Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 1.1: "The Rise of Voltron"

Like many people of a certain age-range, I was delighted to hear that Netflix would be producing Voltron: Legendary Defender. Like many of those people, I was pleased to see it emerge onto the streaming service last month, and, like many, I watched it. I did not sit and binge-watch the whole series--I am not in a position that allows me to do so--but it was not long before I plowed through the all-too-few episodes of the first season. And now, because Shiloh does such a good job on rewatch reports (of which I am jealous), and because rewatch reports seem to be a thing, I will be working through my own series of them, beginning with the comments about the first episode of the series, "The Rise of Voltron," below.

1.1. "The Rise of Voltron"

Written by Tim Hedrick, Joshua Hamilton, and May Chan
Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Lauren Montgomery, Kihyun Ryu, Eugene Lee, and Steve In Chang Ahn

Synopsis

The triple-length premiere episode of the series begins with a manned scientific mission to Kerberos, a satellite of dwarf planet Pluto; staffing the mission are Commander Holt, his son, and Takashi "Shiro" Shirogane. An alien ship appears, attacking the mission; the crew are believed dead.

Approximately a year later, Shiro (now scarred, with a shock of white hair, and with a cybernetic right arm) returns to Earth, raving of an imminent attack; his return is observed by misfit military cadets Lance, Hunk, and Pidge, who are out of their quarters on adolescent mischief (and, in Pidge's case, surreptitious scanning for extraterrestrial transmissions). They move to investigate, only to see former cadet Keith intervening in the military's recovery of Shiro; the four escape pursuit, bringing Shiro with them to Keith's secluded residence.

While there, they confer, Keith indicating having sensed strange energies and deciphered ancient inscriptions that suggested a return from afar. Pidge's own investigative techniques come to light, as do Hunk's mechanical skills, and the five pursue the strange energies associated with the word "Voltron"--a word Pidge has heard repeated in transmissions from afar and that Shiro has heard on the lips of his captors. Following the energies, they come to find a massive mechanical lion, patterned in blue. Lance finds himself piloting the craft, and, after a few minutes of reckless abandon, the group comes under fire from the same alien craft that had taken Shiro a year earlier. Lance and the rest are able to lead the alien craft away from Earth at speeds Pidge finds incredible before they make their escape through a suddenly appearing wormhole.

On the other side of the wormhole, the group finds itself summoned to the reawakening of the Castle of Lions and the evident sole survivors of Altea: Princess Allura and Coran, her servitor. After a ragged introduction and an explication of the ongoing conflict into which the group has been dragged--a multi-millennial war of conquest that has seen Emperor Zarkon and the Galra consume much of the known universe, including Altea--the Alteans confirm Shiro, Keith, Lance, Pidge, and Hunk as the five "Paladins of Voltron," the designated pilots of the five lions (Black, Red, Blue, Green, and Yellow, respectively) that make up the eponymous titanic robot warrior.

Missions to retrieve two of the lions, Yellow and Green, follow, as Allura attempts to discern the location of the Red Lion (Lance already has the Blue Lion, and the Black Lion is in the castle, requiring the presence of the other four to operate). Lance and Hunk retrieve the Yellow Lion, displaying the divergent combat capabilities of the mechanical cats; Shiro and Pidge retrieve the Green, highlighting the more personable relationship between the two.

Upon returning from those missions, Allura identifies the location of the Red Lion; it is aboard an incoming Galra ship. The five Paladins make to retrieve the Red Lion and escape. As they do, they learn more about the combat capabilities of their respective craft, and Shiro begins to get glimpses of the year in captivity he has repressed in memory; he had evidently been a fighter of no small skill and renown, and his competence in that regard has not waned. Making their escape from the Galra vessel, they return with four lions to the Castle of Lions and activate the fifth, the Black Lion. Thus armed, they move to intercept the attacking Galra ship, forming Voltron in their exigency and stopping the assault on the Castle of Lions.

At the end of the episode, the day is saved--but only the one day. It is made clear that the Galra will return in force--and that the five Paladins of Voltron will have to stop them and repair the evil they have wrought over a hundred centuries.

Discussion

There are any number of things to pull out of the episode. For example, the color symbolism alone could stand a fair bit of treatment; although the official website for the series ascribes elemental resonances to the characters' and their lions' colors and situations, there is perhaps a more applicable set of associations with the lions and Feng Shui principles (the Black Lion is Metal; the Red Lion, Fire; the Green Lion, Wood; the Blue Lion, Water; and the Yellow Lion, Stone). The shift in female treatment from the original series to the contemporary reimagning could also stand investigating; whether Allura is more or less empowered now than before is an argument worth having. But, given the orientation of the Society, the medievalism on display in "The Rise of Voltron" is what will receive focus.

There are some obvious medievalist bits, of course. The armor that Allura's father, King Alfor, wears, both in person and in holographic representation, strikes the eye as decidedly medievalist--not medieval, but evoking the medieval in decided, and decidedly standardized, ways. The description of the lions' pilots as "paladins" does, as well; familiar as a character type in no few role-playing games, the figure derives from and calls back to the elite knighthood of the Carolingian courts--although the presentation often associated with the paladins now is hardly how they are described in the medieval source materials--although it is possible to read them as a reiteration of anxieties about invasive forces. Indeed, the Galra, being purple and giving the appearance of hairiness--as opposed to the multi-ethnic human paladins and their non-human but humane Altean associates--as they rapaciously invade formerly peaceful areas, can be taken as reconceptions of the Saracens come into Catholic Europe once again. (I think I will have more to say on this topic in later rewatch pieces; a relevant piece of information comes in a later episode, if I recall correctly.)

Perhaps less obvious but still evocative, and evocative in the same line as the title of "paladin," has to do with the iconography at work among the lions' pilots. In addition to the color symbolism noted above, the pilots in their assigned armor all display the same heraldic blazon, a chevron inverted that calls to mind the V with which "Voltron" (as well as "victory," tellingly) begins. The common device--a heraldic ordinary--helps to identify them as a unit and to suggest that they are, in their concept, in alignment with older concepts--something doubtlessly borne out by any number of discussions of types and tropes at work in the show. Although a small unit, the paladins are much in the mold of the kind of chivalric order their title evokes--and a medievalist concept of one, in which warriors of disparate non-combat skills work together to be more efficient in combat than any of them could be alone. (This is another thing to which I will be returning. First episodes often act...oddly.)

I have the sneaking feeling that there is more going on in the episode in terms of medievalism than presents itself to me. I know there is more going on in the series (so far; it is only one season in, and a second is hoped-for) than the first episode allows to show forth. I will be happy to return to it here in the coming days.

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