When ‘Voltron’ Ruled the ’80s

Voltron Defender of The Universe | Final victory | Kids Cartoon | Videos for Kids
Voltron Defender of The Universe | Final victory | Kids Cartoon | Videos for Kids / Retro Bites

It was an ‘80s kid’s worst toy-related nightmare: In the fall of 1986, the government came for Voltron.

The massive Japanese export metal robot, which was based on the hit animated series of the same name, had been a smashing success since its American debut in the fall of 1984. Voltron was comprised of five smaller, lion-themed spacecrafts, which could be assembled into a humanoid unit to fend off alien attackers with a giant sword. It was, in the words of marketers, “toyetic”: kids quickly snapped up Voltron-related merchandise, including a hulking metal figure.

Then, in November ‘86, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced the expensive product (priced from $60 to $90) was being recalled by its manufacturer, Matchbox Toys. The paint used on the robot had high lead content, which can be toxic, particularly in children. Over a million Voltrons were affected, making it one of the largest recalls the CPSC had ever monitored up to that point. (It was one of 51 toys condemned to landfills that year, along with a Romper Room Animal Train set alleged to be a potential choking hazard.)

Potential for lead-induced brain damage aside, Voltron occupied a rare place in the ‘80s toy landscape. It had a similar cultural cachet as Transformers and helped pave the way for future kid-friendly sensations like Pokémon and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The phrase forming Voltron has become shorthand for falling into formation. And all of it happened almost entirely by accident.

Forming Voltron

The men responsible for introducing American audiences to Voltron were Ted Koplar and Peter Keefe. Keefe was a movie critic and documentary filmmaker who had a striking look: He sported a black handlebar mustache and long blonde hair, and he frequently wore cowboy boots. Koplar was also president and CEO of World Events Productions (WEP), a production company churning out content for St. Louis television station KPLR, where Keefe worked on various shows. (KPLR is really “Koplar”: Ted’s father Harold formed the station in 1959.)

According to a 2011 interview with Koplar for the Kickin’ It Old School blog, WEP executives had taken notice of the visually striking animation industry in Japan. One series, Beast King GoLion, was a standout. Produced by the staff at Toei Animation and credited to the company’s collective pseudonym of Saburō Yatsude, the series focused on five space academy students struggling to survive after World War III. Encountering Princess Fala of the planet Altea, they’re conscripted in the planet’s fight against the evil Galra Empire. Together, the five operate Golion, a massive robot, to take on mechanical and actual beasts.

Beast King GoLion aired during the 1981-82 season and was part of the giant-robot genre that was flooding Japan’s airwaves at the time. In that market, it was generic and not terribly popular. But in America, Koplar felt it would be something unique.

GoLion was immediately appealing to me with its rich, colorful aesthetics and a storyline that I could follow without understanding a word of the Japanese dialogue,” Koplar said. “I didn’t see any reason why the show couldn’t work in the U.S.”

In a 2010 New York Times article, it’s Keefe who is credited with spotting Toei footage while attending an international licensing convention in 1983. In a 2011 Riverfront Times article, it’s “Koplar and his colleagues,” who are unnamed. In any event, Koplar slotted Keefe as producer for their planned series, which took an unusual approach: Rather than produce a new show using the premise, WEP would take the existing animation and totally reconfigure it for an American audience.

But singling out Beast King GoLion was more of a stroke of luck. In Koplar’s account, WEP requested a total of three shows from Toei, all of which were about giant robots. One had footage of a robot with a lion’s head. Because they didn’t know the title, they asked Toei for the series that had “the lion in it.” Toei sent over Beast King GoLion instead of the one KEP had originally wanted. Because it was much better, they happily accepted it.

To help Keefe hammer out a coherent story from these disparate parts, Koplar hired writer Jameson Brewer, who had worked in animation as far back as Fantasia in 1940. In the reimagined Beast King GoLion, Princess Allura is under attack by King Zarkon. Her  brave pilots—Keith, Lance, Hunk, Sven, and Pidge—join her to operate Voltron, a gigantic, beast-smashing machine. Mayhem ensues.

“We … restructured a new pilot to conform to U.S. taste, which included a totally new music score produced in stereophonic sound … new scripts, editing out scenes unacceptable to our target audience, and new theme titles,” Koplar said. “We had an entire production staff working around the clock in Los Angeles, to essentially re-make an entire 52-episode series. We had never undertaken anything like this, and had no idea whether it would succeed.”

One of the biggest challenges in remixing the show was making sure it didn’t run afoul of programming censors. Beast King GoLion could be explicit in a way American television was not. Enslaved cartoon women were forced to dance in a harem; characters could bleed and even die, both of which were verboten in kiddie content.

Or, as Koplar put it, “Obviously, beheadings were not going to work for kids.”

It also needed a new name. Klystron was one idea, which was the name of a piece of television engineering equipment. So was Voltar. Allegedly, Koplar got the two mixed up and Voltron was born.

Voltron: Defender of the Universe premiered September 10, 1984, barely a week before Transformers hit U.S. televisions. In a cartoon culture dominated by Masters of the Universe and Care Bears, Voltron was a space saga more in line with Star Wars and was still a big gamble, especially considering that production costs approached $20 million. But Koplar’s bet paid off: In 1984 and 1985, it was the top-ranked kid’s show in syndication.

Conquering the Universe

In some ways, Voltron had a secret weapon in the kid market. Around the time it began airing, television productions were moving away from monaural (single channel) sound and into stereo (dual channel) sound. Voltron was among the first programs of any sort to be broadcast in stereo, a solid selling point for both local television affiliates and viewers, not to mention retailers. When salespeople wanted to show off stereo sets, they queued up Voltron in stores. It was free advertising.

A Voltron cosplayer is pictured
A Voltron cosplayer patrols New York Comic Con. / Daniel Zuchnik/GettyImages

A Voltron multimedia tsunami followed, including VHS tapes, toys, pajamas, and mall appearances by costumed characters. The Korean Olympic Committee named Voltron the official defender from outer space attacks should any arise during the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. All of it was masterminded by Keefe, who became the custodian for Voltron.

Once WEP had exhausted the 52 Toei episodes, a decision was made to produce 24 more episodes for American syndication, a process that Koplar estimated was completed in just nine months. And while those initial runs died down, as animated programming always tends to do, Voltron has hardly been forgotten.

There have been countless permutations of Voltron since the concept’s initial series. The animated show has been revived at least three times: in 1998, 2011, and 2016, respectively. Comics, video games, and (lead-free) toys regularly crop up. The property has outpaced Keefe, who passed in 2010, and Koplar, who died in 2021.

Sadly, the two men finished their partnership at odds with one another. According to The Riverfront Times, Keefe grew disenchanted with Koplar and WEP while producing a series titled Denver, the Last Dinosaur, believing he was being underpaid. In 1989, he sued the company for breach of contract and in 1993, a jury awarded him $2.6 million, although the duo eventually reached an out-of-court settlement. Though he and Koplar weren’t on speaking terms for much of the 1990s, they reconciled before Keefe’s passing.

The last frontier for Voltron—a live-action feature—has proven elusive. Numerous attempts have been made over the years, including one by musician and fan Pharrell Williams; none entered production. That might change with writer and director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Red Notice), who pitched a new take on Voltron in spring 2022 with co-writer Ellen Shanman and sparked a bidding war among studios. There hasn’t been any subsequent news, but the potential for a lucrative franchise is there. Peter Keefe and Ted Koplar proved it.