Thursday, February 23, 2017

Full Invasion Part 1 - Robotech: The Masters

Dana and her tank were the largest toy
released for the Robotech series in the 80s.
They say you can't go home again. Not sure who "they" are, or why they said it in the first place. But the sentiment often applies to nostalgia. All too often we have fond memories of a film, television series, or bit of music. But when you go back and actually revisit these things, well the experience is not the same. It can even sour the fondness you may have for the thing.

I know this, and yet it never seems to stop me.

Back in 1985 I experienced Robotech, a series that destroyed my conventional expectations of what a cartoon could be. I blogged a bit about the series and it's initial impact on me. But I also mentioned that I was never able to see the entire run of the show straight through. That changed when Netflix download made the entire series available to viewing.

One of the things I notice is that whenever I see anyone mention Robotech they usually talk about the following: Veritech Fighters, the SDF -1, the love triangle between Rick, Minmei and Lisa, the Zentraedi, Max and Miriya's relationship and the impressive action scenes in the series. Except for that last bit, nearly all the conversation revolves around The Macross saga.

After watching the full show, I understand why.

Cool bit of fan art for a DVD
collection of the original series.
In Japan, the Macross series became a franchise by itself. It had movies, Original Animated Video (OAV) series and radio drama spin offs. I already reviewed Macross Plus, but that is just one example. The other two series that comprised Robotech didn't have the same kind of fame. In fact Super Dimension Calvary Southern Cross was cut short with a rushed ending because it wasn't as popular as Macross.

I don't want to say that The Macross Saga is perfect. It slogs a bit in the middle and some of the soapier aspects of the series start to weigh down the story. But it still has a very clear narrative line. It has well developed and interesting characters who have clear motivations. It has antagonists that start out rather two dimensional, but evolve over the course of the series. It feels like it has real stakes tied to it. The drama is there. The action is impressive and overall it delivered a well told story with memorable characters.

But the following two storylines of Robotech are missing key elements. They end up falling well short at times. This is only compounded by the narrative problems of trying to tie the three very different series into one cohesive whole.

So many clones. So little time.
The Masters Saga is the most frustrating for me. I see so much potential for great storytelling in this series. But it never comes together in a way that works. The best part of the second series are the antagonists. The Robotech Masters are a really intriguing concept. I love that they are desperate people. It gives them a drive that continues to push them forward even when it becomes obvious that they are only making things worse with constant war against the defenders of earth. You really get the feeling that they have been fighting for so long that they really have no other concept of how to approach their goals.

There are hints that several of the people in charge on earth would be willing to help the Robotech Masters if they just ceased hostilities and asked for help. But the Masters refuse to even consider it. Their interaction with the Invid have soured their view on all other species. It is hinted that this acceptance of war is tied into the fact that they are essentially clones, and their hive mentality keeps them from seeing other options. The cloning aspect and civilization built on trios is also fascinating, and something that was fleshed out early in the series. Unfortunately the rushed ending doesn't give us a substantial payoff for these antagonists.

Resistance is futile!
To me, the Robotech Masters are the most interesting antagonists in the series. What we see of their civilization and reasoning was always engaging and I wanted to learn more. The Zentraedi were very good antagonists too, but they were a bit one note with the exception of a few personalities such as Miriya. The Invid of the third series end up being pretty flat with the only 2D characterization coming from tropes that seemed to be templates from the previous two series (even though it is probably safe to say that Zor's amnesia alien trope was borrowed from Ariel's amnesia alien character. Remember in Japan Mospeada came out before Southern Cross).
Bowie and Musica facing a group of clone soldiers.

As I mentioned in my nostalgic musings, I appreciate now that the lead hero in The Masters Saga was a female tank commander. It was also cool that there was a young black man as the other main protagonist. Of all the heroic leads they are most interesting. Bowie's journey is very real. He starts out as rudderless in this war torn world. He loves playing the piano and writing music, but joins the army so he can please his godfather (who is his adopted father) and his best friend. But he has no stomach for fighting, and doesn't seem too good at it. As the series progresses we see him regretting his actions and becoming his own person. By the end of the series he has pretty much rebelled against the army, and even against Dana to an extent. He doesn't' want to fight people who he feels are very smilier to humans and just want to live in peace. We don't get to spend as much time as I we could have with Bowie, but I found his character to have the most interesting arc.

