Saturday, January 23, 2010

SMCS Companion Piece #2A: The Transformers

Transformers is probably the one piece of fiction that impacted my childhood the most and therefore it is one of the most important factors in the shaping of my personality today. This is a bad thing. No girl wants to marry a guy who is all about Robots in Disguise. Okay, that’s an exaggeration but the point I’m trying to make is that I’m a big Transformers fan and I suspect that to be the main source of all my other nerdy habits. Transformers may have ruined my life. But hey it could be worse. I spend roughly zero percent of my funds on toys these days so I never risk not having food (Well truthfully food money goes to comic books, but still…).

This week on the Saturday Morning Cartoon Show DJ Muppet and I are watching “The Transformers”, the original cartoon from the eighties, so I figured I throw up a blog about my favorite robotic war mongers who are more than meets the eyes. I thought about what exactly I should cover here but my roommate Travis suggested I do a sort of timeline going through what I recall about the franchise from day one up until the present (AKA “The Dark Time”). Sure, why not? I’ll go through what I recall and try to be as brief as possible. But before we start I think there are a few things I should mention:

-Hasbro, the makers of Transformers, is concerned only with getting your children to buy toys and getting you to buy toys in that order. Everything, from the cartoons to the comics to the movies, anything that has “The Transformers” branded on it exists so you’ll buy an action figure or two. Sure sometimes some valid fiction can be created but I assure you it’s basically a happy side effect and never the intent. They want your money, kids.

-Kind of like the Godzilla movies there is no long continuity that is spans all of the franchise. Just about all the different toy lines and cartoons and whatever are separate timelines that do not have any relations to each other for the most part. Think of it as the “Multiverse”. The original Transformers cartoon has nothing to do with the recent “Transformers: Animated” nor does it relate to the current IDW comic books. I will point out any relationship between universes should I be aware of one.

NOTE: It turns out I had a lot to say about this subject. I've had to split this into TWO parts! For crying out loud...
Beta’s Unofficial Transformers Timeline
Part One
Generation 1: 1984 – 1991
Toy Line: Way back in the ancient past of 1983 American Toy Company Hasbro joined forces with Japanese Toy Company Takara to rob youngsters of their precious cash repackage the Japanese only Diaclone and Microchangers line of toys in America (And Japan) as a new product, a business decision that clearly still has weight today. Basically the original action figures were previously released toys that had really only one thing in common: vehicles (And a giant gun) that turned into giant robots. Some of these guys weren’t originally suppose to be living, thinking machines but rather drivable “Real Robots” akin to Mobile Suit Gundam. If you ever owned an original TF toy and thought you were missing a little pilot figure you probably were. Despite the Japanese origin the conflict between Autobots and Decepticons, detailed on the backs of the packaging, and the biographies of the various characters were written with mostly American input.

Um...That's sort of cool. I suppose

Marvel Comic: Started in 1984 and ending in 1991 this, and not the cartoon, was the original Transformers fiction. Originally a miniseries it ended up lasting much longer than planned. Many fans still to this day consider the characterizations of the various robots to be the standard to which all others are judged against. And why not? The comic was darker and more serious than the cartoon ever was and many of the writers who worked on the comic also wrote much of the bio stuff with the toy line making the relationships between the robots and their toy counterparts a little stronger. That said Hasbro had their hands in the soup all the time and often dictated whether some characters lived or died (Often depending if their toy was still in rotation). For people who started with the cartoon but not the comic it can be…a little strange to say the least. Ravage could talk, Grimlock was a cunning but ruthless and ambitious warrior (And leader of the Autobots for a time) and Spider-Man sometimes came to visit. Wait, what?

Spider-Man Versus Megatron:
An Ultimate Battle of Ultimate Destiny

Now I never really read the book mainly because I was, well, not born when it hit stands. That said everything I’ve read of the old comic I did not like enough to seek more out. I’m no expert on the subject at all.

The Transformers: The first cartoon, first broadcasted later in 1984 lasting until 1987 with five four basically three seasons. Having little relation with the already established comic the cartoon was aimed at a dumber younger audience with the toy commercial aspect turned way up. This is what most people are familiar with when they think about Transformers: Optimus Prime and his heroic Autobots wage their battles to destroy the evil forces of Megatron and the Decepticons. The list of characters kept getting larger and harder to follow as time went on and most of the cast barely had anything other than token two dimensional personalities. The first season was complete crap especially the earliest episodes. Season Two ended up being much better having some truly wonderful episodes (“The Golden Lagoon”, “The Secret of Omega Supreme”) and truly dreadful piles of garbage (“Triple Takeover”). Season Three took place after the movie and therefore the status quo was much different. Optimus was dead in his place some guy named “Rodimus Prime”, they fought in space and many different alien worlds, and it all took place in the far future of 2005. Season Four was actually only a three episode miniseries called “The Rebirth” (AKA “The Headmasters) that served as an extremely unsatisfying ending to the cartoon. Season Five was just some random kid talking to a puppet or something and replays of old episodes.

The Transformers (1986 Film): “Beyond Good. Beyond Evil. Beyond Your Wildest Imagination.” The tagline for the One True TF Movie (Eat it, Bay!) even to this day makes zero sense to me. Beyond good and evil? When does that even happen in the film? It’s like suggesting there’s some complex moral dilemma that’s seen through the eyes of sentient machines and apparently not an hour and a half of robots shooting each other to death. SPOILER ALERT: It is totally just robots shooting each other to death. Released in 1986 this movie was the turning point in the cartoon series as it took place about twenty years in the future and over the course of the film they killed off most of the original cast and replaced them sleek looking new breed replacements including the awesome old man Kup, the awesome psychotic nut job Galvatron and…Wheelie. Who was pink. And rhymed. Awesome?

