Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles

Robotech was my gateway into anime. Just around the age of 12, I discovered the 4th issue of the Comico comic book Robotech: The Macross Saga. I read it over and over and quickly bought the back issues. Then I found out that the show was actually on in Indianapolis, and as it turned out, when I tuned in they were airing episode 5. I jumped on board and held on tight to a ride that ultimately led to the creation of the site you are reading now. For years, I was a Robotech geek. I still have every last comic book made from the original series, as well as all the novelizations moving into the Sentinels and beyond. While I loved Star Wars before it and other sci-fi afterwards, Robotech is one of the few true epics -- and strangely enough, that being because of its Frankenstein-like creation by Carl Macek out of three unrelated anime series. Its maturity was unlike anything on American airwaves for children in the 80s, period.

So thousands of hours of anime viewing and over 500 reviews later, what do I make of Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles? I must admit that my love for all things Robotech has cooled somewhat -- not because it wasn't brilliant but because, simply, Robotech ended well over 20 years ago. Even factoring in the abortive Robotech II: The Sentinels video, we're still talking about a show that hasn't had anything newly animated in a generation. However, had The Shadow Chronicles been engaging on any level in the way the original series had been, I would have been hooked. Sadly, not only does this show fail on a variety of levels, it actually lessens the impact of the original that spawned it. While it is not awful, it is rather like an high school theatre troop performing Hamlet. The words are all there, but it sure ain't Shakespeare.

Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles begins during the cataclysmic ending of the original series -- and if you haven't seen it, don't even attempt to watch this show or understand the rest of this review, because neither will make any sense. Moving forward...the Invid are still on Earth, but the Expeditionary Force has returned to attempt to reclaim the planet. Whereas the original series showed the perspective of Scott Bernard and his resistance group finally reaching the Invid base at Reflex Point, Shadow Chronicles follows events from the perspective of the returning fleet. As it turns out, the humans had forged an alliance with the Haydonites, who cooperated with them in helping to forge new weaponry that would destroy the Invid. The Regis recognizes some of the new technology as that belonging to the "Children of the Shadow" - a race of haters who have made it their mission to destroy any races who use protoculture or its component core, the Flower of Life. As hordes of Invid battle the RDF, the Regis quickly makes her decision to leave the planet...but not so much because her race's evolutionary cycle leads them onwards so much as it is her getting the hell out of Dodge.

In the middle of all this are a few new characters who, in an attempt to gain our sympathies, have strategic ties to old cast members. Marcus Rush is a green pilot whose sister Marlene was Scott Bernard's fiancé before she died in the events that start the New Generation segment. He's taken with a hotshot female ace, Maia Sterling...obviously part of the clan founded by Max and Miriya in the Macross segment, likely their last child (but it is uncertain). And of course, there's Marcus' loyal friend Alex, who continually goads his friend into asking Maia out. There's also an avalanche of old faces, ranging from Vince Grant (remember him? I didn't...) to Scott Bernard and his Invid flame, Ariel.

To be honest, there are very few upsides to The Shadow Chronicles, but they are there. I admit that I was quite happy that many of the old Robotech voice actors were able to return and voice their parts; it really made it feel like coming home. Often, this sort of thing is neglected (especially in a show 20+ years old). If nothing else, I could get nostalgic about hearing old friends again, even if only for a short time. Mark Hamill and Chase Masterson appear as well in new parts and both do reasonable though not impressive work. (To be fair, the parts did not call for much range, and the name recognition from Star Wars and Star Trek does sell DVDs.) Also, while the character designs aren't great, they did a reasonably good job meshing the three significantly different styles from the original into one standard. Well, almost...Scott Bernard sometimes looks like he did find his way in from another show, but I'm sure this blend was difficult.

Sadly, everything else is pretty much off. Technically, a lot of money was spent, just not well. There is a lot of CGI animation on display in the fight sequences, but it's not terribly convincing. Often, rockets explode without actually hitting (or destroying) a target; instead, they just explode near it and the target no longer exists afterwards. There's also something very odd about the Invid being in CGI. Unlike the mecha in the first two segments, the Invid are actual creatures, and the CGI element gets their movement and structure wrong. Put together the passable 2D character animation and the 3D tech stuff, though, and it looks bad.

