A Closer Look at the VOLTRON Lion Keys

In the 1980s animated television series VOLTRON: DEFENDER OF THE UNIVERSE, the five heroes who comprise the Voltron Force pilot five robotic lions which, when in a bind, can merge into the giant robot Voltron. When not in use, each lion resides in its own hidden “den.” To activate a lion, its pilot must insert a special key into a slot within the lion’s cockpit.

Much of the appeal of the VOLTRON series lies in its interesting visual designs. Even the lion keys, which could easily have been designed to look like ordinary keys, have a unique and “cool” look that sparks kids’ imaginations. This blog examines the lion keys in some detail.

Before looking at the lion keys, here are a couple general terms related to keys:

  • blade – The part of the key which is inserted into its lock.
  • bow – The “handle” of the key.

Although the keys are featured in nearly every “Lion Voltron” episode, they were most prominent in the series’ third and fourth episodes, “A Ghost and Four Keys” and “The Missing Key,” respectively.

In “A Ghost and Four Keys,” the newly formed Voltron Force seeks the keys in order to activate the long-dormant lions and defend Planet Arus from the latest attack from Planet Doom. At first Coran is hesitant to retrieve the lion keys because “it was the last wish of our good King Alfor that they be placed in the tomb with him.” The princess convinces Coran to take them to the tomb, and after the lid to the king’s coffin is opened, the Voltron Force and the viewing audience see the keys for the first time.

The keys are kept in cases which are positioned around Alfor’s body. One case is located near each of the king’s hips, one case is located near each of the king’s shoulders, and the fifth case is positioned above the king’s head.

It is possible that the position of each case is indicative of the lion that it activates:

  • The case near Alfor’s head is shown to have contained the key to Black Lion, which forms Voltron’s head and torso.
  • The key in the case near Alfor’s right shoulder might activate Red Lion, which forms Voltron’s right arm.
  • The key in the case near Alfor’s left shoulder might activate Green Lion, which forms Voltron’s left arm.
  • The key in the case near Alfor’s right hip might activate Blue Lion, which forms Voltron’s right leg.
  • The key in the case near Alfor’s left hip might activate Yellow Lion, which forms Voltron’s left leg.

In this scene only the key near King Alfor’s right hip is shown in close-up. The key’s blade is gold in color. The key’s bow is circular, with a silver border, and it is decorated with a coat of arms. The foreground of the coat of arms consists of a sylized gold cross with a gold crown positioned above it. The background of the coat of arms is divided into five regions. If the key is positioned such that the blade points to the left and the crown points up, then the central region of the coat’s background is black, the upper left and lower right regions of the background are blue, and the upper right and lower left regions are red. The lower regions are roughly twice the height of the upper regions.

Although only one key is shown in close-up in this scene, all of the keys seem very simliar if not identical. This would lend credence to the notion that the key cases’ positions relative to Alfor’s body would suggest which lion each key activates. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that all five keys would be completely identical, because of the possibility that a lion pilot might mistakenly try to activate a lion using the wrong key. Perhaps some subtle detail, invisible at “cartoon resolution,” visibly distinguishes each key from the others.

Unfortunately Lance notices that one of the keys — the key near Alfor’s head, the key to Black Lion — is missing. The key’s cases is shown in a close-up, and the outline of the key suggests that it, too, must look very similar if not identical to the other keys.

Although the fifth key is missing, the Voltron Force decides to use the four remaining keys to launch four of the lions. Lance pilots Red Lion, Keith controls Green Lion, Sven operates Blue Lion and Hunk flies Yellow Lion. As the Voltron Force accesses and activates their lions, Keith is shown inserting his key into a slot in Green Lion’s cockpit. When Keith first inserts the key, it looks different than it did when in the case in Alfor’s tomb. Instead of looking like a circular bow with a gold-colored blade, the key has a semicircular half-bow at each end, and the half-bows are connected by two silver-colored struts.

In the very next shot, for no known reason, the two silver struts have been replaced by one gold strut. Once the key is in the slot, a mechanism in the slot presses the half-bows together, causing the gold-colored blade of the key to protrude through the left half-bow. Once fully exposed the blade rotates 90 degrees along its lengthward axis, and then the key then slides to the left, activating Green Lion.

In the next episode, “The Missing Key,” the Voltron Force asks the mice whether they’ve seen a key that resembles one that Keith holds — presumably the key to Green Lion, since Keith had just operated that lion. It turns out that the mice had taken Black Lion’s key, thinking that it was pretty. As the mice retreive the key, the key is seen to strongly resemble the badge worn on the left breast of the Voltron Force uniform. The key’s bow appears to be bisected vertically, and between each half-bow is a rectangular, central section. The key also changes thickness from shot to shot.

As one of the mice gives the key to Allura, the key is shown in a close-up shot. The Black Lion key looks essentially identical to Green Lion’s key in “badge” form. It’s not explained how the mice managed to convert the key from its conventional key appearance into its badge-like appearance. It’s also not explained how, in this one shot, the central region of the key bow’s coat of arms is white instead of black, and the colors of the corner regions of the key bow’s coat of arms have swapped positions: the upper left and lower right regions are now blue instead of red, and the upper right and lower left regions are red rather than blue. The corner regions of the coat of arms retain this color scheme for the remainder of the shots which are examined in this blog.

Coran removes the center piece from the key, and Black Lion’s key is found to resemble Green Lion’s key when Keith had inserted it into the slot within the lion. The two half-bows are connected by a single, gold-colored strut. The bow’s central region is once again black, and it remains black for the remainder of the shots which are examined in this blog.

Coran then pushes the half-bows together, and the key’s blade protrudes through the left, movable half-bow. Black Lion’s key now appears similar if not identical to Green Lion’s key after its half-bows had been pressed together in the cockpit slot. The key also looks like all the other keys when they were in their cases within Alfor’s tomb.

The fact that the center piece of the badge-form key must be removed in order to convert the key into its more conventional form suggests that, when the mice originally stole Black Lion’s key, they must have also located the center piece of the badge, presumably concealed in the key’s case in Alfor’s tomb, and then converted the key into its badge form,. This feat seems unlikely until one considers that the mice are intelligent enough to communicate with Allura and to perform a song-and-dance act for her entertainment.

Later the Voltron Force launches all five lions. Keith orders, “Insert keys now,” as he removes a part of the badge of his uniform. As the key is removed, the center part of the badge — the part that Coran had removed from Black Lion’s key during his examination — stays behind on the uniform. The key is also seen to be two-sided. Both sides of the key have the same design. For example on both sides of the key, the upper left region of the bow’s coat of arms is blue.

In a split screen, we see Lance, Pidge, Sven and Hunk remove the keys from their uniforms. When they remove the keys from their uniforms, their badges seem to disappear entirely from their uniforms.

The next two shots feature Keith inserting his key into the slot in Black Lion’s cockpit, followed by the slot’s mechanism pushing the key’s left half-bow until it touches the right-half bow, revealing the key’s blade. Afterward the mechanism pulls the entire key to the left. With two exceptions — the key glowing briefly once it’s in in its slot, and the area at the bottom of the screen being blue rather than black — the footage is the same as when Keith had inserted Green Lion’s key, which suggests that all five lion keys interface with their respective slots in the same way.

The uniform badges are often seen to be fully intact on the uniforms even after the keys have been removed and while the lions are active.

In other shots the badges are shown to be entirely missing from the uniforms while the lions are active.

In “The Missing Key,” during the sequence when Keith orders the team to form Voltron, Black Lion’s key is shown to be in its slot, and Keith’s uniform is shown to have a full badge. This sequence of shots is shown in possibly every episode in which the lions form Voltron.

In the close-up shot of the key in its slot, the key moves simliarly to how it moved after the key is inserted into the slot, except that the left half-bow is already connected to the right half-bow, and the key’s blade never rotates. The entire key appears to slide to the left, although a close examination reveals that the blade remains fixed, while the key’s bow slides to the left. It is likely that the stationary key blade was a short cut taken by the TV series’ animators.

As early as during the second episode, “Escape to Another Planet,” the uniforms are shown to have badges before the keys are recovered from Alfor’s tomb.

It seems that a lion’s key must remain in the lion’s cockpit slot as long as the lion is active. Although the evidence is often self-contradictory, it also seems that the badge worn on the uniform’s left breast is comprised of a backing, a center piece, and the lion key. When the key is removed from the badge, the center piece detaches from the key, but remains attached to the backing. Perhaps the centerpiece flips open on a hinge when the key is removed, and it automatically closes afterward, using either a spring or a more futuristic mechanism in the hinge.

A single scene in the second-season episode “Envoy From Galaxy Garrison” depicts the key as looking like an ordinary key — or perhaps a fishing hook.

Perhaps this obsessively detailed analysis is best concluded by some friendly advice in a lyric from one version of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 theme song:

Repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show. I should really just relax.”

Special thanks to Chee-toy for recalling the name of the episode in which the key looks boring.