15 April 2018

Military Sci-Fi Oddities: VOLTRON: Defender of the Universe

After President Reagan altered the relationship between the media and advertising around 1983 came the deregulation that was the genesis of most our of the beloved 1980's cartoons. In addition to this policy change in Washington was the trend by the American company to import Japanese cartoons and toys to feed the hungry science fiction toy market that began in the 1970s. During this time period, we got noted anime series like Space Cruiser Yamato, Mobile Suit Gundam, and Science Ninja Team Gatchaman airing on American TV sets. Two of the most unusual American-Japanese hybrid TV shows grew out of this movement were: ROBOTECH and Voltron...and the two are more related more than I originally believed. In this blogpost, we will dive deeply into the muddy waters of what Voltron is and what it turned into. It is a long strange trip, indeed.

Okay...Just What the Hell is "Voltron"?
With the success of Masters of the Universe cartoon and toyline, it opened the doors to other companies and studios looking to replicate that success. The issue was the number of shows needed for syndication, 65 episodes, took time to construct. With some exposure to some Japanese anime shows in the west, studios went looking for already made and packaged shows for import to the western market and some of these came with toylines already developed as well. Win-win for American studios. The St. Louis studio World Events Productions Limited founder saw a clip of Beast King GoLion at a local sci-fi convention (how many saw anime at the time) and he decided that this show that featured mecha could be a good vehicle for World Events Productions (WEP) to break into the production of TV shows. This super robot anime ran from 1981-1982 and was developed by the legendary Toei Animation studio that altered not only the anime industry but Japanese society. There are debates about the success or failure of Beast King GoLion, but it did get a toy release around the same time by a company called Popy....more on that later. The issue was that Beast King GoLion only ran for 52 episodes and WEP needed 65 for the American TV market for a daily cartoon.
This when WEP decided to mash-up three different super robot animes to form enough episodes for syndication and unite them under a unifying story. This was the same strategy undertaken by Harmony Gold for their iconic ROBOTECH series. The only issue was that it was not handled as well and it nearly cost Voltron its continued existence. WEP entered into a contract with Toei Animation for three shows to bring to the American TV market: Armored Fleet Dairugger, Lightspeed Electriod Albegas, and Beast King GoLion. These three separate shows were to be a united under a new Americanized name, "Voltron", and these super robots were the defenders of various regions of the universe with accompanying toyline by Matchbox. But...it didn't work out that well for Toei and WEP.

What the Hell was "Beast King GoLion", "Armored Fleet DaiRugger XV" and "Lightspeed Electroid Albegas"?!
While Voltron: the Defender of the Universe has become a success, part of many people's happy kidhood memories, and part of popular culture, the two progenitor anime series have been eclipsed by Voltron...so what the hell was GoLion and DaiRugger? Beast King GoLion was developed and aired during the Super Robot era of anime/manga in 1981 by powerhouse Toei Animation studio with the toys being made by Popy. The story of GoLion tells of a legendary ancient sentient robotic warrior who was so powerful and cocky that after many victories against evil, it tried to take on the Goddess of the Universe.
After badly losing this fight, the Goddess separates GoLion into five lions and the lions would crash land on the planet of Altea in the distant place. On the planet Altea, the five separate lions sleep, waiting to be awoken to fight evil. The humans of the show were space explorers captured by the slavers of the Galra Empire as they returned to fight Earth destroyed in a nuclear war in 1999, making the five Lion pilots the last of humanity. After their escape from the gladiatorial games of the slave pits, they arrive at the enslaved world of Altea and they learn of GoLion and they awaken the ancient war machine in episode four, to defeat the evil Galra Empire over the course of 52 episodes that aired from 1981-1982.  Overall, the show was much darker in tone and featured graphic acts of violence and cruelty including rape, suicide, forced cannibalism, and bodies being pulled apart. Most of this was edited out for the American Voltron. Yeah...super great kids' show material! Anyway, Beast King GoLion would never receive a sequel, which was rarer for the time and took its nearly forgotten place among the countless super robot shows of the time period in anime history. Another among these was Armored Fleet DaiRugger XV. 
 While the Lions are familiar and beloved to a great majority of people of Generation X as the stuff of dreams and wishes, there was another Voltron show that also was an edited anime title. The building blocks of the nearly unloved Vehicle Force Voltron show was the 1982-1983 Toei Animation show Armored Fleet DaiRugger XV. This was yet another super robot television show that aired on TV Tokyo over the course of 52 episodes that told the story of Terran space explorers known as the "Rugger Team" that become embroiled in interstellar warfare and have to use the combining robot, DaiRugger, to defeat the forces of Galveston Empire. While similar in some themes and styles, I cannot find a direct connection to GoLion beside the historical context and market trends. While on a mission of galactic exploration and surveying for the Terran League in the year 2200, the fleet runs into the Galveston Empire that itself is in deep political crisis due to the reign of an evil emperor and the crumbling of their own homeworld. The giant defender robot, DaiRugger, was composed of 15 vehicles made up of three teams of five vehicles that we tasked with exploring Air, Sea, and Land.
The teams could combine their own vehicles to form a smaller super vehicle or unite all three teams to form DaiRugger to kick serious ass. The show dealt with alien politics and offered some things not seen in many of the giant robot mecha shows of the day, especially being more grey area than black-and-white with the roles of the enemy and hero. Much like GoLion, DiaRugger would be lost in the vast amount of titles at the time with similar themes along with having a complex toy version of DaiRugger made by Popy. Both would be bought by WEP for westernized treatment into a kids' show. Unlike the more magical Lion mecha GoLion, DiaRugger/Vehicle Force Voltron was more firmly based in military science fiction and some closer to a Star Trek like universe rather than the more Star Wars like GoLion. 
However, there was a third series that has a similar story of having been aired at around the same time, had several Popy toys, and was to be an entry into the nascent WEP's Voltron series: Lightspeed Electroid Albegas. Airing in 1983-1984 on TV Tokyo from the masters at Toei Animation, Albegas was the story told over 45 episodes of three high school students that had their robotic creations upgraded and militarized to deal with the invasion of the purple-skinned Derinja race. These three giants (Alpha, Beta, Gamma) robotic warriors could combine in various forms for various abilities depending on the combat environment and conditions. Much like DiaRugger and GoLion, the three pilots of Albega had to take on massive alien robotic warriors with a sword. Information is hard to come by on this series, due to it not being released in the US and it was another super robot series of the early 1980s. 

