Netflix's Voltron: Legendary Defender arrived June 10 to positive reviews from nostalgic fans of old and new ones, and that earned it a quick series renewal with a 2017 airdate in mind.
Spanning over three decades with a mixture of toys, comic books, and several animated series (including the patchwork original), Voltron carved out a unique niche from Japan's giant robot craze and the idea of transforming robots which Hasbro's Transformers made a household idea.
Newsarama had the opportunity to chat with Netflix's Voltron: Legendary Defender showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Laurent Montgomery, who have their own unique pedigree in animation with modern classics Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra. They’ve also worked in the DC animated library on such movies like Wonder Woman, Batman: Year One, and Justice League Unlimited.
Montgomery and Dos Santos talked about changing the team line-up and designs of this new version, as well as fleshing out Allura’s character and their hopes for in the coming second season.
Newsarama: Taking on a property like Voltron, and not just relaunching, but reimagining this world, must have had its difficulties, especially when it was so dear to ’80s kids like myself. What was the primary thing you wanted to keep in the story, giant robots aside?
Joaquim Dos Santos: From the beginning we knew we did not want to completely reinvent the wheel. As fans of the original show ourselves, we said from day one that this show had to be instantly recognizable to the fans who grew up with it. Not only did Voltron itself have to be recognizable, but so did the characters. I will say one of the more challenging aspects of the show was creating a backstory and a universe that still felt like it had ties to the original, but in actuality never really existed prior to Legendary Defender. While we were in the early stages of development, we began discussing what we liked about the original show. Voltron and the lions were a "gimme."
The team (the pilots) was a close second, and then it was Voltron fighting the awesome Robeasts and forming blazing sword and what have you. When we tried to break down what we really liked about the story itself or what we liked about the individual personalities of each character for that matter, we all collectively drew a bit of a blank. As we began doing research and rewatching the original, it became clear that the reason we couldn't recall was because the show was a tad thin on story.
As many already know, the Voltron we grew up with was edited together from Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. A bunch of story plots were reworked or cut out altogether to play to Western sensibilities, which (when viewed through with adult eyes) resulted in a pretty disjointed viewing experience. Honestly it's remarkable that the edit made as much sense as it did! Above all else, we knew we wanted to keep the core characters from the original series, and that sense of comraderies, but this time give them a bit more depth by infusing them with more individual personalities and motivations. That way they can evolve over the course of the series and grow to be unique to this version while at the same time stay true to their ’80s origins.
Nrama: Let's talk about the characters and the obvious glaring change of Sven Holgersson being replaced by Shiro, who has been embraced by the newer fans. Older fans might note that Sven's original Japanese name was Takashi Shirogane, so you have some sort of callback to Sven in his last name. Can we talk about the decision to create a completely new character?
Lauren Montgomery: It's funny, because we never meant for Shiro to be a completely new character. He was meant to be our Sven, but for the sake of making a more diverse team, we opted to use the original GoLion name, Takashi Shirogane, instead of going with the Swedish Sven. We also wanted to avoid the amazing accent from the original show! The decision to make him more of the leader character came from the way Sven acted in the original show. He seemed the most wise and willing to do whatever needed to be done to help or protect the team, all the way down to putting his life on the line whether it meant dying or going to space hospital. We saw those actions and felt that he really embodied more of the ultimate team player.
Nrama: After seeing the trailer, I remember telling my friends that I was 99% sure Pidge was going to be a girl, and I was right! What led to the creation of Katie Holt, who uses the alias Pidge Gunderson in the series?
Montgomery: It was one of the very first decisions we made because wanted more female representation in the core characters. And it turns out (as no surprise really) that we were right to do so because regardless of the original show having an all male cast of Voltron pilots for the first few episodes, the concern about lack of female representation was the most prevalent question leading up to the premiere of the show. We chose to hold that information back and let the audience experience the Pidge reveal within the body of the show because we really believed in it and the depth it added to the character. But ultimately we are a team that has worked on such shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, which are both shows that have had great female characters. We never had any intentions of leaving out female representation from this show.
Nrama: With the redesigns, you kept the Voltron Force in the ballpark of their original concepts. It’s new, but doesn’t deviate too far away from the original. It’s recognizable. With Zarkon though, talk about a complete overhaul, save for his violet hue. What were you guys wanting for this new look?
Dos Santos: If we had to sum it up in one word: intimidation. We wanted to play Zarkon as a character that has been around so long and seen so much that he's beyond all the pomp and circumstance that accompanied the original character and his design. His gigantic crown and brightly colored robe were something we felt would be worn by an emperor who was still trying to prove to the universe that he was their leader.
Nrama: Much has been said by fans about the diversity of the new series. The changes to Allura were most notable, but some fans were surprised there wasn't more change. What are your thoughts about the diversity of Voltron: Legendary Defender?
Montgomery: I can't speak to what the audience sees in each character. I can only speak to what our intentions were, and I can say that we made certain to include multiple skin colors amongst our characters.
