Warning! SPOILERS for Voltron: Legendary Defender season 5 ahead!
Screen Rant had the opportunity to talk with Voltron: Legendary Defender executive producers, Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery in anticipation of the series' return to Netflix for season 5. The reboot of the 1984 Voltron cartoon (itself an adaptation of the Japanese anime, Beast King GoLion) has proven to be a huge hit for Netflix, garnering fans both new and old, kids and adults. In our discussion, we talked about how the series updates the original Voltron story and lore, how they balance the humor, action, and drama almost effortlessly, what their favorite moment from season 5 is and so much more.
Screen Rant: Season 5 is a shorter season with only six episodes, similar to seasons 3 and 4. Does having a shorter season affect how you approach the storytelling?
Joaquim Dos Santos: We went into these ones actually not expecting for these to be split up, so we had to - post having written the seasons and created the seasons - find decent places to split them up. So all these shorter drops are coming in what were previously longer form seasons and split up after the fact. We did try to find the most natural place to split them up but it wasn’t our intention going in initially.
SR: Well, even for only being six episodes there is a lot of information in this season.
JDS: Right on!
SR: How do you manage balancing the comedy, the drama, which characters are getting focus, as well this overall story you’re telling?
JDS: It’s a lot.
Lauren Montgomery: It’s a bit of a balancing act, sometimes--I mean obviously, the story is the most important thing so we kind of just look at what we need to accomplish in the season. We see how many episodes we have to do it in and then we look for, as far as our characters are concerned, what character moments actually kind of fit in to that story. We don’t try to shoehorn in things that don’t fit. And then there’s our personal sanity - sometimes we need a lighter episode in order for production or directors or people to get a bit of a break or to catch up on certain things. So there’s a lot of different factors that really go into it.
JDS: We’ve also got this weird theory of checks and balances internally. We’ve obviously got our awesome writing team and they’ll interject jokes in what are otherwise very dramatic moments, just to kind of bring some levity. But we’ve also, y’know, there’s time where we lose sight of maybe some of the comedy and we get so wrapped up the story line and the serialization. When we’ll get an executive review and they’ll say like, ‘Hey guys, can you lighten this one up just a little bit? It’s a little heavy.’ And we’ll try to interject some stuff then. So it’s a whole series of check and balances that helps us manage all that.
SR: This season is a real deep dive into the lore of Voltron. The show kind of touched on that earlier with the backstory of the how the Lions were created and how the forming of Voltron happened. Is this a mythology that was planned from the beginning or has it grown as the show has developed?
JDS: It’s definitely grown.
LM: It’s a little bit of both. There are definitely some things that we had figured out early on, but then there’s just a lot of the story that just kind of evolves on its own as we’re going through these episodes. And characters makes decisions and that informs future decisions and so it’s a weird thing. You start out kind of crafting the story but at a certain point it just starts kind of going on its own.
JDS: We got lucky, because the original show had kind of a murky sort of lore and history to it. So we knew after we had hit the pillars of what everyone remembered from the original show, that it was kind of an open book in terms of being able to take over and rewrite some of the history and build more lore than was there previously.
SR: Yeah, again, it feels like you’ve only scratched the surface and with this season it’s even more fascinating. There’s a new character or rather guardian that gets introduced in the final episode of this season, the White Lion. Is that a hint as to why the Voltron Lions are lions?
JDS: On some level, we weren’t trying to logic it out too much, but you do sort of come to that idea of, ‘Why lions? Why are they lions?’ We’d also like to just point out that Alteans look a lot like humans and so do the Galrans, for that matter. So I think that maybe there’s just some scientific phenomenon that takes certain shapes throughout the universe. If that makes any sense. Lions and apex predators in general just go hand in hand across the universe.
SR: Okay, yeah, that makes sense. Another thing in this season, building off where the we left off last season, is Lotor and his new relationship with Team Voltron. He seems like a pretty swell guy, but it also seems naive not to be suspicious of him. Did you know from the start you wanted to make him a really different character or at least an evolution of who he was in previous Voltron shows?
