Random Play: “Robotech”

Written by Random Play, Television

I barely knew him. Yet here I was, on a cold Tuesday night, at his apartment. We had had a drink or two at the bar/lounge/restaurant down the street from his place. As one would expect of a screenwriter, he had framed classic film posters on the walls, and a big bookshelf full of DVDs dominated the living room. I confess I remember only one, the one that made my breath catch and my heart skip a beat.

“Oh, yeah,” he said as I gently took it down and turned it over in my hands. “I wrote the first draft of the screenplay for that project.”

My face began to get hot. It was a sign. Despite his ponytail and potentially cheesy facial hair, I really was supposed to be here.

“To be honest,” he continued, “I don’t really like the source material much.”

Gentle reader, I wish I could say I walked out upon hearing this. But I didn’t. He did have excellent taste in literature, and despite the hair choices, he was definitely my type. Still, I should have taken a stand…in the name of the SDF-1.

robotech1[1]Robotech came to me unasked-for, as most wonderful things do. My teenage soulmate, Christopher, first exposed me to it. He and I were seated next to each other one year in math class, and found we much preferred passing goofy, irreverent notes to paying attention. Our communications evolved to full-fledged works of original fiction, all in the science-fiction/fantasy vein. I was fascinated with Chris’ unrestrained imagination and he appreciated my facility with prose. Our mutual admiration was only further strengthened when I joined the Church of Robotech, of which he was already a devoted member.

Those of a certain age will remember when Japanese animation – or to use the connoisseur’s phrase, “anime” – was not on every cable channel. Today, any kid knows about shows like Sailor Moon, DragonBall Z and Naruto, but Robotech was a whole different animal. A few of the most popular animated series from Japan, like Speed Racer, Star Blazers and (my personal favorite) Battle of the Planets, had been shown American TV in the ’60s and ’70s, but mostly in an edited, dumbed-down form believed to be more palatable to our impressionable youngsters. So some L.A. nut cases with time on their hands decided to try to maintain the operatic, loopy, teen-angsty spirit of the original shows and brought us Robotech, a multi-part sci-fi drama (85 episodes total) about planet Earth being embroiled in a global civil war, then attacked by aliens, its surface completely scorched and its population decimated, then invaded by different aliens and used as a massive plantation until finally, humans are able to get their shit together and take it back. It ain’t like Voltron, where every frickin’ episode ends with a hearty laugh and a freeze-frame. Several key characters die violently, and the world is, as I mentioned, laid to waste. However, there’s also plenty of romance (often cross-racial and/or cross-species) to give the viewer something to continue living for, in addition to space giants, tons of clones, and a singing cross-dresser.

Chris set his VCR every morning to record the show and had kept virtually every episode. I borrowed his tapes and spent many subsequent evenings immersing myself in a wide-eyed, spiky-haired future world where, between battles, a teenage fighter pilot could find himself in a love triangle with a squeaky-voiced pageant queen and his own castrating but passionate superior officer. (Three guesses which girl I rooted for.) I’m sure someone could write a book (if they haven’t already) about why the Japanese are so fond of cartoons wherein the planet is blown to smithereens and giggling adolescent girls are equally as likely to break a guy’s neck as to kiss him; however, mine was not to question why, mine was merely to luxuriate in the heady mix of machinery (a.k.a. “mecha”) and mating, of explosions both literal and figurative. I had always found myself a bit torn between “boy fun” and “girl fun,” dodgeball vs. dollhouse, the aggression of masculine play vs. the feminine attachment to (melo)drama; Robotech provided a satisfying infusion of each.

When one becomes a devotee of a niche genre, all kinds of craziness comes into one’s life. One can shrink from it or one can embrace it. I chose the latter. My Robotech fixation was the gateway to full-fledged anime fandom, which in turn led to a rather expensive convention habit: a couple times a year, I would drop a C-note or more of my allowance savings on posters, T-shirts and bootlegs from faraway Nippon. Though I had begun as something of a follower, I necessarily became a leader when Chris’ family moved away, leaving me, heartbroken, to continue running the anime fan club we had started up at school. (It was still going strong over a decade later.) My bosom buddy and I were eventually estranged by time and distance, but Robotech remains a source of pleasure and a point of connection, no matter where I go in life. Even in adulthood, I continue to discover fellow Friends of Miriya, and if I do say so myself, we are a pretty bad-ass crew, in our mega-geek fashion. (For the record, I don’t dress up, but that’s just my cowardice.)

These thoughts and others raced through my mind as I held the Robotech DVD box set and listened while my new screenwriter acquaintance explained that he had been hired to adapt my beloved cartoon space opera into a live action film script, but had really only used the show itself as an “outline,” preferring to produce something more “profound” and “believable” than the original. Sadly – or happily, depending on how you look at it – his draft was not a hit with the egos in charge, and had subsequently been passed on to a more experienced, more famous writer (believe me, you know his work), who apparently couldn’t get a handle on it either. The movie’s release is currently scheduled for 2012, the year we are all supposed to die. So maybe Rick, Lisa, Minmei, Zor Prime and Rook Bartley just aren’t destined for the big screen, or for mainstream audiences. Not every good idea needs to be handed over to the masses. Perhaps after all, Robotech’s complicated, messy, overwrought character is best appreciated by complicated, messy, overwrought people, and not by pretentious industry types who are duds in the sack.