Voltron: Legendary Defender is back at it, with another burst of hilarity and excitement in the show’s fourth season on Netflix. And, as we hunkered down to catch up with the heroic, space-faring Paladins of Voltron and their robotic lions, we were treated to a special episode that some of us in the tokusatsu fandom couldn’t help but find a bit familiar. While there are plenty easy comparisons to be made between them and the multi-colored Teenagers With Attitude of the live-action Power Rangers franchise (and their Super Sentai cousins from across the pond), none would be so bold as with this season’s striking fourth episode, “The Voltron Show”. We’re not just throwing shade, folks. We’re launching it out of a circus cannon to the tune of a full-scale marching band. And the result, true to form for Legendary Defender, is a real showstopper.
Voltron has had an interesting effect on me as a viewer. I love the show for its dynamic use of character, including the Paladins, originally five human freedom fighters working to wrest their galaxy from the oppressive clutches of the Galra Empire. Its beautifully crafted visuals are a gift, rendering deep emotion and thrilling action with equal impact. But, to be honest, when confronted with what may turn out to be a comedy-heavy episode, my heart sinks. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the laughs, especially as this show delivers genuine chuckles as opposed to so many in its category that fail more often than they succeed. It’s merely that it’s always among the last things I think about in reference to this show, or any other in the action/adventure category.
What’s miraculous about Voltron is its ability to grab me by the shoulders and shake away my critical, dulled reaction, assuring me that the ride, as always, is going to be worth it. Which is how “The Voltron Show” begins.
In this episode, the Paladins and their faithful allies are traversing the starways, hoping to gain more friends in the struggle against the nefarious Lord Zarkon. Their little propaganda tour is doing okay, but it may need a shot in the arm if their feeble efforts are chasing away injured war veterans from a darkened hospital lounge. Enter the funky, four-armed alien shyster we met last season, up to no good, attempting to sell Coran a dangerous item that he swears will help boost his performance in orchestrating this strange and unexpected media blitz across space.
Like a desperate sucker, Coran secretly accepts the too-good-to-be-true pill, and it hatches a tiny creature that burrows into his brain and, when morning comes, a brand new Coran awakes. One with a fierce determination to stun crowds and keep all eyes on his phenomenal different-colored kids. So begins a string of wacky performances, in which the Paladins pretend to be a larger-(and louder)-than-life version of themselves in stage shows, with over-the-top gags that are too bizarre to believe. Unless, that is, you’re familiar with the Power Rangers.
It’s interesting to note that the new member of the Voltron pilot squadron, Allura, the second female of the group, is asked to pretend to be Keith, the recently-departed, and extremely non-female Paladin whose spot she now takes (at least in a roundabout way). If you squint, you might even say that it recalls a situation in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which adapted the original series Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger, taking footage of the male TigerRanger (whose actual civilian name is Boi) and turning him into the female high school hero, Trini.
As Allura stumbles through the awkward task of being a girl in boy’s clothing, the rest of the team loudly shouts commands and declarations of heroism, stating out loud what most people would probably just think quietly to themselves. The sort of dialogue heard often in episodes of the high-flying Power Rangers, where characters routinely narrate their own fight scenes, sometimes going so far as to literally describe in dialogue exactly what they’re doing, even if no one really needed to hear it.
Meanwhile, Hunk has been branded the Funny Guy. Which, of course, he is. Though, in this case, he now comes with a soundtrack of roaring fart sound effects, to really drive home that he’s the humorous one. In case you missed all the natural levity oozing off of him anyway. It seems would-be producer Coran wants to make everything a bit more obvious and play up what he sees as the show’s strengths, despite constant complaints from his performers.
This includes Pidge, who keeps asking if it’s really necessary to recite nonsensical gibberish when she could easily speak real science and still be the Smart One. Or even not speak much of the science at all, and just do cool stuff like you’d expect someone of her awesome stature to do. Coran insists that their viewers won’t understand what Pidge is saying either way, and thus it doesn’t really matter. Were I part of the crowd during these shows, I think I might have been a bit insulted at the dismissive attitude this guy seems to have of me, thinking I’m too dumb to understand and not caring enough even if I wasn’t.
And when the crew gets a little too lippy, Coran’s response is that he’ll replace them with a new team, ready to comply with his increasingly outrageous ideas. All of them, that is, except for Shiro, who has become the crown jewel of the show (which bugs Lance to no end). Shiro’s too valuable to get rid of, and he’ll get as much exposure as they can possibly throw out.
There’s something sort of interesting about these shows, marketed to kids and, in some ways, dependent upon a certain level of success that is wrapped up in the sale of toys and other merchandise. It’s like a spell is cast upon the whole property, hypnotically drawing out certain tropes and iconography that then becomes the brand, sometimes not really in the way that it’s intended or expected at the start. Something I can only imagine is a frustrating thing for some of the people involved in writing these franchise shows, where the image of a Green Ranger, or a Red Senshi, or Black Paladin grows so strong in the eyes of some that they become irreplaceable. And the whole property seems to bend and contort like the dream world of Inception, all leaning inward toward those key figures. It’s especially bothersome when these are ensemble-based properties, emphasizing teamwork and a collective value that is greater than the sum of their parts. How do you preach teamwork and individual worth when you’re simultaneously zooming right past the team and focusing squarely on the Cool Lead Guy so much? Why not make a show where it’s just all about Him, if that’s what you wanted? Who wants to be the capable heroine if her male counterpart often gets the credit for her own accomplishments?
Of course, Voltron handles this conundrum as deftly as I’d imagine one could. Though, “The Voltron Show”, among other things, provokes a lot of thought about the nature of franchise and what it does to a title with a lot of perceived brand value. While many of us come because we like the characters and the world they inhabit, all together in a group, others may have different concerns that challenge a creator’s ability to keep putting out thoughtful stories that keep the focus on the fun of heroes saving the day and doing it in style.
The episode is also just a damn good representation of how you make people laugh. Regardless of whether you notice any of the potential winking commentary packed into the piece, it’s a hilarious, exciting romp of a story, focusing on the often under-appreciated Coran feeling the pressure to deliver the goods for his team and rescue the galaxy.
When a jolt from an enormous space beast momentarily frees him from the thrall of the creature in his brain, Coran works desperately to save the Voltron pilots before they’re defeated by what they think is just another fake Monster of the Week in their latest over-the-top stage show. With some help from friends, he and the Paladins manage to stop the creature and no harm comes to the gentle viewers, none the wiser about what was really happening behind the scenes.
The show, as it must, goes on.