The Historical Context of Voltron: Defender of the Universe
The series that we in the west know as the Voltron: Defender of the Universe was very much a product of its time. Historical speaking, the early 1980s Japanese anime and toy industry was a mecca of mecha. All manner of series devoted to giant robots and heroes with impossible hair were being cracked out and not only was the Japanese audience eating it up, it was also the west. The Giant Robot Crazy was still in high gear and western companies involved in cartoons and toys were looking how they could bring new series to the hungry western market quick and maybe even complete with toylines. Instead of taking years to develop their animation tv series for syndication, they could just import them, redub the dialog, and edit out any offensive or odd cultural elements and then look for buyers in a much shorter development timeframe. However, the western studios needed enough episodes for syndication on either a weekly TV show or a Saturday morning cartoon. Those magic numbers were 65 for a weekly show to allow for four repeats over a 13-week cycle and for Saturday morning cartoons it was around 13-22. This strategy did grander some success, like ROBOTECH and Planet of the Planets, Starblazers, and The Mysterious Cities of Gold. It was also at this time that Transformers and Go-Bots were being developed from existing Japanese toylines then having a cartoon as a marketing vehicle for the toylines. This was the marketplace that World Events Productions Ltd entered into.

Why is Voltron an Oddity of Military Sci-Fi?

The Most Successful and Iconic Element of the Series was a Mistake
When you mention the word “Voltron”, the image of a giant robot swinging a sword or lion mecha or both rushed into their brain. However, that iconic and memorable image that encapsulates the entire Voltron franchise was a mistake. According to World Events Productions themselves, they originally wanted the 1979-1980 series Mirai Robo Daltanious that features a giant robot mech with a lion head mounted on its chest. When WEP requested the master tapes from Toei Productions of the three independent series to begin work on their Americanized robot series, WEP simply said “the one with the lion”. That caused Toei to ship the masters of Beast King GoLion not Daltanious, and once opened, the staff at WEP realized that this was a happy accident because GoLion was superior to Daltanious. So impressed was the production staff at WEP that the proposed first series of Voltron was original to be Vehicle Force Voltron. This original plan was reflected in the roman numerals of the Matchbox imported toys. It is interesting to consider if Toei had indeed shipped the correct series to WEP, the story of GoLion and Voltron could be very different. 


Only 2/3rd of the Original Show Concept was Aired
The parallels with Harmony Gold’s ROBOTECH break down when Voltron made its first run on American airwaves save for both had their toylines made by Matchbox. While all three ROBOTECH series was aired by the networks that brought the series, WEP’s Voltron was not. Originally, WEP bought three separate super robot anime series from Toei and cobbled them together to form a dubbed cohesive narrative, much like ROBOTECH, with accompanying imported toys from Bandai being marketed in the United States via Matchbox. The original toys were rechristened “Voltron” and each of the Matchbox toys carried roman numerals that indicated some sort of placement in the overall animated series.
WEP used scenes from DiaRugger to develop the concept of the "Galaxy Garrison" and this was might to eliminate the nuclear war aspect of GoLion and tie all three of the series together. However, this plan of Voltron I, II, and III was forced to change due to the popularity of the LionForce Voltron series and the shocking, badly handled transition from Lion Force to Vehicle Force that caused complains and lost viewership. This would have been an issue with ROBOTECH, but Harmony Gold, to their credit, handled the transition much better with transitional episodes and a stronger cohesive narrative and style than WEP. The fallout from Vehicle Force Voltron was the abandoning of the 3rd Voltron series culled from Lightspeed Electroid Albegas and the emergency ordering by WEP for more Lion Force Voltron episodes from Toei Studios to retain the audience that loved the mecha Lions. This mystified Toei since some of the core characters in Beast King GoLion were dead, but 20 more episodes were produced and it rounded out the show. It is assumed that in reruns, the Lion Force series was only run and Vehicle Force Voltron was shelved. However, I have no hard information on this and there are fans that claim the Vehicle Force Voltron was the stronger of the two aired series.
So, what happened to abandon other series? That is a  sad tale, indeed. The 3rd Voltron series was to be based on the 1983-1984  Lightspeed Electroid Albegas series by Toei. This 45 episode series was centered on three colored robots (Alpha in black, Beta in blue, Gamma in red), and built by high schoolers that were upgraded by a genius doctor into a combining robot form when hostile aliens show up to take over Earth. The way that Albegas combined allowed to fight in different environments and tactical conditions. Much like GoLion and Dairugger, Albegas used a sword to dispatch evil giant aliens. There is little information on what WEP was planning on with Albegas or how they were going to incorporate it into the larger Voltron universe, especially connecting it to the Lion Force series. I was able to locate information on how far the production got with Albegas by WEP when it was abandoned: it was barely started according to head Voltron writer Marc Handler and he was not even officially told to do this by WEP. Officially, WEP never commissioned the adaptation of Albegas. All of these seems odd, considering that Matchbox imported the Popy DX and ST toys for sale as Voltron II Gladiator Force Voltron of the Middle Universe.  It would be even odder if WEP had Albegas all prepared and ready for airing as "Gladiator Force Voltron" when the ax came down after the tanking of Vehicle Force Voltron.

It has Become Fondly Remembered, Despite the Show being Bad...Very Bad
Nostalgia is a powerful mental tool that allows us to filter out the bad and remember the good that becomes focused, allowing for our brain to make the subject of our nostalgia more powerful and compelling than it was. Unlike Voltron's lead rival, ROBOTECH, I never watched any of the Voltron series back in the day when it originally aired, and so there is no nostalgia coloring my view of this series. When I decided to finally watch some of the Lion Voltron series and was horrified by the Grade-Z work done by WEP on the original anime series of Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet DaiRigger XV.
Around 2005, I bought the Protoculture boxset edition of ROBOTECH on DVD and sat down and watched the series for the first time in 10 years.While the majority holds up, there were elements did not, but that is not the case with Voltron. Since I have no connection to Voltron and no nostalgia, I found the Americanization of Beast King GoLion just terrible in terms of writing, voice acting, and overall story and I only watched a few episodes before switching over and watching the subtitled Beast King GoLion…which was much better and more compelling, but very violent. After comparing the two series, it is so odd how such a botched dub and mishandling of the original anime became so popular among many of my generation to warrant years of hardcore fandom. It is surprising how things are remembered, and Voltron, despite how bad the original show was, has become fondly remembered, celebrated, and worshipped to the point of enduring to this very day with a fresh series, new toys, and continued exposure to forge new fans.


It has gotten Several Major Reboots
Many of the Japanese anime series that were brought over for American TV consummation never expanded beyond their original run and at times, even the Japanese sequels were never brought over, if there were any. The primary source of Voltron’s initial and long-term popularity was the Lions series, but Beast King GoLion was never given a sequel. After the original run of Voltron: the Defender of the Universe, it became like many other anime TV shows of the time…fondly remembered by those that saw it.
However, what makes Voltron an oddity and original at the same time was that there have several reboots of the Lion Force Voltron reboots and the most current on Netflix, is still ongoing and remains popular. Another element of this is that the original anime, Beast King GoLion was not really a success and never enjoyed the continued popularity of its American twin-brother, Voltron. In fact, the only reason for Beast King GoLion is still discussed is often due to Voltron. This is similar to Southern Cross and Mospeada from the ROBOTECH universe that was more successful as a part of the westernized cobbled series than in their native Japan.

The Toys are Back in the Store
This picture was taken about a month ago at a local Super Target in the Dallas area and it represents one of the most astonishing things of the Voltron story: the major retail stores are carrying Voltron toys again. Take that in because it is so rare that it is odd. You can buy the Lion Force Voltron toys at your local Wal-Mart, Target, or Toys R Us...wait...not anymore. Out of all the imported anime that was broadcast on American airwaves, there are only two that you can still buy toys of at major retailers that are not solely aimed at adult collectors: Voltron and Gundam. When it comes to Gundam, the term "toy" is being stretched somewhat. However, with Voltron toys, they have toylines aimed adult collectors AND kids that are getting Voltron via the new Netflicks series, Voltron: The Legendary Defender and the Playmates toyline is here to serve all fans of Voltron new and old. To apeal to the fans of the original show, Playmates has the  Voltron Classics '84 and for the fan of the new show, there is an entire line of Lions and action figures.

There was a Limited Comic Book Series in 1984 
Today, the specter of imported Japanese toys, models, cartoons, and comics is common and everyday. All one has to do is go down to your nearest Barnes & Noble or Target, and pick up manga and anime along with some Japanese toys. But, it wasn’t always so. Japanese anime has been imported to the west since Astroboy in 1964 followed by Kimba and Speed Racer and followed in the 1970s by Starblazers and Battle of the Planets. Both I watched on a local Dallas TV station and it completely changed me. Around this time, exported Japanese robot toys were showing up, sometimes separated from their Japanese origins and sometimes not. By the 1980s, Japanese toys, models, and westernized anime shows and movies were becoming more commonplace to kids of my generation. However, it took longer from manga to achieve the same level of market availability. While Gold Key Comics would bring Astroboy and Battle of the Planets comics the American comic market along with some titles from Marvel Comics, they all shared a common trait: they were derived from their manga/anime roots, not a translation and westernized. By the time of the 1980s and the wider interest in Japanese media and toys, there were two from of Japanese comics here in America: translated manga and comic book adaptations.
Comico Comics would run three separate comic books series that translated the Harmony Gold ROBOTECH series into a monthly comic book series beginning in 1985. For most of us fans of ROBOTECH, these were the only way to “rewatch” ROBOTECH. In 1987, Viz Comics, Epic, and Eclipse have translated manga titles and enlightening my generation on the greatest on Japanese printed works with titles like Akira, Lone Wolf and Cub (my fucking favorite), and Area-88. There were even original comics based on anime properties like Comics’ Starblazers limited 1987 series and Eternity Comics’ Captain Harlock. One of the vanguards of this tread was Modern Comics’ Voltron limited series from 1985. This is an oddity because this Voltron comic was published by the company on its way down as it released its officially licensed Voltron comic series based on the Lions. Never heard of Modern Comics? Not surprising. Modern Comics was a brief imprint of Charlton Comics. Never heard of them either? Neither had I until I actually bought the Voltron comics back in 1985. Yes…I actually owned these *shudder*comics. Charlton Comics was founded in 1945 with success coming in the mid-1950s, when comics were hot, all the way through the end of the Silver Age of Comic Books (1970).
While struggling to its find footing in the 1970s with licensed properties like The Bionic Woman, SPACE 1999, and Emergency; Charlton Comics was in trouble. The 1980s had tough times for comics early on and this spelled the end of Charlton Comics. With a poor reputation among creators for the lowest payments, broken printing equipment, and lapsed licenses; Charlton and Modern comics attempted to sell big bags of cheap comics at unusual vendors, like department stores. It didn’t work and by 1985, the party was over for Charlton and Modern. Some of the old Charlton Comics superheroes like Blue Beetle and Captain Atom were transferred to the DC Universe around 1983 and were to be the original Watchmen from the iconic Alan Moore graphic novel. During the last moments of life, it seems, Modern Comics spit out a limited three-part comic series that centered on the LionForce Voltron series with original stories. I actually bought these comics back in the day to figure out what the hell Voltron was and I was deeply unimpressed by the lackluster art and story present in the pages. However, I did realize how odd it was that a mecha series had gone an American comic book series.  This series often does not appear on indexes of Modern or Charlton published titles. Do yourself a favor…do not read these.

Voltron Did What ROBOTECH Could Not
There are many similarities between Harmony Gold's ROBOTECH and World Events Productions' Voltron: Defender of the Universe, many will argue about what which was one was the superior of the 1980s imported anime TV series...but, what about now? I think it could be Voltron and it a definite oddity. That should come as a shock to many, include me, given how rocky the road was for Voltron back in the day. Unlike ROBOTECH, only 2/3rds of the original concept of Voltron was aired and only the Lion Force Voltron series has become iconic while the Vehicle Force Voltron was rejected and Gladiator Force Voltron was completely abandoned. All three of the series in the complete ROBOTECH saga were aired and many of us fans love all three for a different reason and ROBOTECH holds up today much better than any of the Voltron cartoons when watched through adult eyes. This should hand the throne of best 1980s imported anime cartoon to ROBOTECH right? Maybe for that time period, but if we are to examine the present state of the both of these similar properties, Voltron did something ROBOTECH could not: make new series after the initial run some 30+ years ago. The most iconic part of the ROBOTECH saga is based on Macross, which has enjoyed success and popularity to this very day in Japan.
The classic series is still highly respected in Japan and toys are still produced of the classic mecha that is released here in the States as well under the "ROBOTECH" brand. However, for Voltron, the iconic port of it was drawn from 1981's Beast King GoLion, which was never extended beyond its original run on Japanese TV in 1981 and there is no sequel. The majority of Voltron merchandise is made for the fans of Voltron and not GoLion...and the recent Bandai GX-71 Soul of Chogokin release shows that Voltron is the real push for GoLion merchandise.
While this battle may go to ROBOTECH/Macross, Voltron was able to take the nostalgia and transform that into several TV series, including the popular Voltron: The Legendary Defender on Netflicks, which is pretty awesome, especially Coran. Harmony Gold has been completely unable to replicate what WEP did for Voltron, and the history of ROBOTECH is litter with the bodies of abandon projects, broken promises, and dead ends. Since 1988, there have been several major attempts to launch another series extending the ROBOTECH universe, however, none of having worked, and Harmony Gold has only RPGs, toys, books, and comics to show for it. Even their attempt at a new show, The Shadow Chronicles, is just an OVA from 12 years ago and failed its primary mission. That could mean that while ROBOTECH won the war in the 1980s, the 21st century belongs to Voltron.

The Voltron Toys....Oh God...the Toys!!
There can be no real discussion of Voltron: Defender of the Universe without discussing the many toys that were in Japan and in the West. They are one of the most interesting, downright odd, and maddening elements of the entire Voltron story and are part of the overall oddity that is this super robot anime. What complicating the toys of Voltron: Defender of the Universe is their Japanese roots, the industry ban on spring-firing toys in America, and the lead in the imports that altered the direction of the entire line. Before beginning the investigation into the toys of Voltron: Defender of the Universe, we need to talk about one of the most iconic Japanese toy companies: Popy.
Founded in 1971, Popy (sometimes called “Popy Pleasure” in some sources which sounds very dirty) was a spin-off of the toy giant Bandai. In 1974, Popy would take a risk and develop diecast toys around anime licenses, like Grendizer and Mazinger Z. This line would be christened “Chogokin” or in “super alloy” in Japanese. While a risk, the diecast Mazinger Z robot would sell nearly half-a-million units in five months, solidifying the Chogokin line for Popy. Many of the original Popy Chogokin toys associated with Voltron have product classification system that is a combination of letters and numbers that allows for clear classification of the various toys produced by Popy.
The “GB” or “GC” portion is about the timeframe of production. GB is 1979-1983 and the GC is 1983, then taken over by Bandai and ended in 1988. The numbers are unique to the toy itself (like GB-36), but there is another set of letters: ST or DX for further classification. DX is for Deluxe, which means the full transforming toy that is as close to the mecha seen in the anime as engineering can get it. These had an accompanying price to match this work. The ST is for Standard and is the static, non-transforming toy, which sells for a lower price point. Both the DX and ST toys were imported to the US market via Matchbox for WEP's Voltron syndicated cartoon. While altering the Japanese toy industry in the 1970s, the party for Popy ended in 1983, when sales of their Chogokin toys downturned. The remains of Popy were folded into Bandai. What could have saved the Popy brand is if Bandai had gone ahead and released their newly acquired Macross Valkyrie license. Even today, Popy and their Chogokin are legends. While I can remember portions of the weird history of the Voltron toys, being that I was alive during the run of the show, it took one of favorite retro toy YouTube channels: Retroblasting. There may be an entire Military Sci-Fi Toys blogpost devoted to the Voltron toys and their Japanese counterparts in the future, this one will have to do for now. If you want to know more about Popy toys, then check out this site.

The Original Holy Grail: The 1981 Popy Chogokin Beast King GoLion GB-36 DX
Here it is, the Holy Grail of Voltron/Go-Lion toys, the original Popy Chogokin Beast King Go-Lion GB-36 DX (deluxe) box set that had the iconic Lion Mecha with their missiles, sharpened teeth, and bladed weapons that could form the warrior robot with the iconic sword. This was the set that Matchbox imported to the west when it was retitled Voltron, but given the safety concerns, it was neutered with dulled teeth, no spring firing missiles, no Lion weapons, and the iconic sword was missing.
This has made the Popy Chogokin GoLion much sought after by collectors, causing the genuine article to command a hefty price...to the tune of an in-box example commanding around $2,000-$4,000! While the Popy Chogokin Deluxe GoLion is the original and a legend, it is a set that comes with certain conditions if you buy it today. Given its legendary status and age, it is best to buy an in-box example and never assembly it into the robot due to the possibility of damage to the tails of the Lions. For purely display purposes, more modern examples of the die-cast set of GoLion/Voltron are best. If you are shopping for one, be warned, there are tons of unauthorized copies made in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at date back to the release of the original anime series (LionBots). The lesser or miniature GoLion mecha toy is the GB-35 ST (standard) that was a static non-transformable cheaper toy that was imported to the US via Matchbox and I was the one I had as a kid.



The "Mysterious Stranger" Voltron: the Bandai Godaikn GoLion (#77070 1982-1984?)
During the wilder early days of Japanese robot toys being exported to the west, there are some oddball robots that came over here and I was shocked to run across another GoLion toys that were imported to America. In the early 1980s, Bandai had a robot toyline called "Godaikn" meaning "big alloy" in Japanese and it was released to capitalize on the Giant Robot Craze by Bandai America. Around a dozen of the most popular Popy Chogokin DX toys were selected by their parent company, Bandai, and imported to the western market around 1982-1984 with alternations being made to the imported toy in New Jersey. The reason behind this decision was that some specialty toy shops in America were imported Popy toys and Bandai reasoned there was a market for the deluxe metal robot toys to warrant their own Americanized toyline of these awesome toys. All of these toys were imported prior to the deal with Matchbox and World Events Productions. One of these was the holy GB-36 DX Popy metal GoLion set, number#77070. With these toys costing about $80 in 1984 money (which is about $194 today's dollars), the Godaikin line was canceled due to poor sales and stiff competition from other Japanese robot toylines like Go-Bot and Transformers. Much like the Matchbox Delxue Voltron and the original Popy, this lost GoLion set commands a high price and is considered more than rare than either the Popy or Matchbox.

The “Other Voltron”: 1982 Popy Chogokin DaiRugger XV GB-72 DX and GB-73 ST
While all of the fans of Voltron paid worship to the garish Lion Force, the second series are known as “Vehicle Voltron” came in a storm of confusion by fans of the Lion Force series and went, sealing the faith of Gladiator Force Voltron along with it. That failed second series was constructed on the foundation of the 1982-1983 Armored Fleet DaiRugger XV, where 15 vehicles of air, land, and sea form a large warrior robot. As with the Popy Chogokin Beast King GoLion toys, the DaiRugger following a similar pattern. The GB-72 DX was the deluxe boxset comprised of the 15 air, land, and sea components that were packaged with a sword and spring-loaded fists, but it was not a chogokin set. Unlike the GoLion deluxe robot toy, there was no diecast used in GB-72 DX, it was plastic due to issues with designing a toy based on the 15 vehicles combining to form a warrior-robot. I believe that each component was sold separately to off-set the cost of the deluxe set, given the complexity of combining 15 separate vehicles together both in the Japanese and American release. This set was imported via the Matchbox Voltron line with the same changes as the deluxe Popy GoLion and sells today in-box in-between $400-$900 today due to the popularity of the Lion Force Voltron series and the limited popularity and airing of the second Voltron series. Despite the modern popularity of the Lion Force Voltron, it has not carried over to the Vehicle Voltron, but there have been modern Japanese releases of the DaiRugger mecha over the years, but not in the United States as with the LionForce.

The “Unseen Voltron”: 1983/1984(?) Popy Chogokin Albegas GC-04 DX and GC-03 ST
As mentioned above, the 3rd Voltron series, Gladiator, was canceled due to the hostile response of the second series, or Vehicle Voltron, and WEP commissioned more LionForce Voltron episodes to capitalize on the most successful element of the show. That meant that the Gladiator Voltron was completely unseen and all work abandoned on the series by WEP. Much like all of the Voltron toys released by Matchbox, they had Japanese roots. Lightspeed Electroid Albegas aired on Japanese TV in 1983-1984, and Popy was to release two robot toys to complement the series, but Popy was shuttered by Bandai, and it released the two toys for Albegas: GC-04 DX and GC-03 ST. Much like all of the previous robot toys, the DX was the most expensive and the most detailed with the three robots, while the ST was a static smaller toy aimed at an entry price. As to value, the original Popy GC-04 DX going for around $800-$1000, surprisingly.

The Matchbox Voltron I, II, and III Deluxe and Miniature Toys (1984-1986)
When World Events Productions and Matchbox entering into an agreement, the plan for three separation super robot toylines and series based on Armored Fleet DaiRugger XV, Beast King GoLion, and Lightspeed Electroid Albegas to be aired on American airwaves and shelved in toy stores. This vision of three Voltron robots defending different sectors of the universe (!) was reflected in the roman numerals on the boxed mecha toys. Voltron I of the Near Universe was based on the Armored Fleet DaiRugger XV series under the title of “Vehicle Force Voltron”. While Voltron II of the Middle Universe was based on the aborted venture of dubbing Lightspeed Electroid Albegas to be renamed “Gladiator Force Voltron”. Lastly was the most popular Voltron III of the Far Universe that was based on Beast King GoLion and renamed “Lion Force Voltron”. To diversify the robot toylines, Matchbox imported the DX and ST toys of each Voltron warrior robot that were called “Deluxe” and “Miniature”. Within the Deluxe line were two packaging: a complete set of all the mecha and individual packaging of the various pieces of the complete robot. The Lions were separated out and sold in three sets, as was the various air, land, and sea vehicles for Voltron I and the three robots were separated out and sold individually for Voltron II.
The Miniature line was drawn from the Popy 6inch line of lower-price point toys and allowed for access to Voltron by those that could not afford the expensive deluxe robots. With the power of the Matchbox name and distribution network, imported Japanese toys under the Voltron name were released across the United States. What separated the original Popy from the Matchbox toys was the lack of hand weapons (the King Sword), spring-firing weapons, and sharpened teeth of the Lions. These were all due to parent safety concerns and the death of a child from choking on a Battlestar Galactica spring-fired missile in the 1970s. With the popularity of the Matchbox Voltron toys caused Bandai to task factories in Taiwan to meet the demand. Unfortunately, harmful lead levels were found to be present in some of the Matchbox Voltron toys around 1985-1986, causing parent groups to apply pressure and Voltron toys were pulled and junked after a consumer health warning issued on November 12, 1986. This came at a bad time, as Voltron was successful on the small screen. It is believed that this 1986 lead warning triggered a crisis between Matchbox and WEP and that stopped the flow of imported Japanese toys to Matchbox. I personally believe that Matchbox was heavily invested in 1986 on bring ROBOTECH to the toy stores via most domestically produced ROBOTECH toyline...in some ways, by 1986, Voltron had run its course for Matchbox and they had moved on from Lions to Veritechs.

Second Chances: The 1984-1985 Panosh Place Lion Voltron Toyline
With the lead discovery in the Matchbox Voltron robot toys that came from Bandai/Popy outsourcing the production to Taiwan to met high demand, Matchbox canceled the contact with Bandai around 1986. However, with Voltron airing across the United States and experiencing success, it could have been bad for WEP not having toys in the stores to capitalize on the TV show. While the Matchbox toys were dead, WEP still had the all plastic line complete with action figures by Panosh Place. In the strange and most interesting history of Voltron toys, the Panosh Place 1985 line is one of the most interesting. Unlike the imported Bandai/Popy robot lines drawn from GoLionDaiRugger, and Albegas; Panosh Place was going to pattern their Voltron line after the American model with figures, vehicles, and playsets.
Who is Panosh Place? This was a short-lived toy company that was partly owned by Mattel and was founded in 1984 and filed for bankruptcy in October of 1987 (around the time of the stock market crash) and they are mainly remembered for this adventurous, but oddball toyline. To avoid the issues of the previously imported toyline, Panosh Place Voltron line would be constructed out the most 80s material there was: plastic. All five lion mecha were made and sold separately or in a box set that could unite to form the Voltron warrior robot. However, the lions were designed to accommodate 3 3/4 inch figures and this made the Panosh Place toyline rather unique. What it also did was greatly expand the size of the Voltron warrior robot form and made him look out of portion, especially compared to the original cartoon. Along with the Voltron mecha, there was the Castle of the Lions as seen in the cartoon, but there was no other friendly figure made to staff the Castle. To combat the Lion Forces of Voltron, seven enemy characters were made, along with the ugly skull tank, two fighters, and two of the Robeast flying coffins. In the show, King Zarkon would send out a RoBeast to battle with united Voltron. These RoBeast were around the same size as the robot…but in the Panosh Place toyline, they were standard figure size! Voltron could have just stepped on the RoBeast and go back to the Castle for space beers and space pizzas. This was a major oversight and it was going to be corrected with the 1986 second wave toyline of Voltron…but that didn’t happen.
Via old Panosh Place catalog scans, we can see that Panosh Place was going to give us a King Zarkon playset, scaled-up RoBeasts, and the beginnings of the Vehicle Voltron toyline via hero and villain figures. At some point, Panosh Place must have working on plans for a Vehicle Voltron mecha toy for 3 ¾. The most mysterious vehicle of the second wave was the hero spaceship seen in the 1986 catalog. It is likely that the space fighter belonging to the Vehicle Voltron Galaxy Garrison force and was to be used by the Vehicle Voltron figures. Sadly, while giving Voltron fans some toys they really wanted, Panosh Place went bankrupt before putting the second series of toys into production and the remains of the young company were absorbed by Mattel. In fact, some of the Panosh Place Voltron toys had Mattel stickers on them, but for some reason, Mattel decided not to continue with the Voltron venture, turning it over to LJN. While fondly remembered by some of my generation and it was a daring toyline by a young toy company, the quality was just not there and the figures were not packaged with any weapons or accessories beyond helmets. I can remember these toys in the stores and being adversted in comics and how cheap they looked.

Third Time’s the Charm…? LJN 1986 Motorized Toyline
Those of us that lived through the 1980s know the name of LJN. From their Advanced D&D figure line to the truly disturbed DUNE 1984 toyline, to their motorized cars, and of course, their video games for the NES…LJN is one of the most infamous toy companies and their soiled hands touched the Voltron toy license after Panosh Place filed for bankruptcy. In 1986, the worst Voltron: Defender of the Universe toys were released by LJN that were motorized “battle riser” and wheeled along with the single tallest Voltron toy: the 24inch motorized Giant Commander Voltron that was based around the Popy Golion Jumbo Machinder model. Some reports say that LJN released this in 1984…which I find odd and out of place with the timeline, but it is likely the copyright date for when WEP registered the trademark for “Voltron” not when it was released.
My brother had a Shogun Warrior Jumbo Machinder and it was a towering figure that was constructed out of the best plastic. LJN removed the firing missiles off of the original Japanese toy and added a motorized wheeled platform to allow for the massive toy to be control like a cheap RC car, thus making this the most unholy Voltron of all time. One element that was terrible in both the Golion and the LJN Voltron was the fifty stickers that had to be attached to complete the look of the iconic alien robot warrior!  The battle riser Voltron toys were produced for both the Vehicle and Lion Voltron mecha that had a gimmick to allow for the instant transformation of sorts. Speaking of gimmicks, the iconic five Lions were given wheels and a wind-up action to allow them to spin about and yes, transform into the Voltron warrior mech. These were sold as two-Lion packs (save for Black Lion) and as the deluxe set.  Mercifully, there was only a single line of Voltron toys and LJN being a toy company was ended around 1988/1989 soon after the buyout by MCA.

The Popy Chogokin Beast King GoLion Rises Again! The Trendmasters Voltron 1997 Re-Re-Release
This was YET another re-released of the classic Popy Pleasure Chogokin Beast King GoLion by the St. Louis toy company Trendmastrs in 1997 to tease the release of Voltron 3rd Dimension TV series and the new line of toys. This was the 5th time the Popy Golion deluxe toy has been released since 1981 (Popy, LionBot, Bandai, and then Matchbox). The 1997 Trendmaster Voltron was sold in a complete boxset for $29 and included the weapons omitted by the Matchbox release, but still did not include the spring-firing missiles of the original Popy GB-36 DX. Also unlike some of the other releases, Trendmasters only sold their 1997 release as the complete set; there was no packaging of individual Lions. Unlike every other Popy GoLion Chogokin toy, even the knock-off LionBot, the Trendmaster suffers from quality issues and some changes in paint colors. Despite being directly related to one of the most sought-after 1980s anime toys, the Trendmasters 1997 release is lower in price point than even the LionBot. For those that want the closest experience to the Popy GoLion toys and can overlook the flaws of the 1997 Trendmaster, than this is a good display piece.

The 2012 Mattycollector 23inch Voltron 
The iconic toy company Mattel would create a spin-off brand devoted to bringing high-quality toys to the hands of collectors via a subscription known as Mattycollector (named after the original mascot for Mattel). In 2012, yet another new Lion Force toyline was released that instead of remaking the Popy GoLion GB-36 DX, it redesigned the much bolder Panosh Place toyline from 1985 that was designed around having action figures. The massive Mattycollector assembled Lion Voltron warrior is an impressive 23inches tall and could accommodate the new Voltron action figures, all for the adult collector and maybe their kids. At over $300 and 23inches tall, the Mattycollect Voltron was the second biggest Voltron produced and expensive for the end product that suffered from poor quality all the way around as well as the assembled Voltron warrior not being about to hold his sword without toppling over due to balance issues.

The Anniversary editions of Voltron by Toynami: the V1, V2, and the V3
One of the common issues with replicating mecha seen on-screen is accuracy. While an artist can design whatever their creativity can conjure up, toy designers are forced to construct these artistic visions into a die-cast or plastic reality bound by the harsh mattress that is physics. The hard truth is that the toys and models of mecha can wildly vary. Some of this inequality is based on the technology of the day, talent, money, and price-point.  The LionForce Voltron has been a subject, as you can read, for many releases attempts to bring the definitive LionForce Voltron into the hands (and wallets) of adult collectors. These three-anniversary releases are a sign of the market that the entire modern toy industry is gunning for: the adult collector. With children playing with less traditional toys, these adult collectors are great sources of a market willing to pay several hundred dollars for a physical representation of nostalgia.
Capitalizing on this, Toynami has released THREE-anniversary editions since 2005. The original anniversary masterpiece edition was released in 2005 and limited to 15,000 copies at a hefty price tag of$450, selling out easily. The 20th-anniversary masterpiece (V1) was more based on the Matchbox deluxe Voltron released in 1984 that was demonized by parenting groups due to the lead. This is known as the “V1” and still lacked the spring-firing of the original Popy. For the 25th anniversary Toynami release, the V2, the 20th anniversary was re-released in both metallic and plastic editions.
Then for the 30th anniversary of the release of Voltron in 2014, there was another “return” to the OG: the 1981 Popy Chogokin GoLion GB-36 DX: the 2014 Toynami 30th anniversary LionForce Voltron set, the V3. Both in packaging, Lion blades, and construction material, the 2014 Toynami 30th anniversary set is closer to the original Popy than the other anniversary sets, the V1 and V2. The V3 has a nice display base that lights up (along with the eyes of the assembled Voltron warrior robot) along with sounds and is quite nice for the primary purpose of these sets: adult collector brag-swag display piece. Another hallmark of the V3 is that there are LED eyes on the assembled Voltron warrior robot and these are a first on a die-cast Voltron. For a while, the 30th Anniversary release was considered one of the best modern Voltron collectibles out there…until 2017.     

Bandai Tamashii Nations GX-71  "Voltron: Defender of the Universe" Soul of Chogokin (2017)
For many fans of GoLion or Voltron, there is this holy quest to obtain the best, most accurate miniature replication of their beloved mech. For some, that means tracking down an original deluxe Popy or Matchbox and shelling out thousands of dollars. While there have been other adult collector pieces over the years, many wanted a successor to the original 1981 Popy Chogokin. In 2017, Bandai, the inheritor of the Popy throne decided to finally add Beast King GoLion to their "Soul of Chogokin" line of masterpiece collectibles. Beginning in 1997, the Soul of Chogokin collectibles line is firmly aimed at adults with stunning modern replications of the classic Popy Chogokin toys by Bandai that cover robots and vehicles (including the Yamato and Arcadia!). The first Soul of Chogokin release was the same as the first Popy Chogokin: Mazinger Z (GX-01).
Simply put, the GX-71 is stunning and was, all things considered, the toy that many fans were waiting 33 years for. In some ways, the GX-71 is the true successor to the legendary GB-36 DX and it has come back full circle home to Bandai as well. In order to add GoLion to the Soul of Chogkin line, Bandai had to get several right holders in agreement to produce this toy and it took years to line everything up and the efforts speak for themselves. But it wasn't cheap. GX-71 retailed for $350 and it sold out causing the GX-71 to command $900 today..which is still better than the original Popy that sells for thousands of dollars and is brittle due to age. All of these factors could mean that the GX-71 is the best that we will ever get in an adult collectible of GoLion and Voltron. But, is this Bandai $350 figure truly final word in the realm of Beast King GoLion/Voltron collectibles? Only time will tell.

LEGO Voltron?! Fuck Yeah!
The LEGO Ideas is one of the best uses of the internet and allows serious plastic brick engineers to construct sets that could receive the LEGO seal of approval with a released limited edition set. All takes is a great idea, great build, 10,000 supporters, and approval of a LEGO review panel. One of these that easily reached the 10,000 mark was a classic Lion Voltron LEGO set by len_d69 in 2016. In summer of 2017, LEGO appeared to be moving forward with re-engineering the set for commercial release. According to information online, it appears the LEGO Voltron set will be the most expensive LEGO Ideas set and will gander immediate sellout and heavy prices for resale.

My Own History with Voltron
There are many of my generation that loved the original Lion Team Voltron series and it was as transformative for them as ROBOTECH was for me as back in the mid-1980's.  I only recently learned by watching Michael French of Retroblasting and it made me think about my own history with Voltron. When Voltron was being aired in North America, I was living just outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma and deeply involved in all things ROBOTECH. If the Lions Voltron had aired in my market than it is likely that I would have given a try since I was such a feverish fan of anime and mecha. My exposure to Voltron came via the toy adverts on TV, in comics, toy catalogs, and even the toys themselves at my local stores. While I recognized that this lion mecha-based TV series was anime, I did know enough about it to invest in the toys due to it being the Pre-Internet Dark Ages and limited allowance. I did indeed see the Matchbox mecha, the more well-rounded Panosh Place toyline, and even the terrible limited series released by Charlton Comics via their Modern imprint. I bought the first issue of Modern comics Voltron series due to my curiosity and I was rewarded with even more questions and a new dismissive attitude towards Voltron. To me at the time, Voltron was a cheap, bad concept anime that was butchered in the West and not worth my time or energy. While I've done more research, I've never invested the time into watching the American reworked series or the original Japanese GoLion anime. This has had a direct impact on the frequency that Voltron appears on FWS. Speaking of my general lack of knowledge about Voltron, I did not know until November of 2017 that there was more than one Voltron series or that it was a combination of three separate anime series, much in the same vein as ROBOTECH.

Next Time on FWS...
Okay...I promise that the NEXT installment of FWS will be the What Will We Fight Over: Alien Technology? article! We will be examining the very common trope in science fiction of advanced alien technology being a genesis of wars for control over these gems of high tech. While a common fixture in sci-fi, there some that believe that we are currently fighting over alien tech, and FWS will looking at those theories as well.


04 April 2018

FWS News Feed: Concept Art from a new The Last Starfighter Project?!

One of my favorite 1980s films as a boy and now is 1984's The Last Starfighter. From the powerful score, the excellent Gunstar fighter, and the story of a gamer that is transformed into a space fighter gunner, The Last Starfighter is a wonderful military science fiction that holds up to this very day. There have been rumors for decades of a sequel, but it has never materialized, but that seems to be about to change...maybe. Gary Whitta, the writer of Rogue One, dumped four concept art by Matt Allsopp images on his Twitter today informing all of us that the dream of another adventure in this universe may be coming...and it looks amazing! Whitta is working with the original writer of the film, Jonathan Betuel, to reboot the 1984 film into a modern movie...which is a big concern of mine. The original is so good...why not expand it with a sequel? It seems from an interview on io9, Gary Whitta is a big fan of the original and wants to do this passion project right. However, there are two hills to overcome: the rights to the IP, which are a mess and Seth Rogen is involved. Ugh. Either way, the images are a masterpiece and give us a peek into the world of the Star League.