Also voiced by Frank Welker

The movie was indeed darker than the cartoon it was based on and featured a pretty impressive (For its time) celebrity cast including Judd Nelson as Hot Rod, Leonard Nimoy as Galvatron, Eric Idle as Wreck-Gar, and Orson Wells as Unicron (His last role before his death. Poor guy). None of them returned for Season Three of the show. This movie is filled with weird animation errors and won’t make sense to anyone who wasn’t already familiar with the franchise. It is still a thousand times better than the 2007 and 2009 movies.
The best line from the movie:

Spike: [After seeing that blowing up a whole moon wasn’t enough to kill the villain] Aw shit! What are we gonna do now?!

Hahaha, I love children’s movies.

Transformers End; Japan Doesn’t Notice
Again it must be said that the Transformers is a mostly American made product in terms of names and story. The cartoon, for example, is American and was later dubbed into Japanese (“Fight! Super Robot Lifeform Transformers!”) When the end of Season Three came that was pretty much it for transforming robot cartoons for us but in Japan they said “Meh. Screw ‘em” and started making their own cartoons without input from their Americans partners. Disregarding “The Rebirth” they created the original “The Headmasters” cartoon which followed the American cartoon in continuity. Several series were made over the years including but not limited to “Super God Masterforce” (What the hell?) and “Victory”. None of these shows made it over the US but most of the toys sure did. So basically for the next few years after the American cartoon ended we kept getting more and more toys but without the fiction it was based on. Damn you Hasbro!

Generation 2 (1992-1995)
So you may have heard the original cartoon, toys and comic sometimes referred to as “Generation One” or “G1”. Well this part of the history is the reason. TF toys weren’t selling like they used to. Hasbro decided to repackage the franchise for the modern consumer. Many old toys were re-released with shiny new colors and many new toys were created with gimmicks like water induced color change. They called it “Transformers: Generation 2” and therefore we now refer to the first line stuff as “Generation 1”.

Toy sales didn’t really improve and by ’95, after 11 years of existence, Transformers was gone from all toy stores. Good job guys.

Kill them all! Primus will recognize his own!

There was also a comic and “new” cartoon introduced during this time. The “Generation 2” comic was again published by Marvel and, more or less, continued the story from the previous series. I read an issue or two when it first came out. It, like 85% of all comics made during the first half the 90s, was dark, overly violent, full of machine guns, and barely lasted a whole year before being canceled. We will not speak of it again. The cartoon was literally just the old episodes with a new theme song. The hell? Why not just dub the freaking Japanese shows? At least that way we could have seen something new! Damn you Hasbro!
Beast Era: 1996-2000
Toyline: So Transformers was gone from toy shelves and pretty much dead outside of Japan. But then something funny happened: Hasbro devoured bought its competitor Kenner. Instead of just scrapping the company they gave them specific franchises to work on, one of which was the now irrelevant TF toys. The logic was that kids didn’t like the toys anyway so they might as well do a massive overhaul. Be well aware: if it wasn’t for this line of thinking Transformers would not be around today. This decision saved the franchise…but also resulted in Michael Boy making those terrible movies. Suddenly I’m torn.
Anyway Kenner did indeed make a new version of Transformers in which the heroic Maximals, who turned into mostly mammals like apes, bats and cheetahs fought against the evil Predacons, who were bugs and lizards. Not only that but new technologies in toy making added unprecedented articulation to the figures making them arguably superior to their ancestors. They called it “Beast Wars” and it was a hit. A cartoon soon followed.

Beast Wars: Transformers: Called “Beasties” in Canada, because Canadian watch groups are obviously heatless monsters, Beast Wars was the first original North American Transformers cartoon in years. It ran from 1996 to 1999. Using computer generated images instead of traditional cell animation we now know just how ahead of its time the show was (Although the graphics are rather dated by today’s standards. Painfully so, in fact). The toyline’s story implied the characters were retrofitted versions of G1 robots, but the cartoon decided to make the claim that they were not only completely different characters but that they were actually descendant from the Autobots and Decepticons and their war took place sometime in the far future (Though the setting as still ancient Earth for some reason). The show had a complex plot with a rich background (Taking story elements from both the old cartoon and the comic) and featured a very small cast that made character development much easier than in the previous series. The first two seasons rocked once the writers found their footing. Season Three however was plagued with inference from Hasbro who wanted to insert tons of new characters in order to SELL MORE TOYS which resulted in a string of characters that did nothing for the plot and in some cases were introduced in one episode and then killed in the next! Damn you Hasbro! The series ended on a fairly definitive note while leaving the door open for a sequel.

Pictured: Rattrap w/ Dignity

One unbelievably stupid interesting tidbit about the TF fandom during this era was a controversy in regards to the character changing into animals rather than vehicles. Optimus Primal, leader of the Maximals and apparently not the original Optimus Prime, was the poster child in the “Trukk not munky” debate. That was not a typo by the way; it’s an Internet Meme. Also something about evolution. Meh.
Beast Machine: This show sucked.

What, you want a little more than that? Fine. In 1999 a sequel to Beast Wars came out called Beast Machines where most of the dynamics between the characters was drastically altered, as was the setting. The cartoon is a bit hard to explain but basically Optimus Primal became a guru, Rattrap became a worthless load of a children’s appeal character and Megatron became a psychotic with no real motivation for his literally genocidal madness. Also it turns out the Transformers home planet of Cybertron was once a organic planet just like Earth. Let’s move on.

Pictured: Rattrap w/o Dignity
That's it for today. Tune in later for Part B of the Timeline, which should be up within the next 24 Hours.

The Transformers is scheduled be on The Saturday Morning Cartoon Show January 23rd 2010, 9:00 AM Eastern Time on 89.1 WIDR Kalamazoo

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