Year of the Robot, Part 2: The Golden Age for Transformers, GoBots, and Voltron

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Dec 18, 2014, 5:18 PM EST

Thirty years ago, a tidal wave that changed the world of science fiction forever swept over American television. Transformers, Mighty Orbots and Voltron all debuted on U.S. airwaves in September of 1984. Challenge of the GoBots followed in October. All four of these shows involved giant robots, originally hailed from Asia and captivated kids the world over.

What was behind this all-out assault of Japanese mechanical men? Why did Transformers succeed while the rest faded into various levels of cultural obscurity? We talk to some of the most important minds behind all four shows and get the inside story on the year of the cartoon robots in a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1, in which we kicked things off with a look at the origins of the phenomenon. In Part 2, we dive into the golden age ... and find out how it came to an end. Click here for Part 3, in which Transformers rises while others fall.

Common Ground

Animation in the early 1980s was a much smaller market than it is now, and voice actors, especially, found themselves taking a very diverse assortment of jobs. One actor who found fame from his work in the world of robots is Peter Cullen, who has voiced Optimus Prime since the first episode of the cartoon in 1984 and continues to do so in the live-action movies. But Transformers wasn't Cullen's only gig in 1984. He also provided the voices of evil robots Tank, Spoiler and Pincher on Challenge of the GoBots and narrated Voltron. When Cullen auditioned for the part of Optimus Prime, he bounced the role off of his brother Larry, who offered some sage advice. "Well, if you're going to be a hero, be a real hero. Don't be a Hollywood stereotypical thing with the yelling and screaming. Be strong enough to be gentle." Cullen took that wisdom to heart and gave Prime a rich, soothing baritone that quickly became iconic.

Frank Welker, who has been voicing Decepticon leader Megatron for as long as Cullen has been playing his opposite, also worked on Challenge of the GoBots as annoying sidekick Scooter. Because the structure of GoBots didn't allow for much character development, there were a lot of "robot of the week" episodes where a different toy would get the spotlight, and that led to some pretty ridiculous casting, including Phil Hartman as police car "Hans Cuff." B.J. Ward, who voiced Haggar on Voltron, did time in the ranks of the GoBots as well.

Five Lions

World Events Productions, operating out of St. Louis, Mo., seemed like an unlikely place to bring giant robot anime to American television. The company started out by producing a daily current-events program on KPLR. While at a science fiction convention, WEP owner Ted Koplar saw a bootleg videotape of some Japanese anime and was immediately captivated. He realized that the quality of the animation was far superior to anything on U.S. TV at the time and contacted Toei to license the rights.

What's interesting is that Koplar actually requested a different show from Toei. "We had requested to be shipped Daltanius, also a show about a giant robot, which featured a lion head for a chest. However, we did not have the show's title, and thus had to describe it. Not knowing a word of Japanese, and our counterparts knowing very little English, we asked for 'the show with the lion.' This triggered an instant recognition, and the show they sent was, of course, GoLion."

The mix-up was in WEP's favor, as GoLion was a more engaging show with a better cast of characters and villains. Koplar put a team together to localize the show, creating a new backstory and English names for the show's pilots and villains. Writer Marc Handler was one of the show's original writers, and he describes the difficulty of writing around the original animation. "We didn't know anything in advance in Voltron, we didn't know where the story was going. One writer had no idea of what the other writer was doing. We were really going blind."

Unlike many other Japanese series that were adapted for U.S. audiences (such as Astro Boy), GoLion had some serious content issues that needed to be dealt with. The violence was way beyond anything American audiences were used to, with beheadings and other grisly scenes punctuating the giant robot action. In addition, the setting of the series -- an Earth devastated by thermonuclear war -- really wasn't going to fly. Koplar, working with producers John Teichmann and Peter Keefe, adapted all 52 of the original GoLion episodes and then hired Toei to create 24 more from scratch based on the demand.

You've Got the Touch

1984 and 1985 were the golden years for the transforming robot trend. In addition to the four we've covered here, a host of other companies tried to grab a slice of the market. Remco had Zybots, Buddy-L had Robo-Tron, and discount stores sold Mysterians, Convertors, Robo Force and other knock-offs. Lots of cash was being made.

Most of these bootlegs were made in Hong Kong. Because the original Takara and Bandai toys had been available in Japan for a year or so, it was trivial for unscrupulous toy companies to buy the toy, disassemble it and use it to cast a mold. Interestingly enough, some Transformers toys actually arrived in the United States as bootlegs first before getting an official Hasbro release -- the three-part Decepticon camera Reflector is the most notable example.

South Korea was also a hotbed for bootleg production and sales during the 1980s. Bootleg culture was so pervasive during that era that there were even animated movies produced that involved some of the bootleg robots, most notably Phoenix King, which featured a modified version of the Autobot fire truck, Inferno.

