“A mighty robot, loved by good, feared by evil.” That’s how the delightfully cheesy opening theme of Voltron describes its titular robot. One of the pioneering shows during the “golden age” of Saturday morning cartoons in the 1980s, Voltron: Defender of the Universe still holds a special place in the hearts of millions. In many ways, Voltron is a relic of a time long past; they just don’t make anime dubs like this anymore. Back when anime first came to the United States, English dubs weren’t just straight-up translations, they were adaptations. In the case of shows like Voltron, they were almost complete re-imaginings, with many changes made to make them suitable for American audiences.
Sometimes the changes were hilarious, like clumsy attempts at censorship. But most of the time the changes made Voltron its own unique beast, a fusion of Japanese animation and American music and storytelling.
Compared to anime adaptations today, Voltron can be rough around the edges, and its adaptation into an American production was never seamless, but its epic robot battles, triumphant theme song, memorable characters, unique animation style made for compelling viewing, and its classic toy line continues to mark it as a beloved classic in the world of entertainment nostalgia.
Nowadays you can also watch Voltron: Legendary Defender, a reimagined series released by Netflix and DreamWorks which reboots the franchise and gives it a fresh face. In the meantime, here are 15 amazing facts you might not have known about Voltron: Defender of the Universe.
15. The First Two Seasons Were Edited From Two Japanese Shows
Voltron: Defender of the Universe is actually an English-language adaptation of a 1981 Japanese anime series called Beast King GoLion. The show we know as Voltron was produced as a joint venture between World Events Productions and Toei Animation, using the TV series Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV as source material. The famous first season of Voltron, known as the “Lion Force Voltron” by fans, consists of entirely of re-edited and trimmed animation from GoLion with brand new dubbed English dialogue. The less popular second season, sometimes known as “Vehicle Voltron,” consists of repurposed Armored Fleet footage.
Due to translations and dubbing issues and to make the new series more appealing to Western audiences, new names were given to the characters, all new dialogue was written, and several significant plot changes were implemented (more on these later). This new series would become Voltron: Defender of the Universe.
14. It Was Heavily Adapted and Censored
Rewriting the entirety of the dialogue for Voltron and dubbing in due to having no means to translate Japanese into English wasn’t the only major change made to the series. Voltron showrunner Peter Keefe and John Teichmann applied heavy censorship to the source footage, mostly to edit out many of the violent scenes from GoLion. This involved making modifications to footage or cutting it out entirely to make the series more appropriate for Western audiences.
Upon viewing the original GoLion series, it’s easy to see why. While shows like Robotech, another 90s production heavily patched together from an 80s anime (The Super Dimension Fortress Macross), managed to retain most of the violence of the original series from which it was assembled, the level of violence in GoLion would have given kids and parent’s groups collective heart attacks – dismemberment is common, bloodsport is ever-present, and slavery is a recurring theme. Shots of executions, torture, and whipping slaves had to frequently be removed, and virtually all references to death were eliminated.
13. There Were Going To Be Three Voltrons
The original plan was to adapt three obscure and completely unrelated Japanese series: Armored Fleet Dairugger XV, Lightspeed Electroid Albegas, and Beast King GoLion, in that order, into three separate Voltron series. With the originally planned continuity, the “GoLion” version of Voltron was meant to be “Voltron III,” the third and final series that aired because it was the one that took place the farthest away from Earth.
Dairugger XV was going to be Voltron I, also known as “Vehicle Team Voltron” or Voltron of the Near Universe, which would be one set closest to Earth. Lightspeed Electroid Albegas would have been the next mech anime on the chopping block and would have been Voltron II, “Gladiator Voltron” or Voltron of the Middle Universe. Finally, the famous “Lion Force Voltron” version we all know and love was designated Voltron of the Far Universe or Voltron III. What was meant to be the third series would go on to become Voltron: Defender of the Universe.
12. Voltron Was Originally Meant to be Based on A Different Show, But the Wrong Tape Was Sent
Thanks to Voltron‘s cultural ubiquity, most of us are familiar with the basic premise: five color-coded robot lions piloted by five intrepid space pilot heroes come together to form the powerful humanoid robot Voltron, use a sword to defeat the monster of the week and defend planet Arus from the evil Drule Empire. But what many kids in the 90s watching didn’t know was that the beloved “Lion Force Voltron” happened by accident.
As the story goes, the Japanese series Future Robot Daltanious, another cartoon with a combining robot which featured a lion-shaped starship, was originally planned to be adapted into a Voltron series. While asking for the master tapes from Japanese studio Toei Animation, World Events Productions requested “the ones with the lion.” Toei then proceeded to send World Events the master tapes for Beast King GoLion by accident. By the time the mistake was made clear, World Events producers decided they greatly preferred GoLion to Daltanious anyway and adapted it instead. The footage from the GoLion episodes would prove to be the most popular incarnation of Voltron.
11. Sven Actually Died, and Other Character Deaths Were Written Off
As part of the process of censorship to make Voltron fit for kids, they cut out a lot of the blood, guts, and piles of dead bodies. In episode 22, The Deadly Flowers, the space witch Haggar creates space flowers that put everyone under a sleeping spell. In reality, it killed them in great number. In the case of characters who died in the original GoLion, they were often said to have escaped, returned to their home planet, or sent off-planet to space hospitals to recover from their injuries. The most prominent examples of this are the deaths of Sven (Shirogane) and Nanny (Hisu), both major characters whose deaths were in the original storyline.
In the Japanese version, it’s clear that Sven’s base character dies in a battle with Haggar the witch. But in the U.S. version, his death was changed to him being seriously injured and sent off-world for medical treatment. In both versions, Sven is then replaced by Princess Allura as the pilot of the Blue Lion. Nanny’s base character, too, is shot through the heart, sacrificing herself to save Coran. Scenes of both Sven and Nanny’s respective funerals and characters visiting their graves afterward were likewise cut.
Interestingly, both were “brought back” in a way: stock footage was used to make Nanny appear in later episodes, and in a later plot arc where Sven shows back up to help the Voltron Force siege planet Doom, footage of his twin younger brother from the original GoLion series was used and said to simply be Sven himself.
10. The Robot Soldiers and ‘RoBeasts’ Were Alive
In the U.S. version of Voltron, the good guys always made sure to mention that any enemy Drule soldier or creature that the legendary robot went up against was itself a robot, avoiding any references to death. But in the original GoLion both sets of “robots” were flesh and blood beings. Due to American broadcasting standards at the time, living beings could never be killed on-screen on a kid’s cartoon, but robots were considered fair game. Some may remember the classic 1987 cartoon series of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did something similar by making the Foot Clan robots instead of human ninjas, enabling the turtles to use their melee weapons with glee.
The RoBeast of the week was always sliced in half with the Blazing Sword, using the same explosions footage in every episode to avoid the violent deaths in the anime. However, something different was done with the Zarkon RoBeast near the end of season one. The Japanese series ended with the destruction of the giant best version of Emperor Daibarzaal (King Zarkon in the English version) by cleaving him in two with the blazing sword. In Voltron, a dub was engineered implying that Zarkon had somehow escaped his fate.
9. It Was The Highest-Rated Kids Show and the First Big ‘Mech’ Anime
Voltron: Defender of the Universe was a hugely popular cartoon; it was the top-rated syndicated children’s show for two years after its debut, which was a very competitive time in the market. It spawned several sequels, comic books, a one-hour special, and the 2016 Netflix series Voltron: Legendary Defender. The giant sword-wielding robot helped prepare the way for other successful anime such as Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon, and Japanese-style productions like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
Voltron aired from 1984 to 1987 and took in huge profits from its lucrative merchandising. In the United States, “Lion Voltron” toys were wildly successful. Even if you didn’t grow up during Voltron‘s original run in the 1980s, chances are you’ve heard of it or saw its reruns on Cartoon Network’s Toonami programming block from the late 90s onward. To this day, the series has a cult following.
8. Pidge’s Devastated Home Planet Was Actually Earth
Some may remember the twentieth episode of Voltron, “Pidge’s Home Planet,” which has the Voltron Force visit Pidge’s home planet of Balto, which has been attacked by Zarkon. Pidge doesn’t know if his family made it off-world in time. The Force surveys the devastated planet and does battle with the big bads of the week before taking off right as the unstable planet explodes. Pidge and the others are understandably in tears seeing the destruction of a whole civilization.
But don’t worry, the GoLion version of this episode is actually much worse. For starters, the planet Balto was Earth. Instead of being annihilated by Zarkon, it became a devastated shell with magma for oceans and cities turned to dust due to a nuclear World War III scenario. The ruins the team explores (Pidge’s school in Voltron) are actually the school they all went to, and their nearby former homes (which now have skeletons in them). All the team can do is cry as Earth explodes, with the Princess trying to comfort them by telling them to make Altea (Arus in Voltron) their new home. In the U.S. version, Keith remarks, “At least we’re sure everybody got safe off the planet.” Nope. Not in GoLion. The only humans we ever see aside from our heroes that managed to get off the Earth were captured by Galra slave ships. Cheerful!
7. The Last 20 Episodes Were Original Animation
So how much more popular was Voltron than the obscure GoLion? It was so much more popular that after World Events Productions ran out of footage to use from the original show, they actually hired Toei Animation to make 20 more new Voltron episodes from scratch under producer Peter Keefe’s direction. To be clear, not 20 new GoLion episodes; 20 new episodes of Voltron. An American company hiring a Japanese company to produce more of the foreign show they made with repurposed animation from the original. That’s just not a very common occurrence in history, we aren’t sure if it has ever happened before.
The final twenty, which were episodes 53-72 as well as the “Fleet of Doom” special, were commissioned exclusively for an American audience. There were notable animation changes, such as the Green Lion becoming so dark it was almost black, Sven and Pidge’s eyes changing color to match their lions, and Princess Allura’s hair changing from honey blonde to strawberry blonde.
6. It Helped Pioneer Stereo Sound
Voltron was one of the first television programs to be broadcast in stereophonic sound, as it proudly displayed at the beginning of every episode with a distinctive “broadcast in stereo” message during the theme. Around the time the show went into production, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was still in the process of approving the format for stereo sound, and most programs were still broadcast in monaural (mono) sound. World Events Production anticipated stereo sound as the next big thing and made it a big selling point in the marketing for the cartoon series. In fact, Voltron was only the second show to be produced in stereo after NBC’s The Tonight Show.
The idea worked: stores selling stereo sound equipment in the 80s frequently used Voltron as a prime example of what stereo sounded like versus the old mono system. The famous music score and theme song for Voltron was also original to the U.S. version as the series did not use any music from GoLion.
5. “Vehicle Voltron,” Its Second Season, Flopped
Unlike the first season of the series which features five lion robots combining to form “Lion Voltron,” the second season of Voltron is based on recycled Japanese animation from Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. Of course, Dairugger and GoLion were not related in any way, and we can only imagine the headaches of trying to repurpose two shows into one comprehensive Voltron storyline and mythology. The show’s second season featured 15 separate vehicles pilots by three teams (land, sea, and air) which all combined to form a new vehicular version of Voltron. Though the writers did their best to connect the two seasons, “Vehicle Voltron” alienated fans of the extremely popular “Lion” Voltron.
Due to the lackluster response, World Events Productions decided against another alternate Voltron and plans to adapt a third series, Lightspeed Electroid Albegas, were canceled in favor of making new original GoLion-based shows. Though the episodes of the vehicle version of Voltron are regarded as the black sheep of the series by many fans, it has die-hard fans that favor its complex science fiction premise. “Vehicle Voltron” would show up again in the “Fleet of Doom” special featuring both Voltrons.
4. Voltron is Basically a Living Thing
In Voltron: Defender of the Universe, it was the powerful dark witch Haggar who was originally responsible for splitting Voltron into five pieces, thus creating the five separate lion robots. In the Japanese version, Voltron was created as a sentient robot defender and it was an unnamed “space goddess” who split him into separate mechanical parts when he grew too arrogant and tried to challenge her in combat. Voltron’s sentience was subtly discarded in the original GoLion series, and Defender of the Universe never touched on this aspect of the mighty robot, instead depicting it as a machine that can only form through the combining of the five lions.
It’s not known why this aspect was not used; perhaps the concept of Voltron being a living being with no free will or the ability to make himself whole again was too disturbing for kids. Whatever the reason may be, the lions themselves were occasionally shown to be semi-sentient, communicating with their pilots and apparently feeling some semblance of emotion. Voltron: Legendary Defender also carries on this tradition, showing the lions as having personalities and even making recommendations in battle. It’s not known yet if Voltron himself possesses some form of intelligence.
3. Nearly Every Battle Was Finished by the Blazing Sword
Watching Voltron as a kid, you probably remember the moment in every battle when the Blazing Sword appeared and you thought, “Okay, now the show is over.” The basic template of nearly every episode of Voltron goes like this: bad guys show up, nothing happens until they decide to fly out in the lions, then they proceed to get beaten until they decide to form Voltron, after which they continue to be beaten around until they pull out the Blazing Sword and lay waste to the enemy forces. This formula frequently prompted the question, “Why didn’t they just use the sword in the first place?”
Indeed, nearly every RoBeast was killed by being sliced in half with the admittingly cool sword, prompting the use of the same stock footage in most episodes. The Blazing Sword was so powerful that it killed whatever opponent was tormenting the Voltron Force and planet Arus that week with one hit, but for some reason, the team always seemed to use it as a last resort. Voltron: Legendary Defender broke with the formulaic style of the anime while keeping the sword itself.
2. Peter Cullen Voiced the Opening Narration
There are many long-standing rivalries between science fiction/fantasy fan bases. The feud between Star Trek and Star Wars comes to mind, as does the more recent rivalry between Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fans. With any fiction franchise that’s made a serious cultural impact there are likely to be endless wars over which series is superior and the results of theoretical fights between the major characters. Though the divide between the two “combining robot” series is more friendly than most, the same is true of Voltron and Transformers.
However, the two immensely popular robot franchises have something in common: the amazing voice work of actor Peter Cullen, best known as the original voice of Optimus Prime in the 1980s Transformers cartoon series. Cullen’s distinctive baritone performed the narration in the opening title sequence of Voltron. He also voiced King Alfor and appeared in the vehicular Voltron as Commander James Hawkins.
1. There’s a DreamWorks Reboot You Should Be Watching on Netflix Right Now
Hollywood’s remake and reboot fascination of the past decade have been nothing if not hit-or-miss; for every good remake like David Cronenberg’s The Fly, there’s a terrible one like the 1998 version of Psycho waiting in the winds. But fans of Voltron: Defender of the Universe have nothing to worry about with the release of the first and second seasons of Voltron: Legendary Defender, which is currently available to stream on Netflix.
For starters, the series is a masterpiece, produced by DreamWorks Animation and World Events Productions themselves. It manages to successfully breathe new life into the aging franchise, mixing elements from both the original GoLion (Galra Empire instead of Drule, planet Altea instead of Arus), and the original Voltron (Zarkon, Allura, pretty much the whole gang). Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos, both known for their work on Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra have returned as showrunners. If you need more encouragement than that, the first season of Legendary Defender currently has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Seriously, you won’t be disappointed.
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