Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Reflections on Macrophilia Part 3: Ambivalence and the Robotech EM

You would think, if my focus were primarily on a Macross element, I would have nothing to do with Robotech after my initial probing. Instead, many strange things happened, and matters instead branched off into two basic forks: the Robotech expanded multiverse (most of it currently deemed unofficial) and the mainstream Macross continuity.

I experienced both sides more or less simultaneously, and in the end, I couldn't discard either of them for the sake of my interest in Zentradi. Macross is good for the Zentradi as a whole group, but the specific approach to certain characters leaves something to be desired, and in Robotech (at least, the old novels and comics) is good for some certain Zentradi, but the general handling of the race is godawful.

By the time I came on the scene, there had already been scads of Robotech comics and a novel series published, and all long out of print and recently declared “not canon”. Yet since the material still existed, and contained some Zentradi stories, I wanted to take a crack at it.

Initially I devoured almost everything in the Robotech EM without thought to quality or consequence, initially distracted by the shine of works that actually thought about my favourite characters and offered them further growth. I soon realized that everything was largely a garbage pile that few sane fans would bother with, but even after realizing that, I still stuck with the Robotech EM because of those very small things related to the Zentradi.

The big beast of the Robotech apocrypha was a1986 project called Robotech II: The Sentinels. It was originally going to be an animated television “sequel” to Robotech, actually a side story about the Macross characters and their journey to Tirol, the homeworld of the Robotech Masters (characters from the second segment). This Robotech Expeditionary Force ended up working with a group of local alien rebels (the titular Sentinels) to free their nearby planets from the mutual threat of The Invid (whose other faction formed the villain of the third Robotech segment), as well as dealing with a coup attempt within their ranks.

The Sentinels project rapidly fizzled, though it briefly survived in a an animated “pilot” using some of the footage that had been produced, separate comic and novel adaptations, some other released plans and scripts, and scattered references in the eventual rebooted continuity.

If judged by the standards of the other popular American cartoons of the 1980s, the Sentinels outlines seen about on par. But when compared to anything else, even the original Robotech dub, The Sentinels was bad or at least looked like it could have been.

It didn’t add any new or compelling facets to most of the returning cast, made a muck of continuity, and the new characters were largely ciphers, with some truly awful character designs and a flimsy backstory. The novel version introduces some interesting ideas that challenged Robotech’s previous boundaries, but overall, it is difficult to find much to praise Robotech II: the Sentinels for in terms of its concepts.

Because they already received a sense of completeness within the Macross series the return of the main Macross characters in The Sentinels feels particularly forced and artificial, all of the sequel stories seem to struggle with what to do with them. As a result, the returning Rick, Lisa, Max, and Miriya feel empty and generic, or are simply mucked with.

But what draws me to The Sentinels is some aspects of the portrayal of Exedore and Breetai. With these characters, there was some potential character development left to work with, which is why they get more out of that story, however brief their scenes are. This is the reason that I cannot stay mad at the thing, no matter how savage a critique I build up inside my head.

It goes against all the laws of the universe for the Robotech novels to do anything compelling or interesting with a Macross character; even I’m not sure how it happened. Yet however it did, Sentinels Exedore, primarily as portrayed in the novels, was what helped define, shape, and elevate my interest in the character as a whole, and was a very welcome change from what the more visible continuities did with him.

While Exedore was a minor character in the Sentinels novels, the books still furthered his character growth, having Exedore become more emotional and more expressive, while remaining recognizable. Exedore plays an important role in figuring out several key things in the novels, and is present for climactic events. His kinder personality implies that he has overcome the blues he had at the end of the TV series, now twenty years in the past. Readers’ mileage may vary, finding him too “soft”, but he preserves a core of stoicism and clarity.

All of this gives me a sense that Exedore has finally gained that complete character arc, and now has become a richer being, opening the door for the fuller life and deeper explorations that I would conduct at my own fannish leisure.

