Behind the scenes, executive producer Joaquim Dos Santos and co-executive producer Lauren Montgomery are the true Paladins of Voltron.
When they come together, along with the rest of their creative team, they form the robot defender through the power of animation and create all the characters and worlds it comes into contact with. They fly the mech through new plot points and ensure the universe is free from the terrible boredom that stems from a lack of entertainment.
In celebration of season three, which was released August 4 on Netflix, I had the chance to speak with Dos Santos and Montgomery about all things Voltron: Legendary Defender, including that big lion switch, alternate realities, and Lotor’s generals.
Spoiler alert for season three!
How did Voltron: Legendary Defender come to be? Why did you decide to reboot the 1980s show?
Montgomery: I’d love to say that this was our decision, but Dreamworks had purchased the classic media library, and they were looking to do something with Voltron, and us being the huge fans that we were of the original, we would’ve loved nothing more than to have seen it done what we think is the right why. [Laughs] Basically the spoiled brat way of saying, “My way!” We were very, very lucky to be wrapping up on The Legend of Korra at the same time that Dreamworks was looking for people to start on Voltron. Joaquim and I, we went through the interview process, and they brought us in, and they believed in our vision, and we ended up being where we are today, which is making this show, and we’re super thrilled to have the opportunity because we love it, and we love the original property.
Dos Santos: Yeah, we grew up with the original. I think that’s the other sort of big part in the equation is that we were genuine fans of the original series, so I think that played a big part in us not only getting it, but really pushing for it and convincing everybody on the executive level that we were the right people for the jobs.
This season we have a switch up with the lions and who the pilots are, and I think it’s clever that Lance, Keith, and Allura are now in the lions they piloted in the original show. Why did you decide that now was the right time for that big switch?
Dos Santos: We knew we wanted Allura to be a Paladin pretty much from the beginning. It was just a matter of when that was going to happen. Beyond that, it was Lauren’s OCD on sort of the color swapping and making sense of the original weird color configuration the original series had.
Montgomery: I’m a slave to my nostalgia for the original where the colors were all wonkadoo and wrong colors in the wrong lions. But that’s just kind of what I remember from being a kid, and more so than Keith being in the Black Lion, I remember Keith wearing red. He was the red guy. He always wore red, and so when I would see people kind of change things up for the comics or for other Voltron shows, they would usually change the outfits, and Keith would be wearing black, Lance would be wearing red, and Allura would be wearing blue, and that just weirded me out. I was like, “No, no, no, that’s not the right character! You’re all wrong!” So it was my ask to like, “Can we please have them just start in the lion that correlates with the color, and then when they ultimately evolve and they move up it’ll make sense why?” They’re kind of like [how] Michael Jordan keeps his number and nobody else can wear 23.
Dos Santos: That’s right.
Montgomery: Keith is not going to take Shiro’s black outfit and wear it. He would never do that to his beloved mentor. They keep their outfits, and then they just kind of swap lions.
Dos Santos: I think the funny thing is that we had fans of the original series early on going like, “Well, they’re clearly in the wrong lions. What’s going on here?” Now we’ve got fans of this series saying, “I don’t understand why they’re still in the uniforms.”
Montgomery: [Laughs] We like to make no one happy.
The concept of alternate realities was introduced. Slav talked about it a lot in season two, but we actually got to see it in this season. How did that idea of alternate realities come into play, and will it continue to play a role in season four?
Dos Santos: It came into play because the Voltron ore, we wanted to give it an origin that was mysterious and also give it elements that allow it to be really the only thing that’s able to traverse through different realities. So I think just by the nature of the fact that that’s ones of its big powers, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll be seeing some of that stuff, some of those multiverse elements, spilling into other storylines. Exactly when that happens we can’t really say, but it’s [a] safe bet. I think it originally started as this form of making the Voltron ore something other than this universe, other than this world, other than anything that we really have any understanding of. Bigger than our understanding of the universe. From a story perspective, it just made sense seeing one of those potential alternate realities, getting that spin on the Alteans and shedding maybe a different light on them.
Montgomery: Yeah, a different interpretation on how things could have gone maybe had they gone with Allura’s proposal of like, “Dad, let’s use Voltron and fight,” versus Alfor’s proposal of “let’s send the lions away.” Things could’ve ended up very differently, and our Allura could’ve very easily become that [empress] Allura. But luckily she’s had different influences around her now, and that allowed her to evolve to be a much more wise person.
