One of the first animated titles to make its way to the United States from Japan was a Saturday-morning cartoon you might remember called Robotech. It’s being released again on DVD by A&E Home Entertainment, remastered and chock-full of bonus features.
Sure, in the ’80s I was hooked on He-Man and ThunderCats just like everybody else, but there was a space epic playing out on TV screens that was twice as compelling and stands up four times as much as any of those other shows.
The series begins in the (then) not-too-distant-future—1999—when an alien spacecraft called the SDF-1 crash-lands on Earth and unites the people of the world in learning from the craft and preparing for any potential extraterrestrial threats. This new alien science leads them to develop Robotechnology, which enables them to build space-fighter jets (called Veritechs) and defend themselves in the event of an alien invasion. But the invasion—led by Breetai of the Zentraedi—comes all too soon, and they’re unprepared. A full-scale war breaks out, criss-crossing our solar system with untested technology.
This is sequential space-opera at its best. We’re introduced to a vast array of characters who take us through the story: the pilots, the military personnel, the Zentraedi and everyone in between. There’s a rich story here that I will tell you immediately was way over my head as a little kid. Sure, it’s a little cheesy at times, but the science-fiction stories on this show rival Star Trek and Star Wars—if you can suspend your disbelief long enough to get involved.
For those of you on the fence about this because it sounds a lot like anime, I have two things to say. First, don’t be afraid of anime; some of it is very good (see: Hayao Miyazaki). Secondly, this is only anime in the very loosest sense. Visionary producer Carl Macek saw the potential of importing the show and completely re-edited and revamped the story. This is a uniquely American show that happens to have Japanese animation.
This was a defining moment for American sci-fi for a lot of reasons. Chief among them was that it was one of the first shows that followed a linear storyline. You can’t just skip around and watch random episodes; you need to watch them in order or you’ll be lost (like Lost). It paved the way for shows like Deep Space Nine, the new Battlestar Galactica and other shows.
Its influence is also felt on TV today in the form of The Clone Wars. In an interview, The Clone Wars’ supervising director Dave Filoni explained that Robotech has been a huge inspiration of how they do things on the show; because actions had consequences on Robotech, they’re not afraid to tread that territory in The Clone Wars. In fact, life and death was a grim reality on Robotech. Two of my favorite characters didn’t make it through, succumbing to the enemy in one case, friendly fire in another. My favorite episode deals with one of my favorite characters getting killed (Episode 18, “Farewell, Big Brother”). They took me on such a ride with the character that my daughter got her middle name from the Zentraedi pilot who shot him down. Yes, my daughter’s middle name is Miriya, after the ace Zentraedi pilot who killed one of the best characters on Robotech. The show has had that much of an impact on me over the years.
It ages very well. Yes, sometimes it still reads like a cheesy ’80s cartoon (which it is), but there’s something different and special about it. And if you could see the smile on my face as I’ve been writing about this show, you wouldn’t hesitate to pick it up in this new box set, either. If you’re wary, it’s all streaming on Netflix, too. In any case, watch it, know it, love it.
Bryan Young is the editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com.