JDS: We definitely wanted to do a more updated take on the original character, from his visuals on down to his personality. He definitely had some weird, creepy elements in his original past from the ‘84 series that we wanted to avoid and update.
LM: There was always kind of a duplicitous nature to the character that was even apparent in the ‘84 series, like there was this friction between him and Zarkon. And that was, I think, what we latched on to more, was this really intelligent person who might have his own motivation that won’t necessarily be clear to everyone. But as he continues on his path towards achieving his goals he might take whatever route he needs to and he might utilize the people that he needs to utilize. Whether it’s to their advantage or to their detriment.
JDS: I think there’s also a weird sort of honor that comes with his villainy. Y’know, when he’s in villainous mode there’s a relatability and honor that comes with it. You sort of know where it’s coming from or can understand where it’s coming from. All those things, he’s complex.
SR: He is very complex, and really, all the better character for it. So say, on a scale of Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender to Star Wars’ Kylo Ren - where Zuko is clearly a redeemable villain and Kylo Ren much less so - where would you place Lotor?
LM: We’ll just have to wait and see how that pans out, because really, he could go either way. He’s just that complex and that interesting. You don’t know what’s going on beneath the surface. Is he being completely genuine and does he want exactly what everyone else wants? Or is there something else that we have no clue about that’s just the worst thing in the world?
JDS: There’s also - not just to always bring it back to Star Wars analogies - but in the original trilogy, Darth Vader had this arc where there was a clear redemption when he finally throws the Emperor over the cliff. ‘Like, oh my god, redemption! He’s good after all.’ Then they went back and sort of retconned all of that when he killed all the little child Jedi. Well, that redemption’s gone. There’s no redeeming yourself from that. So the story is forever evolving and you might feel redemption at one end of the story and maybe later on that will get swooped away and vice versa.
SR: It is genuinely surprising that in this season there’s no real clue as to whether or not Lotor can be trusted. Which is good, it keeps viewers guessing. You mentioned Lotor and Zarkon’s relationship being something you latched on to from the original show. And the fight scene they have this scene is just brilliant, it’s great action and action with emotion behind it. What work goes in to planning these action sequences?
JDS: Again, it’s sort of a series of checks and balances. That gets built into the script first of all - a lot of the beats get built into the script. And we try to do that so that it doesn’t just have a paragraph that says ‘Fight scene takes place.’ It takes ten minutes of the actual on screen time and only a paragraph in the script, so we try to build the beats in. But more so than that, we’ll do a round of storyboards and two rounds of revisions on those storyboards. I’d say the majority of that fight scene was handled by our supervising producer, Kihyun Ryu and he really brought his magic to it. He’s a master animator and a fantastic storyteller and his fight choreography is second to none. It’s a long and involved process, but it’s definitely not a hand it to one person and say, ‘Whatever you got! That’s what’s going on screen.’
SR: It’s obviously a whole team effort to make this show a reality. What goes in to the design aspect of Voltron? What inspires the look and feel of the aliens, the cultures, the technology?
LM: It comes from everything, really, it’s everything that we like. We definitely chose a certain sensibility which was the Alteans have kind of a certain style to their technology, the Galra have a certain style. Earth has a very certain style that’s a little throwback with the chunkier stuff. But as far as the aliens are concerned, we’ll just take from anything. We’ll look at stuff that we love and just be like, ‘Hey maybe these can look like this.’ For instance, the Taujeerians just look like giant tardigrades. We were like, ‘Tardigrades are kind of creepy but also kind of cute.’ And so we’ll pull from stuff, Studio Mir, the designers there will pull from stuff.
JDS: Studio Mir sent us a carrot alien and we were like, ‘Perfect! A carrot alien, that’s awesome!’
LM: The entire race of Devoves comes from a character they threw on a sheet full of random aliens that would exist in the mall episode. I remember seeing that, he was on the edge--
JDS: We thought it was a broom or something.
LM: And we were like, ‘Oh my god, is that a character?’ It has a little face and backpack. And so then we made a whole episode that had the Devovians in it.
SR: So in this season - well really, for almost the whole series - there's been something strange going on with Shiro. Lance picks up on in it in this season, which is great. Should we be suspicious of Shiro?
