In 1984 Voltron: Defender of the Universe became a favorite TV program of countless children of that time. These days, between the Internet, Google, online discussion forums, and social networking, it’s often easy to forget that it was a bit challenging to be a Voltron fan in the mid-1980s’ days of long ago. But it’s not because kids didn’t have what we today call modern technology. It’s because, in many ways, Voltron was confusing.
Why? Hop into my imaginary time machine, and I’ll take you back in time to my childhood. Our destination: Monday, September 10, 1984.
I’m a third-grader. Another day of school has come to an end, and I’m riding Bus 23 home. The bus is noisy, and the barely padded, seemingly ancient vinyl seats are uncomfortable. Although the ride seems eternal, the bus eventually stops in front of my house.
I step off of the bus and then race into the house. I run through the front door, I run into the living room, where the only color TV in the house is, I walk up to the TV, and I pull the power/volume knob until it clicks loudly. I turn the VHF dial, from detente to plodding detente, to U, and then I turn the less resistant UHF dial through ten or twenty clicks until it reaches 45 — the UHF station that airs all of my favorite afternoon cartoons. Finally I plop myself onto the garish sofa across the room.
What comes on, for the very first time, blows my mind. It’s Voltron: Defender of the Universe.
From days of long ago, from uncharted regions of the universe, comes a legend — the legend of Voltron: Defender of the Universe, a mighty robot, loved by good, feared by evil. As Voltron’s legend grew…
A voice that I would soon associate with Optimus Prime narrates the intro to a show about a giant robot with mechanical lion heads for feet, hands, and helmet. The robot has twin red wings, and it wields the strangest-looking, non-glowing sword that I remember ever seeing. The robot’s limbs are asymmetrically colored, the robot is operated by heroic human beings, and the villains are scary-looking aliens, including a cackling witch with yellow, pupil-less eyes and charcoal skin. To top it all off, the show has the best opening theme music that I’ve ever heard.
The show is amazing — amazing enough that I overlook that the opening narration seems to treat universe, galaxy, and solar system as synonyms.
Over the course of that school week, each journey home is rewarded by the unfolding, epic tale of five brave, strangely dressed space explorers — Keith, Lance, Pidge, Sven, and Hunk — who in Monday’s episode are captured by minions of King Zarkon of Planet Doom. The space explorers escape, only to be shot down over Arus, a planet devastated by war against Zarkon.
In Tuesday’s episode, Keith and his team enter a mysterious castle, and once inside they meet Princess Allura and royal advisor Coran. The team learns that the legendary super robot Voltron still exists, albeit in five, independently operable components that resemble lions — lions that could still be activated and reassembled into the mighty robot.
In Wednesday’s episode, Coran reveals that the lions can’t be activated without special keys that were entombed with Princess Allura’s deceased father. The space explorers enter the king’s tomb, where the ghost of the king appears and tells them to take the lion keys from his coffin. They open the coffin, but find only four of the five keys. The team activates four of the lions and engages Zarkon’s attacking forces — but then an enormous coffin falls from the sky, smashes into the ground, and opens to reveal an enormous monster — a Robeast — that quickly incapacitates the lions and knocks our heroes unconscious.
In Thursday’s episode, the space explorers return to the castle, find the key to the fifth lion, combine the five lions into Voltron, and destroy the monster that had so easily defeated the four lions in the previous attack.
In Friday’s episode, Zarkon sends another attack fleet, and another Robeast, to Planet Arus. Zarkon’s ships destroy the castle, but a new, high-tech, heavily armed fortress emerges from the ruins of the old castle. Voltron and the new castle defeat Zarkon’s forces and win the day.
What a week! I almost look forward to going back to school on Monday, so that I can see what happens next with my favorite new heroes.
Week 2 Begins
It’s Monday. I’d had fun on the playground, and maybe even in class, but my mind is on what will reappear on my rabbit-eared TV after school: more Voltron! When I finally get home and the show comes on, Zarkon’s witch Haggar severely injures Voltron Force pilot Sven, forcing the team to take him (off-screen) to another planet in order to heal. In Tuesday’s episode, Princess Allura replaces Sven as the pilot of the blue lion. Allura brings new hope to the team — and to me. I can’t wait to find out what will happen tomorrow.
A Weird Wednesday
On Wednesday, after school, after I park my posterior once more in front of that tinny-speakered, faux wood-decoed box that magically projects slightly snowy, animated awesomeness, Voltron comes on. Or does it? What I begin to hear seems right, for the most part — the same music and Optimus Prime-voiced narration, albeit in a more subdued voice — but what I see is something altogether different.
