Friday 2 March 2018

Franchise Familiariser: Robotech

There’s Robotech movie on the way, but it’s entirely possible that you don’t know what Robotech is or if it’s worth caring about. If that is the case, please find this Franchise Familiariser course useful. 

A heavily stylised version of the Battle of Toronto from Robotech.

The Basics 
Robotech is a science fiction franchise that combines elements of space opera and post-apocalyptic fiction. Originally an animated television series, it has also produced comic books, novels, video games, wargames and a tabletop roleplaying game.

Robotech is a multi-generational science fiction franchise created in 1985 by Carl Macek and Harmony Gold, an American animation company, based heavily on the earlier 1982 Japanese animated series Macross, created by Shōji Kawamori for Studio Nue. The relationship between the American and Japanese versions of the franchise (and, to some respect, their fans) has been highly contentious.

Harmony Gold wanted to air a Japanese anime show running to around 100 episodes, but Macek couldn’t find a suitable show that lasted that long. To overcome the problem, he bought three completely unrelated shows – Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada – whose combined runtime came to 85 episodes. He then wrote new dialogue and voice-over narration claiming the three stories were taking place in the same universe across three different generations of characters. Given that Southern Cross took place on an alien planet and the three series had completely different characters and enemies, this was some feat but he just about managed to pull it off (to the understandable disdain of anime purists ever since).

Robotech was a massive success on its original airing in the USA in 1985, attracting a strong following thanks to its iconic mecha (human-piloted war machines, some capable of transforming into other forms, most notably the Veritech fighter), strong characterisation and its often ruthless, sprawling storyline. It is credited, with varying degrees of plausibility, with helping to instigate the original anime craze in the United States. The series was notable for attracting both adult and younger fans, who enjoyed the mixture of action and soap opera. This is sometimes held to be similar to the “Marvel effect” of the 1960s, which presented superhero stories as action-adventure stories but with significant time spent on the characters’ love lives and family backdrops. The series was also praised for being “gritty” compared to American cartoons, most notably in its willingness to kill off a large number of the main characters (by the end of the series only a few major characters are left standing) and radically shake up the setting every few episodes. The first few episodes are a war story, until the main cast of characters are accidentally transported into deep space. The show then becomes a space opera until they return to Earth. Shortly after this Earth is laid waste by the alien Zentraedi, resulting in a dramatic shift to a post-apocalyptic setting. The generational shifts between the constituent Japanese series were both praised (for continuing to shake up the show) and criticised (particularly the Southern Cross segment, which was never rated as highly as the others). However, despite this success the show’s ending, which sees the human survivors score a major victory over alien invaders whilst waiting for the Macross characters to return to Earth, but does not resolve any of the major storylines, was heavily criticised for a lack of closure. Macek and Harmony Gold promised a resolution.

Attempts to expand the Robotech franchise proved of limited success. In 1987 Harmony Gold commissioned an original companion series, which explored what happened to the original Macross characters (who had embarked on a new mission into space) during the events of the two later series. Only 3 episodes were produced before the project was canned due to budget issues. These episodes were released on video as a movie, Robotech II: The Sentinels. According to Macek’s masterplan, the planned Sentinels series would have been followed by a third series, The Odyssey, which would have united characters from all three generations in a grand showdown with the ultimate alien threat.

In 2006, Harmony Gold released a direct-to-DVD animated sequel movie, called The Shadow Chronicles. Picking up after the end of the TV series, the movie unites characters from all three parts of the franchise and sets up a new storyline. Once again, the movie was again left open-ended. A planned sequel, Shadow Rising, was cancelled following a poor critical and commercial reception to The Shadow Chronicles.

In 1987, Del Rey Books began publishing a novelisation of the Robotech saga. Written by James Luceno and Brian Daley, under the pen-name “Jack McKinney”, they adapted the entire 85-episode original Robotech saga as twelve 250-page novels, released in just one year. In 1988 they released a five-volume adaptation of The Sentinels, using Macek’s unused outline and episode plan. With Robotech apparently dead in the water, they also wrote three original novels: The End of the Circle (1989) resolved the entire storyline, whilst The Zentraedi Rebellion (1994), The Masters’ Gambit (1995) and Before the Invid Storm (1996) filled in gaps in the previous canon. Freed from the constraints of the animated series, the novels tell an altogether more detailed and more coherent version of the Robotech mythos, and one with a definitive beginning, middle and end.

At the same time as all of this, Shōji Kawamori and Studio Nue had been continuing to develop a radically different version of the story in their Super Dimension Fortress Macross series. After the original series (1982), they developed various straight-to-video epilogues and movie versions of the same story. In 1992 a direct sequel series, Macross II, was released without Kawamori’s involvement but was soon disowned as a parallel universe story. Kawamori canonically continued the story in 1994 with Macross Plus and Macross 7, which took the story into deep space. In 2002 they released a prequel series, Macross Zero, taking place shortly before the events of the original series. In 2008 they continued the story with Macross Frontier, set half a century after the original series, and then with a further sequel story, Macross Delta, in 2016.