Sentinels Exedore is not a seamless re-creation. On some levels he simply can’t be, since he was not the product of the original creators; in a more concrete sense, he has a few minor out-of-character moments and personal errors. The novels also do not make it clear where Exedore actually ends up when the storyline finishes, though he does survive. Overall, however, I was very happy with this angle. It aligned perfectly with what I wanted out of Exedore, and felt “right” to me. I accepted it. Because his existence offered a completed character arc, Sentinels Exedore was the reason that I became as big a fan of the character as I did.

In the case of Breetai and the Robotech expanded multiverse, of course the first thing everyone remembers is that, due to being unable to use the original character design, The Sentinels depicted a human-sized Breetai with a ridiculous bucket-helmet on, and this was how he would have looked in the animated series had it been completed. Fortunately, the comics and the novels had the freedom to use the original design for Breetai, and both versions had Classic Breetai back by the second volume (though through a set of contrived circumstances).

Breetai was also planned to be killed off, and the first death scene that made it into print was dreadful. In a extremely out-of-character moment, Breetai has the revelation that he and the Invid Regent must kill each other to complete the cycle of battle between Zentradi and Invid. Thus, Breetai turns his battle with the Invid Regent into a suicidal conflict, pinning the Regent so that he cannot escape, and the two of them destroy each other.

I’m not happy with either Breetai’s buckethead design or his death scene (though I’m probably less angry about Buckethead Breetai than I should be). But placed between them was some character development for Breetai in the novels, too.

This character development included a Zentradi love interest named Kazianna Hesh. Though she was likely only created to prove Breetai’s virility (the last remaining part of his otherwise complete macho awesomeness), Kazianna was more likeable and more “alive” than she had any right to be. In fact, she was the second character after Exedore that I named myself a fan of as an individual being, and to this day the only female Zentradi I like unreservedly. Kazianna was strong, focused, and playful, knew what she wanted and went for it, and unlike the other female Zentradi of her era, appeared to have control of her situation rather than swept along by fate.

Moreover, there was the sense that Breetai was himself a late bloomer who was still detached from human culture until Kazianna came along, while his troops were growing into it far faster. This acknowledgement helped humanize Breetai even more, but never took away from his power. For as long as he lasted, Breetai also became the leader of the new Zentradi civilization.

Despite what could be nitpicked, seeing Exedore and Breetai fully “grow up” and add new aspects to their lives was tremendously appealing. The imagery got a lock on my fandom consciousness, so that any depiction of Breetai and Exedore that did not suggest they had expanded or altered their own roles and selves following the SDF-1 era felt incomplete.

While intellectually I understood that an exploration of Exedore and Breetai beyond the TV series was non-essential and a good story should know when to end and leave the viewers wanting more, I’m entitled to a little bit of greed now and then. Besides, I always did feel that the writers left a loose end when not making it clear if Exedore had overcome his brief bit of angst near the end of the series.

The Sentinels-era Zentradi also end up claiming a planet of their own to build their civilization on, which I thought was pretty cool for the independence it suggested, though I had several issues with that premise and matters related to it, which will be discussed below.

Rico, Bron, and Konda never appeared in the Sentinels novels, as they had sadly been killed off behind the scenes in the TV series novels, due to factors that were conflictingly explained. This is a sore point, especially since the authors had also made the effort to connect them to the main cast by making them the caretakers of Max and Miriya’s daughter Dana before their deaths.

They seem to die only to give Dana an excuse to angst, when she already has plenty. As if the stagnation caused by death wasn’t enough, the trio are depicted pining away over their first girlfriends, female members of the bridge crew who were written as killed in the Robotech dub. They had no apparent interested in dating again, not that they had much of a chance afterwards.

 I thought it the most natural thing in the world that Rico, Bron, and Konda, should be able to live and make something of themselves, continuing the theme of Zentradi “adulthood”. Given their level of intelligence, I didn’t expect them to amount to much, but I pictured them as the sort of people who live comfortably in the same low-end job for the rest of their lives.