Gone is the lion-handed, lion-footed, lion-helmeted super robot. Gone are the robot’s pilots and their friends, gone are the villains, and gone is the castle.
Instead there’s a completely different robot, with a pointy head, a red jet stuck on its chest, and mismatched car feet that give the robot the appearance of wearing roller skates. And this robot is called… Voltron.
Nowhere in this episode do I see or hear of the lion-based robot that I had grown to know and love over the course of the last week and half. This robot also has pilots — 15 of them, and this episode starts with all 15 sitting around, bored out of their minds, in a lounge on a spaceship.
The ship’s captain orders the 15 pilots to board a bunch of crazy-looking vehicles. Just before the pilots launch, the captain orders them to abort their mission. They return to the ship’s lounge, bored yet again, until they’re once again ordered to launch, for real this time. The pilots begin to explore a planet, but a fleet of non-Zarkon-like villains attacks. The lead pilot almost brushes off the invaders, as enemies that the pilots have battled and defeated many times before. Still, once the attackers dispatch a Robeast, the 15 pilots combine their 15 vehicles into the pointy-headed Voltron — a robot that can fight for only five minutes before it runs out of power. During its last minute of power, Voltron destroys the Robeast.
By the time this episode ends, I have no idea what I’ll see tomorrow. Will this 15-piece robot and its 15 hopefully-not-always-bored pilots be back, or will Keith, Lance, Pidge, Princess Allura, and Hunk return with the lion-based Voltron that had previously caught my attention and made me want to run to the local Kmart or Harts or Murphy’s Mart or G.C. Murphy & Co., and try to find toys?
The pointy-headed, jet-chested, roller skate-equipped Voltron would hang around for another week or so, and pop in again a time or two after that, but otherwise the robot lions and their pilots, friends, and foes would be back to stay…
…until November. Then demolition derby aftermath Voltron would return, and he would stay on TV for a loooooooong time. During the rerun period that wouldn’t end until the next fall, episodes with both Voltrons would air. In fall of 1985, new episodes featuring only the lion-based Voltron would appear on the magic box in my family’s living room.
Throughout all of this, at almost no point would a story featuring one Voltron acknowledge the existence of the other Voltron. The shows would have the same visual feel, the same sound effects, the same music, the same name for the giant robot, and seemingly also the same voices, but the setting, the heroes, the villains, and the Voltron robot would differ, making the TV series as a whole seem to have multiple personalities.
But I love it all the same.
Late in 1984, during a trip to the local Murphy’s Mart, I finally find them: Voltron toys! Unfortunately, like the TV show, the toys are also confusing.
The toys are made by Matchbox, the company that makes small toy cars. The Voltron toys look great in the photos on the boxes. The lions’ legs are shiny chrome, and the toys have metal parts.
But why do the lions come in boxes labeled Voltron III: Defender of the Universe? In the cartoon, the lion-based robot is just called Voltron. The vehicle-based robot is also just called Voltron, but its toy boxes are labeled Voltron I: Defender of the Universe. I eventually rationalize that it makes sense to try to give each of the three robots some kind of distinct name.
Three? Who said anything about three?
In addition to six larger-boxed toy sets associated with Voltron III and Voltron I, there are five separately sold, six-inch tall robots:
- Miniature Voltron III – The lion-based Voltron, but one that doesn’t seem to be able to separate into the five lions
- Miniature Voltron I – The vehicle-based Voltron, but again, one that might not be able to separate
- A red-colored Voltron II “miniature gladiator space robot” that I’ve never seen on TV, despite the fact that the box states that this robot is “FROM THE TV SERIES”
- A black-colored Voltron II “miniature gladiator space robot” that, again, I’ve never seen in the cartoon
- A blue-colored Voltron II “miniature gladiator space robot” that… you know the routine
What is Voltron II all about, and why are there three robots called Voltron II? The toy boxes are my only sources of information.
A flap sticking out of the sides of the mini-robots’ boxes describes each robot:
FROM THE TV SERIES
The VOLTRON Trilogy…Interstellar heroes…from the far reaches of space…three super robots who protect a group of daring young space pioneers.
Voltron I — the magnificent mechanical warrior who is guardian of the near universe.
Voltron II — the intrepid protector of justice in the middle universe.
Voltron III — the spectacular super robot who battles the forces of evil in the far universe.
The cartoon is a trilogy? Since when? What is the near universe near to — the local Speedway gas station? What is the far universe far from? What’s the middle universe? Didn’t the Charlie Brown ‘Cyclopedia state that the universe is… everything? How do you divide everything by three?
Most importantly, what the heck is going on in that Voltron II image, and… why haven’t I seen Voltron II on the TV show?!!
