Friday, June 9, 2017

[TV] My Summer of Robotech

The thrill I felt watching Robotech on TV in the summer of 1985 is something I don't think I can possibly convey to anybody who wasn't there at the time.

As I've mentioned a couple times previously, cartoons in the 80s mostly weren't very good. There were a lot of de facto toy commercials (like The Smurfs and G.I. Joe and The Transformers and He-Man, and even Dungeons & Dragons to an extent), and FCC regulations for children's programming meant that the content was always very tame and there were explicit moral messages both within the stories and as ridiculous tacked-on PSAs. That meant I had pretty low standards and expectations. I watched these shows mostly in the background, while I did homework and/or worked on D&D stuff.

I was vaguely familiar with Japanase giant robots and animation - The Transformers and Voltron both started airing in the fall of 1984, ThunderCats started in he spring of '85, and around that same time a friend of my parents had visited Japan and brought back a couple of cool toys (that I later determined were part of the Gundam universe). So when Robotech started, I was intrigued enough to give it a shot, and it completely blew my mind. It was so much better - so much deeper and sophisticated, with so much more epic and complicated a story, than any other cartoon I'd ever seen that it didn't even seem fair to compare them.

The series ran for 85 episodes, which meant 5 days a week for 17 weeks, which is to say the entire summer. While most syndicated cartoons generally ran in the afternoons, from roughly 3:00 until the news at 5:00, for whatever reason our local station ran Robotech in the mornings. My mom was working at the time, so I was unsupervised (my sister was around, but she was a teenager and probably absorbed in her own stuff and glad to be left alone). I was taking summer-school trumpet lessons, and remember just having enough time to watch the show before getting picked up by my grandma (and later, after she got sick, by a friend of hers). I vaguely remember that school might have started back up a week or two before the series ended and I woke up early to watch the final episodes before going to school, which probably annoyed my mom.

I never watched soap operas, but that's exactly the relationship I had to Robotech that summer - I was totally absorbed in the characters and the story and couldn't wait for the next episode to see what would happen, and when something caused me to miss an episode I was devastated (we must not have had a VCR yet - or if we did I didn't know how to set up the timer to record when I wasn't home). I remember having mixed feelings about sharing it with my friends - on the one hand I wanted to because it was completely amazing and I was totally obsessed with it, but on the other I was apprehensive because I didn't know if they'd like it as much as I did, and didn't want to hear their complaints and bad-mouthing if they didn't. My memory is that they watched some episodes but because it was so heavily serialized they didn't really know what was going on so none of them but me ever got really into it the way I did.

As everybody nowadays knows, Robotech was actually three separate, unrelated Japanese series (Superdimensional Fortress Macross, Superdimensional Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada) that American producer Carl Macek bought the rights to and decided to combine into a single series because individually they didn't have the minimum number of episodes required for syndication sales. In the decades since, a lot of anime fans have mocked and criticized that move, as well as various editorial choices made in the adaptation (censoring bits, changing and Americanizing characters' names, and so on). While they do have a "purist" point, and when in later years I watched some of the original version of Macross with its original Japanese soundtrack it did seem like an improvement over the watered-down, Americanized version. But on the other hand, that's just retrospective nerd-snobbery. Robotech was completely revolutionary when it appeared on American TV in the summer of '85, and the shockwave it sent across the minds of kids like me is in a real sense the spark that first ignited interest in anime in the U.S., that allowed nerds in the 90s to have an opportunity to see those original versions and other shows and declare them superior and scorn Carl Macek for his meddling. Nobody else at the time was going to do what he did, and if he hadn't done it, no one else later on would have been likely to do it either. Remember, we already had Voltron, and although it looked similar (big robots, big-eyed humans) it wasn't at all the same. It was episodic, and didn't have anything even close to the same level of depth of characters or story. It was just another show. Robotech felt like something different.

The bittersweet epilogue to this story is that watching that initial run of Robotech set the bar so high for me that I spent pretty much the entire rest of my childhood and adolescence hoping to come across another show that was as good, and had the same level of visceral impact, and never really did. I guess nothing ever quite compares to first love, in syndicated cartoons as much as life...


  1. An exchange between a friend and me back in the 80s:

    "The Zentradi think Min Mei's singing is some sort of weapon."
    "They kind of have a point."

    In my area Seven Cities of Gold came on just before or right after Robotech and was almost as big a deal in terms of raising the bar for kids' cartoons. (Also a Japanese import.)

  2. Oh and Netflix had all 85 episodes. I blame you for my lack of sleep tonight. Binge commencing: Now.

    1. Ooh, I had no idea! Marathon time!

    2. Binge-watched the first 6 episodes this morning. The quality of the animation is a lot cruder than I remembered - I'm sure watching on a 55" UHD tv does it no favors - but the story still stands up. This might be my new Sunday morning ritual for the next few months :)

  3. I didn't get to see all these that summer - I missed the beginning and the end. But I did get to see the middle with all the cool dogfights and getting command of the squadron with the pirate flag decals (IIRC).

  4. Thanks for this post. I somehow completely missed this show when it was on, a shame since I loved what I had seen of Speed Racer, Kimba and especially Star Blazers. I thought I had seen a few episodes but after researching it was a short-lived 1986 American show called the Inhumanoids, created by Flint Dille - a rare serialized American show (perhaps influenced by the Japanese ones?). Now thanks to the miracle of Netflix I'm watching Robotech for the first time along with my kids. Just finished episode 3. Interesting how the beginning set-up is almost a re-write/updating of Star Blazers. Robotech is so much better than the Transformers, which we started watching a few years ago but lost interest in quickly.