Voltron: Legendary Defender arrived on Netflix with a new take on the Voltron franchise back in 2016—and for the most part, it was insanely popular. Right until it’s conclusion in 2018, with a final season that garnered a . . . poor reception from audiences.
A very poor reception from audiences.
To date, speaking at all about season 8 will only provoke the masses on Tumblr and Reddit to engage in arguments about whether it’s “death” was about LGBT+ representation, suspicious mistakes in audio descriptions (potentially indicating over-editing of the season), or if it was because of fan meddling.
(While I don’t agree with some of her points, writer Taylor summarizes the fandom’s problems with season 8 quite well with her season analysis: A By-The-Numbers Look At The Disaster That Was ‘Voltron’ Season 8. I will refer to these incidents, but they’re not relevant to this particular discussion.)
It’s easy to assume that these points could be why Voltron‘s final season was “a disaster”, but I believe that both representation and characterisation were not the lynch pins that caused its ultimately poor reception, and instead were additional failures brought on by a massive change of theme for the series.
The beginning of Voltron‘s fizzled ending can be traced to season 7, with a risky two-parter of an episode.
The high of season 6
When I watch episodes The Black Paladins, All Good Things, and Defender of All Universes, I watch them with headphones on, lights off, and popcorn ready. These are the epitome of Voltron—I believe them to be the absolute best of the series. They take everything that’s happened over the last four seasons, bake them into a delicious cake, and then put that cake into a well-decorated box for fans to enjoy. They are the all-time high of Voltron: Legendary Defender.
Defender of All Universes has this strange twist where, after the ultimate battle with antagonist Lotor, it spends its final five minutes stacking on more plot turns and twists than the previous two episodes combined.
- Lotor is defeated, the lions return to space;
- Space is in danger because Lotor jumping in and out of the Quintessence field has created holes in reality (a clever call-back to S3 episode Hole in the Sky);
- In order to close these holes, they must sacrifice the Castle of Lions;
- Everything is packed onto the lions, and they get the hell out of dodge and land on a planet somewhere;
- Shiro is revived.
The sudden jerk from “yes we defeated the Galra empire!” to “oh snap we’re now stuck on a planet with no quick way to get home anymore” is sudden and unexpected, but it works in the episode’s context. The momentum never stops, and with Lotor no longer in the picture, it came at an appropriate time and serves as a catalyst for the next season. Spending season 7 going home, journeying through the perils through space, sounds like a great sci-fi premise anyone can get behind. However, it pushes the show into a corner and a standard of quality it had no hope of upholding.
Because if the sky’s the limit, where do you go once you end up in space? Voltron argues that you should return to your home on the ground.
With season 6 aired, and all the plot points of the last three seasons wrapped up with a nice little bow (mostly), the staff had to approach season 7 intending to get the paladins home. That was always a given. The first six episodes of season 7 are great for the most part. The train is travelling well. The Journey Within serves as an accumulation of the experiences of all paladins as they lose the lions and have to work as a team once more, having been isolated to their cockpits for the better half of this season (it also serves as a tripping element in the series—because at the episode’s conclusion, they reach Earth, which I feel was a huge creative mistake). Regardless, the rest of the season must be super after such a strong episode, right?
Well . . . yes and no. The next episode, The Last Stand, is where the train begins to derail.
Take a look back at the season 7 trailer:
The trailer focuses on the paladins being the paladins. Most, if not all shots, originate from the first six episodes of the season. This isn’t unheard of for a television series, but The Last Stand marks a major tonal change in Voltron that the trailer would not have been able to successfully sell to viewers.
Season 7 episodes 7 & 8: The Last Stand
Don’t get me wrong: The Last Stand are two very respectable episodes that were well received by the viewership. There is nothing horrible about them. We’ll approach them as a single entity rather than looking at them side by side.
For 56 episodes, Voltron had been a fun space action/adventure with seven primary protagonists defending the universe. Only hints to the Galaxy Garrison occur—this is their origin and explanation for military skills used in the series. Viewers don’t consider them as your typical soldiers or “officers”, but after six seasons being independent to themselves, Voltron now wants to fold you back into Earth’s reality, and use a set of rules that our characters had never needed to abide by until now.
The eye-opening episode about self-discovery that concluded with finally arriving at Earth in The Journey Within is suddenly overwhelmed by the military grinder that is The Last Stand. That build up to arriving home gets eclipsed with a flash-back episode, that has none of the paladins present. Though the paladins finally see Earth in episode 6, they don’t actually arrive until episode 9.
For a show that’s primarily about some teenagers finding themselves and kicking ass in mechanical lions, The Last Stand is a long-ass 40 minutes of catch-up exposition about the horrors of war on a planet we’ve only really seen in the pilot episode.
In fact, many of fandom’s problems could be traced back to The Last Stand.
- The season’s momentum grinds to a screeching halt with this flashback episode trying to explain what’s happened on Earth over the last four years (because it weakly establishes that a long time has passed between Voltron’s fight with Lotor and the season’s opening, that the paladin’s are unaware of).
- After six seasons, we’re no longer in space, and are confined to the ground of Earth with Sam and Matt Holt’s failing plight to convince the Galaxy Garrison that invasion is coming and that they should prepare (cue everyone’s shocked Pikachu meme face when Sendak drops on their heads).
- It introduces the series’ arguably worst secondary antagonist in Admiral Sanda.
- Shiro’s newly established backstory ex-boyfriend Adam is killed within ten seconds of him appearing on screen.
- I didn’t even realise this when I first watched the episodes, only realising it when someone posted it on Reddit, having believed only mooks were killed off.
- It introduces a new cast of paladin-esq characters we have to keep track of.
Despite being a solid episode, you could skip The Last Stand and not have missed very much. Its successor Know Your Enemy goes right back to the paladins racing toward Earth, and then they’re caught up on screen. Viewers essentially go through the same amount of backstory, flashback, and exposition (sans Sanda’s explained problematic command, which was likely the underlying purpose behind The Last Stand), twice, the second time being abbreviated—which leaves you wondering why you watched The Last Stand at all!
The Last Stand serves to establish the new rules of the show. No longer can the paladins decide for themselves as a team; now they have to run plans of action through people who weren’t part of the picture the episode before. It is now a Star Trek-like military space opera, and the paladins have to somehow fit in these new rules.
Remember, the show began with the theme of self-discovery, where these kids found where and how they fit in the galaxy. But after The Last Stand, the show is now about duty. The biggest problem about season 7 and 8 of Voltron is the disjointed way our primary protagonists have to rejoin the Galaxy Garrison.
The rest of the series had no chance trying to juggle getting the show to its end, playing to this newly introduced theme, whilst also satisfying its two-year-old audience at the same time. And it’s a damn shame.