Despite coming from the same original source and basic underlying story, the Robotech and Macross versions of the story are dramatically different. Highly contentiously, Harmony Gold have been blocking the release of any of the Macross sequel and prequel series in the United States for fear of causing confusion with their Robotech franchise. Harmony Gold’s distribution rights for the Macross series expire in July 2021 (fifteen years after their last Robotech project), which will then allow Studio Nue to distribute the shows on DVD and Blu-Ray, as well as streaming services, in the USA.

As mentioned elsewhere, Sony is also developing a live-action movie based on the original Robotech series. The script is being written by Jason Fuchs (Wonder Woman) and Andy Muschietti (IT) is lined up to direct. Production is not expected to start until late 2019 or early 2020.

A Veritech fighter in Guardian mode.

The Canon 
The Robotech canon consists primarily of two slightly different versions of the same story. The first is the animated television series and its TV movie sequel. The second is a series of novels written by Brian Daley and James Luceno under the pen-name “Jack McKinney”. The TV series is better-known, but the novels are far more detailed, offering a much deeper account of the conflict. The novels also do not have the limitation of the TV show in being restricted to what they can depict. As a result, the novels are often considered a “more complete” version of the same story, since they also have a definitive ending.

However, there is also a rather different take on the same material in the Japanese media. The original Super Dimensional Fortress Macross series became, by itself, one of the most popular Japanese anime of all time (Southern Cross and Mospeada, by comparison, became fairly obscure). It spawned multiple sequel and prequel series in two distinct timelines and new material in the Macross universe continues to be produced even today.

Robotech Canon I: The TV Show 
Robotech (1985) – animated series, 85 episodes

Robotech II: The Sentinels (1987) – direct-to-video animated film, comprising 3 episodes of an aborted spin-off show

The Shadow Chronicles (2006) – direct-to-video animated film

Robotech Canon II (The Books) 
First Generation (1999-2015) 
Battle Cry
Force of Arms

Second Generation (2029-2030) 
Southern Cross
Metal Fire
The Final Nightmare 

Third Generation (2034-2035) 
Invid Invasion
Symphony of Light 

The Sentinels (2020-2035) 
The Devil’s Hand
Dark Powers
Death Dance
World Killers

Lost Generation (2016-2035) 
The End of the Circle
The Zentraedi Rebellion
The Masters’ Gambit
Before the Invid Storm 

Macross Canon 
Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982-83) – animated series, 36 episodes

Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1984) – movie retelling of the animated series

Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Flashback 2012 (1987) – direct-to-video epilogue to the movie

Super Dimensional Fortress Macross II: Lovers Again (1992) – direct-to-video mini-series, 6 episodes (non-canon)

Macross Plus (1994) – direct-to-video mini-series, 4 episodes, direct sequel to the original series

Macross 7 (1994) – animated series, 52 episodes, direct sequel to the original series

Macross Zero (2002) – direct-to-video mini-series, 5 episodes, direct prequel to the original series

Macross Frontier (2008) – animated series, 25 episodes, sequel to Macross 7 

Macross Delta (2016) – animated series, 26 episodes, sequel to Macross Frontier

The Superdimensional Fortress or SDF-1, the alien starship which crashes on Earth to set in motion half a century of warfare and chaos.

The Robotech storyline is long and complex, spanning as it does some 40 years of human history but also referencing previous events that have unfolded over thousands of years.

The Macross Saga storyline begins in the Earth year 1999. The Global Civil War, a nascent World War III, is about to go nuclear when a massive alien starship materialises above the planet and crash-lands on Macross Island, a former French nuclear test site in the South Pacific. The human race stops fighting and pools its resources to rebuild the alien ship, as corrupted record files on board suggest that the ship’s creators are incredibly violent, ruthless beings who will do everything they can to recover the vessel.

Ten years later, in 2009, the ship – now dubbed Superdimensional Fortress One or SDF-1 – has become the centrepiece of a whole new field of science, known as “Robotechnology”. This science, based on discoveries in the vessel, has led to the creation of mecha, powerful war machines that interface with the human mind, most formidable of which are the Veritech transformable fighters. Unfortunately, the powering-up of the ship’s hyperdrive sends a signal which is picked up by the alien force sent to retrieve the vessel. These aliens, 40-foot-tall humanoids named “Zentraedi”, attack Earth in overwhelming force and devastate the planetary defences, but the SDF-1 is able to inflict heavy losses on them. The ship takes off and prepares to execute a hyperspace jump to attack the Zentraedi in the flank. A miscalculation results in the entire ship and Macross Island itself being warped into orbit around Pluto. The hyperdrive burns out immediately, so the SDF-1 has to return home on normal engine power, which takes some two and a half years. The ship also has to cram 70,000 civilians (who were helping with the rebuilding of the ship and in the supply chain) on board.

This section of the story is arguably the most popular, as it alternates character-based storylines (including an awkward love story between free-spirited pilot Rick Hunter, stuffy executive officer Lisa Hayes and pop star-in-waiting Lynn-Minmei) with action stories which further the development of the story. During this period there are battles in Saturn’s rings (where the SDF-1 successfully destroys an enemy capital ship in one-on-one combat) and on the surface of Mars, where Lisa suffers trauma after discovering how her ex-partner assigned to a failed Mars base died. The traditionalist Zentraedi commander Breetai despairs at his constantly-thwarted tactics, so brings in both the improvisational, unpredictable and brilliant (if also reckless) Khyron to defeat the humans. When that doesn’t work, he deploys an elite, all-female mecha battalion. This backfires because it causes dissent in the ranks (the Zentraedi, for reasons that become clear, are a strictly gender-segregated race) and also because their greatest pilot, Miriya, defects to the enemy after falling in love with the SDF-1’s best pilot, Max Sterling. As the story continues, the Zentraedi begin listening to entertainment broadcasts from the SDF-1, including pop music, movies and TV shows, which reveal that the humans live a much freer and more enjoyable existence than themselves.

It is eventually revealed – after several major characters are captured by the Zentraedi – that the alien ship was built by the Robotech Masters, an enigmatic and elite scientific/militaristic cabal. The Zentraedi are a genetically-engineered warrior-slave race. The creator of the SDF-1, Zor, had placed on board the only functioning Protoculture Matrix, the source of the SDF-1’s amazing power and the fuel for its mecha. With the ability to create more Protoculture lost, the Masters and the Zentraedi are both dwindling in supplies and are now hard-pressed by the Invid, a vengeful alien race of shapeshifters whose homeworld was devastated by the Robotech Masters in the process of creating the Matrix. Zor was wracked by guilt for what he’d done and sent the SDF-1 to a “safe place” to keep it out of the Masters’ hands.

The SDF-1 returns to Earth in 2012, but finds that the planetary government has written them off and refuses to let the civilians disembark. An attempt to gain succour from the government of Canada backfires when a Zentraedi sneak attack and a malfunction of the SDF-1’s energy shield completely destroys Toronto. After a series of furious engagements and the outbreak of mutiny in Breetai’s ranks as his Zentraedi tire of the conflict and find themselves yearning for freedom, Breetai agrees to a truce. To his horror, it is discovered (apparently) that the Protoculture Matrix has vanished into hyperspace along with the SDF-1’s hyperdrive, meaning that the entire war has been fought for nothing.

Disturbed by Breetai’s willingness to talk to the humans and the reports of dissent in his fleet, Dolza realises that the humans pose an existential threat to the order and discipline of the Zentraedi species. He warps the Zentraedi Grand Fleet – a vast armada of 4.8 million warships – into Earth orbit and bombards the planet, wiping out 80% of the human race in minutes. The SDF-1 allies with Breetai’s forces and counter-attacks, destroying Dolza’s headquarters and obliterating most of the Grand Fleet in a chain reaction of explosions. Thousands of ships survive and crash on Earth.

Two years later, after an attempt to integrate the Zentraedi into the human population, Khyron launches a sneak attack on the SDF-1 and destroys it and its under-construction sister ship, the SDF-2. In the aftermath of the attack, Rick Hunter and Lisa Hayes hook up and vow to end the war by travelling to the Robotech Master homeworld, Tirol, and finding a diplomatic solution.

The Southern Cross or Second Generation story opens some sixteen years later. The SDF-3 mission to Tirol has vanished without a trace. Earth is now defended by the Army of the Southern Cross and a vaguely militaristic, fascist government has taken advantage of the post-apocalyptic situation to rise to power. Suddenly a small fleet of ships belonging to the Robotech Masters arrives in Earth orbit and attacks the planet. The defence is led by Dana Sterling, the half-human/half-Zentraedi daughter of Max and Miriya, and her elite Hovertank Squadron. After a series of battles, the Masters successfully locate the wreckage of the SDF-1 and the Protoculture Matrix which had been hidden a secret compartment all along. However, the Masters’ flagship is destroyed by a vengeful clone of Zor and the resulting explosion ruptures the Matrix, spreading Protoculture progenitor seeds – the Flower of Life – across the planet. The horrified survivors realise that this event will inevitably attract the attention of the Invid. Dana and her squadron steal the last remaining FTL-capable ship and set out to find the SDF-3.

In the Mospeada or Third Generation story, Earth has been invaded and successfully occupied by the forces loyal to the Invid Regis, or Queen. The planet has been turned into an enormous Protoculture farm. Recon elements from the SDF-3 fleet warp back into orbit to assess the situation and are promptly shot down. Lt. Scott Bernard hooks up with local rebel forces and organises them for a ground strike on the Invid capital hive at Reflex Point at the same time the main fleet arrives and launches its assault. Eventually this operation is launched and is successful, although the Invid Regis decides to relent and abandon Earth more for her own personal reasons than the military strike. At the end of the battle the SDF-3 has still not arrived, so Lt. Bernard sets out to find it.