A large toy photograph on the back of the miniature robots’ boxes does little to explain the situation. It features:
- Voltron I Deluxe Warrior Set
- Voltron II Deluxe Gladiator Set — a six-armed monstrosity that looks like it’s an awkward combination of the small red, black, and blue mini-robots
- Voltron III Deluxe Lion Set
- Miniature Voltron I
- Miniature Voltron II — Again, three of them, distinctly colored
- Miniature Voltron III
As a kid I would never own any of the miniature robots, so I didn’t have much opportunity to study that photograph and try to figure it all out, or to read and commit to memory the illustrated descriptions of Voltron I, Voltron II, and Voltron III.
What I would own — eventually — were the lions that could be assembled into the Voltron III robot. I would love these toys lions a lot, even though Red and Green Lions look kind of like short-snouted Dachshunds, and Black Lion is built more like a black bear. I would reeeeeally love Yellow and Blue Lions, and I would love what the five lions combine into, even though I wouldn’t be able to do much with the robot but put it together, shoot its fists, take it apart, chip the paint, and wear off much of the silvery chrome.
The backs of the three Voltron III boxes, and the backs of same-sized boxes of the strangely named Voltron I Air Warrior, Land Warrior, and Space Warrior toys, all feature the same photo. I would stare at this photo for hours. The photo shows:
- Miniature Voltron I
- Miniature Voltron II (Black), Miniature Voltron II (Red), Miniature Voltron II (Blue) – At least in this photo the robots are given unique descriptions
- Red and Blue Mighty Lion Robots Set Voltron III
- Giant Black Lion Robot Voltron III
- Yellow and Green Mighty Lion Robots Set Voltron III
- Land Warrior Voltron I
- Air Warrior Voltron I
- Space Warrior Voltron I
It’s neat to see the three Voltron I warriors in this photo, although I’m far from certain that a large, weird-looking vehicle made up of five smaller weird-looking vehicles constitutes a warrior, and I still didn’t know what’s up with Voltron II. Why hadn’t I seen the Voltron II robots on TV yet?
Matchbox also sells all five lions in a single Voltron III Deluxe Lion Set, all three five-vehicle “warrriors” in a single Voltron I Deluxe Warrior Set, and all three “miniature” Voltron II gladiator robots in a single Voltron II Deluxe Gladiator Set. As a child, I would never own any of these sets, and I would very rarely have the opportunity even to glimpse at their boxes. The local Harts store would be the only store in town that would sell them, and these toy sets would be so expensive — $70 or so — that they would be stored under lock and key in the sporting goods section — with the handguns!
My confusion over the toys doesn’t stop here. About a year after the Matchbox toys appeared in stores, their packaging changes. No longer is the lion-based robot called Voltron III — now it’s “Lion Force Voltron.” The vehicle-based robot is no longer Voltron I — now it’s “Vehicle Team Voltron.” The gladiator-based Voltron II is no longer… anywhere in stores, except on the backs of the toy boxes, where it’s still called Voltron II. The Voltron logos on the toy boxes have also changed from all-yellow characters to characters with a rainbow-gradient fill. The change in logos is jarring, as the toys’ logo now bears even less resemblance to the TV show’s logo than it did before.
At about this time, Voltron toys from other companies begin to appear on store shelves. Fortunately these toys followed Matchbox’s lead in using the “Lion Force” and “Vehicle Team” descriptors. Voltron II isn’t part of any of the new toy releases.
Curiously the other toy companies seem to be making more merchandise for Lion Force Voltron than for Vehicle Team Voltron. One company in particular, Panosh Place, offers an impressive set of Voltron action figures, combining lions, enemy vehicles, and even a playset of the heroes’ castle — all mysteriously based on only the Lion Force episodes of the TV show, and the robot is simply called Voltron, not Lion Force Voltron or Voltron III.
Over the course of about a year, the Voltron toys have shifted from being an all-inclusive assortment based on three robots — one of which might not even be in the cartoon — to a larger assortment that spans only the two robots that I remember seeing on the show, with one of the robots getting more of the new toys than the other. Meanwhile, any given episode of the awesome TV series continues to highlight just one of the two robots, ignoring the other robot, and calling the robot of that episode Voltron, as if it’s the only robot named Voltron.
It’s confusing, but it’s cool. And I love it all the same.
Back to the Present
As I look back on my childhood in the mid-1980s, considering the schizophrenic television program and the incoherently and inconsistently named toys, it was sort of a mind bender to be a Voltron fan at that time. Eventually most of my childhood questions about the Voltron TV show and toys would be answered, but those answers would be years or even decades in coming.
Still, as it stands now, over 30 years after the broadcast television and retail store premieres of Voltron: Defender of the Universe, I love it all the same… and more.