Examining Robotech

UN_SPACY_by_n1nj4_Katak_chanRobotech is a North American classic of SF&F. Cobbled together from the parts of three separate and unrelated series from Japan, it’s not a stretch to say that it was the single largest breakthrough for anime in North America. Looking back through nostalgia-vision, it was an amazing series that, along with Transformers, permanently hooked me on giant robots. Looking at it now, there are some serious issues with the series that are uncorrectable for reasons that I’ll go into as this post progresses.

The History

The history of Robotech is tied intimately with Harmony Gold, the company that continues to hold the rights to it, and with its now deceased creative director, Carl Macek. As said, it was originally three separate and unrelated TV series, that were hammered together into a single, multigenerational storyline by Macek and released in 1985. With the addition of 2006’s Shadow Chronicles, it can be broadly put into four story lines, the Macross Saga, The Masters, the Next Generation, and Shadow Chronicles. Canon in this series is a mess, with Harmony Gold ultimately stating that only the original animated series, the Shadow Chronicles movie, and the Wildstorm (DC) comics being canon. This discarded a long running series of novels, the original RPG series by Palladium Books, and a number of comic books by Comico, Eternity, Academy, and Antarctic Press.

The Good

The series, particularly the Macross Saga, The Masters, and Shadow Chronicles, are fairly POC friendly as far as SF&F goes for the 1980s and mid 2000s. While still lamentably token characters, they have POC in prominent positions and as main characters. Given that the original series was made in Japan, the POC in the 1985 series are refreshingly non-stereotypical is both dress and behaviour, and are allowed to be individuals as opposed to being unmemorable cookie cutter characters. The POC in the Shadow Chronicles are similarly allowed agency and position, although they are still very much token characters. As an extra, there are also interracial relationships.

The Bad

One of the places where Robotech falls down is that they substitute an alien species for POC for the purposes of racially motivated hatred. Specifically the Zentraedi, the main enemies in the Macross Saga. The Zentraedi are an alien species 15m tall, and it is later revealed to be genetically identical (or close enough) to humanity, so much so that they are capable of interbreeding with humans when “micronized” to human stature. The Zentraedi were eventually won over to the human side against their masters, the Robotech Masters, but remained distinctly second class citizens after the war ended. The official sources say they were successfully “integrated” into human society, but as the series advances, this comes into serious doubt.

That old chestnut,the Tragic Mulatto trope, plays a major part in the plot for the Masters saga.[1] This is where the ideas about race in America are on full display with the character of Dana Sterling, the first child of said human/Zentraedi couple. Left behind on earth, she’s subjected to racial abuse based on her heritage as well as having her loyalties to Earth questioned. There is no Zentraedi community to support her, no other human/Zentraedi hybrids. Adding to the racist attitudes, when it is revealed the Masters are basically human as well, she feels an immediate attraction to them. Why? Read on.

One of the greatest issues the entire series suffers from is the idea that culture and loyalty is determined by genetic heritage or origin as opposed to displayed loyalties. Not just that, but that the non-human (read non-white) part of a person’s heritage is the part that they yearn for and ultimately informs their ideas, desires, and loyalties. This goes for non-hybrids as well. There are several occurrences of this theme through the whole series. Dana Sterling is a hybrid who longs for a people she hasn’t known since she was a toddler, and who is conflicted about fighting the Masters when they arrive (they’re alien, like part of me!), even though they created her mother’s species as a slave caste to fight their wars. Ariel is an Invid alien princess who has been “evolved” to human appearance and sides with the human freedom fighters against her mother’s occupational forces, who is subsequently the subject of extreme distrust by the humans of the UEEF when they arrive, even though they have *never* seen an Invid in human form before.

A special case, because it shows where the minds and attitudes of the creative staff are, is that of Janice. Janice was “officially” entered into canon with the Preclude to the Shadow Chronicles comic book series in 2005, although she had existed prior in now non-canon sources. An android (re)built using human and Haydonite technology. When it’s revealed that the Haydonites have manipulated the UEEF and others to eliminate the Invid and protoculture to pave the way for their mechanized dominance, Janice is immediately turned upon. Why? Not because she’s an android who might be broadcasting information or designed to be clandestine spy or assassin, but because she’s “part haydonite” and “one of them”. Later, she’s reaccepted because the Haydonites try to kill her and that’s a “good enough” reason to trust her. It’s sloppy writing, and sloppy thinking.

The Fix

Reasonably, there would be a really easy way to fix all of this, while at the same time maintaining the multigenerational storyline that Macek laid out. A complete reboot, with attention paid to ensure continuity of art, geography, technology, culture, and so on. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Ever. The reason is Harmony Gold’s actions in the past to maintain a monopoly in North America concerning the Macross Saga. In Japan, the Macross Saga was the first of three unrelated series under the title “Super Dimensional”, and the only one to become a commercial success such that it continues to produce a larger and larger number of OVAs, TV series, video games and so on. With the exceptions of the excellent Macross Plus and okay Macross II series, Harmony Gold has prevented any Macross series from making it across the Pacific. The price has been high though, because they never fully secured the rights to Super Dimensional Fortress Macross or Super Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross (the first two in the Robotech series), and are prohibited from making derivative works based on them, or animated ones at least. The third series used, MOSPEADA, is still usable though, and they could do derivative works off of that without issue.

As it stands, they could probably do short OVA series based during the Invid occupation of Earth, or following the Shadow Chronicles with relative ease, following the pattern they used for the run up to the Shadow Chronicles. Releasing a short run of comics and technical guides for the prologue, followed by a 12 episode, self contained series. Unfortunately, unless they solve the issues around the first two series used, they’ll be pretty limited for using material from them.

Final Thoughts

Robotech was great when I was young, but as an adult and as an veteran, it falls short on a lot of levels that a space opera/military science fiction show shouldn’t. The tropes are bad, the plot holes and continuity errors are glaring, and it’s all to do with how they built the series. Unfortunately, the series isn’t moving in any positive directions right now either. The dead hand of Macek is still at the tiller of the series, and it isn’t a steady one. Carl Macek had a lot of good ideas, but his latter ones concerning Robotech were a series of failures to launch.[2] Despite a relatively successful release of The Shadow Chronicles in 2006, and relaunch of the RPG series and a table top tactical game with Palladium Books, Harmony Gold is reluctant to develop further. Part of the reason may be that the Robotech team, instead of continuing the Shadow Chronicles (which left off on some serious cliffhangers), is trying to push a completely new series based on the feverish last dreams of Macek.

This new series, dubbed “Robotech: Academy”, is a serious departure from the past series, as it abandons the concepts of the earlier series. It would follow the adventures of a group of cadets, lost in space, and their experimental mecha, as they search for the UEEF forces and meet aliens along the way. If that sounds familiar, that’s probably because it could be lifted from any number of series, such as Starship Operators, most elements from the Gundam series, and pretty much any teens + mecha series ever produced. This may be why, over half way through the kickstarter for the pilot episode, they haven’t even reached half way towards their goal.

I can only hope that things get a bit better in future for this classic series, but right now, I’m not too confident in it.