Jen Heddle wrote:The 1980s are back—for better or worse. Movies like Footloose, 21 Jump Street, Transformers. New Voltron and Thundercats animated series. Racks at Forever 21 filled with clothing styles that didn't look good the first time around. And as a bit of a t-shirt junkie, I'm particularly grateful for the retro '80s love that can be found on many, many t-shirts available for purchase online. I admit to having a particular weakness for anything related to Jem and the Holograms.
But one of my absolute favorite pop culture touchstones from the 80s isn't getting the representation it deserves, in fashion or fiction: Robotech. Tobey Maguire did option the property a while back, but there haven't been any developments from that quarter in years, so I'm not holding my breath.
If you're deprived enough not to know what I'm talking about, Robotech was a Japanese animated series that aired weekday mornings (at least in the New York area) in the mid-1980s. It was composed of three series that originally aired as completely different shows in Japan, but which a company called Harmony Gold USA, led by Carl Macek, cobbled together into one more or less unified series under the Robotech heading. Although all three series enjoyed popularity, the first series, "The Macross Saga," or the First Robotech War (known as "The Super Dimension Fortress Macross" in Japan) was the most iconic and arguably the most beloved. In my case, it was an obsession.
Bring Back Robotech: Why the Macross saga deserves another shotThe Macross Saga kicks off in 2009 on Macross Island in the South Pacific, ten years after an alien spaceship crash-landed on Earth and was re-fitted by humans to take into space. Except wouldn't you know it, the very morning of the ship's scheduled launch, the aliens, called the Zentraedi, show up to take their ship back. Don't you hate it when that happens?
When the ship, the SDF-1, executes its first hyperspace jump, not only is there a malfunction with the "fold" system — instead of emerging near the moon, they jump closer to Pluto, meaning a year-long trip back to Earth — but the entire island of Macross is folded along with the ship. Luckily, the SDF-1 is large enough that most of Macross City, along with its residents, can be transplanted into the bowels of the ship itself. (Just...go with it.) This conveniently gives the military characters a civilian background to play against, and an important target to protect.
The tensions between the humans and the Zentraedi are not just martial, but cultural as well. The Zentraedi are clones with no concept of human emotion, and the males and females are strictly separated by gender. The humans' greatest weapons against these giant aliens turn out to be music and love (or, more crudely, sex).
Robotech boasted a cast of characters who were more complex, and adult, than one was used to seeing on American cartoons in the 1980s. My favorite character, Lisa Hayes, is second-in-command on the flagship of the fleet, is brilliant at her job, has an awesome best friend...and completely loses all of her confidence where the man she loves, Rick Hunter, is concerned. It's the one area where she constantly second-guesses herself. And I love her for it. Maybe I'm supposed to be outraged that she isn't a strong woman all the time—in other words, a caricature—but that flaw makes her an interesting and relatable character for me.
Bring Back Robotech: Why the Macross saga deserves another shotBy the same token, the hero of the piece, Rick Hunter, can be a self-absorbed jerk at times—which is realistic, considering he's a cocky 19-year old when the story opens, and is then catapulted into the middle of an interstellar war. Rick is a civilian trick pilot when he's swept up in the fold that transports all of Macross, and due to his flying skills finds himself in high demand as a military pilot. Suddenly this young, arrogant civilian is being looked to, even by the military itself, as a savior of humanity—whether he wants to be or not.
Lisa and Rick are surrounded by a varied supporting cast, including a gruff but paternal Russian captain, an annoying Chinese teen pop star (and her pacifist yet belligerent cousin), a humble ace pilot with blue hair and eyeglasses, the green-haired alien pilot he marries, and a megalomaniacal alien villain who chews the scenery at every turn.
These memorable characters are painted against a backdrop of epic destruction and relentless war—war that actually has consequences, which was revolutionary for an animated series in America at that time. The emotional touchstone of the series comes in the eighteenth episode, when lead pilot Roy Fokker, Rick's best friend, his "big brother," dies as the result of a dogfight. In a world where GI Joe could fire a thousand bullets without ever showing a dead body, Roy's death was shocking and resonant.
Bring Back Robotech: Why the Macross saga deserves another shotBut my gushing about the characters shouldn't take anything away from the story, which is a ridiculous amount of fun. Giant aliens, fighter ships that transform into giant robots, epic space battles, the apocalyptic destruction of Earth, and aliens who are grossed out by kissing. Not to mention a beauty pageant, a kung fu movie, courtship via video game play, and a trio of hopelessly inept alien spies.
It all plays out in serial fashion —20 years before Lost— over the course of just 36 episodes, providing viewers a complete story with a bittersweet ending. That also means it's not too much of a time commitment on Netflix streaming.
If everything old is new again, then maybe it's time to bring Robotech back out into the light where it belongs. And featured on some kitschy t-shirts already, please.