However, the novels handled the revelation of their deaths with some attempt at warmth and sensitivity, and this may have had a role in making me understand that I did like these characters after all.

Robotech apocrypha also offered the Malcontent Uprisings/The Zentradi Rebellion, a comic miniseries and its extended novel version which chronicled a Zentradi backlash against the humans following the Macross portion of the original TV series, alongside Miriya’s conflict with a friend from her days in the Zentradi army. The concept fascinates me in several ways, primarily in the appeal of fighting for a happy conclusion, but the actual story was interesting only in small ways. Ultimately, both versions of this story were more about the affects of this rebellion on humanity than on the Zentradi characters, which was a wasted opportunity.

Zentradi-wise, the Uprisings stories made Miriya into a more complex character by giving her internal conflicts, acknowledging that she had a life outside of Max, and making humanity’s reaction to her more suspicious and varied. However, the miniseries only briefly dwelt on the other major Zentradi characters. The comics only have a one-issue story where Breetai tries to infiltrate the Zentradi weapons-dealing underground, during which he has no strong interaction with the established characters, and a cameo by a disgruntled-looking Exedore in the final issue. The novel also seriously short-changed the male Zentradi characters, turning Exedore and Breetai into little more than Voices of Doom and Rico, Bron, and Konda into completely oblivious airheads, which they not entirely were in the TV series...just close to it.

The Uprisings also tried very hard to push the notion of “The Zentradi Imperative” an ingrained combat urge that was driving their remaining population all over the world to kill and destroy. That was a huge narrative cop-out, removing the responsibility, and thus the potential for change, from the Zentradi and corrupting the themes of the Macross story. In addition, even with a military as simplistic as the Zentradi’s, the mere urge to kill is not enough to form a workable military force, and so a universal inclination towards aggression makes little sense.

I did enjoy that the Uprisings presented female Zentradi as equally culpable in causing trouble and equally susceptible to the Imperative. Such a condition only makes sense, but other writers seem to be reluctant to show female Zentradi as a genuine danger to humans following the first war.

The Imperative also existed beside this weird attempt to make the Zentradi into more typical “warrior aliens”, mostly due to the work of Robotech comics writer Bill Spangler. Through him, the Zentradi received a harsh and grating native language that included concepts like “kara-brek” (honourable death) and “kara-thun” (a ‘death dance’ where condemned prisoners are allowed one last chance to fight their executioners), as well as a greater interest in values of honour and fidelity to Zentradi-dom.

This really didn’t work for me, as it contradicts one of the smaller appeals of the original Zentradi. Arguably, a main point of the Zentradi’s story is that there is no glory or honour in their lives: even if some individuals may take pride in their work, Zentradi they are simply doing what they are told to do, rather than it being a true “warrior culture”.  Other warrior aliens have chosen to be what they were, and have at least a bit more to their lives than fighting, but the Zentradi do not have that luxury. They are much more pathetic than their counterparts in other SF series, in the truest sense of invoking pity.

The old comics also contained a few other small Zentradi stories besides these, but mostly they were forgettable. I retained a soft spot for some, like Bill Spangler’s utterly trashy Zentradi prequel comics, or Bruce Lewis’ Hohsq’s Story, which wrapped the intriguing idea of an independent Zentradi settlement into a lot of empty clich├ęs and truly awful artwork.

No matter how much I criticize the Robotech expanded universe, certain tidbits are indispensible, enough to sustain an interest in Robotech for a good while. That later realization of the material’s fundamental lack of quality didn’t seem to change that; I don't quite understand it either.

It is especially confusing since there are some notable problems with the Zentradi treatment in the Robotech EM, problems that are most obvious in the novels. I cannot deny these issues, and they don’t exist comfortably alongside what I do enjoy.

One of those problems is the reveal (only part of Robotech) that the Zentradi were created originally as high-gravity-resistant miners for the planet Fantoma before their creators’ imperial ambitions lead to their being reconditioned as warriors. Before that, Zentradi had even formed a crude civilization on Fantoma, whose ruins exist for Breetai to find in the second Sentinels novel, as he recalls his past life as a workaholic miner.