In the Sentinels spin-off series, the clock winds back to the launch of the SDF-3 mission fifteen years earlier, which is commanded by Rick, Lisa and Breetai and is accompanied by almost all of the surviving Zentraedi on Earth. The SDF-3 arrives at Tirol to find that the planet has been conquered by the Invid Regent. In a fierce engagement the planet is liberated, but the SDF-3 is heavily damaged. Rick and Lisa join forces with a multi-species freedom fighter force known as the Sentinels and set about liberating the entire quadrant from the Invid, which involves multiple, desperate battles fought across half a dozen worlds. Eventually, after many years, the Invid Regent is defeated and the SDF-3 crew reunite to return to Earth and liberate their homeworld.

The Shadow Chronicles TV movie and the novel The End of the Circle feature divergent accounts of what happens after the liberation of Earth from the Invid; the latter is a more definitive ending involving the setting up of a time loop that returns to the birth of Zor and the beginning of the original story in accordance with Carl Macek’s original vision. The Robotech Wars end and the human race is able to continue its development as a member of the interstellar community.

The Shadow Chronicles, however, was supposed to be a pilot for a new ongoing series and ends much less conclusively, with Scott Bernard taking command of a mission to find the SDF-3 and a new alien threat being introduced.

The Japanese Macross version of the story is different; the original Macross Saga is mostly the same, except that the Zentraedi (rendered “Zentradi” in this version) are a race unto themselves, and the Robotech Masters, Invid and Flowers of Life do not exist. Robotechnology is “overtechnology” (which is rooted in more traditional nuclear and fusion energy) and “the Protoculture” is an ancient alien race whose legacy is still being felt in the galaxy. The later Macross sequel series see humanity launching a series of massive colony ships to settle the Milky Way Galaxy, eventually encountering other alien races.

Rick Hunter in the cockpit of his Veritech fighter.

Robotech spans the years 1999 to 2035 (or 1999 to 2044 in the TV version) and the original series is set entirely in the Solar system, and more than three-quarters of it on Earth (although Pluto, Saturn and Mars get brief appearances). Major locations for the story include Macross Island (a fictional French nuclear test island in the South Pacific), Alaska (where a secret Robotech Defence Force base and a huge, anti-orbital energy cannon are located) and Toronto, which rather unfortunately gets vapourised during a battle with the Zentraedi. Another chunk of the story is set in New Macross City, (located in Alaska in the TV series, Montana in the novels) so-named because it’s where the SDF-1 and the civilian survivors of the original Macross Island settle after the final battle with Dolza. Later important locations include Monument City, which becomes the global capital during the Second Generation, and Reflex Point in central North America, the location of the primary hive after Earth is conquered by the alien Invid.

The Sentinels and Shadow Chronicles elements of the story, along with the novels, expand the number of worlds important to the story. These include Fantoma, a giant planet and homeworld of the Zentraedi; Tirol, Fantoma’s third moon and the homeworld of the Robotech Masters; Optera, the Invid homeworld and original source of Protoculture; and the various homeworlds of the races who join the Sentinels: Praxis, Garuda, Karbarra, Peryton, Spheris and Haydon IV.

A major focal point of the series is the starship known as Superdimensional Fortress One (SDF-1), built by the Robotech Masters to house the only Protoculture Matrix in existence. The SDF-1 is sent to Earth by its guilt-riven creator, Zor, and crashes on Macross Island. It is later rebuilt and goes into space, becoming the primary weapon used by humanity against the Zentraedi. The SDF-1 is almost a mile and a half long, has a crew in the thousands and is later forced to shelter some 70,000 civilian survivors of the battle at Macross Island (this number is reduced to around 56,000 by the end of the saga). The ship is equipped with human-built weapons such as railguns, point defence cannons and AA flak guns, but its primary weapon is a massive “Reflex Cannon” which is capable of destroying entire fleets of ships with a single blast. Unfortunately, after the initial battle the crew can never get the main gun to fire at full strength again, due to its power linkages vanishing along with the FTL “fold drive”. Later on, the crew develop an ad hoc solution which requires the entire ship to “transform” into a robot-like form to bridge some of the missing power relays, allowing the gun to fire at a reduced setting.

Protoculture and the Flower of Life 
The primary McGuffin of Robotech is “Protoculture”, an incredibly efficient, non-polluting energy source: a single Protoculture fuel cell can power an entire mecha at a high level of use continuously for several years. In the TV version of the story, Protoculture is mostly depicted as an energy source and nothing else. In contrast, the novels suggest that Protoculture has a spiritual side and may be the “glue” that binds body and soul together. This mystical, Force-like aspect of Protoculture manifests as the Shapings, which suggest that the future can be foreseen and perhaps manipulated.