Shiro is definitely Japanese, as is evident by his name.
Hunk and Lance both have darker skin shades than the other characters.
And the world we tried to set our show in is one in the not so distant future where all countries are peaceful, working together, and many characters are multiethnic. It is rare that you would come across any human whose lineage can be traced only to one country of origin. We felt no need to specifically announce the characters’ bloodlines. If it doesn't come up within the story of the show, then it just doesn't come up. So we'll see where the story takes us in season two.
Nrama: With Allura not piloting the Blue Lion this time around, how would you define her role in the series? Do you think she'll eventually become a pilot later on?
Montgomery: We knew we wanted to make some large changes to Allura. Although she was a Voltron pilot in the original series, her depiction beyond that was still very much a product of its time, always centered around her beauty and whatever male character wanted to date or marry her at any time. She was often defaulting to the damsel in distress archetype.
Our Allura is an incredibly strong willed diplomat who feels a great responsibility for the plight of the universe and will stop at nothing to remedy it. She has the strongest ties back to Voltron and its creation, and even to the time when the war first broke out over 10,000 years ago. Her contribution to the team has nothing to do with her physical appearance and centers completely around her capability as the leader of the fight against the Galra.
Shiro may be the head of Voltron, but Allura is really the one in charge of the whole operation. They all look to her for guidance, and it's often she who makes the final call. But like any good leader, she takes the opinions of those around her into consideration and we see that she trusts Shiro's instincts when it comes to battling the Galra.
We really feel that our depiction of Allura has made her a much deeper and more relatable character, regardless of whether or not she pilots a Voltron lion. But we also haven't closed any doors to Allura. We've shown that our show is one in which characters evolve and roles can change over time. It's really up to where the story takes us.
Nrama: It seems like Keith was the character with the least character development. As the leader in the original series, he seems to have lost placement and been sort of shuffled about. How do you see Keith as a character and are you going to expand on him later?
Dos Santos: So this is a really interesting question. Because while Keith is not the leader in this series as he was in the original, I'd argue that we've given him some character and personality traits that set up a much deeper character by comparison, and ultimately allow the viewer to see him evolve and grow over the course of the series.
It's tough because this Keith is much more brooding this time around, so he doesn't speak as much as Lance, Hunk or even Coran for that matter, so it's a bit tough to get a bead on his exact personality. But we've seen that despite being a bit of a hothead he's the most gifted pilot of the bunch and without him I'm not sure they would have made it out of that first Robeast encounter. I'm actually really excited to see fan reaction to how Keith evolves moving forward.
Nrama: With a limited number of episodes per season, do you feel like your stories have been limited in what you can do in the time allotted? Was there perhaps something you wanted to put into this debut season, but couldn't find the room?
Dos Santos: As storytellers, I think there are always things you want to add or character arcs you'd like to track on a deeper level. It's especially tough when you have a team as big as Voltron’s, and you want to make sure everyone gets their time. But on the whole, I'd say that we've been pretty satisfied with our ability to convey a highly serialized storyline. And knowing for some time now that we'd be rolling out a second season, we've felt really comfortable with our ability to allow things to simmer, knowing they'll pay off down the line.
A good example is the fact that Voltron itself does not truly make an appearance until the third act of the first episode. If we're looking at that in a traditional 22-minute episode breakdown, that's the third episode of the series before the very robot the show is based on does its thing. But we're proud of that fact, because when it finally does happen we've set up a nice build and there is a real sense of accomplishment.
Nrama: There seems to be a lot of carryover from Avatar and Korra. You have Tim Hedrick, who wrote most of the episodes, as well as you guys, and it's being animated by Studio Mir to boot. What led to assembling some of Team Avatar once again for this project?
Dos Santos: Well we were lucky in the fact that we were just winding down on Korra when the opportunity to work on Voltron presented itself. So as far as deals go, the timing could not have been more perfect. As far as the crew, we just absolutely loved our experience working on Korra with both our stateside crew and overseas crews (Studio Mir), and have always been blown away by the quality of product that results in our crews coming together to create worlds. Beyond that, both Korra and Avatar leaned heavily into their anime influences, so as far as tone it just made sense.
Nrama: Am I crazy, or did we get a hint of Zarkon's rebellious son, Lotar, in episode 11?
Dos Santos: You might be crazy.
Nrama: I'll take that. [Laughs]
Lastly, so you were greenlit for a second season, what do you have plans or hopes for this time around with Voltron: Legendary Defender?
Dos Santos: As for the second season, we hope it's as well reviewed as the first. Honestly the reception of positivity we've received so soon after the show’s launch has been a bit overwhelming. We are incredibly proud of season two and feel like the characters are truly taking shape and evolving along with the show organically. Beyond that we're just really pushing ourselves to expand the universe as Voltron continues to battle the Galra and discover new and amazing worlds! And hopefully along the way we'll be able to shed some light on mysteries that were set up in season one.