You don’t need to have seasonal affective disorder to be depressed this holiday season. There’s plenty to be bummed out about, first and foremost that most of us won’t be able to spend time with our friends and family thanks to the pandemic, but then there’s also [gestures at everything]. It sucks, but most Christmas specials refuse to admit the holidays can be anything but a time of hope, cheer, and goodwill. Not Robotech.
The 1985 cartoon TV series — made up of three separate anime series, rewritten, re-edited, and redubbed to form a somewhat coherent whole — is legendary for a lot of reasons. It was one of the first U.S. cartoons to trust kids to be able to follow a massive, serialized storyline instead of standalone episodes, it introduced anime to the generation that helped the medium reach the popularity it has today, and it was never, ever afraid to tell kids we rarely get true happy endings in real life. The show’s Christmas episode, “Season’s Greetings,” is a prime example.
If you haven’t seen the show, here’s the basic plot of the Macross saga, or “phase one” of Robotech: A massive, transforming alien battleship crash-lands on Earth; its inhabitants, realising there are antagonistic aliens somewhere out in the universe, retrofit the ship and christen it the SDF-1. These aliens, called the Zentraedi (who are basically giant humans), finally arrive and start their invasion, but the SDF-1 accidentally warps away to the far side of the solar system.
As the ship tries to make its way back to Earth, it faces constant Zentraedi attacks, but eventually, some of the aliens come to realise they can co-exist with humans. The rest of the Zentraedi, feeling betrayed, become obsessed with the destruction of Earth and humanity itself. They pretty much succeed. When “Season’s Greetings” begins, 95% of the Earth’s surface has been destroyed and the only remaining humans are the crew and civilians who landed with the SDF.
Although the framework of Robotech is a war among the stars, what makes the show so memorable and beloved are its characters, which are explored to a level that was unprecedented at the time. A lot of the series is focused on the love quadrangle of Rick Hunter, pilot of a Veritech (it’s a jet that turns into a mech), who’s torn between Lisa Hayes, the first officer of the SDF, and Lynn Minmei, a young, budding pop star, whose affection wavers between Rick and Lynn Kyle, her cousin and manager. The four have a complicated dynamic in which everyone gets hurt, angry, sad, hopeful, and happy by the actions of one of the others. I’ve said it before, but my favourite part of Robotech is how honest it is about love — love is hard, messy, and it can make us stupid, but it’s still worth it.
Robotech presents the holidays with the same honesty. The episode begins on Christmas Eve. Minmei, recently abandoned by Lynn Kyle, has rejected her life as a pop star and realised the person that has truly cared the most for her is Rick, even when his love was unrequited. She goes to Rick’s apartment, begging to be allowed to stay the night, to which Rick acquiesces. Neither he nor Minmei knows whether her rekindled feelings for Rick are genuine or something borne out of loneliness and Kyle’s rejection of her.
Unfortunately, Lisa, having gone to Rick’s place at that exact moment to finally, directly confess her feelings for him, overhears Minmei’s plea to sleep at his place and Rick’s invitation for her to stay. Believing he and Minmei are back together — and that Rick has always been in love with Minmei, never her — Lisa leaves, heartbroken. Later, Claudia, the most well-adjusted main character in the episode despite it being her first Christmas alone after her husband (and Rick’s friend and mentor) Roy died in battle earlier in the year, heads to a bar to toast his memory instead of mourning him. Claudia finds Lisa there, drunk, depressed, and tunelessly singing one of Minmei’s hit songs.
Rick, meanwhile, only lets Minmei spend the night because he wants to help his ex-girlfriend during what is clearly a rough patch in her life. Unfortunately, Minmei’s emotional neediness is part of why Rick fell for her originally, as it satisfies a sort of relationship-centric saviour complex in him. Rick also doesn’t really know Lisa loves him, so when he returns home after a tough battle and discovers Minmei has cooked him a Christmas dinner, he’s overwhelmed and can’t help but kiss her, even though deep down he truly loves Lisa. Again, it’s messy.
But this is still nothing compared to the episode’s main plot. Again, 95% of Earth has been laid to waste, and essentially a single city has survived the devastation. Humanity (to say nothing of the main characters) needs a win, and in any other holiday special, they’d get one. Instead, Khyron, the leader of the separatist Zentraedi, launches an assault on Christmas day. During the battle we see buildings destroyed and watch Veritech pilots die.
During the attack, a news announcer says “casualties are expected to be heavy” only to later confess they’re “far heavier than expected.” At the battle’s end, Khyron wishes the people of Earth a merry Christmas and sends a “special gift from Santa Claus” — a series of bombs placed throughout Macross City, designed specifically to create massive fires. The Veritechs are forced to break off their pursuit of the rogue Zentraedi to fight the fires and, as the narrator says, “try to reunite families.”
That evening, we see a priest in a damaged church, despondently contemplating a statue of Jesus. Then he hears a sound — the people of Macross City, singing “Silent Night” together, despite the death and destruction earlier in the day. Yes, it’s cheesy, and it’s basically the end of How the Grinch Stole Christmas — if the Grinch had also been randomly murdering Whos in addition to stealing their presents — but it works because the people and the priest aren’t suddenly experiencing a renewed hope and joy here, as if despite everything that’s happened things are good because a Child Is Born in Bethlehem or whatnot. The song is a representation of their shared hardship and tragedy, a sort of solace, a security blanket to shield them from all the crap life is relentlessly throwing at them.
Look, I’m not naïve enough to believe we’re going to achieve any kind of unity this holiday season, even though we’ve all shared the hardship of 2020 (although by no means equally). And I’m certainly not suggesting everyone can manage to find peace and happiness if they start singing Christian Christmas carols. But I think there is some consolation in the fact that despite how uncertain/challenging/tumultuous/unprecedented these times are, from a certain point of view this is just another Christmas, another Hanukkah, another Kwanzaa, etc., just as “Season’s Greetings” isn’t a special holiday episode of Robotech; it’s just an episode that happens to take place on Christmas.
The show says despite how much everything sucks, there is something positive you can get out of the holidays. Whether it’s because things are finally calming down for a little bit, or you get to eat yourself silly, or catch up with old friends, or luxuriate in a day off, or kiss a Chinese pop star, Robotech knows there’s still something worth celebrating this time of year.
Look, we’re obviously not going to stop all the horribleness out there, at least not before the end of the year, so if you can find that something that gives you comfort and/or joy right now, grab onto it with your giant mech hand and hold on with all you’ve got.