Protoculture is derived from the Flower of Life, a naturally-occurring lifeform native to the planet Optera. Flowers of Life are harvested and fed into the Protoculture Matrix, which converts the plants into Protoculture. The Flowers of Life are sacred to the Invid, who are understandably infuriated when their planet is deforested by the Robotech Masters to power their war machine and later launch a devastating war of vengeance against them.

The Alien Races 
Three alien races play a major role in the events of Robotech. Most notable are the Robotech Masters, a race of human-like beings from the planet Tirol. The Masters were originally a peaceful race of scientists and explorers until the discovery of Protoculture awoke their lust for conquest and power. Their arrogance and ruthlessness resulted in the conquest of much of the Fourth Quadrant of the galaxy until the SDF-1 and its Protoculture Matrix were removed from their grasp. The Masters sent their giant warrior-slaves, the Zentraedi, to recover the Matrix whilst they fought a holding action with their remaining stockpiles of Protoculture against the Invid. Although the Masters’ ruling elite are shown to be amoral and selfish, many other Tirolians are shown to be honourable and kind, including Zor himself and his student Cabell, who later becomes a key ally of the Sentinels.

The Zentraedi are arguably the most famous of the Robotech races. They are a race of towering giants, the result of the massive gravity of their homeworld Fantoma. They are brave and unrelenting in combat, but have been genetically engineered and programmed by the Masters, who have been careful to stop the Zentraedi from developing the ability to rebel and overthrow them. This results in a species with relative little curiosity and ability to adapt to unusual circumstances. They are also segregated by gender to prevent them from breeding naturally (they are instead cloned in gene-vats). They are rigid, uninventive and hierarchical. However, during the war with Earth the Zentraedi are exposed to art, music, culture and freedom, and eventually rebel against the Masters as feared, becoming key allies of the humans in their later battles against the Masters, the Invid and (in Shadow Chronicles) Haydonites.

The Invid are a race of Protoculture-infused, shapeshifting aliens. Ruled by a king and queen, the Regent and Regis, the Invid are a passionate and (not without reason) vengeance-obsessed species. They pilot massive, insectoid mecha but themselves take on different forms based on the needs of the moment. The Invid Regis usually appears as a beautiful human female, mainly because it annoys the Regent; they became divided the Regis had a passionate affair with Zor, just before he stole the Flowers of Life and betrayed them.

A number of minor alien races appear in The Sentinels. The most important of these are the Haydonites, a cybernetic species who revere an ancient intelligence or godlike being called Haydon, whose experiments and knowledge of Protoculture long predate Zor’s. In The Shadow Chronicles, the Haydonites betray their allies and launch a sneak attack on both the SDF-3 Fleet and the fleeing Invid, revealing their intention is to destroy Protoculture forever. 

Rick Hunter and Lisa Hayes, whose six-year courtship (!) incorporates Earth's first contact with alien life, being abducted by 40-foot-tall giants, several romances with other people and the near-annihilation of the human race.

The Characters 
There are far, far too many characters in Robotech to even begin listing them all here, so these are the major figures of note.

Rick Hunter is a former stunt pilot who learned to fly before his 10th birthday. 19 at the time of the SDF-1’s jump to Pluto, he reluctantly joins the Robotech Defence Force and becomes one of the SDF-1’s best pilots and strongest leaders. He later assumes command of the SDF-3 mission’s fighter wing and becomes a senior commander in the Sentinels. Lisa Hayes is the SDF-1’s executive officer, only 24 at the time of the Zentraedi attack. Widely regarded to be uptight and officious as she is focused on her career, it is later revealed she is suffering trauma from the death of her former lover during the failed attempt to establish a base on Mars. She has a tumultuous relationship with Rick Hunter, considering him disrespectful, hot-headed and undisciplined. Her feelings for him change after they are captured by the Zentraedi and imprisoned, but then escape through teamwork. She and Rick later marry. Lisa later takes command of the SDF-3 mission to Tirol, commanding the bridge of the battle-fortress, as well as co-leading the human contingent of the Sentinels.

Henry Gloval is the SDF-1’s Russian commanding officer. A veteran of the Global Civil War and the Cold War before that (in Robotech’s future/now-alternate history, the Cold War seems to have ended in a US-Russian alliance being formed), Gloval is notable for his gruff demeanour but also his military acumen and surprising inventiveness in the face of no-win scenarios.

Roy Fokker is the commander of the SDF-1’s fighter wing and Rick’s adopted elder brother. A veteran of the Global Civil War, Roy is a supremely talented pilot and is famed for his charisma, intelligence and his leadership skills. He clashes with Rick as Rick hates the military hierarchy and following orders, whilst Roy reluctantly considers them necessary. Roy has a long-standing and intense relationship with Claudia Grant, the SDF-1’s wise-beyond-her-years communications officer (who also seems to be the only person on the clue who knows what the hell is going on with everyone’s love life at any given moment).

