lion has the most mass and tends to fight by jumping on things until they explode. There’s wit behind everything here, and combined with the excellent cast and writing, it pays off again and again.
So, if you’ve never seen Voltron before, start here. Legendary Defender is that rarest of beasts: a reboot that honors its predecessors but is unafraid to strike out on its own (and is all the stronger for that bravery). Immensely fun, funny, and sweet, Legendary Defender is a great way to spend an afternoon. Just make sure you know who forms the head—right, MC Frontalot?
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.