A Little GoLion and A Little Voltron: A Sym-Bionic Titan Tribute

Sym-Bionic Titan’s light was extinguished much too fast, we can all agree. And it also marked the end to Genndy Tartakovsky’s career for Cartoon Network. His contributions to TV animation’s style are vast. And Sym-Bionic Titan was another high point in his repertoire as he brought all his style and combined it with robot passion!

We could complain about how Genndy Tartakovsky was shafted with Samurai Jack and Sym-Bionic Titan all day but I am not here to gripe about the executive decisions at Cartoon Network. I think we are better served by celebrating what was done right with such an excellent show like Sym-Bionic Titan. Sym-Bionic Titan is a unique blend of a Japanese giant robot show with the best of comedic the sensibilities of an American romantic sitcom. We want to show you how this gem was able to combine those two very different genres and create a greater whole that was sorely underappreciated.

There are few giant robot cartoons in America that the Japanese haven’t had a hand in. So just as readily it would be next to impossible to not be influenced by the myriad of anime series featuring hulking metal heroes (and beyond) when making one stateside. Sym-Bionic Titan plucks its influences and has fun with it. I love that Titan, the combination robot, is basically nonsense as far as mechanics goes. How do these three incredibly different and various sized robots actually make up Titan? Who cares, it is coolness! And the monsters of the week get crazier and crazier (and sometimes scary like the dream guy!) But it also has its serious-side. Playing with morality comes up when a cute little space creature is unbelievable dangerous. And the brutality of Modula is excellently handled, it’s too bad we never get to fully realize his motivations.

You could tell just from Samurai Jack that Genndy Tartakovsky was someone who has been influenced by anime and Japanese culture but never let it overwhelm his own style. That said the anime influences on the series are unmistakable. First of all the setup in general is straight out of UFO Robot Grendizer. Aliens flee from their devastated planet to Earth while being perused by the conquers who destroyed their home. Every week they try to maintain their human identities while using their robots to protect their adopted home from whatever bizarre alien beast drop in. And speaking of the robot you can also compare the Titan to the Getter Robo. They are both composed of three different looking robots, each piloted by very different pilots, that combine into a 4th robot that looks nothing like the other three. The three main characters  also fit perfectly into overall archetypes of the combining giant robot team. Anyone who has seen Beast King GoLion (aka Voltron: Defender of the Universe) will know the classic five member team make up. While the classic five member team composition started in Science Ninja Team Gatchaman it quickly became a staple of mecha genre. You have the brave leader, the moody second in command, the strong fat guy, the smart kid, and the girl. Sym-Bionic Titan replicates this with a smaller cast by having people pull double duty. Lance combines the strong but slightly anal attitude of the leader with the melancholy and rebelliousness of the second in command. Octus is a clearly an amalgam of the big bruiser and brainiac. Ilana fits the into the tomboy princess mold like a glove. It is not to say that Genndy Tartakovsky has seen all these shows or is paying homage to any specific sets of shows. The mecha genre was so prolific in the boom days that it is almost impossible to do any idea without some show in the past doing something similar at one point or another. What is clear is Tartakovsky took a great genre of anime and adapted its strengths to his style of storytelling.

The commentary on the lives of American teens is what makes Sym-Bionic Titan feel so utterly born in the U.S.A for me. Most teens across the globe go through similar experiences, but it is the details that make Sym-Bionic’s depiction absolutely American. This is no celebration of teen life, it is by all angles social commentary and satire of the high school experience. From dumb jocks to becoming an activist to being kicked out of an emo band because you’re too mainstream (best episode?), the poking at things we’ve seen, thought, and laughed at are all here. There is the necessary school dance which actually brings a bunch of smaller story threads together in true high school movie fashion. And the Scary Mary/barn party is so middle America it boggles the mind. The relationships also bring a lot of that flavor to the show. Sure, Octus the nerd gets with the popular girl, but they have problems and break-up; all the girls like Lance but he could care less; Ilana starts to like a guy but ends up pushing him towards another girl by running off on a mission. This all weaves into all three assimilating to Earth-life but the more they do, they more their absences is noted so they feel even more alien, and the more they have to lose.

And of course since this is made for an American audience the references will be references that are suited to a Western taste. In the Phantom Ninja episode Lance stops a bank robbery that is clearly poking fun  at Die Hard including a Hans Gruber look-alike using a giant laser to get into a safe. The episode Roar of the White Dragon is such an homage to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift to the point where someone made this dead on parody trailer. In Under the Three Moons Newton holds a boom box over his head while waiting outside Kimmy’s room straight out of the most famous scene from Say Anything. Escape from Galaluna also clearly has the look and feel of a Star Wars movie including story, set design, direction, and even scene transition techniques. Now I am sure that working on the Clone Wars series in 2003 influenced his style to a degree but the fact that the Star Wars vibe is kicked up to 11 on this single episode shows it was a deliberate stylistic choice. The two bands that play in the series could not be more American as well. There is a death metal band called Alien Death Hammer and the emo band that Lance joins is called the Disenfranchised. While the overall formula of  Sym-Bionic Titan takes its cues from a wide variety of super robot shows its overall flavor is distinctly catering to a Cartoon Network crowd which is a wise move all together.

There was so many great pieces to Sym-Bionic Titan and unfortunately we’ll never know all the answers, we’ll never see Ilana, Lance, and Octus make it home, and we’ll never figure out if  guy who revived Octus was Lance’s dad, we’ll never know if Lance and Ilana end up together, and what about Kimmy? It is hard to accept because Sym-Bionic Titan was great and I miss it already.

I have a few questions myself. How did Modula go from such a loyal hero to a bloodthirsty maniac (although his strange hat might have something to do with that) and does he has some greater plan beyond mere mindless conquest.  I would have also liked to have seen a bit on the founding of Galactic Guardian Group as that was clearly an episode waiting in what would have been in the second season. Also would we ever get more booty quake? Plus we will never see everyone freak out at school if and when Lance and Ilana hooked up. It is a shame that such a unique production was canceled before the end.  My secret hope is that Genndy Tartakovsky can find someone to fund a second season or at least make a movie that wraps up most of the loose ends. It is your duty to seek out this show and talk about it. If there is enough demand than things will go into motion.


3 thoughts on “A Little GoLion and A Little Voltron: A Sym-Bionic Titan Tribute

  1. necromancer says:

    What?! I didn’t know it’d been cancelled :'( I really enjoyed the show and was looking forward to seeing where the story would go, hopefully we’ll get some kind of closure at some point, so many of my fave US produced shows seem to get cancelled with no real end.

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.