This return of memories is explained only vaguely, but more important, the entire Fantoma story distorts the themes of the original series. Their story is far less poignant if the Zentradi already knew something of civilization before human contact, even if it was a crude version. Furthermore, though the Zentradi begin to form a new independent civilization on Fantoma, the bleak rocky world seems like no place for living.

Sure, the original Macross contained a storyline about Earth’s remaining population living and thriving on a scorched planet with all modern conveniences, but the conditions of Fantoma are much harsher. The only logical reason Zentradi might settle on Fantoma is out of an attachment to their original “home”, but I could not accept Fantoma as an adequate “home” for the Zentradi when that storyline was such a misfire, and the novel writers never tried to explain the Zentradi’s reasoning, anyway.

Things also get worse for the Zentradi. The novels also sport an unrealistic understanding of how long it should have taken Zentradi to start interbreeding with humans and themselves. First, human/Zentradi hybrids, despite the two races’ established genetic compatibility being an important plot point previously, are in the books somehow so difficult to conceive that only two exist, and one is killed. The other, Dana Sterling, is also viewed as a rare and powerful genetic anomaly in spite of the genetic similarities between the two races.

Also, it is strongly implied that Zentradi did not produce their own children until Breetai and Kazianna’s son Drannin was conceived, almost twenty years after the peace. The reasons for either condition are never explained and do not gel with the Zentradi’s speedy adaptation of other aspects of human culture, nor the optimistic nature of their original storyline.

Finally, Zentradi numbers are reduced by scores. There are only a handful of Zentradi left alive by the end of the Sentinels war, being practically an endangered species. Actual extinction is not in the cards, since the Zentradi are rebuilding their numbers the old-fashioned way by the end, but except for Exedore and Miriya, they are all now operating on Fantoma.

The original REF mission had only a small contingent of Zentradi warriors to begin with, though, and the real problem is the way that the rest of the Zentradi population is handled. Before the second part of Robotech, they have virtually lost interest in integration with humans. Except for the doomed spy trio, they confine themselves to the orbiting Factory Satellite. The reasons unexplored until the novel Before the Invid Storm, and in that book, human persecution leading up to and following the Malcontent Uprisings are responsible for that exodus.

Not only have the Earth Zentradi exiled themselves en masse, but they revert to their original sexually-segregated conditions and the males all die off after apparently losing the will to live. The females, though more active, eventually follow in their own time, refusing an explicit offer of freedom and independence. While some complexity among Zentradi reactions and adjustments makes for a more realistic story, this screaming racial fatalism is utterly confusing. How does it fit with the previous storylines? What does it add to the plot? The answer is absolutely nothing at all. There is no reason for the Zentradi to almost die out, especially not through their own will by applying some kind of insane prideful fatalism.

The writers certainly didn’t seem like sadists, but the Zentradi’s actions are so contradictory to what the Macross part established, and so inexplicable, that on some levels it’s even hard for me to take it all seriously. Yet however it is interpreted, this is what I mean when I say that the Robotech EM is worse for the Zentradi in the more general sense. I could see the Fantoma/Sentinels treatment as the product of clunky writing, and there were some pleasant aspects to that Zentreadi story, but the handling of them in Before the Invid Storm seems outright cruel.

As to the single characters, things are still a little muddy, despite my larger happiness with them. I’ve explained by my issues with the deaths of Breetai and the trio, and some of Breetai’s best interaction with Kazianna is tainted a bit because it is part of a visit to Fantoma and Breetai’s recollections of the past life. Kazianna herself, despite how much personality shines through her stereotypical role, still is underdeveloped.

The story also makes a big deal out of Exedore having to remain permanently Micronized, when the only Zentradi sizing chamber breaks down and he has to face that bravely. This scene hooked me early and reinforced the possibility that Exedore might not only be a creature of appeal but of integrity, which “The Messenger” also demonstrated. However, thinking it over again, that premise for that scene seems highly unrealistic. Where did all the other sizing chambers go to begin with?

