Thursday, April 19, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Re)Watch 4.1, "Code of Honor"

Read the previous entry here!
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Following a brief third season, the series begins to take on a more somber tone, and there are hints of the dirty work that must be done to overthrow a multi-millennial empire.

4.1, "Code of Honor"

Written by Joshua Hamilton
Directed by Eugene Lee

Synopsis

Galra forces descend on an aquatic world, coming to berth beneath the waves to make a high-level delivery. The Blade of Marmora has infiltrated the facility and reconnoiters the facility; the Galra have access to more energy reserves than expected, and the Blade investigates. They are revealed and exfiltrate under fire, escaping narrowly--with Keith drawing rebuke despite his performance.

The intelligence collected by the Blade is delivered as Keith returns to the Castle and is dispatched by Shiro--under some protest. His tardiness with the mission is noted by the other Paladins, who also rebuke him. Shiro and Keith confer about how matters stand, Keith still having difficulty with Shiro's having stepped aside and trying to work as both part of the Blade and the Paladins. Morale-building missions are treated, with the Blade summoning aid to investigate an oddity in the Galra movements; Keith is dispatched to aid the Blade--and to return in haste.

The morale-building mission ensues, hindered somewhat by the absence of Keith. Complaints are noted--but Keith's mission proceeds apace, with a daring mission to plant a tracker on a Galra ship turning out to be a trap. One of the Blade falls to the trap, and Keith is cast adrift with a compromised environment suit. As the Paladins parade, Keith strives to recover, again narrowly escaping harm.

When Keith returns to the Castle, Allura confronts him. She seeks to force him to choose: the Blade, or the Legendary Defender. Keith's tension between the two groups continues, with him evidently preferring the work of the Blade to that of the Paladins.

Lotor, meanwhile, is rebuked by Haggar. He rejects her bluntly.

The division of Keith's attention becomes a problem as the Galra attack a convoy and the Paladins move to intercept--without Keith. The attack quickly becomes a trap for the Lions. Shiro approaches the Black Lion again to try to intervene. At length, the Black Lion accepts him again, and battle is joined. Voltron returns, and victory is achieved in short order.

After, Keith returns to face censure. He resigns from the Paladins, noting the progress of the Blade in their investigations and pursuit of Lotor. Shiro accepts it gracefully and asserts his continued friendship.

Discussion

The new season seems to mark a shift in the tone of the narrative, one that seems to go into a darker and less happy place than previous seasons of the series. This is not unexpected, of course; any ongoing narrative arc must at least consider doing so, both in response to outside events and to the presumed development of its primary audience. (The tonal shifts in the Harry Potter books come to mind as a recent predecessor.) And a medievalist work such as Voltron: Legendary Defender often is should be expected to do so, as well; the Arthuran legend from which it borrows extensively does so repeatedly, particularly in Malory as the narrative moves through and past the Grail Quest--although not seldom elsewhere.

Indeed, the present episode seems to borrow the fragmentary nature of the Malorian narrative for a bit, focusing largely on the exploits of one character--the redoubtable Keith--as he grows apart from his comrades, even as they increasingly serve more as symbols than as front-line fighters. There is some parallel to the development and aging of the Round Table Knights in Malory; while some of the more notable continue to go out on their own adventures, not always happily, the group as a whole seems to become more an emblem than a largely active force for good. This does not mean in either case that the group becomes inert or ineffectual, but it does mean that there is less a sense of unified drive as matters progress--and more of individuals striking out from the still-gleaming core to do work that remains needed.

It must be noted that this marks the end of my rewatching in favor of watching. It's not the first time this has happened with series write-ups in this webspace, though my break-off reasons aren't nearly so visceral as Shiloh's (about which more here, and if you've not read her treatment of Game of Thrones, you're missing out). No, with me, it's a matter of having a young daughter and two jobs; finding the time for this is not as easy as I would hope. But I mean to press on, in any event, and what I see in the present season gives me hope that I'll enjoy the ride. I hope y'all will, too.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 3.7, "The Legend Begins"

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In what amounts to a simultaneous flashback, much of Voltron's early history, the history of the Galra belligerence, is revealed.

3.7, "The Legend Begins"

Written by Tim Hedrick
Directed by Eugene Lee

Synopsis

Haggar attends upon Zarkon, using magic to enter his mind. When she does, she sees a series of images from his history--and her own.

Meanwhile, the Paladins confer regarding Lotor's location and activities. They encounter difficulties in doing so and ask Corran for background information. He begins to relate the history of Voltron.

The original Paladins were leaders of their respective peoples, entered initially into formal alliance and soon into friendship. Their combined efforts resulted in a spreading peace across their space, and they are meeting to celebrate that peace when the initial comet--the material from which Voltron was made--strikes the Galra homeworld. Investigation of the comet ensues, albeit with some difficulty; initial reports note the emergence of quintessence, and the Altean king, Alfor, summons Honerva to aid in the research.

The research proceeds, and the Paladins grow closer as they continue to work in concert, spreading peace further. Additionally, Zarkon and Honerva wed, and progress on the research continues. Quintessence is revealed as a mighty energy source, and the implications for peace and war are examined. As the research continues, however, Honerva inadvertently summons quintessence beasts; they are contained, although the containment is recognized as temporary. The Lions are built as a response to the threat, and the Paladins assume their roles.

In time, the expected breach of containment happens, and Voltron forms for the first time to defeat it. In the aftermath of the battle, Zarkon and Honerva purpose to press on with research despite Alfor's objections, and Alfor relents. Voltron is used to expand the peace even as Zarkon's world suffers from exposure to the quintessence--and its unnatural effects on life are noted.

