It’s a no go on Robotech Academy
My last post was a brief examination of the Robotech series, where I looked at the relatively friendly atmosphere it had towards in POC in three of the four story lines.  I also mentioned that they were holding a Kickstarter Campaign for the latest fever dream to dredged out of the memory of Carl Macek, “Robotech Academy”. As of the time of this writing, the campaign has been terminated by Harmony Gold, at less than half the requested amount of half a million dollars, with about six days left. In the Canadian Army, we have a practice called an “After Action Review”, where we examine the background of, plan of, and execution of every mission and training event we conduct. Given Harmony Gold’s atrocious record, it’s time to do a bit of an AAR and figure out what went wrong and how to avoid it going wrong in future.
First, lets examine what separates Robotech from most mecha based anime shows, and establish a background to the event.
Robotech is, at its very core, a military science fiction series with strong space opera influences. The characters are, in the majority, members of the military, or at least old enough to serve or to be presented as relatively mature adults or teens/young adults. The action is military in nature, with missions and losses, and pulls few punches on the costs of war and conflict on both the character’s bodies and minds. While ostensibly aimed at children, Robotech plays more strongly to both young adult and adult audiences. Robotech, under the guidance of Harmony Gold, has been a notoriously moribund franchise, producing very little new material in the 30 years since its initial release, and has been dependent on an established audience to support it as opposed to engaging new audiences.
In the overarching plot design, it’s a multigenerational epic, and one that addresses social issues and ideas. The Macross Saga (MS) looked at militarism, the tribulations and costs of pacifism, and the power of popular culture as a social bonding agent and as a way to break down cultural barriers. The Masters Saga (RM) rather ham handedly examined the issues of race using the alien Robotech Masters and half Zentraedi Dana Sterling, as well as the costs of blind militarism and the folly of allowing incompetent leaders to remain in command. The New Generation (NG) looked at the the question of loyalty, to ones people, to ones friends, and to a cause. The Shadow Chronicles (SC) opened the doors of the examination of arch betrayal by a trusted ally, to dealing with the loss of friends, family, and comrades, and the mental costs of growing up knowing nothing but war.
So in short, although hammered together from independent series, Robotech covers a wide swath of areas, and offers a lot to work with for future expansions on the series.
What was the Robotech Academy? From the now defunct Kickstarter, this is what I gleaned as far as the plan went.
The new series has only four characters detailed on the Kickstarter page, a “child prodigy” named Wally; an established character, Rolf Emerson, who was a major character in the Masters Series (and therefore probably not a major character in the new series); an historical character, Zor, because why not shoehorn him into everything; and a “swashbuckling teen pilot” named Lindsay who is an old rival and associate of a character who may no longer be canon, Jack Baker. There is a distinct lack of POC, and a potential lack of mature characters. They (and presumably all the other teens and tweens that were to stack this show’s cast) were left behind by the Robotech Expeditionary Fleet (REF) at the Robotech Academy while their parents and families went off on a over two decade long mission. While there, the Children of Zor show up looking for the secrets of Robotech that the REF left behind at the Academy. The Academy does an unplanned space fold, shoots off into space, where it’s teen population must use their experimental mecha and wits and all the secrets and clues left behind by Zor to defeat the Children of Zor and find the REF. Several new mecha and spacecraft are shown, and there are a number of interviews with Robotech alumni about the project and how awesome it will be.
Reading this just made me ask questions. Why wasn’t the Robotech Academy mentioned in the Masters Saga? Why was Dana Sterling left alone on Earth, the only hybrid Zentraedi/human on the planet, instead of being placed in the Academy with everyone else’s children? Why were the secrets to Robotechnology left behind by the greatest minds on earth in a museum and scattered around a campus instead of being secured in a military base or somewhere more defensible? Given that the mission apparently had facilities to raise a self perpetuating, self supplying force (Maia Sterling was born in 2525 with the REF, about three years after they left), why did anyone leave their kids behind? Why didn’t the Army of the Southern Cross send a search party after the Robotech Academy if it was dripping so much robotechnology and experimental mecha? Why weren’t the Children of Zor a plot point in the RM saga? There are more plot hole creating questions, but those are just the ones that occurred to me while writing.
So where did it go wrong in execution?
- The idea as pitched it far too similar to just about every other generic anime mecha show out there where teenagers have to use experimental mecha to defeat their enemies and solve a mystery to win the day. In essence, it wasn’t “Robotech” as Robotech as has been established in the original animation or the supporting comic books and canon material.
- Robotech is unique in that it has a very large fan base of adults, and the campaign attempts to solicit their money by playing nostalgia cards instead of presenting concrete ideas and plans. Given the highly critical nature of the fan base, this was doomed to fail.
- Harmony gold has struggled for years with a schizophrenic approach to Robotech, ranging from good ideas like the prequel comics reboot and reactivating their relationship with Palladium Books, to terrible ones like this campaign and some of the ideas they’ve floated in past. After years of broken promises and waiting for vapour projects to materialize, the fans are leery about supporting the company because the bad decisions and lies outweigh the products produced.
- The art produced was a mixed bag of good ideas (like more practical and usable uniforms) and bad ones (mecha are not recognizable as being related to the era they are from, the intermediate between RM and NG/SC).
- The project was not what the fans have been demanding, it was a new, alien idea, plucked from the ideas of Macek.
How can this be avoided in the future?
- Let Carl Macek and his ideas rest. He laid a great foundation to build on, but his 70’s SF&F take on time/dimensions/secret guidance/circle of everything isn’t easily sold to the modern audience. His idea that a Zor clone and Minmei travel back in time so their child can become Zor, turning it all into a self perpetuating cycle, is terrible, and so was Robotech Academy. The Sentinels still have to be turned into a sensical operation, what happened on the mission needs to be fleshed out, and a fourth Robotech War is now occurring; and that’s just with the established material, never mind trying to explore some of Macek’s undeveloped ideas.
- Reorganize and prioritize. For decades, Harmony gold has strung its fans along with promises of movies, live action movies, and of new series. The only new products it’s managed are a movie (years late) and a new RPG series by Palladium Books together with an unreleased tactical game. Stop baiting the fans. Lay out a solid format or pre-release/release/post-release activities, and build a prioritized list of projects, then commit to it. For example: a prequel comic book(s)/trade paperback graphic novel leads to an OVA movie or short series, which in turn leads to an epilogue comic book(s)/trade paperback graphic novel. Add merchandizing in there with Youtube teasers and an aggressive advertising campaign, and you’re pretty much golden.
- Drop Zor as a major plot device, it’s lazy writing and does nothing to improve the series. Let him be the historic figure and flawed clones that he already is.
- Remember that Robotech examines society and social issues, and that doesn’t work well if your cast is predominantly teens and tweens with little life experience. Unless you’re examining teens, which is done to death in other mecha series featuring teens.
- Listen to the fans, they’re the ones who have supported this moribund franchise for decades now. They want to know what happened with the REF, what happened after the RM saga and onwards on Earth, and what’s going on with the fourth Robotech War against the Haydonites.
- Redesign the website to make it more user friendly, and fully integrate your social media efforts. This is more of a pet peeve of mine.
That the Kickstarter campaign failed came as no surprise to me. It represented a massive downgrade to the franchise and spat in the faces of fans who have supported Robotech through the years. It also showed what can happen when a group refuses to abandon the ideas of the past. Carl Macek, love him or hate him, laid out a pretty good storyline, but that doesn’t mean that the franchise has to remain slavishly devoted to his unexplored and unused ideas, or the ideas that were shot down in the past. The right idea is to build on his legacy, but without letting his dead hand be the guiding force on the tiller bar of creativity.