The friendship between the Sterling family and Rico, Bron, and Konda is also never deeply explored or even clearly defined. With the material that’s provided, a reader might get the impression that while they took care of Dana, Miriya never talked with her own daughter about Zentradi heritage, and never had much interaction with the trio, either. That feels more like writer’s oversight than a deliberate statement that Max and Miriya only used them as free babysitters and didn’t really care about them, but it’s a portrayal I would rather do without.

Miriya herself is a problematic character in the Sentinels novels, and without the compensation that the male Zentradi characters have. She is largely just another body to fill a cockpit and speak some generic lines…until she becomes pregnant, and her child turns out to be a mini-messiah who is for some reason named “Aurora”.

Throughout Aurora’s gestation, Miriya becomes a woozy, fainting damsel in distress, and after her daughter is born, both she and Max inexplicably retire from the military to tend to their supernatural daughter, whom they accept unreservedly. The end of the novel series briefly mentions that Max and Miriya, former fighter jocks, become Earth’s ambassadors to Tirol/Fantoma...for some reason.

The novels and comics are not considered canon to Robotech anymore, but there is so much stuff to at least talk about, and to build my personal fandom on, that I’m not going to care if it is apocryphal. It is probably a testament to the many problems with Robotech that I elected to take this route, since I haven’t wanted to subvert canon for any other fandom.

The newly canonical Robotech continuations don’t have much for this, good or bad. When creator group Harmony Gold decided to reboot the expanded Robotech continuity in the aughts, Prelude to the Shadow Chronicles was published, a five-issue comic miniseries meant to display the final stages of an ambiguous rebooted Sentinels storyline and serve as the lead-in to a new series of animated Robotech features. The only film produced was Robotech: the Shadow Chronicles, part of a new era for Robotech that doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere since. I just stopped caring after a while.

In Prelude, Breetai and Exedore are redesigned yet again. Breetai is back in his Buckethead mode, though not quite as goofy-looking, while Exedore is reworked almost to the point of being unrecognizable, looking more like Benjamin Franklin with bug eyes. Both are then quickly and unceremoniously killed off: Breetai in being destroyed by the corrupt general T.R. Edwards while occupied with battling the Invid Regent, Exedore in an incoherently-staged military testing accident. The exact fate of Miriya is never given, as she never even appears.

Zentradi are also otherwise never seen or referred to outside of those same comics which killed Exedore and Breetai, which has lead some readers to conclude that Zentradi have become extinct in Robotech. The behind-the-scenes reason is that, moreso than in the era of the Robotech EM, the producers of Robotech are worried about legal interference with the Macross franchise, which means that the Zentradi are to be avoided by any means.

However, this is only an imagining, a question that will never be answered because of the legal issues, and so it does not concern me. The deaths of Exedore and Breetai in Prelude to the Shadow Chronicles do not affect me because they are such quick, insipid moments, with no build-up or context or characterization to them. They could have been any other guys, for all the comic tells us about who they are and what they’ve done before they die. I cannot even truly acknowledge them as the same beloved characters, which might have been the fate of Sentinels Exedore and Sentinels Breetai if they had failed to live up to expectations.

Having the novels and older comics to fall back on further reduces the impact of Shadows Exedore and Shadows Breetai.  The quality of these is no better than the modern Robotech continuations, but the older works do feel more vibrant. The Sentinels novels and comics feel more “real” to me than those works deemed official. In a vague way, I chose that as my personal ending to the story of Robotech, even though the adaptations are incompatible with the TV series and there are many things I would change.

There’s really not much at the end of it but just taking the good pieces out of the Robotech EM and putting them to my own use, while regretting a bunch of other things. The fact is, without the additional development the novels offered for my favourite characters, I wouldn’t have grown to like them as much as I do now, and so whatever the other issues, I am not letting go of Robotech.

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