When Dragon Ball Z ended in 1996, Toei Animation had the option to stop there. Akira Toriyama had finished his epic 42-volume saga, telling a complete story that had traveled from humble beginnings to absurd heights. Toriyama put everything he had into Dragon Ball. He knew he didn't have anything left.
Toei Animation could've stopped there.
But they didn't.
Dragon Ball GT is the often maligned sequel to Dragon Ball Z. It lasted for 64 episodes, ending due to dwindling viewership and negative fan response. It has since been retconned by Dragon Ball Super, which contradicts many plot points in Dragon Ball GT. But, oddly enough, the loathed series pulled through with a shockingly poignant ending. Dragon Ball GT offers the perfect ending to the Dragon Ball saga.
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Grand Tour to the Past
Before we explain how Dragon Ball GT's ending works, we need to explain why the rest of the series doesn't. Dragon Ball GT could never hope to top the Buu Saga in terms of scale, so what it did do was try to bring things back to the way it was in Dragon Ball. And this ended up not working at all.
Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z are drastically different in terms of tone. Dragon Ball Z is an action series. It has transformations, aliens, powerful attacks and everything feels super serious. Dragon Ball is an adventure/martial arts series. Until the Piccolo arc, it was often even referred to as a martial arts comedy series, more in line with Toriyama's prior manga, Dr. Slump.
So, Dragon Ball GT, without Toriyama's sense of humor, attempted to recreate Dragon Ball. It brings back classic Dragon Ball villain Pilaf, turns Goku into a child and focuses on gathering Dragon Balls. To appeal to younger audiences, the story is a cross-generational one, with Goku, now in his sixties despite his appearance, Trunks and Goku's granddaughter, Pan.
But the problem was this change was too jarring. Let's ignore the fact that Toei didn't have Toriyama's talent at comedy. The problem was that, previously, Goku had fought a million-year-old alien magic demon on a planet where gods lived. There was no way you could return to the era of early Dragon Ball now.
So Dragon Ball GT featured elements of DBZ. The world would blow up if the Black Star Dragon Balls weren't found. They had to go to strange planets. And the first arc culminates with a real villain, Baby, whose origins tie in with Planet Vegeta. And there's a new Super Saiyan transformation.
And none of it really works.
The problem with Dragon Ball GT is that it constantly tries to capture the magic of both Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, but fails at both. None of the adventure feels meaningful because they try to throw too much weirdness at the audience at once. Too many ideas are introduced, but none of it is really fleshed out.
While the series has clever ideas, there is no sense of tension because Goku is made too powerful. Despite only being a kid, Goku seems far stronger than anyone else in the series. Most fights are settled by energy blasts. The martial arts of Dragon Ball are replaced by heightened energy fights. Goku rarely if ever loses. When he does lose, the solution is always simple: Throw a bigger ball of energy at the enemy or transform. None of the back and forth of Dragon Ball Z. None of the complex martial arts or silly antics of Dragon Ball.
That is, until the ending.