LM: The idea is that Shiro's been through some crazy, crazy stuff and it's definitely taking a bit of a toll on him. He was super awesome, perfect hero guy in season 1, but he came back from, seemingly, the dead. Just fricking showed up and it’s difficult. I think in our attempt to--because ultimately, what happened is he was supposed to exit stage left but we ended up needing to keep him around. And so we needed to factor in something interesting about him so that he wasn’t just the perfect guy who solves everyone’s problems. This is us doing some damage control.
JDS: I would also say that even if you look back to the first season of Voltron, Shiro was dealing with some stuff. He was having flashes of Zarkon images, some PTSD-type stuff. He’s kind of been tortured from the beginning.
SR: Oh, for sure, yeah. It's made for an interesting dynamic when it comes to leadership, particularly between him and Allura - and especially now that Lotor is involved. But speaking of Allura, on a whole, Voltron has a lot of prominent and really awesome female characters, from Allura and Pidge to Lotor's generals. And even in this season, when the Galrans are all fighting over who will lead the Empire, there are quite a few female Galrans there. Choosing to include more women, does that just happen because that's how the world is and obviously how most societies exist, or is there a conscious effort to have a more equal representation?
LM: A little bit of both. We had sort of things that we thought we were going to come through with in season 1. We had initially made a lot of Zarkon’s generals or commanders male, because we thought that was a story thread we were going to carry through. As the story progressed we realized that aspect of it wasn’t really going to be a big thing. And once we kind of threw that part out, we started bringing in a lot more female Galra generals in just to make sure we’re kind of doing that equal representation. So you’ll see at a certain point that starts happening because that’s the point where we said , ‘Let’s get rid of that story, that story aspect, it doesn’t fit.’ Obviously, with making Pidge into a female character and giving Allura the role that she has, it was absolutely a conscious effort on our part to not kind of fall victim to the tropes of the things that we grew up with, where when you’re a kid and you’re watching it and you’re like, ‘Whatever.’ But then you become an adult and you’re like, ‘Wow, that female sure is acting strange, like she’s not really using her brain in the way normal humans do.’ And you don’t want to propagate that idea for future generations. I definitely was looking to make Pidge a character that I didn’t often see in shows when I was growing up. Usually, any female character was just--she was pretty and that was her role was just to be the pretty one. We wanted to represent a bunch of different types of women in the show.
JDS: Also, just from a character perspective, it makes sense that Allura would basically have the most knowledge--she’s the most knowledgeable of all the characters. She’s seen the history of the Galra. She’s a natural leader.
SR: For sure, and she's only learning more knowledge now so that's exciting. It was exciting for her to become a pilot, now she's - we, she's not there yet - but she could be on her way to becoming an Altean alchemist like her father. And you've added again, right near the end of season 4, another woman character - Keith's mom, Krolia. That was a real surprise! She makes some comment like, 'I won't leave you again,' and it's like, wait, have we met her before?
LM: The bangs didn’t give it away?
SR: Ha, no, the bangs didn't give it away. But Keith has been away from the rest of Team Voltron this season, he's off with the Blades of Malmora. He's got to come back to the team eventually, right?
JDS: That’s the key for Keith is that he still has things to learn.
LM: And now, hopefully, he can learn them with his mom.
JDS: He’s got a balance in his life. Y’know, he had that void for a long time and now he's got that.
LM: He’s going to find some peace, some inner peace.
SR: Is there a favorite moment from this season that you're really excited for fans to see?
LM: I'm going to say the whole family reunion. Though I honestly can't remember what all the episodes are and there might be something else that I'm forgetting that would be way better. But just seeing Pidge and Matt and Sam, finally, just hugging and getting back together. It was a sweet moment.
JDS: I definitely liked - on sort of the opposite spectrum there - the confrontation between Zarkon and Lotor. I thought that was very powerful.
LM: Both in the same episode.
SR: Yeah, that's a really strong episode. And so, going off of that, is Zarkon really dead?
LM: We’ll never tell.
JDS: He’s dead. He’s gone, man. A giant piece of shrapnel through his body cavity - he’s donezo.
