by Mike Toole,

Voltron: Legendary Defender

Voltron: Legendary Defender season 5
The Galran Empire is slowly coming apart. Forced to fight against both Voltron, the combining robot hero whose legend grows by the day, and against his own conniving son Lotor, Emperor Zarkon tries his best to hang tough and stay ruthless. Back at the Castle, Pidge relentlessly chases down her missing dad, Shiro is troubled by gaps in his memory, and Keith continues his shadow missions, apart from Voltron. The newest temporary resident of the castle, Prince Lotor, insists that what he wants is the old alliance between Galra and Alterra to be re-forged, so that he can join his knowledge together with Allura's and use Voltron's power to tap into the Quintessence, the immense source of energy that lies between universes. But has Lotor truly joined Team Voltron, or is he just playing them?

What is a season, anyway? It used to be a pretty solid 26 episodes, or at least 20. Then fancy words like cour started getting thrown around, premium TV channels started offering eight- and ten-episode seasons that still seemed to satiate audiences, and streaming portals like Netflix started deciding that the number of episodes in a season wasn't as important as having seasons appear in a steady drip. Because of that, we're confronted with a new season of Voltron: Legendary Defender that numbers six episodes. The show's season 1 was thirteen episodes. Season two? Thirteen more. Then, last year, we got season three (7 episodes), season four (six episodes), and season five (six episodes). Basically, seasons are happening more regularly, and threatening to coincide with actual calendar seasons. It's an interesting development, but I'm not going to argue with it, because it seems to have delivered us more Voltron: Legendary Defender, and faster.

It's been a wonderfully fun surprise to become a fan of Voltron all over again, decades after the original show's charming, colorful, and cheesy bowdlerization of Golion (and Dairugger XV) left TV airwaves. Under producers Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos, two of western action animation's sharpest minds, the classic formula of a squadron of stereotypical pilots and their combining robot vehicles is here quite brilliantly reinvented. Originally a bog-standard monster-of-the-week super robot yarn, this new Voltron is instead a character-driven, lighthearted action series. So, five seasons in, where are we?

Season five brings some pretty decent forward momentum to the story, as one of Team Voltron's major adversaries falls, leaving a power vacuum behind. Into that vacuum steps renegade Galran prince Lotor, whom you might remember doing a classic heel-face turn (it's a rassling thing, look it up) right at the end of season four. The gang doesn't quite trust him, but as he drops intel that leads them to victory against the Empire's fleets, they start to warm up to him, a little. Meanwhile, Pidge, fresh off of rescuing her bright older brother Matt, is hell-bent on finding their dad, Sam, who's apparently still in Galran captivity. If the season does a bad job with anything, it's with finding stuff for Voltron to do. You know, Voltron? The big robot that kinda pins the whole franchise together? Yeah, he still combines and gets to do one fight per episode, but these fights are rarely compelling at all—they feel like they're contractually obligated by the toy companies. Ah, the good old days!

In recent seasons, Voltron: Legendary Defender's also occasionally fallen victim to some weak comic timing—stuff like the gang grimly confronting the brutal wages of war, like mass displacement and planetary destruction, before Hunk abruptly takes a break to cartoonishly vamp over junk food. Because he's the fat guy! Fortunately, these weird tone-deaf joke breaks are a lot less frequent in this season. That's not to say the show isn't still funny—there's a delightful bit where Hunk and Pidge reprogram a Galran sentry bot to be their irascible troublemaking slacker buddy—but its humor is a little more measured.

This season is also about family—about Galran father versus son, about Pidge and her family, about the witch Haggar's half-remembered child, and about Keith's surprising parentage. I say “surprising” here because learning more about his family ties harkens all the way back to season 2—I had to take a break and read some articles to remember the details. So there's some thematic strength going on, which is also pretty cool. This examination of family ties leads straight into a struggle for power in the Galran empire, which is undoubtedly this season's best episode—director Chris Palmer deserves some extra credit for the episode's bitchin' fight scene between basically every surviving Galran general. It comes off a bit like that part in The Dark Crystal where the scary vulture men swing their swords, but instead of swinging them at rocks they actively fight each other, so it's way more exciting.

It all leads to an intriguing climax, where our heroes are confronted by a mysterious white lion. When the children cry and attack, the lion proves to be more than just a little fighter; they wait, and are compelled to change their approach to this new threat. Okay, I think that's all of the White Lion song titles I remember, except for “Radar Love” which I couldn't figure out how to use.

There are other finer points to this season—I enjoy Lance's hapless admiration of Allura (and his imagined freezeouts from her company by the seemingly omnipresent Lotor); stuff like that just feels authentic. What keeps this season on the B-tier are three things: the simple lack of any compelling stuff involving Voltron (no new powers, no mysteries revealed, and no truly interesting monsters to fight), a fairly monotonous soundtrack (particularly the theme tune!), and a general lack of really dynamic plotting for much of the story arc. Action shows thrive on moments of sheer energy and impact, and this season feels like it's short a few of those. But ultimately, this is a pretty satisfying run that leaves plenty of room for more mysteries and super robot battles in June, when the series returns. I'm kinda wondering how they're going to keep the magic going for the next few seasons (last I'd read, the show had a deal for 78 episodes, so there's a couple dozen episodes ahead of us) but this season has kept me interested.

Ultimately, what I want out of Voltron: Legendary Defender is More Robot. Oh, and also, more Coran. Coran is probably my favorite part of this reboot—turning a well-meaning but stuffy ward into a zany comic foil was an excellent decision, one only enhanced by handing the voiceover role to Fight of the Conchords star Rhys Darby. Giving a little more flash to the robot fights would put this series over the top; as it is, the character and story stuff is still great fun, making this series a worthy part of any anime fan or action junkie's diet.

Overall : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : C

+ Some fun revelations and intriguing mysteries, a few great character moments, a couple of slam-bang fight scenes
Not enough robot stuff for a show that's supposed to be about a super robot

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