I cannot tell you how much my brother Tyler and I were into Robotech in the mid- to late 1980s. We were the exact right age to discover this show.
Here we are with Mom around this time:
The 1980s were a cornucopia of action-adventure boys’ shows on afterschool television: Transformers, G.I. Joe, Voltron, Thundercats, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, M.A.S.K.—to name a few. (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out at the end of 1987; we mostly knew of TMNT from the very cool but infrequently published comic book.)
These were, of course, shameless half-hour toy ads. But because we loved the toys, that was fine with us.
The toys were awesome: Muscle-bound heroes and despicable villains, hardware and accessories, weapons galore and gadget-filled playsets—what could be better?
Tyler and I had a sort of forbidden-fruit relationship to these shows because we couldn’t easily watch them. Our house had crappy reception being at the bottom of a hill on an island; cable didn’t come down our dirt road until the end of 1988; but our parents refused to put a UHF aerial on the roof (“it’s too ugly”).
So we could only see the shows when we were at our grandparents’ house on Long Island, or occasionally over at a friend’s. We would tape a swath of them and then take the tape home and watch the same episodes over and over again.
It took many months for us to get the opportunity to watch, at long last, different episodes.
It was at that point we noticed that, well...the shows all sucked!
The episodes were so preposterously formulaic, we might as well be watching the same ones we had on tape over and over again. They were that lame and repetitive. Nothing had any weight or consequence. They were solely for kids. (We were, at the time, around 11 and 9. I’m older.)
Then one day in 1985 or 1986, during a trip to Grandma’s house, we set up a tape to record a block of cartoons—and somehow we ended up capturing an episode of Robotech.
It wasn’t even that significant an episode: “Crisis Point,” near the end of the “Robotech Masters” portion of the show (more on that in a bit).
It blew our minds!
I don’t know how to explain it—except to say, imagine if The Transformers was somehow made with the same care, attention and sophistication of, say, Marathon Man.
It was that different from the usual kiddie fare. The transforming robots didn’t talk—they were just machines. The characters had real inner lives. People died. They fell in love. They had their hearts broken.
This was a soap opera on a galactic scale. And the vehicles, designs and action of the Japanese animation were eye-popping and fascinating—yet always “grounded.” So too were the characters: not muscle-bound behemoths but slight and vulnerable (albeit with weirdly colored hair).
We had seen anime before, like in Voltron—but that show (especially in its American adaptation) was silly and repetitive. Robotech was closer in tone and spirit to Star Wars, especially in the characterizations. Maybe even more sophisticated than that, with its consistent anti-war ideology.
We immediately wanted to watch more.
We set about taping more episodes…and boy were we confused!
After a few installments, suddenly the characters, machines (“mecha”) and enemies were completely different: There was lip-service in the narration to the old characters (we wondered what had happened to them)—yet those folks were never to be seen again.
When we discovered we could rent the pilot episode from a local video store (and a couple more, on the same tape), we were even more confused—because it introduced yet a third group of characters!
So, the punchline—as all Robotech fans know—is that Robotech was actually an amalgam of three separate, totally different Japanese anime series.
The producer, Carl Macek, originally wanted to do a faithful English dub of just the first show, Macross, but found he didn’t have enough episodes for American syndication.
So he licensed two others from the same anime company, and set about linking them (via the translation) to be three generations of Earth warriors battling invading aliens.
But don’t take my word for it...
The adaptation was largely successful—although it was, shall we say, imperfect.
A lot of things made little sense. Sometimes “protoculture” meant the “Robotechnology.” Sometimes it seemed to refer to singing and human emotions. Sometimes it was a kind of gasoline. We were like, huh?
But no matter—the show was great. We loved it.
And let me tell you, to love something back then—well, you really had to work for it.
This was before you could binge-watch on Netflix or mail away for a DVD set. In 1985–86, Robotech wasn’t even on home video. (Why would it be?) So just getting to watch all the episodes proved to be a major challenge.
Fortunately, Ty had a friend with decent UHF and a VCR, and the family let us come over to watch and tape (or simply time-tape) most of the episodes after school.
Except—and I remember this vividly—we finally got to the very last episode, “Symphony of Light,” where we could find out how the saga ended…we go over there, so excited, and we’re watching it for maybe five minutes…and the picture goes BLACK.
“Technical difficulties”! Remember when those bedeviled local stations?
First it comes back, but just sound. Then goes away. Comes back, etc. I think it resumed intact for the last few minutes. And of course, we had to wait months to watch it complete (the show cycled around on broadcast every four months or so).
Eventually, there was a videotape boxed set—of the first 36 episodes, at least. We sent away (via expensive mail order) for the F.H.E. (Family Home Entertainment) release of the “Macross Saga”—only to find it was edited. Barbarians!
A few years later, we met some huckster at a Star Trek convention and spent $250 or something outrageous for a complete set of bootleg VHS tapes. Hey, that’s how things were back then.