In episode six, we see that Keith and Shiro seem to kind of be clashing when it comes to the leadership position. They’re both trying to lead in different ways, and several times the team reverts back to obeying Shiro. Will we maybe continue to see this struggle and confusion over who the official leader is? If so, how will that affect Keith and Shiro’s friendship?
Dos Santos: I think the fact that we are able to work on an animated property that deals with the fact that there’s a little bit of that weird transitional element– I think, from a storytelling perspective, we were just excited that we were able to play up that aspect of both their personalities. There is that uncomfortable transition.
Montgomery: That’s just kind of what happens when you have two characters who are meant to be leaders on this team. You end up with this odd situation of, “Well, now who’s the leader?” It’s definitely going to be present. It’ll play out. And we’re not going to tell you how because we want you to watch the show.
Dos Santos: [Laughs] It’s not something that magically disappears.
I absolutely loved the last episode of this season because it made me sympathize for Zarkon and Haggar, and I didn’t think that was possible. I liked how the poisoned Quintessence was what truly turned them evil. Do you think that, had Zarkon not been infected by the poisoned Quintessence, he may have remained “good?” Or do you think his obsession with Quintessence was already too great and it would’ve only been a matter of time before he became truly evil?
Dos Santos: I personally think that he had very ideological differences with the way Alfor saw things, even without the Quintessence coming into play. I think they came from very opposite ends of societal places.
Montgomery: Different cultures.
Dos Santos: But, they found common ground, and they worked together, so I think there’s a good chance that they could’ve worked together. Maybe there would’ve been ups and downs.
Montgomery: They didn’t see eye to eye, but nothing quite on the level that this has taken had he not encountered that Quintessence. Had they never discovered Voltron, even if they had resorted to war, it would’ve been a much smaller fallout. Something bad would’ve happened in their galaxy, but he wouldn’t have this world denomination that he’s been going on because of his obsession.
Dos Santos: I think Quintessence, if anything, it sort of grabs on to the worst of us and accentuates those elements. Like anything, it corrupts.
Montgomery: Anything at all, even, whether it’s good or evil. Medicine in large doses can kill you. So that’s really what Quintessence is. It’s not innately good or innately bad. It’s a power source, and if you misuse it, it can be very disastrous.
Dos Santos: I think that was the point also that Alfor was trying to get across. He was saying, “Guys, look, you’ve got to covet this stuff extremely cautiously,” in mind that there’s a balance with all of it.
We see more of Lance’s insecurities this season. Do his insecurities and fear of not belonging maybe stem from the fact that he has such a big family and was maybe left out or forgotten? Does it come from his time at the Garrison and how people maybe didn’t believe in him? Or is it something completely different?
Dos Santos: I think all of the above, maybe. You’re made up of your earliest [memories], maybe stuff that you don’t even remember. So I think all those things come into play.
Montgomery: I think there are just maybe certain types of people that are more prone to insecurities or anxiety or issues like that. There’s always this issue of nature versus nurture, and there’s definitely some nurture part, but he also might just have it more in his nature where he’s just more of that type of a personality. But the great thing is that he is evolving, and he’s learning his place on his team, and he’s starting to gain a lot of that confidence that I think he lacked in our earlier seasons. It’s clear that there’s a huge fandom for Lance out there, and he’s probably the most popular character. It’s great to see people embrace him in that way. Had he been a real person, I think it would’ve warmed his heart a lot.
Dos Santos: The cool thing is to see that evolution through the course of the series because he’s already a very different character than he was when we started.
Going back to Lance being one of the favorites– what is it like to see people really just grab ahold of these characters and love them and want to see more from them?
Dos Santos: Incredible.
Montgomery: It’s magnificent. It really is.
Dos Santos: [It’s] heartwarming for us. When we’re at comic con and people are reacting to stuff on screen or reacting to specific characters showing up, it just gives us chills. And then seeing that same amount of emotion and stuff carried through online– it’s incredible. Sometimes it doesn’t seem real.
What has been the most challenging aspect of producing this show?
Dos Santos: Managing, I think, our personal expectations. We create a certain bar for ourselves and then [keep] trying to surpass that each and every season for ourselves, I think, more than anybody else. We’d love to say that we take everybody’s feedback into account and build it into the story, but animation just doesn’t allow for that. We’re so far ahead of this that episodes and art [are] already done long before it ever airs. So for us it’s just managing our own expectations and making sure that we are able to produce the show and keep it at a high level without killing tons of people in the process.
What are your favorite moments from season three?
Montgomery: I’ve got to say, I think my favorite, I don’t know if it’s necessarily a favorite moment, but my favorite thing about season three was just bringing in those four generals of Lotor’s. Those four female characters. They’re just a lot of fun, and they’re really unique and different, and just having them in the show makes me happy. [Laughs]
Dos Santos: Yeah, they’re awesome characters. They’re cool and unique to this version of Voltron, which I think is really fun.
Montgomery: There’s so much about this season. I’ve been waiting since day one for Allura to show up in her Pink Paladin outfit, so that’s a huge thing for me, as well.
Dos Santos: For me, rather than a moment, somebody had posted a video– he was watching with his daughter the moment when Allura came out with her Pink Paladin outfit, and just seeing that expression was incredible. Rather than the moment itself, it’s watching people’s reaction to the moment that’s super awesome.
What is it like to have Allura finally be a Paladin and to have her and Pidge both be really strong, female characters on the show and see people’s reactions to those strong, female characters?
Montgomery: It’s been incredible. It’s rare when you’re working on a show that ultimately, for all intents and purposes, is meant to sell toys to young boys, and then to have a team that has two strong females on it is very rare in my career. It’s been amazing, and to not only have these female characters, but then to have the validation of people watching the show and speaking to how much they appreciate that these female characters are depicted in a realistic way. They’re not being overly sexualized or kind of painted in this very specific, feminine role that I think we’ve kind of all been subject to in more of our youth and more growing up, and thinking has changed, and we try now to treat women differently. We try to treat them equally, and so people noticing that we’re trying to do that with the show and just appreciating it is a huge, huge deal for all of us.
Dos Santos: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s it. The fact that there is female representation is huge, but that fact that we don’t make the fact that they are women be the important element to them contributing to the team is just as huge.
Staying with the female characters and going back to Lotor’s generals– since they are original to this show, what was that process like of designing them and coming up with their abilities?
Dos Santos: We went with your standard, RPG party layout. You’ve got your big, strong one, you’ve got the sort of stealthy one, you’ve got the loyal, sort of righthand, knight, strong, fighter, you’ve got the quick gymnast.
Montgomery: We wanted to kind of have a wide range of abilities with these women so they can do just about anything between the four of them. And then finding the personalities, that was kind of appropriate we accompany to those things and just kind of keeping the cast colorful so you don’t just have like, “And here’s three of the same person on a team.” It was a lot of fun. And I don’t remember what came first, if it was the character descriptions or the designs. There are times that we’ll just go to our designers and be like, “Hey, come up with something cool,” and be like, “I liked it, what is she like?” and things like that.
Dos Santos: We don’t want to make light of the situation and sort of say no thought went into creating those characters, but if you had three or four of any of the same exact types of characters then you’d just be bored. So we wanted to vary them up as much as possible.
What was it like introducing Lotor? He’s a very different villain from what we’ve seen. He reminds me a lot of Loki from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Grand Admiral Thrawn from Star Wars, and I really liked seeing him this season.
Dos Santos: It was in the cards from the very beginning of the series. We knew it was something that was going to happen. We were talking about it leading up to this moment almost on a daily basis, and it was just super exciting for us. I think we couldn’t be happier with the reception that he’s received, and I think all those characters you pointed to are awesome points of reference. And even when you go back and look at the original series, as kooky as the original series could be and how weirdly obsessed he was with Allura, there are elements to that original character in this version, as well.
Buzzfeed recently put out a quiz called “Which ‘Voltron’ Character Are You, Actually?” Have you taken it? If so, who did you get? If not, what character do you think you are?
Dos Santos: I think the whole crew took it.
Montgomery: [Laughs] I think that quiz came from something that we had made for I don’t even know [what], and then Buzzfeed kind of adopted it. I took it the first time through when we just kind of made it for ourselves, and I got Keith, and then I went back and retook it and basically forced myself to be Pidge. But it’s funny because the first time around when our crew took it a lot of them got Shiro, and when they retook it on Buzzfeed, a lot of them ended up getting Keith, so I don’t know if the Buzzfeed algorithm is different. I might have to actually go take it on Buzzfeed now and find out what Paladin I am. But I think, in reality, I’m probably the closest to Keith.
Dos Santos: Yeah, I got Keith. It’s a little weird. I’m slightly antisocial, but not, like, all the way antisocial.