No, we get to spend more time with Dana and Zor. I think this was supposed to mirror the Max and Miriya relationship from the Macross Saga, but it feels like a stale retread of sorts. Dana comes across like a school girl infatuated with Zor.  His memory loss makes him a less appealing character compared to the fiery Miriya and the cool, confident, but genuine Max. Zor's big secret isn't really too much a secret - he's a clone created by the Robotech Masters. This is pretty much given away within the first few episodes of the series. So the whole time you are waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when it finally does it doesn't deliver a gut punch but more of a ho-hum.

Dana doesn't like me talking smack about her.
Part of the problem is the portrayal of Dana. I'm not sure what the creators were going for, but she comes across as too mercurial and too hot tempered to be a value on the battlefield. I don't care how great she is behind the controls of her tank, she often gives orders based on a whim instead of warrior instinct. She gets angry over petty things. She fusses about frivolities in the middle of war. It's like they took the school girl trope and the warrior women trope and tried to slap them together to make a very bizarre and nonsensical character. But the bottom line is, she isn't all that appealing. And the voice actress in English is actually kind of grating.

I think a real great character could be made with Dana Sterling. Here is a young woman who has famous parents. Her father was THE ace pilot of the SDF-1 and saved countless lives on a number of occasions. Her mother is a Zentraedi ace pilot who killed many humans before joining in the fight against her own people. The relationship must have loomed like a large shadow over Dana as a kid and would surely influence her as she pursued her own path in the military.

Nova and Marie wonder if Dana can really pull off
that outfit.
Speaking of that, Dana grew up on an Earth deviated by war. Even when the Zentraedi were defeated, there was expectation that the Robotech Masters would eventually come. So the people of earth have been waiting for the attack. Dana's joined a military that is in a constant state of alert. I can imagine she didn't have a lot of time to just be a girl. I can see the appeal of wanting to just do normal things like date boys, wear dresses and just have fun - without all the expectations of a famous family and constant war looming. Basically Dana Sterling could have been the Buffy Summers of Robotech.

But the writers of the series were locked into whatever the animation provided. Unfortunately Southern Cross provided a very confusing lead character. In the first portion of the series Dana gets tossed in the brig for behaving like an ass a couple of times. And while she does end up getting respect from those around her (especially Marie and Nova) by the end of the series, it just doesn't ring true. I also think the animators felt that if they had to have the lead character be a woman than we needed to have many gratuitous shower scenes. Seriously, Dana must have felt that she was always covered with tank dust or something.

Yeah Nova is Lawful Good to the extreme!
I will say that The Masters Saga doesn't lack for strong female characters. Not only was the top tank commander a woman, but the top fighter pilot was Marie Crystal. She has a major chip on her shoulder, but they manage to give her some interesting subplots. She kind of vanishes about half way through the series, and I think she is a victim of the shortened series. Nova Satori is the head of security for the Robotech forces. She is very strict in her approach to the law. This causes her to butt heads with Dana quite a bit. She is acts as a foil for Dana for the bulk of the series (and so is Marie to be honest). But they actually have Nova play a bit more into the plot near the end of the The Masters Saga.

The Bioroids have the ability to cause massive devistation.
The final element that bothers me about the second series of Robotech is the overall story arc. Again, this is something that could have worked really well if the creative team wasn't tied to the source material. Much of the series feels like a see-saw of attacks and counter attacks that don't achieve very much at all. So for a lot of the episodes this season you feel like the narrative isn't really going anywhere, at least from the war storyline. This causes you to focus more on the character arcs and when so much time is spent with Dana and Zor, that just doesn't pull you in much either. This gives the series a overall feeling of driving your mecha-tank in circles with no destination.

I don't think that was the intention. I think they didn't want one side getting an upper hand, and I can appreciate that. Both the Macross and the New Generation feature humanity going up against a much more powerful enemy and in a constant state of struggle. It created natural drama. But here with both sides so equally matched, you get bored feeling that neither side can win. This is why the desperation of the Robotech Masters adds such weight to the overall feel of the show. But it happens behind the scenes and never seems to impact the actual war until the end.

One of the three modes for the battle tanks used by
the Southern Cross brigade.
If the creative team behind Robotech had a little more room to maneuver they could have turned this into a theme - the costs of war. We would be able to see how far the Robotech Masters are going to keep humanity from seeing how weak they really are. We could see how each failed invasion costs them more resources, more clones, and increases the likelihood that the Invid will find and destroy all of them. Elements of this appears in the show and when it does, it is the most effective part of The Masters Saga.