Max Sterling is the best fighter pilot on the SDF-1, a prodigy with his flying skills despite being a chilled-out geek outside of the cockpit. Miriya is his opposite number among the Zentraedi, a preternaturally-gifted Power Armour pilot. When Max defeats Miriya in mecha combat, Miriya is demoralised and insists on infiltrating the SDF-1 (having been “micronized” to do so) to find and kill him in person. Instead, she meets him without revealing her identity and challenges him to a VR combat simulation. Their breathtaking, evenly-poised matches become the talk of the ship. Eventually Miriya reveals her true identity and mission, but having fallen in love with Max she defects to the SDF-1 crew and they are married. They eventually have a child, the only half-human/half-Zentraedi ever conceived, Dana Sterling, who is left behind on Earth for safety’s sake when they choose to join the SDF-3 mission. Dana grows up to become the commander of an elite Hovertank Battalion in the Army of the Southern Cross during the war with the Robotech Masters. She is eventually reunited with her parents after stealing a starship and going looking for them.

Lynn-Minmei is a teenager visiting her aunt and uncle in Macross City on the day of the Zentraedi attack. She is rescued by Rick Hunter during the battle, starting a friendship which spans decades. Minmei is a gifted singer and after winning a talent competition she becomes the most famous person on the SDF-1. Unbeknown to her, Minmei also picks up a strong following in the Zentraedi fleet, who secretly download her music videos and transmissions from the ship. Minmei and Rick have a tempestuous relationship, with Rick falling in love with her but Minmei’s interest in him coming and going. Minmei becomes post-apocalyptic Earth’s biggest star, but in the wake of the war and facing an abusive relationship with her cousin (and sometime boyfriend) Kyle, she becomes depressed and alcoholic. She eventually hooks up with Rick, but when he realises it’s only because he’s convenient, he breaks up with her. Minmei later joins the SDF-3 mission to Tirol, escaping the insane cult of celebrity that has been engendered in her name on Earth and eventually hooks up with Rem, another clone of Zor (Zor has lots of clones because the Master created them in the hope that one could recreate the Matrix, to no avail).

Doctor Lang is the SDF-1’s chief engineer, a human scientist who fancies himself the heir to Zor after he receives a massive “download” of information from the SDF-1’s Mother Computer during the original exploration of the ship after it crashes on Macross Island. Lang is the “father of Robotechnology”, the inventor of mecha and the architect of the SDF-1’s reconstruction. A very minor figure in the anime (where he barely shows up), he plays a much bigger role in the novels and acts as an advisor to Captain Gloval. He later joins the SDF-3 mission to Tirol. He has a student, Doctor Zand, who is likewise fascinated by Protoculture but is corrupted by his knowledge and almost betrays Earth during the Second Robotech War.

Breetai is the commander of the Zentraedi Expeditionary Armada searching for the missing SDF-1. He is a traditional and somewhat unimaginative commander, but is also honourable and intelligent. He is advised by the dwarfish (by Zentraedi standards) Exedore, the Zentraedi’s smartest mind, a scientist and researcher who was tutored by Zor himself. Breetai later brings in two decorated subcommanders to try to end the war. The first of these is Khyron, a reckless and disobedient warlord who is also tactically brilliant and capable of tremendous intuitive leaps on the battlefield. The second is Azonia, the commander of an elite all-female fighting force, the Quadrono Battalion. Initially an obedient subordinate, Azonia is gradually corrupted by her exposure to Khyron. Also significant is Supreme Commander Dolza, the commander of the entire Zentraedi species. Dolza is incredibly ruthless, amoral and impatient. Later in the series, Dolza makes the decision to exterminate both the entire human race and Breetai’s “tainted” Zentraedi.

Field Marshal Anatole Leonard is the commander of the Army of the Southern Cross, a South American militia which becomes Earth’s dominant military force after the departure of the SDF-3 mission. Leonard uses the army to muscle himself up to becoming one of Earth’s de facto dictators and warlords.

Zor Prime is another Zor clone who is also the commander of the Robotech Masters’ military forces when they invade Earth. He is captured by the Army of the Southern Cross and eventually swaps sides (swapping sides is a big thing in Robotech), helping engineer Earth’s hollow victory over the Masters.

Scott Bernard is a fighter pilot in the SDF-3 Expeditionary Fleet. Only a child when the fleet departs Earth, he grows up in deep space and graduates as part of a new generation who barely remember their homeworld but are willing to fight to the death to save the planet.

The Invid Regis and Regent are the rulers of the Invid race. Originally ruling in harmony, the Regis was seduced by Zor (as part of his plan to gain access to the secrets of Protoculture and the Flowers of Life), leading to a schism. The Regis is spiritual, interested more in the metaphysics of protoculture, whilst the Regent is militant and more predictable, desiring to master protoculture only as a weapon of war and vengeance. Both are ruthless and amoral in the pursuit of their goals. 