One side-effect of this is that all the artifacts of videotape—the tinny mono sound, station I.D. bugs, tracking snow, and skips from where the recording was paused—became part of the experience of loving the show.
We ate up the Robotech-related merchandise of the period: a trio of high-quality Robotech Art books, the pretty-good comic book adaptation, and some comprehensive role-playing games (RPGs). I never liked to play RPGs, but I loved the Robotech books for their reference information and mecha blueprints.
Robotech looked to be the next great sci-fi franchise (although we didn’t use the term “franchise” back then, or even think in those terms). Unfortunately, Harmony Gold (the company behind Robotech) had a lot of bad luck.
First, an intended feature film, Robotech: The Movie, crashed and burned in the summer of 1986 in a test release in Texas (distributed by Cannon Films).
And having finally seen it, I’m sorry to say…it’s really bad. It’s an adaptation of yet a fourth anime project, Megazone 23, combined with some Southern Cross footage (which became the Robotech Masters part of the saga).
And while the original Megazone 23 is pretty good, the attempt at shoehorning it into Robotech is an utter disaster. Try to make any sense of this:
Not longer after that, the Robotech toy line from Matchbox laid an egg—it was intended for younger kids (which left the real audience, like us, disinterested), and due to rights issues, several key toys didn’t even transform properly.
When the toys bombed, that plus a change in the dollar-yen exchange rate caused a planned sequel series (which would have been entirely original), The Sentinels, to be canceled.
The three episodes of the sequel that were completed were released as a direct-to-video mail-order tape. We got that, of course, but it seemed too American and generic to me—like just another afterschool show.
At some point I read a comment from Carl Macek that I thought was disingenuous. Macek died from a heart attack in 2010; he was only 58. So I don’t want to poke at a guy who’s no longer here to defend himself.
Macek was a polarizing figure because, on the one hand, he popularized anime in a hugely meaningful way, by enabling its distribution beyond Japan. (This is how I discovered it.) But he also got criticized for altering the source material. (He tried to stay faithful to the original shows, but some editing and mutation was commercially unavoidable.)
Macek tried to argue, I dimly recall, that Robotech wasn’t to be thought of as merely an American translation. It was a whole-new story made from existing Japanese animation.
To me, this didn’t hold water. It’s not like he found a bunch of random drawings and edited them into a narrative. The storytelling was all there in the original shows: the designs, the characters, the plots, the conflicts, the imagination and awesomeness.
And when Macek altered the story, he tended to make it worse. But I digress.
By 1990, Robotech was pretty much dead as a franchise—and yet, long live Robotech!
The fans our age had such an emotional connection to the show that Harmony Gold was able to continue a kind of cottage industry of video, soundtrack (yay!) and toy releases—one that’s been ongoing for over 30 years.
I distinctly remember being so excited to get the first DVD releases in the early 2000s—but if anything, the show didn’t have the same charm all cleaned-up. (And I quite disliked a subsequent reissue with a souped-up stereo soundtrack.)
These were soon followed by restored DVD sets (subtitled) of the original Japanese programs.
Those made for a fascinating viewing experience—but, in a way, I wish I had never seen the Japanese originals. They were all easily better than the Robotech versions. Finally, narrative subtleties that never made sense were readily comprehensible. (The second series used for Robotech, Southern Cross, didn’t even take place on Earth.)
And there were little pieces of violence, sexual content and more adult-oriented drama that made the shows more grown-up and meaningful.
It was like finally watching the Blade Runner Director’s Cut, likewise shorn of narration: Oh, now I get it.
The only thing I missed was the music: the Robotech library cues had been seared into my brain from years of viewing, and I desperately wanted them all on CD (a dream fulfilled).
Objectively, a lot of the American soundtrack is pretty thin-sounding, but I have a huge amount of affection for it:
I came to like the Japanese scores, too, although a lot of it is too upbeat and light (not to mention synthy) for American dramatic sensibilities. Genesis Climber Mospeada (the “Invid episodes”) was an early project for the great Jo Hisaishi, incidentally:
In recent years, a lot of the voice actors on the American Robotech have reunited for conventions and interviews—which have been a lot of fun to watch.
A couple of times when I used to work on FSM CDs at one of our audio facilities, Private Island Trax (now Private Island Audio) there were Robotech voice actors there doing a project. I met Tony Oliver (Rick Hunter) and Richard Epcar (Ben Dixon/Lunk—also Batou from Ghost in the Shell) that way.
And when I did my Sky Fighter short, I hired Richard Epcar to do a pilot voice on the radio. He remote-recorded it, so I never even spoke to him—but that was a thrill!
The reason I thought to write about Robotech today is because over the weekend, there was a Robotech panel at Anime Expo in Los Angeles, and I saw people on the Facebook Robotech group write about it.
And there seemed to be some sarcasm and derision, which I guess comes from the fact that Harmony Gold has merchandised the hell out of Robotech, without providing the one thing fans really want—more films and television with the quality and class of the original.
Some good news recently was the resolution of a long-running rights dispute between Harmony Gold and Big West, one of the Japanese companies that produced Macross. This had frustrated distribution of sequels and merchandise from the Macross part of Robotech.
What I hope they do—and I’m not alone—is a proper English dub and Blu-ray of the 1984 movie adaptation of Macross, Do You Remember Love?—which has some of the most incredible animation I’ve ever seen.
Ty and I bought a crappy videotape of this in the 1980s, when it was called Clash of the Bionoids, with 23 minutes chopped out and a truly atrocious English dub (the same one in the link above, that I understand was produced in Hong Kong).
I wonder if they could reunite the 1985 Robotech voice cast to dub this? Most are still around, but would they still sound right for their characters?
Come to think of it, most of the cast did reunite for the 2006 made-for video sequel, Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles…but despite the creators’ best intentions, that attempt at a sequel just didn’t seem to work creatively.
And I don’t want to pick at the guys who made it...but, well, storytelling is hard. The creators of the original Japanese shows were operating at a really high level. It’s not something you can do just jump into because you’re a huge fan.
And Robotech has its own challenges, namely that there’s such a sprawling mythology that there’s a huge temptation to do “fan service”—unite characters and mecha from across the source materials.
But that ends up being a fan film. It’s not drama. It doesn’t capture the audience’s heart or imagination the way the Japanese originals did.
All of this leads into the decades-long speculation: will they finally make a live-action Robotech movie?
Sony announced such a project as far back as 2015. First James Wan was going to direct; then Andy Muschietti. Now it’s Hawkeye’s Rhys Thomas.
But it may never happen. It would have to be a hugely expensive movie, and Sony has to judge whether Robotech is popular enough to warrant the risk. Plus they have to like the script enough—and get stars to commit at the right cost.
Welcome to studio filmmaking—if it were easy, everybody would do it!
There was a previous attempt to make a Robotech circa 2007, to be produced by Tobey Maguire for Warner Bros., but obviously it never happened. A script was written, at some point, by S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Dragged Across Concrete)—and I was so excited to get my hands on it, but it was so bad I didn’t even finish the first act. (You can read a review from Scriptshadow.)
How do you adapt Robotech for a feature film, anyway?
The Zahler script is like a sideways version of Independence Day: aliens attack Earth and we have to use other alien tech to defend it.
It seems obvious that you do the Macross part of the saga: the SDF-1 (the “Macross”) with the city aboard it; the Rick Hunter–Lisa Hayes–Minmay love triangle; and some version of fighting the aliens using Minmay’s singing.
But the singing is at once the most novel part of the concept, and the most goofy. I can easily see a studio getting cold feet.
Not to mention that it always looks awkward when you adapt things that look awesome in animation for live-action.
You have to nod to the source material to some extent, but if you’re too faithful, it makes it look like Roger Rabbit.
And there’s a ton of story to condense into two hours.
It would actually be easiest both for the drama and the budget to do the Mospeada part of the story, with a guerrilla group of resistance fighters vs. the Invid aliens.
I have daydreamed about a live-action trailer that’s just a guy on a motorcycle, and an innocent kid is about to be killed by a giant Invid baddie, and the hero transforms his motorcycle into body armor (it’s a “Cyclone”) to rescue the kid.
I mean, film that effectively, and it brings the house down! Or, I mean to say, goes viral.
So not that anybody asks me, but that would be my advice to Sony: don’t try to make a $200M home run and get stuck with Battleship. Make a lean, mean guerrilla-warfare Robotech movie that has a ton of heart and imagination. Get the characterizations right and the audience will love it.
Although I’m not sure if the country, at this moment in time, is ready for a male freedom fighter who performs as a female singer?
And yet, if you leave out that character, the liberal half of the country will be furious (and I’d agree with them).
Well, it’s not my problem…and at this rate never will be.
A few years ago I was helping somebody do a few 45rpm singles of film and TV themes (it didn’t work out, but it’s not a story worth telling) and met with the staff at Harmony Gold about maybe licensing Robotech.
They were gracious to have me over, and I enjoyed talking with them—and especially touring their storeroom of Robotech merchandise, including some vintage items I had only heard about.
Remember that set of Robotech videotapes I bought over 30 years ago? It turns out they were from an early broadcast of Robotech, when the American soundtrack had yet to be completed. So it had some different music cues. And because of the haphazard way the show was produced, Harmony Gold didn’t have a record of that initial version of the series.
So I happily donated that VHS set to Harmony Gold. And my mom was grateful to have slightly less of our childhood crap in her basement.
Robotech will always have a piece of my heart—it’s a shared experience for Tyler and I that we fondly recall. I hope the future creators can bring back part of that spirit...but if not, we’ll always have our memories.
For a brief, shining moment, afterschool 1980s “kids” programming truly punched above its weight, opened our hearts and stimulated our imaginations with a stellar show that was hugely entertaining but also laudable and meaningful.
Thank you, Robotech. And R.I.P. Carl Macek, 1951–2010: