A version of this entry first appeared in episode #42 of the RDF Underground podcast.

As you probably already know, there have been several significantly different recountings of what happened to the Robotech Expeditionary Force between the end of the Macross Saga and the end of the New Generation. First there were the Sentinels movie, and Macek’s original script treatments for the rest of the show as recounted in Robotech Art III. Then there were Jack McKinney’s novels, which diverged from Macek’s story further and further as time went on. Then there were John and Jason Waltrip’s comic book adaptations of Jack McKinney’s novels, which diverged from the novels further and further as time went on—but only got about 80% done before a change in comic book company licensees terminated the project. And there was also the Palladium Sentinels RPG.

All these different versions of Sentinels history share a number of common elements—but the one common to all of them is that they are no longer ‘canonical,’ if indeed they ever were. In making Shadow Chronicles, Harmony Gold consulted with fans to nail down all the necessary elements of a new continuity, starting over with a clean slate so they could make sure that Shadow Chronicles was internally consistent with the rest of the series—including the parts that hadn’t ever been told. The new changes would leave fans wondering: just what parts of what they read “really happened” and what parts had been retconned into burrito hallucinations. Enter Prelude to the Shadow Chronicles.

The original plan had been to release Shadow Chronicles in late 2005 or early 2006. With that schedule in mind, Harmony Gold commissioned a five-issue comic book series that would cover the REF side of events immediately leading up to the Shadow Chronicles. With story treatment by Tommy Yune, who also wrote the story treatment behind the Shadow Chronicles movie, and scripting by the Waltrip brothers, this series would retell and rewrite the events of the last portion of the Sentinels saga for a bit less fan confusion. And so the comic book came out, proudly emblazoned with “The prelude to the upcoming DVD release!” on the front cover. And then the Shadow Chronicles DVD…failed to materialize.

But let’s look at Prelude to the Shadow Chronicles anyway. A few spoilers for the broad plot points follow.

The miniseries begins sometime in an estimated 2041 or 2042 by the official timeline with a gavel bang, a gunshot, a scream, and a body. Shortly afterward, military police, Rick Hunter, and Jean Grant burst into an empty office with the goal of arresting General T.R. Edwards, who has been discovered to be a traitor to the REF. What they find is the body of Lynn-Kyle, Minmei’s cousin, dressed in the uniform of Edwards’s own Ghost Squadron—and no Edwards. Rick realizes that if Kyle was here, Minmei had to be also, and Edwards must have absconded with her.

After crippling the SDF-3 and critically injuring Lisa Hayes, Edwards and the Regent escape to Optera with an experimental starship, an Invid Brain, and squadrons of invisible Shadow Fighters that the REF is unable to counter. And, of course, Minmei. The rest of the series chronicles the REF unlocking the research that Edwards didn’t quite manage to destroy, taking the fight to Edwards on Optera, then preparing to journey back to earth with the experimental Neutron-S Missiles that Edwards created in tow. However, as the rest of the fleet is leaving, a test-firing of one of the missiles produces results that were not anticipated—or at least, not foreseen.

The last page of the last issue ends on a cliffhanger with the triumphant caption, “The Shadow Chronicles begin!” (Except they don’t, actually, but we’ll leave that for later.)

Because I don’t like going out on a downer ending, I’ll talk about what Prelude got wrong first, and then talk about what it got right.

The fundamental problem with Prelude to the Shadow Chronicles can be symbolized by its title: it’s not a complete work on its own. Rather than taking a name in its own right—say, something like Sentinels: The Fall of T.R. Edwards—or even borrowing the name of one of the novels that it covers, Rubicon (and pretending the previous comic book miniseries by that name hadn’t happened), this is a work that defines itself as a shadow—pardon the pun—of another work. What if Tolkien had called The Hobbit “Prelude to Lord of the Rings” instead? What if Star Wars: A New Hope had been “Prelude to the Empire Strikes Back”?

You’d expect that with a title like “Prelude to…” it would at least be written with the goal of explaining to the average potential viewer just what was going on. You know, the person who was born after Robotech stopped being shown, and doesn’t have the time to watch an 85-episode TV show for the sake of a two-hour movie?

But you’d be wrong. Not only does Prelude to the Shadow Chronicles do nearly nothing for someone who’s never seen any Robotech before, it even does very little for anyone who’s seen Robotech but not read Sentinels. Even someone who’s seen both Robotech and the Sentinels movie might be lost. Prelude starts in media res, with only lip service paid to the 85-episode TV series and no explanation of who these characters are and why they’re significant. Robotech fans, who will know who at least some of these characters are, will still be left wondering things like:

  • What have Rick Hunter and Lisa Hayes been doing for those thirty years since the end of the Macross saga?
  • What are Lynn-Kyle and Minmei doing on Tirol?
  • Why is Lynn-Kyle in a Ghost Squadron uniform? Why did Edwards shoot him? Why did he kidnap Minmei?
  • Who is Edwards? Why did he turn traitor? How did the REF find out?
  • Where did Edwards get the Invid brain?
  • Who is this Jack Baker person? Vince Grant? Jean Grant?
  • Who are the Sentinels? Why are they so willing to help the REF? Did the REF ever do anything for them?
  • And that’s just from the first few pages. Some of this is explained later on, but by then it’s too little too late, and even Robotech fans may be too confused by the time they get there. It’s like tuning in for the last two hours of a ten-hour TV miniseries. Heck, I’ve read all the Sentinels novels and The End of the Circle (you may, if you wish, feel sorry for me) but it’s been so long that I still have trouble following some parts of it.

    But let’s assume that you’re totally up to snuff on your Sentinels reading and know everything that’s going on here. What you’ll find on reading is that Prelude discards a lot of the good elements of the Sentinels series—for instance, having apparently liberated their worlds without help from the REF, the Sentinels aliens are reduced to standing around providing ship-building expertise, mysterious mystical advice, or pretty looks—while keeping some of the hokier ones, such as the cartoonishly villainous T.R. Edwards complete with his “Phantom of the Optera” half-mask and obsession with Minmei. I can just see it now. [[In the podcast version of this, I inserted at this point audio clips of “Sing, my angel of music!” from the Phantom of the Opera, Minmei singing, “To be in loooove…” and then a male scream sound effect. —Ed.]]

    Though, oddly enough, the crush is never actually made explicit in this miniseries, which could make the manner of his eventual defeat a little puzzling to those who don’t know about it. The manner of Edwards’s defeat and demise has been somewhat improved over Macek’s “original” version, which involved a psychic battle between him and Rick Hunter, but is still a trifle cliche’d and annoying.

    And Edwards isn’t the only cartoonish thing. Several anime/manga cliches make their way into the comics’ pages, including REF bridge officers with big round super-deformed “anime-surprise” eyes and sweatdrops…and even Invid Enforcers with sweatdrops. Yes, that’s right. Invid Enforcers…with sweatdrops. I think the less said about that, the better. There are also some Schwarzenegger-action-movieish stunts—in particular, a certain Cyclone ride by Vince Grant comes to mind—that are a little bit hard to buy.

    Also hard to buy are some of the plot points. Admiral Rick Hunter seems to be an adherent of the James T. Kirk school of admiralty, where the higher rank you are, the more rank you can pull on people who think you should be leading from the rear rather than the front. Not only does he personally lead the ground assault on Optera, at one point he even jokingly pulls rank on Vince Grant, who feels that as the captain, he should be the last one into their escape ship. “I’m an Admiral. So move it, soldier!” It’s also a little hard to believe that Hunter would be so willing to authorize the use, even as a last resort, of the Neutron S missiles—doomsday weapons built by his arch-nemesis that they know nothing about and that haven’t even been tested yet.

    There’s also the minor problem that, focussed on an ensemble cast as it is, Prelude never really has time to give any one person all that much attention or characterization. Rick Hunter, Vince Grant, and T.R. Edwards probably get the most attention; beside them, everyone else is relegated to second-fiddle status. Even Lisa Hayes only gets a dozen or so lines through the entire five-issue run, and as for Jack Baker or Karen Penn, who were intended to become the Sentinels series’s main human characters? Forget about it.

    Finally, and most ominously, there’s a hefty dose of Haydonite mysticism about, with the faceless Veidt hovering around dispensing fragments of obscure wisdom and chatting to some ominously-unidentified entity. To think I’d almost managed to forget about Haydon, the planet-sized god-mcguffin whose appearance in End of the Circle was so annoying that I’ve mentally blocked exactly what he did. The implications of the mysticism-drenched final scene don’t bode too well for Shadow Chronicles, either.

    But it’s not all bad. For a Robotech fan who has at least some idea of what’s going on, Prelude does have some attraction. It’s fun to see many of the old familiar faces again, even if some of them are almost completely unrecognizable. Rick, Lisa, Lang, Louie, Dana…even Minmei gets a cameo, though we never really get a good look at her face. The Sentinels of old are around, too, though in a much-reduced role from the original Sentinels fiction. Max and Miriya are conspicuously absent, though they do rate a mention in Issue 5. It must also provide a good sense of closure to fans of the Sentinels comic books to get to see them completed—sort of—after all this time.

    Some of the plot points, and congruences to Robotech, are interesting, if a little troubling. One nice touch is the way Edwards plans to ascend to a higher plane to continue his evolution (as the Regess would later do successfully), but is potted by a reflex cannon shot before he can. And Janice Em refers to the test-detonation of the Neutron-S missile as “a terrible error” using an identical phrase to the Regess’s description at the end of Robotech. It does make one curious to see Shadow Chronicles to see if anything comes of that, doesn’t it?

    The artwork is nicely done, providing a smooth transition from the old Sentinels character designs to the new in cases such as Janice Em’s where the change was substantial. It’s interesting getting to watch Rick Hunter go from having dark hair to having white hair, and seeing old and new ship and mecha designs in color and in action. Omar Dogan, the artist, has a good talent for drawing both people and mecha. Hopefully he gets many more Robotech assignments in the future.

    If all had gone according to Harmony Gold’s plan, the last issue of Prelude would have been followed quickly by a DVD or other release of Shadow Chronicles, so fans would have been able to go from reading the last page of the comic book to watching the first minute of the movie and finding out what happened next. But now it’s been over six months without any trace of Shadow Chronicles.

    It’s really too bad that all this time couldn’t have been used more productively. Instead of a 5-issue miniseries, we could have had an entirely new Robotech comic book series. Call it, say, Robotech Revisited, or Robotech: Points of View, and aim it at everyone rather than just fans. In the first issue or two, retell the Macross Saga story. Perhaps tell it through the eyes of one of the Sentinels or Shadow Chronicles main characters—say, Jack Baker or Karen Penn or maybe even T.R. Edwards. This way you both fill in newbies on what-all happened, and give old-timers a different look at the same events—and you give the storyteller character some additional characterization too.

    Follow this up with an abbreviated retconned version of The Sentinels, through the eyes of its participants, a different participant each issue. Show what “really” happened and what didn’t all the way through, tell us who those people are. When Dana Sterling and Louie Nichols arrive on Space Station Liberty in the aftermath of the Robotech Masters saga, have them tell about how it all happened. Maybe have one of Sue Graham’s reports reprise New Generation, leaving the last two episodes to be covered in the Shadow Chronicles movie. And then finish up with the story told in this five-issue Prelude. That would have prepared all the readers for what they were going to see in Shadow Chronicles, and perhaps have generated new interest in the original Robotech as well as Shadow Chronicles buzz.

    Perhaps if they had realized how long it would be without a distributor back then, they could have done something like that, instead of what we did get.

    As it is now, I’m very worried about how successful Shadow Chronicles will be. In order to succeed, it can’t just be a good movie. It has to be a good movie that can be understood and enjoyed as easily by newcomers to the Robotech saga as by old-timers. There can’t be an entry requirement of watching an 85-episode TV series with mediocre dubbing and dated animation in order to get it, or people just won’t watch—and the movie can’t be successful on fan buzz alone. This is a tricky balancing act, since many potential viewers will think they won’t be able to follow it without watching the original, so they just won’t bother watching it. Serenity flopped at the box office for this very reason, and it only had 13 episodes of a recent Joss Whedon TV series behind it.

    Now, granted, I’ve heard an interview from the writer for the TV movie—not the Waltrips—where he talked about using events from the last two episodes of the TV series to recap what was happening for new viewers. I know that Tommy Yune only did the story treatment, not the actual script. But still, I’m worried at how nobody at Harmony Gold who green-lighted Prelude realized that it was not going to serve the purpose a prelude should.

    All in all, Prelude to the Shadow Chronicles is just that: a prelude to the Shadow Chronicles movie, aimed mainly at hard-core fans. It has good artwork and decent writing marred by only a few problems, but casual or non-fans will probably find it more confusing than enlightening, and the implications of the Haydonite mysticism that surrounds its ending make me moderately pessimistic about what might happen in Shadow Chronicles.

    For more information, a fascinating page-by-page fan analysis of the Prelude miniseries, comparing it to elements from the TV show, novels, and comics, can be found linked in the sidebar of Roboblog III: The Odyssey.