SR: He sure looked dead, so sure, yeah. Now, is there anything you can tease about what's coming up beyond this season?
JDS: For me, beyond any one specific thing, I just like that these characters are continually evolving. So they're changing all the time. Even Keith, now, as we discussed, he’s sort of filling this other void that he had that was giving him shortcomings as a leader. So maybe he’ll be able to fill those gaps. And that goes along for every other character as well.
SR: Lance is a character who definitely showed more growth this season, but when's Hunk going to get his moment to shine?
LM: He was sort of the first one out of the gate to kind of get his big character arc with the Balmera. And he pretty much conquered his biggest hurdle in season 1 which was being too afraid to really do anything, to putting that fear aside for the betterment of the universe and seeing what Zarkon was doing to everyone. He is probably the most evolved of all of the characters. He knows who he is and knows what he’s doing, so everything else that's going to comes up for him is just going to be little sprinkles on top of the character that he is. But he definitely has stuff coming up. I think maybe people are expecting him to have a really tortured past that we have no idea happened and, y’know, not everyone’s tortured. I think Hunk is probably the biggest example of not everyone is tortured. He has stuff coming up, just don’t expect him to suddenly come from a fricking house full of murderers or something
JDS: A house full of murderers [laughs]. To Lauren’s point, though, I think people to discount the fact that he had this speech that he gave where he basically put aside all his fears because he realized having met Shae and having met all the people, the Balmerans, that there was a bigger calling.
SR: Okay, so yeah, you're right. Hunk is the one who is already most aware of who he is. On a more general note, both of you have worked in television and animation for some time now, what from your previous work do you feel best prepared you for taking on a project like this for Netflix?
LM: Well, it's changed because every project that I’ve done I’ve learned something from. And so probably the thing that prepared me the most I would guess would be working on some of the DC movies at Warner Bros. because that’s where I learned my bulk of producer duties. I knew the story-boarding stuff and the directing stuff but all of that extra stuff, like music and voice recording and sound effects and all of those things I learned while working on those. And then I learned a whole slew of other things while working on Korra and it’s a juggling effort to keep a show running and so I’ve definitely taken important lessons from that journey.
JDS: It is, it’s sort of a culmination of all the things we’ve worked on previously. I will say a big turning point in how I viewed animation and storytelling came when I worked on Avatar The Last Airbender because it seemed like something that was speaking directly to me and my sensibilities a little more than previous projects. And it had a really good balance of humor and drama and big action. So I think that was something that at least tonally we brought with us to this show.
LM: For sure, I would definitely say that Avatar The Last Airbender probably influenced the voice of this show the most with how we balance that humor and the stakes.
SR: You can definitely see their similarities, and for anyone who was a fan of either Avatar The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra, they could easily jump on to this show and enjoy it. What has been the most surprising reaction you received from fans? Was there a moment or a character you didn't expect to be a big deal but then the fans just went crazy for?
JDS: To be honest with you, this is funny but I think we were a little surprised by Shiro. That was kind of a big one for us. We had seen Shiro as a conduit for allowing Keith to rise to the leadership role and the Space Dad phenomenon was something that we weren’t expecting.
LM: Yeah, I’m just going to invite all the hate mail on myself and say I wasn’t expecting Klance.
JDS: Oh yeah, Klance is a big one.
LM: We knew about shipping but I had no idea that those two characters would just take off such the way that they did. That was kind of a surprise to all of us. Just to see that thing, that ship just dominate was like, ‘Whoa! Where did this come from?’
SR: Yeah, that's just it, fans will find any inkling of anything and it will just blossom in to so much more.
JDS: I think strangely enough, let’s say in another universe we were to like completely go down a road relationship-wise, it’s forbidden fruit that makes it a desirable thing. It’s those little inklings that people are able to find and make their own that makes it such a special thing versus if it were just served up on a platter, it wouldn’t really resonate as much.
SR: This has been great, thank you both very much for your time!
Update: Here's an exclusive Voltron season 5 clip featuring Lotor vs. Sendak!
Voltron: Legendary Defender season 5 is now available to stream on Netflix.