Netflix UK TV review: Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 2 (spoilers)
Ned Newberry | On 01, Feb 2017
Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 2. Not seen it? Read our spoiler-free review of the season’s opening episodes here.
Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 2 delivers on almost everything promised by the thrilling first season. The universe is further explored, the characters are fleshed out, the action is more bombastic and the humour is well implemented, making this one of the most endearing animated originals available on streaming services. There are themes explored that, while not intellectually taxing or particularly subtle, lend credence to the idea that young audiences need not be patronised.
The first three episodes get the narrative up to speed sufficiently to the point where new elements can be introduced. Team Voltron are back together but as they learned in the first season, even when they’re united, their strength was not enough to defeat Zarkon and the Galra. They meet a new race of brilliant engineers who have the power to resist the Galra, but with their king held hostage, are unable to do so. This seems like an easy set-up, but the Paladins discover that the hostage king is living the life of luxury at the expense of his people. In a world of self-interested politicians pushing agendas that will ultimately disadvantage young people, it’s refreshing for an action cartoon to suggest that things are not always as cut and dry as they appear.
There’s some nice allusion to The Empire Strikes Back, as the heroes flee Galra forces hiding in a particularly violent space storm, giving the feel of Han, Leia and the gang hiding on an asteroid – not to mention Rhys Darby’s always loveable character, Coran, being part-R2/part-C-3PO, as he tries to repair the ship, while dealing with a serious case of the sweats, a condition unique to Alteans. This causes him to slide around the castle in comedic fashion and, at one point, skate on his own perspiration, in what could be a nod to much-loved anime Yuri On Ice.
It’s great to see characters explored further in this season: Pidge’s faith in science and logic is tested and then reaffirmed with a new perspective, which has a wonderful allegory to environmentalism and how respect for nature is the ultimate science. Lance has a touching moment of self-reflection about his place on the team and, ultimately, his own self-worth. Of course, it doesn’t stop him being an arrogant cheeseball but he’s a good example of ‘you do you’. Shiro’s voyage of dealing with his role as leader has something of the Optimus Prime about it, as he learns he is the liability that allows Zarkon to track them across the galaxy, but ultimately triumphs over adversity, through a mixture of faith and sheer force of will. Hunk’s character arc is arguably the weakest; he has some great moments, but there’s very little in terms of meaningful growth. But it’s Keith who is ultimately the most intriguing of the five paladins, as he learns of his origins that make him half-Galra, which is nicely explored in his relationship with Alura. It seems that Alura and Keith grow closer, only for Alura to reject Keith after learning about his lineage. This results in some brilliant exposition of both characters, as well as exploration of the dangers of prejudice and being ashamed of where you come from.
The series ticks along well in the middle episodes. Stand-out instalments include Space Mall, which gives us just the right balance of levity and back-story, particularly in regards to Zarkon and his origins as the Black Lion’s Paladin. Another highlight is The Blade of Marmora, which shows Keith as the hero he is and how his identity crisis drives him, but also puts him at a disadvantage, through the realisation that letting go of his self-doubt and obsession will bring him peace and catharsis in the long run.
However, where Voltron’s second season really nails it is in the last two episodes. It’s to the show’s credit that, despite being called Voltron: Legendary defender, the show is less focused on the titular robot and more on the human characters and what drives them. But when they do break out the build-a-bot, oh boy, are you in for a treat. As is often demonstrated by the way the alien races speak of Voltron, it is a creature of legend, a myth told to children to instil hope in dark times. This makes the way in which the Paladins unlock the hidden power of Voltron such a natural fit in a world where techno-magic is supreme. As is custom now in modern TV production, the best tricks are saved for last, and the final battle between Voltron and a suit of Zarkon’s robotic armour, which would be just as comfortable in Tony Stark’s universe, is some of the most striking action ever seen in western animation. The last two episodes smack of both Star Wars and Trek, as this titanic battle unfolds in space while Alura and The Blade of Marmora (read: space ninjas) form an away team to take down evil space witch Haggar. Alura is finally given the agency she deserves – up until now, she’s been full Princess Leia, but here, we get a healthy dose of Janeway and Rey (not just because she’s handy with a staff). It’s poignant that the action lingers on one of the Blades being killed, giving stakes to all this off-the-wall action and it’s even more compelling that Alura learns Haggar is not a member of the race for which she harbours so much hatred, but is in fact her own race, an Altean. This isn’t so much an I-am-your-father twist as it is a moment of clarity and catharsis for Alura, as she learns to judge people not on the length of their ears but by the strength of their character.
The series ends on a nail biting bring-it-back-from-the-brink moment, where the Paladins utilise the power of unity and self-belief to defeat Zarkon in a technicolour blast of energy that leaves the big bad’s armour shattered, his body broken and the Galra defeated. But all is not sunshine and rainbows: the Galra mothership is still operational, Shiro has vanished after retrieving his Bayard from Zarkon, and Haggar is still alive – not only that, but she’s healing Zarkon and she puts out a call for the generals to summon Zarkon’s son, the prince of this evil empire. Where’s Shiro? Will Zarkon return to take his revenge? And will this mysterious prince be as bad as his dad, or will he just want the press to lay off his celebrity girlfriend? It’s these questions left open at the end of Season 2 that will keep audiences coming back for more. The improvements on the first season are present right up to the end of this second run; where the first season ended on a cliff-hanger that was a little overt, Voltron’s sophomore outing ends with a more sophisticated narrative arc.
A good sign that any medium is worth your time is when recommending one of its greatest assets is left to a footnote. As such, it’s important to note that Voltron’s soundtrack, as it was in Season 1, is consistently excellent. It is expertly used and the arrangements, equal parts homage to Star Wars and Blade Runner, are perfectly suited to the visuals. Speaking of consistent positives, Voltron’s animation and art direction are, once again, absolutely on point. From the gorgeous vibrancy of the visul palette to the fluid motion of the characters, each episode is a visual feast. The cast continue to do an excellent job of voicing their characters and the range of performances are wonderfully diverse.
Voltron: Legendary Defender is a special kind of story that manages to appeal to both adults and children without pandering to either. There are only a handful of animated pieces that can attest to such an achievement, and the most notable examples have words such as ‘Toy’ and ‘Nemo’ in the title. As second seasons go, Voltron’s is one of the greats because it brings the best of the first season, iterates on those elements and introduces new aspects all in the same breath. It really is a joy to see a TV show, especially an animated one, that could be incredibly derivative make something that feels so new and fresh. If the coming seasons of Voltron: Legendary Defender continue in this vein, it may be the defining example of a new golden age of action cartoons.
Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 1 and 2 are now available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.