Fri 24 Sep 2010
Nowadays Anime and Mecha (giant robots piloted by humans) are no big deal. While I was still in high school though, many a moon ago, any appearance on television was a huge event. Of course, the concept of television was not the endangered species it is today either.
You had to get up early to catch this kind of stuff, like many shows that were barely allowed to show in the backwaters far from prime time slots. But Robotech blew my mind with its character complexity and ongoing story. Like Speed Racer, Marine Boy, and Starblazers before it I would be exposed to new ways of thinking and civilization would move forward in microscopic ways.
The premise is this: An alien vessel crash-lands on earth, filled with advanced technology and a brand new fuel source—protoculture. The event causes the earth to unite under a world government and rebuild the alien ship into the flagship of a military organization called the Robotech Defense Force (or RDF for short). It is believed that the aliens will come looking for the ship and earth wants to be ready to repel them.
Turns out that’s a correct assumption. On the day of the maiden voyage of the flagship (known as the SDF-1 or “space defense fortress”), the aliens (giant humanoids called the Zentraedi) appear with the intention of capturing the flagship and returning to their home planet.
In the first series, known as “Macross” (named after the island the SDF-1 crashed and was rebuilt upon), we follow the adventures of both the humans and the Zentraedi involved in the struggle over possession of the SDF-1. During the initial attack to recapture the ship, the humans discover not all of the modified-for-human-technology works at they believe. Despite their superior forces, the Zentraedi find the behavior of the humans confusing and are constrained by orders not to destroy the SDF-1.
The Macross series really begins in earnest when the humans use the SDF-1 to execute a “space fold”, but botch the process. They end up transporting themselves and most of Macross Island to outer space, at the far end of the solar system. They are forced to rescue the 50,000 or so inhabitants of the island along with as much supplies and material as they can, then try to return to earth. The Zentraedi attempt to stop them as the SDF-1 makes its way back home.
All a decent enough back-story for what happens, and in many cases that would drive the action of most television shows. What struck me as most powerful though was the idea that you could have a vast array of different iconic characters that included the “bad guys”.
Who it turns out aren’t as bad as first thought. The Zentraedi are controlled by the Robotech Masters who have stolen the fuel source of protoculture from another alien race—the Invid. Protoculture, the source of immense power that fuels all the giant robot machines in battle, is a life form that belongs to the Invid.
The second series would examine the Robotech Masters and the third the Invid—and their effect on humanity. In the second series the main protagonist is a woman. That was another cool thing; how different kinds of women could have important parts in the drama.
The Zentraedi find the human culture awesome and exciting and many eventually elect to “micronize” themselves to human size and assimilate into humanity. The show evolves from a struggle for survival to a question of integration among different cultures. This is handling the big stuff folks.
It isn’t perfect. There’s bias creep in the stories, not all of which holds up today. But back then it was like advanced technology. Cool characters dying? Questions of gender identity? Complexity in villains?
It was hard, getting up to watch this show. Remembering to program my folks’ Beta VCR to record it wasn’t easy either. Sometimes there’s only so much willpower available to a teenager, even when the stakes are something you really care about. This wasn’t the first or last show I had to fight to watch.
But sometimes that’s what young people have to do, fight for the things that matter for them. Their very education is at stake. I would argue the future of civilization itself is at stake. For where else will you learn the important lessons of culture if not through the hard-to-reach treasures of artistic pronouncement?
I still have my die cast metal SDF-1, bought on discount from Kaybee toys for ten bucks. My symbol of the adaptability of human transformation and the ability of new forms of thought to disrupt even the most ingrained forms of coercion and repression.
Nothing belongs to us; it is all borrowed on the backs of someone else. Yet in a sense we are stealing from each other because we need to separate ourselves from truth, believe we are special above all others. This is the dilemma of our civilization, the ability to recognize our limits and accept our indebtedness to others’ lives, yet still celebrate the individual who dares to speak with an honest need.
The stories are there now—alive—as we speak. What secret wonders are being revealed to youthful and eager eyes beyond our imagining?