Carl Macek, the creator of Robotech.

Conception and Development 

Carl Macek (1951-2010) was an American writer, voice actor and storyboard artist, active in American animation in the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1984 he proposed to American animation firm Harmony Gold that they adapt a Japanese anime for the US market. Harmony Gold was dubious, but as a test allowed Macek to adapt the first four episodes of a popular Japanese series, Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982) and sell them as a dubbed movie through Heavy Metal Magazine. This limited-edition videocassette ended up selling over 30,000 copies, to Harmony Gold’s amazement, and they decided to proceed with a more ambitious adaptation of the whole series.

Harmony Gold were also approached by Revell, a model kit company, who had bought an enormous number of Japanese mecha toys and kit designs (including many from Macross) with an eye to creating a new toy/model franchise which Revell had dubbed Robotech. It’s likely this was in response to an alliance between Hanna-Barbera Animation and Bandai, which had resulted in the 1983 animated series and toyline Challenge of the GoBots (aka RoboMachine), and a high-profile team-up between Hasbro, Marvel Comics, Sunbow Animation and Takara which would result in a franchise called Transformers. Revell wanted in on this action as well.

As a result of this, Harmony Gold proposed to Macek that they rebrand Macross as Robotech and use it to go toe-to-toe with their rivals. The problem, as Macek pointed out, was that Macross was only 36 episodes long. GoBots and Transformers were both crash-producing the better part of 100 episodes apiece so they could be sold into syndication. Unable to afford to produce new episodes themselves, HG asked Macek to come up with a solution. He proposed merging three different anime into one saga, claiming it was the same story taking place across three generations. After scouring the archives of the Japanese companies Harmony Gold had good relations with, he hit on the idea of adapting Southern Cross (1984) and Mospeada (1983) as follow-ups to Macross to create a single, 85-episode saga.

To create this story, Macek sat in an office and watched all 85 episodes on a loop without dialogue, looking for patterns and visually impactful scenes. Originally he watched them in broadcast order (Macross-Mospeada-Southern Cross) but later flipped Mospeada and Southern Cross, feeling it made more sense for the scale of the saga to gradually decrease as it went along: Macross features vast fleets of starships and huge battles across the Solar system, Southern Cross focuses on smaller battles usually involving a few squadrons of mecha and maybe one or two spacecraft and Mospeada features a small group of freedom fighters armed with small arms and a few motorbikes (and later a couple of mecha aircraft). Macek was intimately familiar with Macross from his anime fandom and earlier adaptation efforts, so used that story as the basis for the mythology. However, he drew in the Flowers of Life and “Zors” (who became the Robotech Masters) from Southern Cross and the Invid from Mospeada to create one large narrative. The total time for development of the show – from writing the new dub to final delivery of the master tapes – was just four months.

The Mospeada part of the story, which pits freedom fighters against the Invid on an alien-occupied Earth, has a cult following.

Robotech debuted on American television on 4 March 1985, airing in first-run syndication. It did very well, attracting adult fans as well as kids (as well as complaints for the show’s violence and its casual killing of half the cast). However, plans to tie-in the franchise with a toy line backfired: the company producing Macross toys in Japan went bust and their lines were sold to other companies, with Hasbro snapping up the iconic Veritech Fighter to become part of their Transformers line (the Veritech became the Autobot Jetfire in the original toyline, although, because of Macross and Robotech, the animated version of the character in the Transformers cartoon had to look radically different). Matchbox rushed out a toy line, but compared to the quality of the Transformers and even GoBots lines, it was unimpressive and quickly died a death.

Although Robotech continued to do well in syndication, it wasn’t enough to warrant a second series of original, custom-made animations; The Sentinels got three episodes into production before Harmony Gold pulled the plug, realising there was no way to make the economics work.

Robotech continued to be successful in other areas: Brian Daley and James Luceno’s novelisation of the entire series for Del Rey Books in 1987 and The Sentinels in 1988 was remarkable, with the two writers churning out a startling 4,250 pages assembled into seventeen volumes in under two years. Although the books often felt like they’d been written in all-night, caffeine-fuelled sessions, this oddly added to their appeal. The books continued to sell impressively for years, Del Rey reissuing them in omnibus editions in the late 1990s which also did well. Palladium Books published a Robotech roleplaying game in 1987 which also became quite popular and led to them spending 30 years publishing related materials.

