Death in the Time of Robotech

In the 80s, 3:30 PM was a magical time.

Mom wasn’t home from work yet, my brother and I had let ourselves in (Oh, the horror of the latch-key children! The horror!), and afternoon cartoons were on. Channel 40 had Transformers and G.I. Joe reruns, which were by far superior to all other offerings. Giant transforming robots! Military action/adventure! Red and blue lasers! As far as we knew, this was as good as it got.

Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff.

One day, for whatever reason, we were on channel 13 (probably because we were playing “Russian Roulette” with the TV dials…dear Lord, how fucking old am I?) and we saw a commercial for something called “Robotech.” It had giant transforming robots! And military action/adventure! And spaceships! Obviously, we talked about nothing else until we tuned into the premier that Friday morning (oh yeah, 8 AM cartoon blocks ruled too).

What we got was one of the great cartoon space operas known to 80s TV. Reworked from the Japanese series “Macross,” this was not your typical dumbed-down toy commercial. Within the first 10 minutes of the show, buildings (presumably occupied) are disintegrated by a crashing alien vessel. Characters talked about being responsible vs. staying out all night with their boyfriends. People. Died.

Lah, lah, lah. Plane’s exploding, but we can flyyyyyy!

That last point can’t be stressed enough. The typical 80s kid was accustomed to a cartoon where giant alien robots, with computerized targeting systems, couldn’t hit another 50 ft. robot even if it was standing directly in front of them. If someone’s plane or helicopter was shot down, everyone always ejected safely. Red and blue lasers filled the screen, ultimately proving less effective than walking over and punching someone in the face (which is what the Joes usually resorted to). People did not get shot. People did not die.

Where’s our ejector seats? AAAAAAH!

But in Robotech they did, unequivocally and without pretense (unless they were a major character, in which case there was plenty of pretense, but they still died anyway). In a medium that I had known only as escapist, this was unprecedented. The result was a reexamination of cartoons and how I viewed them. Overnight, the cobbled-together stories and risk-free battles of the Autobots and Joes paled in comparison to the struggles of the SDF-1 and her crew. This was a universe where anything could happen at any time. No one was safe. I would say that the death of Roy Focker, who was as central of a character as they got, shocked me in a way that no other fiction had done up to that point.

There are plenty that will gladly spend hours/days/years/lifetimes arguing the superiority of Macross over Robotech; and they might have a point; but Robotech was my gateway drug into a larger, much more mature, universe and it holds a special place on the mantle as a result.

To wit: Netflix’s streaming deal with Manga Entertainment is apparently expiring and taking a raft of excellent shows with it. Among these is Robotech and Macross. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got 6 days to revisit 42-hours-worth of nostalgia. Time to get to it.

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