Robotech consumed our childhoods. In a lot of ways, it created the American anime industry as we know it. But some people find the show's complex origins baffling, as well as what makes it so unique and important. So here's everything you should know about Robotech — and why.
It’s made up of three different TV anime series which have nothing to do with each other.
A man named Carl Macek knew that if he could bring and adapt an anime series titled Super Dimensional Fortress Macross to America, he’d have a cartoon hit — one he wouldn’t even have to animate. But Macross was only 36 episodes long, and there was a minimum of 65 episodes need to syndicate TV shows back in the ‘80s. His solution was to license the completely unrelated anime series Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada and then edit and rewrite them into three “sagas,” turning them into one long series. Shockingly, this worked out far, far better than it should.
It’s about the ends of the world.
Macek based this new series around an alien power source called Protoculture, which powered a massive alien warship that crashed on Earth in 1999. Humanity, realizing it wasn’t alone in the universe, joined forces to rebuild the ship and use the alien technology inside to create Robotechnology, resulting in power armor and transforming jets such as Veritechs. The aliens, called the Zentraedi, eventually did arrive and thus began the first Robotech War, which resulted in the death of most of the people on Earth. When the Zentraedi and humanity realized they were actually part of the same race, the Zentraedi having been altered by a race of aliens called the Masters, they formed an unsteady truce and began to rebuild Earth together. In the “Southern Cross” saga, the Masters themselves arrived and attempted to conquer the planet, which ended with the Flower of Life — an alien plant that produced Protoculture — covering the planet. And when “New Generation” began (a.k.a. Mospeada) the Earth had already been conquered by another alien race called the Invid, and the remaining humans were slaves. Humans do not have an easy time of it in Robotech.
Its main innovation was planes with arms and legs.
Robotech was originally a name that the model manufacturer Revell called their imported Japanese model kits from anime series that American kids neither knew nor cared about. Revell partnered with Macek’s company Harmony Gold to bring Japan’s Macross toys to America, and Macek took the name Robotech for the series. The major vehicle of the Macross saga, and the whole of Robotech, was the Veritech, which could transform from a jet into a robot, or into Guardian mode, which was a strange half-jet with arms and legs. It was weird, but it was unique, and is one of the most famous giant robots in pop culture — not least because Hasbro had originally licensed the Japanese Veritech (called the Valkyrie) for its Transformers toyline, naming it Jetfire.
It was unique from every other American cartoon.
When Robotech first aired in 1985, kids could tell it was massively different from He-Man, G.I. Joe, and even the Transformers cartoon. First of all, it looked different — it was many kids' first exposure to anime (Joe and TF were animated in Japan, but for Western audiences — Macross was made for a Japanese audience, and thus its spiky air, large eyes, and other tropes were in full force). Second of all, unlike the other cartoons of the time, it told a single, ongoing story. There wasn’t an indivudal plot each episode, but the saga of Rick Hunter, who gets drawn into the Robotech war, fights against the Zentraedi, falls in love, alongside countless characters who had their own conflicts and struggles, day by day — you had to keep watching to know what was going on, and many kids loved watching a show that trusted them to remember what was happening the next day. And there were no obvious, hackneyed lessons learned at the end, either.
It was revolutionary in other ways, too.
Besides the maturity of an ongoing narrative, Robotech was phenomenally advanced in other ways. It was the first cartoon — often the first story, period — that showed kids a scenario where a hero could die, as Rick’s best friend Roy Fokker gets shot during a skirmish and loses his life. That revelation empowered kids as much as it devastated them, and we loved Robotech even more for not treating us like children pretending all the good guys always won. And then there was the completely uncommented-on mixed-race relationship between Roy and his girlfriend Claudia. And then there was the heavy focus on romance, which was unheard of in boys cartoons, as Rick was in a love triangle with young would-be pop star Lynn Minmei and Lisa Hayes, the captain of the rebuilt alien spaceship — but while Rick chased after Minmei, who was oblivious to how she constantly broke Rick’s heart, Lisa — ostensibly the most powerful human woman in the universe — would wash Rick’s underwear. Truly, no other cartoon has ever been so brutally honest as Robotech, and we loved it for it.
It’s the greatest love story of the 20th century.
Seriously. I’ve commented on this before at length, so I’ll use the money quote: