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Robotech: The Gateway Anime
By Bert Ehrmann
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Fort Wayne Reader
I was an impressionable 10 year old when the animated TV series Robotech first premiered here in 1985. Back then the TV landscape was very much different that it was today, especially with kid's cartoons. Now, cartoons air 24/7 on a variety of specific channels and via streaming services too. But back in 1985 cartoons only really aired Saturday mornings and for a few hours after school on one or two channels.
I hate to admit it but looking back for the most part cartoons of 30 years ago weren't very good. Until I started rewatching cartoons as an adult I thought most of the ones I used to watch as a kid were brilliant. And while I might still love say classic G.I. Joe and Transformers cartoons, the stories these two shows told were cliched and childish where even though characters were trying to kill one each other no one really got hurt and no one ever died.
That's part of the reason Robotech is so memorable to me, why it's so different from its contemporaries.
Robotech told one long story over 85 episodes and three different series. Characters in Robotech grew and changed and shockingly enough some actually died. Watching Robotech again today I'm amazed at just what weighty subjects the show told. It's almost like Robotech was an adult themed show in the guise of a children's cartoon. And the design and art of the show was like nothing I'd ever seen before outside feature film animation.
Years before computer 3D effects would make such things easy Robotech had jets that could turn into robots fighting alien ships which must've taken countless hours to animate by hand.
The story of Robotech is deceptively simple. On the eve of a third world war a gigantic alien spacecraft crashes onto the Earth and the governments of the world unite to explore and figure out uses for this new technology. Fast forward a few years to the launch of the SDF-1, a gigantic ship built from the wreck and tech of this ship when the aliens who lost the ship in the first place come looking for it. But when we use this new "Robotech" technology to fight back, it malfunctions and sends the ship to Pluto where the survivors of the battle must fight their way through the solar system to get home.
And this was just the first series. The other two dealt with the continuation of this war into the future to a post apocalyptic end.
To a kid who'd grown up assured via cartoons that the good guys always win and that the bad guys can always parachute out of their exploding helicopters before hitting the ground, Robotech came as a bit of a revelation. I'd never seen anything like it before and I'm not sure there'd been any show up to that point to deal with all the stuff in Robotech before.
Even so, there were only a few of us at school who were into Robotech. The show aired at the staggering early time of 6:30AM against things like the early news and the farm report. It was on so early that I used to get up, watch Robotech and go back to bed for an hour before I had to really get up for school.
So, at least in our area, Robotech was never as popular as the other cartoons even though there were the usual tie-in comic books, toys and action figures to go along with the series. After the original Robotech series ended that was pretty much it for Robotech for the next few years.
While Robotech is still very much outside the mainstream for people like me who grew up with the show or came to discover it later it was world changing. I don't think after seeing Robotech I could take other cartoons that didn't take on real-world topics like Robotech as seriously as before. Where's the fun in watching a show like Voltron that also had gigantic robots facing off against aliens when each week's episode was almost a mirror of what had come before when I could be watching Robotech instead?
It's been a few years since the last time I sat down to watch episodes of Robotech and probably decades since I've watched the series as a whole. But if this is any indication as to how much the series meant, no, means to me whenever I play a clip of the Robotech title sequence and the synthetic violin strings start up there's a chill of excitement that goes up my spine where I'm 10 years old again up too early to catch my favorite cartoon on TV.
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