However, as the years passed Robotech’s reputation was soured. In particular, the burgeoning US anime scene that was kick-started by Robotech and Voltron really came out of age in 1988 with Akira. After Akira’s release, the anime fanbase began to demand that Japanese shows should be brought to the US with their original soundtracks and vocal tracks, with a choice of English dub or subtitles, and under absolutely no circumstances should they be re-edited, re-cut or the intentions of the original animators and story-tellers changed. Robotech they regarded, begrudgingly, as a product of its time when the art form was still not perfected, but they were infuriated when Harmony Gold refused to release Macross (and, to a lesser extent, Mospeada; Southern Cross is not well-regarded by anyone) in their original, Japanese editions.

In the 1990s and 2000s Studio Nue began releasing new Macross prequel and sequel TV shows, adding dozens of episodes with occasional appearances by the original Macross characters in new adventures. US anime fans were infuriated and angered by Harmony Gold refusing to allow these shows to be released in the USA, believing they would dilute and confuse the Robotech brand. This became even more annoying because Harmony Gold were unable to raise the funds to create new Robotech material themselves whilst the Japanese studios were bashing out dozens of episodes of new material. In 2006 Harmony Gold released a new, original Robotech story, The Shadow Chronicles, but it was poorly-received and was not a financial success.

Titan Comics' new reimagining of Robotech updates and darkens the story for a modern audience.

The Future 
Carl Macek passed away in 2010 at the age of 59. Several cross-Pacific legal cases have resulted in Harmony Gold losing the Macross, Southern Cross and Mospeada international licences; as of 14 March 2021, other companies will be free to release the original series in their original formats after that date.

However, this does not mean that Robotech will vanish at that point. Tantalisingly, Sony are developing a live-action movie and have recently contracted the IT director Andy Muschietti to direct the film. Assuming all things proceed on plan, the movie should enter production in late 2019 for a 2021 release.

Right now, Robotech is back as a new comics series from Titan Comics. The new comic reimagines Robotech as a darker, more adult story with a more realistic look, and the freedom to make some changes to the story to keep things interesting for new fans and old hands alike.

A Veritech fighter bearing the distinctive markings of the SDF-1's elite Skull Squadron. The mecha is shown in fighter, Guardian and Battloid modes.

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Yeebo said...

I came to Robotech from the perspective of a boardgame geek. I was a huge fan of Battletech, and had never heard of Robotech in the late 80s. I was also a big fan of the PC games based on it during the 90s.

At some point I discovered that many of the more interesting battletech mech visual designs (for example the Marauder, one of my favorites...and the Phoenix a very popular medium weight mech) were "borrowed" from the Robotech cartoons. I tried the cartoon, and later bought a DVD set that has the entire series from a bargain bin, but have never really been able to get into it. I think I may have gotten through ten episodes the last time I tried it.

However, there was a series of toys released at some point based on the TV series. I was able to get a really nice toy with the same visual design as the battle-tech marauder for a song when the toy line crashed and burned. I'm not sure if this was the same as the toys you refer to in your article (I suspect not, this was in the mid 90s).

messy said...

I'm not much of a science fiction fan, but this sounds absolutely awesome. Two questions:

1. Where should a complete newbie start with the animated series?

2. Is there an animated fantasy series of similar scope and quality?

Great post. I'm intrigued.

Adam Whitehead said...

"1. Where should a complete newbie start with the animated series?"

With the very first episode of ROBOTECH itself, "Boobytrap".

2. Is there an animated fantasy series of similar scope and quality?

In terms of a complete and easily obtainable story, probably AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER (3 seasons) and its sequel series, THE LEGEND OF KORRA (4 seasons). They're not as adult and bloody as ROBOTECH but they have a very good story and excellent characters. AVATAR is being reissued in HD (for the first time) on Blu-Ray in June. Although an anime is visual style, it's actually an American series.

The most prominent Japanese epic fantasy series is BESERK, although it's slightly confusing because there have been two attempts to adapt the managa as an animated series: the first series (1997) is not massively well-regraded. The more recent version, which started last year after three movies, has attracted a much more favourable response.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. It's rare to find any mention of Robotech on the Internet without it coming from angry anime purists, especially where I live, where the anime fandom is very narrow-minded and dismissive towards anything that's not purely Japanese. I see Robotech as an entirely different franchise from Macross that just happens to use some of its visual and storytelling elements (like Power Rangers and Voltron), but that seems to be too much to ask of some people.

I became a Robotech fan in 2010 and binge-watching it has helped me out of various emotional dark pits in recent years, and I'm sad that Harmony Gold's incompetence is effectively going to kill it forever in just three years. I don't see the upcoming live-action movie being worth the wait, or even coming out at all.

Would you say the comics are a third canon? Although they never adapted The Odyssey/The End of the Circle in comic book form, and instead the long-running Robotech II: The Sentinels comic series was hastily wrapped up in "Prelude to the Shadow Chronicles".

Anonymous said...

Also, for Yeebo: I think the toy you got may have been from the ExoSquad collection (based on an American cartoon of the same name), which at one point re-released several of the Matchbox Robotech toys. The Marauder is called the Zentraedi Officers' Battle Pod in Robotech, and the Glaug in Macross.