Hasbro quickly acted to differentiate official Transformers from bootlegs. In early 1985, the first Transformers with rubsigns were released. As opposed to the traditional metallic stickers that marked robots as Autobots or Decepticons, these new labels were composed of a heat-sensitive material that displayed the symbol when rubbed. Because this technology was relatively new and expensive to produce, only Hasbro could deploy it in the market.

First to Fall

Mighty Orbots went off the air in December of 1984 after just 13 episodes were aired. ABC found itself on the wrong end of a lawsuit from Tonka, who claimed that the show's premise was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of GoBots -- despite that show premiering after Mighty Orbots. The problem was back in Japan.

The combined form of the Mighty Orbots was modeled after a Japanese toy known as GodMarz, part of Bandai's Machine Robo line -- the same line that Tonka had the rights for in the United States. So, even though the company hadn't produced an American version of that toy, they certainly could have. And if that toy portrayed a robot from on a competing TV show? Major problem.

Ratings were also an issue -- although Mighty Orbots was the most-watched new ABC show of the fall 1984 season, it was programmed against The Smurfs and Muppet Babies, two of the most dominant Saturday morning cartoons of their era. Producer Fred Silverman's other efforts for the network had been flops, so they were eager to distance themselves from him.

Lions Away

Voltron only lasted for a pair of seasons, for obvious reasons. With only so much source material, producers had to explore other options. WEP paid Toei to animate 24 episodes written specifically for the U.S. market, but the expense was too great to justify making more. The show's second season abandoned the iconic lions in favor of recycling footage from Armored Fleet Dairugger XV, another Japanese show about vehicles that combine to create a tremendous robot.

The issues with using Dairugger as source material became painfully apparent early on. Instead of the iconic five pilots from the first season, the vehicles that made up the new Voltron had a staggering 15 drivers split between land, sea and air machines. The story was also less engaging, featuring an exploration team from the Galaxy Alliance looking for new planets to solve their overpopulation problem. It's telling that, when the show is brought back for syndication, typically only the first season is shown.

A third season of Voltron was originally planned, using a show called Lightspeed Electroid Albegas as the base, but the failure of the second season, coupled with the strong sales of the lion toys, convinced WEP that it wasn't worth it to try and make lightning strike twice.

GoBots Go Home

After Transformers hit the airwaves, the clunky, limited storylines of GoBots immediately seemed like a relic of a bygone era. In keeping with the blazingly fast production schedule of other Hanna-Barbera shows, a staggering 60 episodes were produced in 1985. But as soon as the boom happened, the bust followed. Sales of GoBots toys dropped from $132 million in 1985 to $25 million in 1986. Tonka ran out of Bandai figures to bring over and paid the company a sizable sum for just six new designs, none of which worked to revitalize the line.

In addition, by the middle of 1985 the pecking order had been established on playgrounds around the United States: GoBots were for poor kids. Even though the small figures were comparatively higher-quality compared to Transformers like Bumblebee, the level of characterization and world-building in the Transformers universe was overwhelmingly better. Each Transformer had personality, whereas GoBots were mostly interchangeable.

With the toy line tanking, Hanna-Barbera didn't think it was financially feasible to produce another season of Challenge of the GoBots. The studio instead decided to focus on a feature film to compete with the recently announced Transformers: The Movie. We'll see how that worked out in a little bit.

Transform and Roll Out

The Transformers animated series was the last one to leave the airwaves, after four wildly diverse seasons.

The first 13 episodes were closely interrelated into a long storyline. Moving forward, the producers decided to quickly make enough material to meet a weekday syndication order, which was 65 episodes. One of the negative effects of syndication production was the need to create programming that could be broadcast out of sequence at the channel's discretion, so season two shifted focus onto "done in one" episodes, many of which revolved around one or two robots. To keep up with Hasbro's introduction of new toys, characters were added to the series at a breakneck pace.

In 1986, after the release of Transformers: The Movie, the third season of the cartoon shifted locales back to Cybertron. Writer Flint Dille took over as story editor, and storylines returned to a more mature direction that emphasized inter-episode continuity. The action shifted from the familiar Earth locations seen in the first two seasons to the outer-space milieu of the movie. Unfortunately, many of Dille's ideas were blunted by the decision to hire Korean studio AKOM for half of the season's episodes. The animation quality took a significant nosedive, and ratings -- which had previously been strong -- started to fall.

Season four consisted only of a three-part miniseries titled "The Rebirth," which focused on the bizarre Headmasters characters (human-sized characters transformed into the heads of bigger robots) and introduced a new planet called Nebulos.

Hasbro kept the show on the air in reruns for several years after that, repackaging material from the first two seasons with new bumpers featuring primitive computer animation and a massive Optimus Prime puppet, but the golden age for the show, and for animated transforming robots on television, was over.

Tune in tomorrow for the third and final part of our look at the golden age of transforming robots, including Transformers heading to the big screen (twice), and the twilight of the Gobots.