What is missing is the cost to humanity. The Macross Saga did a much better job showing how much damage and loss of life the Zentraedi caused to humanity. But we don't see that in The Masters Saga. All our protagonists survive unscathed. We hear and see some aftermath of the war, but nothing comes home like the attacks agains Macross city in the first series. We don't hear Earth defense forces talking about any costs to personal, supplies or technology. You just have the firebrand leader behaving like a jerk and yelling that they can never be defeated. But in the end, he kinda turns out to be right. I'm not sure if some material was edited out, or if it just wasn't there to begin with. But the cost of the war to humanity just doesn't seem to be that high. Especially when you see the massive destruction and backsliding of civilization in the New Generation saga. It just doesn't seem to line up.

Staring contest... and GO!
If we could have seen more of that personal cost to humanity. Seen more of the devastation that the Masters were unleashing. Realized that both sides were on the ropes, but putting on a powerful face for the benefit of the other. Dana could have been part of this plan and thought it was a good one, or she could have seen it for the farce it was. Either way could have been an interesting character arc and given her an additional level that would make her a more engaging character.

Sadly this doesn't happen. When the Masters Saga ends you don't feel like you got a proper climax to the plot. It just feel like the filler in the middle to get to the third act. This is actually intensified in the New Generation when you don't get any mention of Dana or Bowie or the Southern Cross brigade at all! You hear about the devastation of the war against the Robotech Masters, but it feels like the events you just spent so many episodes watching didn't impact the story much at all. In fact you get more name dropping of Rick Hunter and the SDF-1 in the New Generation than anything from the Masters Saga. It could be because the middle series just wasn't too popular and they wanted to remind viewers (kids) why they liked this show so much the in the first place.

It is frustrating that so much potential was in place for the Masters Saga of Robotech, but it just never really comes to fruition. Luckily things get a little better with the New Generation, but it isn't without its problems.

Dana gets ready to rock a rhapsody of Robotech.


  1. Whether movies, places, people, or things, the favorites of our childhood often suffer when revisited as an adult -- even with nostalgia to help. In the case of books and film we change. In other cases the favorites things/places/people change too. Thomas Wolfe (as I'm sure you know): "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory." Still, it's nice to go back sometimes even if the revisit isn't perfect.

    1. Yeah, the funny thing is that I know I'll usually be disappointed when I revisit these shows, movies or books. Sometimes I rewarded with something that actually has a different but equally satisfying impact as an adult as compared to when I was a kid. This happens with books very frequently. When I reread "Lord of the Flies" about ten years ago I was blown away by the depth in it. I got the basic themes and plot when I read it back in high school, but for some reason it really resonated with me on the reread. Same thing with "Catch 22". In same ways I think books have the advantage because they can create deeper layers of themes within the narrative.
      But I think some kids who grow up with family films like "Inside Out" or "Up" are going to get a real treat revisiting those when they are older.

  2. I haven't watched The Masters, but the way you describe it sounds similar to the Star Wars prequels in a way. They were a rehash of what came before, but not as engaging. The Phantom Menace really felt that way to me in a way, and I didn't even mind Jar Jar that much.

    I'm sure it gets really hard trying to mesh all that continuity into a consistent whole, particularly with Robotech if they'd not been made that way to begin with. It's too bad they just didn't have them being different generations and stories within that universe.

    In some ways the way you describe the war in The Masters with the constant ongoing war it's not too different from a lot of things in life. Even within Robotech itself in how that franchise has had its ongoing battles with who owns it. I'd read that Tobey Maguire had bought the film rights in hopes of perhaps bringing it to the big screen, I'm guessing in a live action film (which I'd be interested in). But since both factions of Harmony gold and the Japanese counterpart both hate each other, it probably won't happen, which I think is crazy. Someone should sit them down and say, hey, you're both going to make money off this, which is a given, but since they both hate each other so much, they stalemate and won't budge.

    I watched Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles this past week off my Roku due to reading your post. It was pretty good. I don't know all the cannon, but I really like the way the movie boosted the CG on the ships and other aspects of the anime.

    1. Yeah the challenge of merging all three series together is what makes the final two series feel slightly off. To be honest most of the folks I've encountered who've watched "Southern Cross" and "MOSEPEADA" in their original Japanese forms say that they are both flawed shows to begin with and weaker compared to Macross. So the source material just isn't there to start with.

      That said, the potential for amazing storytelling is there. I'm with you that if Robotech" can be remade in live action or even in animated form, we would end up with something that flows so much better into the The Masters and The New Generation sagas. But yeah there is some bad blood there. I'm not sure we'll ever see it.