On the other technical side, the music is a bust. The original Robotech score was perhaps over synthesized, but the underlying music was often quite good (barring a couple of the Minmei tunes that still make me cringe). It would have been great to have heard it used here with a true orchestra. Sadly, only a few notes of the original make it into the main theme, and the rest sounds like sci-fi pablum from a John Williams/Jerry Goldsmith wannabe. As I write this review, the themes from the original show come pouring back into my head; they underscored the excitement, the tragedy, the atmosphere of the whole. Not a single theme from the new film is still in my head two days later, and it's so nondescript that it wouldn't even on repeat viewings. For a show whose score was groundbreaking for animated television in the US, this is appalling.

But what's really worse is that the whole of what Robotech was and what characters were important is sadly misunderstood. The Shadow Chronicles sets up a new "villain race" and a few new characters, but it doesn't really give us anything of what we've wanted to see for over twenty years. Where the heck are Lisa, Minmei, Max, and Miriya? Rick Hunter, now an admiral, gets barely a cameo. While a couple characters from the middle story get quite a bit of screen time, they have never been fan favorites. And frankly, what good is Scott Bernard without Rook, Rand, Lunk, and Lancer, let alone Annie?

Speaking of Scott Bernard, what is most frustrating is the conclusion of his story. At the end of Robotech, he leaves Ariel behind as he goes in search of the missing SDF-3, Rick Hunter's ship. It's a bittersweet ending since we know that Scott loves her but must continue on his mission. We had hopes that Scott might one day return, but it was left ambiguous. It was the beauty of Robotech, which while occasionally cheesy was often deeply poignant. Here, Ariel finds herself with teleportation abilities granted from the Regis. Thus, she can simply think herself to be with Scott. No extended journey, no deep longing...all of a sudden, Ariel's here! Scott and Ariel together sweet, right? The problem is, it cheapens the ending of the original show by denying the significance of Scott's sacrifice. While we fans may have waited decades for a reunion, in the show's time it happened almost instantaneously, and that's unforgivable.

But this obvious "knowing the notes but not the tune" problem extends into the new storylines as well. The show desperately attempts to pull off some of the humor found in the original, but it fails miserably, to the point that it's painful. It also attempts to create pathos by killing off characters, which the original did with remarkable effect. However, because the new characters are not all that compelling, their deaths mean nothing. When Roy Fokker wound up dead in episode 18, I was simply stunned, and when Ben was killed shortly thereafter, my young brain almost went into overload. I obsessed about the ending of the Macross segment for weeks, trying to wrap my head around what death meant...heady stuff for a 12-year-old. But here, the real tragedy is that characters die but no one could possibly mourn them the way this show plays out.

Ultimately, The Shadow Chronicles wants to achieve the same glory as the original with none of the hard work and setup. It references Minmei songs from the original without contributing anything new. (And Minmei? Really? The same songs are popular in 2044 as in 2019? Even to hum during spaceflight?) It tries to be edgy by using a lot of a particular six-letter epithet that's neither edgy nor needed. It attempts over and over again to be relevant. But the truth is, the time for this particular story to be told has passed. Move past the Invid, move into the far future even; send us into the deep netherworld of where the SDF-3 winds up with the crew of folks we really still care about. But nobody needs this tale to be told.

I realize I have written a surprisingly long review, one that is almost wholly negative. Yet this doesn't mean that Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles is boring or unwatchable; far from it. If the show does succeed at one level, it's that it isn't dull for true Robotech fans. I've seen far worse anime, and I've even given better grades to shows that were harder for me to finish. But what this is about to me is the unfortunate and unnecessary continuation of the best animated property to appear on American television in the 1980s. While there is talk that this show was based on input from legions of fans, it is clear that the folks responsible for this travesty don't really understand Robotech at all. It's possible, I suppose, that the plot strands left open by The Shadow Chronicles could be made into a new series of DVD specials. However, I'd be hard pressed to watch any more if they simply intend to butcher the franchise further.

Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles -- violence, profanity -- C-