Honerva falls ill, and Zarkon engages the Paladins in an attempt to cure her--deceitfully, claiming that they will seal the interdimensional rift through which quintessence is entering their reality. Passing inside the rift, Zarkon exposes himself and Honerva to the quintessence directly, attracting the attention of more quintessence beasts. The latter empower and taint Zarkon and Honerva; Alfor retrieves them and escapes, sealing the rift with the destruction of the Galra homeworld and mourning his friends as evidently dead.

They are not, however, or they return from death, and Zarkon orders war against his former comrades in an attempt to seize control of Voltron and return to the interdimensional space whence quintessence comes. In that revelation, Lotor's plan is made evident--and Haggar remembers who she is.

She calls to her husband, and he wakes...

Discussion

Much is made clear in the in medias res episode, which lays out the underlying tension that informs the series. Zarkon and Haggar are made somewhat sympathetic along the way; Zarkon emerges as a husband who goes too far saving his wife and corrupted by forces he cannot control, while Haggar is a researcher gone too far in what is otherwise a worthy quest. And there are implications that 1) the stuff of which Voltron is made is necessarily related to the terrors of the quintessence beasts and their eldritch-abomination existence and 2) quintessence itself is actually an infernal energy, which would make "life itself," to which Honerva equates it, similarly evil. In all, the episode works well to convey the fraught beginnings of the current conflict, as well as the stakes involved in its resolution.

What is less clear is how the episode makes manifest the medieval, other than the standing tropes of the Paladins and the Druids that Haggar/Honerva leads. Perhaps the subtle yoking of life to inherent evil is such a manifestation, given the typical medieval conceit of the fallen world, but that seems tenuous at best. Too, it is not the case that a series which employs the medieval as source and reference material always remain embedded in that material; the present episode seems to do so less than many other places in the narrative (although I would welcome other opinions on the matter; I would be happy to have my own understanding expanded). It does enough else that the series seems to need that its general separation from the medieval--although not the fantastic, since the "we have to fight evil spirits invading from another realm" plot is a commonplace in medievalist literature--is of no great moment or concern.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Voltron: Legendary Defender Rewatch 3.6, "Tailing a Comet"

Read the previous entry in the series here!
Read the next entry here!

The ramifications of a once and future leader returning begin to play out as the Paladins continue their fight against the Galra Empire.

3.6, "Tailing a Comet"

Written by Mitch Iverson
Directed by Chris Palmer

Synopsis

The Paladins launch an assault of a Galra facility. Allura proves herself remarkably adept as they clear the facility for the Blade of Marmora. Later, aboard the Castle of Lions, Shiro debriefs to Keith; the two try to suss out recent events, making their chronologies align. Recovery for Shiro is slow, however, although he does return to the bridge of the Castle and resumes command. Pidge reports on ways to track Lotor, both through tracing his recent appearances and through developing a detector to scan for the comet Lotor had previously acquired.

Shortly afterward, Lance confers with Keith about how to proceed in the wake of Shiro's return. He offers to step aside, citing the superior skills of the other Paladins; Keith reassures him that that will not be needed, at least not in the moment.

Not much later, Pidge's detector goes online, and the Paladins follow a signal to what they believe is Lotor's location. As they advance on it, leadership conflicts emerge between Shiro and Keith, and, as the Paladins move into action--springing a trap--the Black Lion refuses Shiro. He remains on the Castle as Keith leads the operation.

In the event, the Paladins find themselves counter-raiding a Galra installation that is already under attack--by another faction of Galra. The installation stores part of the teleportation device the Paladins had used to thwart Zarkon, and its commander is being used--hard--as a patsy by Lotor, the theft meant to cover Lotor's appropriation of the device. And, to make matters worse, the comet Lotor had stolen has been incorporated into a ship of substantial capability--which is deployed against the Paladins and Voltron. The ship deploys to force a choice for the Paladins: allow the teleporter to escape by engaging the ship, or suffer from the ship while taking out the teleporter. Keith and Shiro come into conflict over the matter as Shiro commands the Castle into the fray. In a moment of clarity, Keith destroys the teleporter--but Lotor's ship and the lieutenants piloting it are able to escape.

In the wake of the battle, the Paladins confer about how they will proceed. And the hapless commander of the Galra facility that was raided suffers for his failures.

Discussion

Of particular note in the episode is the way in which Shiro's foreshadowed return is thwarted. Instead of returning to command of the Paladins in Voltron, he is relegated to the same kind of support and coordination role that Corran has carried throughout the series and that Allura was able to leave behind earlier in the season. While it does make some sense--Shiro is still recovering from his travails, and his seniority means that positioning him outside the main battle affords him the advantages of greater perspective--it also marks another blow to the character and subverts what would otherwise have been the expected course of the narrative. After all, the introductory sequence to each episode continues to show Shiro as pilot of the Black Lion, and children's shows (of which it must be admitted Voltron: Legendary Defender is one) prize the status quo; it would make sense that Shiro return to his former position without trouble.

That he is not able to do so--at least, not at this point--suggests that the promised return of Arthurian figures would be similarly problematic, something conveniently ignored by much of the medieval material that informs popular culture. (It also foreshadows a similarly problematic return to power by Zarkon.) Arthur may be the once and future king, but a future that he could rule well seems a strange place and an inhospitable one; if Shiro could not return to command after the span of a year or less, how much less could the mighty leaders of old to now--or even later? While the problem presented is something that other works have considered, to see it appear in a show directed at the audience Voltron addresses is an interesting shift and one that reminds us that, even though we may well prize what has gone before, we do not well to cleave too closely to it.