Story Pile: Robotech

It is challenging to know one of your favourite things is so aggressively mediocre.

This music, this opening, set the standard in my child mind for what epic truly represented. This opening that starts with a clearly damaged, recovered piece of footage, then switches constantly between different arcs of the story, showing characters who, at the start of the series aren’t even born. Three generations of a narrative collected in the opening, and in an 85-episode show, screened weekly if I got to catch all the episodes, some of these story beats were a literal year away.

The series Robotech is, in a fairly honest estimation, a science fiction slash space fantasy epic that’s … fine. It is a mediocre quality execution of a fairly middlingly average story, something that includes some specifically good moments, some exciting scenes, and some surprisingly dark turns and twists. There’s worldbuilding that I find now pretty interesting, had some unsatisfying stuff back when I was a child, and a few characters found in aggregate that still endure to me. It is, however, as an overall examination of quality, decent. An unremarkably okay series that nonetheless captured my imagination through style and adjacent media.

I loved Robotech as I grew up, and then when I became an adult, I learned it didn’t exist.

For those not aware, per The Pedias Wiki, Robotech is a tv series stitched together and redialogued from the component scenes of three unrelated but visually similar-ish anime, Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA. Harmony Gold, the company, is… wild. Like, the history of Harmony Gold and its various entanglements goes places and involves multiple ridiculous lawsuits. The most recent conclusion, I think to the Harmony Gold shenanigans happened like, three years ago and involves the founder of Harmony Gold being tried in Hong Kong along with Silvio Berlesconi’s son for embezzlement. He’s 91.

Anyway, these three series had a similar aesthetic, were about space wars, and weren’t seen as worth the effort to port over and translate directly so the work was given to a guy by the name of Carl Macek under a huge time constraints to make an entire series ASAP so the show could be cheaply syndicated. The original series weren’t necessarily syndicatable as they were, so, scripts were rewritten, some details were changed, characterisation was revised, and essentially, Harmony Gold’s version of Robotech was a sort of scene-to-scene fanfiction. I don’t honestly know how much of the original series were influenced by this restructuring – I can absolutely imagine ways in which you could use raw anime visuals that you could reorder and restructure at will to create a new narrative in the edit, but the actual specifics would involve knowing the original canons.

Which I don’t.

There’s this kind of odd hostility to this, I’ve seen, in the related fandom. ‘Proper’ mecha and war anime fans of the time seemed to be deeply incensed by Robotech and its existence, and I don’t think they’re wrong to feel upset. After all, everything else aside about the idea of paratextual conversions and fanfiction narratives, the way that Harmony Gold squatted in the space that Robotech took up meant that there were challenges seeing those anime licensed more faithfully in the west. In this tale, it is worth recognising that while Robotech is a Frankenstein of an anime, it truly is Harmony Gold, the doctor that crafted it, that is the Real Monster.

I mean, Harmony Gold are literally landlords now.

I didn’t get to watch Robotech much growing up. It was on at a time I didn’t get to watch the TV, and I was always kind of sensitive, growing up, at being seen watching it in the school’s TV by the other, more intimidating students who arrived at school first. It’s strange but I even now can think back to it and realise that I was afraid of the way that Robotech could ‘seem gay.’

Oddly, I don’t think I had that memory of Sailor Moon, which I think is funny considering how many people I know now who would dismiss Robotech for not being gay enough.

Since I couldn’t watch Robotech, I turned to the next best thing, as far as I knew: I went to the library and borrowed every last one of the Robotech books they had.

The Robotech novels were written by Jack McKinney, which is to say, they were written by James Luceno and Brian Daley, two authors who made a bunch of Star Wars tie-in media. I didn’t know that, at first – I thought that Jack McKinney was a dude, and when I heard it was a pseudonym, I got it tangled up and assumed it was Carl Macek. Until I was in my twenties, though, for the longest time, Jack McKinney lived alongside K A Applegate as my personal target for the kind of writer I wanted to grow up and become.

They were not great books, they were not amazingly written, but they were amazingly reliable. There was a sequence of events in the show, and the books covered that and added the inner dimension of those characters’ inner lives. Chapters began with in-universe quotes from essays and books that were written after the story was over, things that turned this story of characters as their lives went through tumultuous change in their lives, and yet also suggested that these characters were going to be historically important. It was really wild, this device that both spoke to a future that could be a kind of alright, but it also spoke of times after all these events were done.

I know at the time I lauded Applegate for being able to make a short, good book every month (which she didn’t). I loved how McKinney took this story that already existed? Sort of? And reinvigorated it, smoothed out the spaces where the show left questions, where there were things that were said but said ambiguously, and where characters and their relationships were confusing. Robotech as an anime told an epic story – in that it progressed from generation to generation and covered characters over decades of life and career, who lived and who died and how – all that stuff. Things that seemed permanent that weren’t, because time takes all things, eventually. The novels then took that same scope and made it seem even more vast.

The novels were my Robotech, really, but the thing that blows my mind in hindsight, is that they were, like all versions of Robotech someone coming along and trying to fix up and repair the story of Robotech.

Robotech is an anime, but even that anime is a sort of first-draft fanfiction thing with mistakes and errors in it. The novels address that, expand that, and continue the narrative on from the main characters of the first group in the substory The Sentinels. There was a plan for a movie finishing that story, but it never got made.

That collapse, that stumble at the end, sort of signalled the way that Robotech was going to go the rest of its life.

Such as it was.

Since the end of Robotech the series, and the release of the novels and the collapse of the movie opportunity, numerous different American-made media have tried to ‘fix’ it. The story has been rebooted and retold and redone as amerimanga (not the kind with gender transformation) and there have been reorganisations of the novels and revisions of them as well and videogames and kickstarters and a constant effort to just… like…

finish the series that is Robotech at some point?

Maybe?

Kinda?

This effort has its own complications after all. The Sentinels introduced things where there was no anime to involve – characters who got to interact which never got to interact before, new cultures and aliens never shown before in the base media Robotech came from, and that gave the authors room to flex and come up with some great, interesting ideas. Then suddenly the next revision wanted to strengthen these good ideas. Then the next. Then the next. Then the next.

And now there’s a snarl of plot spurs, these remnants, these burnt ends of a narrative – definitely stuff to love, stuff you can enjoy, but it’s all in pieces.

Now have you noticed we’re what, like, almost fifteen hundred words deep on this series and I have yet to tell you a god damn thing about the plot, the characters, or the narrative structure? It’s partly a form of penance. Like, Robotech is this thing that is surrounded by this swirl of its own history and its existence, that Robotech exists is something that kind of needs to apologise for in its own way. It was an icon of how anime was ‘ruined’ when it came to the west, and Harmony Gold have been successful in being just the worst kind of company, in many cases wielding Robotech like a club to do it.

Yet we haven’t spoken about Robotech. Just the making of Robotech.

It’s not because there’s not stuff in Robotech I want to talk about. Robotech is full of wild stuff, really cool stuff, stuff that even now I smile about to imagine and remember. It was formative to me, even to the point where Robotech’s novels gave me the structure of how to write fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I learned some good lessons because I assumed the book was made a lot better than it was. What I didn’t really appreciate was how much having a coauthor, someone to talk to, was able to make a narrative work, to breathe life into characters.

By volume, though? It’s a boilerplate sci-fi series with some cool ideas and characters that when read back nowadays gets to reach the lofty height of Strictly Medium.

And I love it.

 

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