Who Is Cliff?
The Voltron Facebook page recently posed the question…
“I put the question to you, Vehicle Voltron fans…In your mind, ‘Who *is* Cliff?'”
This is my attempt to answer that question.
In Voltron: Defender of the Universe, Cliff is the Voltron Vehicle Team member who leads the Land Team and operates “Land Team 11,” the black, boxy vehicle with the square-shaped sensor antenna on top — the vehicle which forms the lower torso of Vehicle Team Voltron, Defender of the Near Universe.
In the unaired pilot episode, Cliff is said to be a master geologist. How much formal education he has isn’t revealed. As a Space Explorer, he is trained to handle the dangers of space exploration. As a member of the Land Team, he is knowledgeable about geology and related subjects, at least to the point of knowing what data to collect for subsequent analysis. As a member of the Voltron Force, he is skilled in hand-to-hand combat and ship-to-ship combat, and he is one of the 15 pilots “trusted with the ancient secret of how to assemble Voltron.”
But *who* is Cliff? What is his personality? What makes him tick?
Voltron: Defender of the Universe was created by adapting episodes from two separately produced Japanese animated television series: Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV, augmented with 20 episodes animated specifically for Voltron and based on the characters and situations from Beast King GoLion. GoLion and Dairugger each consisted of 52 episodes. Including the two-part, newly animated finale episode, “Fleet of Doom,” Voltron wound up with 126 episodes. Production of Voltron began early in 1984. The first pilot episode of Voltron, adapted from the first episode of Dairugger, debuted at National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in roughly February 1984. The first production episode debuted in syndication on September 10, 1984, and “Fleet of Doom,” the final two-part episode of the series, first aired on September 10, 1986.
The need to create 126 episodes to air over two calendar years required the Voltron production team to work at a hectic pace. Because of this — and the fact that the first 104 episodes could be produced using only the visual material of previously produced episodes — it’s unlikely that the Voltron writers had time to plan the development of the show’s plot… or determine in advance the personalities of most if not all of the show’s characters. As a result it’s likely that the characters were “defined” along the way with the adaptation of each episode.
But what about Cliff?
Because Cliff never reappeared in Voltron: The Third Dimension or Voltron Force, we have only his appearances in the 52 Vehicle Team episodes of Voltron, plus the two-part “Fleet of Doom” finale, from which we can figure out who Cliff is.
Arguably the main characters in the Vehicle Team episodes are Commander Hawkins, Jeff and Commander Hazar. Cliff and Krik are featured almost as prominently as Jeff. Unfortunately because the Vehicle Team episodes are driven more by the large-scale story of the evolving relations between the Galaxy Alliance and the Drule Empire, the evolution of Drule Commander Hazar from war monger to peace advocate, and the Vehicle Team’s subservience to Commander Hawkins and Captain Newley, Cliff doesn’t much of a chance to shine.
In the first Vehicle Team episode, we hear that Cliff has an Australian accent, which suggests that he is a native of that country on Earth. When Land Team members Marvin and Hutch brawl, Cliff initially wants to break up the fight, but he lets the fight continue when Jeff reminds him that brawling is just how the buddies work off stress and frustration.
In the same episode, Cliff leads the Land Team in surveying a new planet from ground level, and it’s Cliff who summarizes their findings. In “Planet of the Bats,” as the 15 Voltron vehicles fly over a newly discovered world, it’s Cliff who describes the atmosphere of the planet. In a children’s animated series with no obvious scientific advisor, this is about as scientific as the show gets, and Cliff is among the more scientific members of the Vehicle Team.
Also in “Planet of the Bats,” the Land Team minus Cliff explores an ancient city on foot, while Cliff remains in his vehicle, presumably continuing independent analysis. After Modoch is bitten by bats and crashes his vehicle, Cliff orders Modoch to engage auto-pilot and seemingly guides Modoch’s vehicle back to the Explorer. Cliff is rarely seen to socialize with fellow Land Team members, preferring instead to interact with Jeff and Krik.
In “Letters From Home,” Cliff is shown to have three brothers and to have presumably grown up on a farm.
In other episodes Cliff openly but respectfully laughs at Jeff when the often temperamental Jeff refers to someone else as a hothead, but he shows solidarity with Jeff and Krik when they ask Commander Hawkins why the Galaxy Garrison doesn’t adopt a more aggressive stance against the Drule Empire.
In “Fleet of Doom,” Lance recalls when Cliff first came to the academy — when Lance and Wolo yanked him into a swimming pool. This memory suggests that Cliff began his studies after Lance and Wolo did.
As for personality traits, Cliff is a supportive friend and subordinate to Jeff, a compassionate leader if not friend of the people under his commmand, and someone with strong ties to his family on Earth. He isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade, but he respects the chain of command. With his hair slicked back and a bit styled, Cliff takes pride in his appearance. He’s good at what he does, and he’s proud of his accomplishments, but he is cognizant of his humble roots on the family farm.
If Vehicle Team captain Jeff can be thought of as a young conglomeration of Star Trek’s Captain James Kirk and Forbidden Planet’s Commander John Adams, then Cliff can be thought of as a young conglomeration of Star Trek’s Commander Spock and Forbidden Planet’s “Doc” Ostrow. Cliff probably has more raw intelligence than Jeff, and he is probably cooler-headed and less impulsive. More like Ostrow than Spock, Cliff has human feelings and isn’t afraid to express them, but as Spock is versus James Kirk, Cliff is more reserved than Jeff. On the other hand, somewhat like James Kirk, Cliff deliberately distances himself a bit from those under his command, but not to the point at which his subordinates don’t feel like they can trust and confide in him fully.
There isn’t much to go on when figuring out who Cliff is as a character, but the same can be said of many characters in the Vehicle Team and Lion Force episodes of Voltron.