For as much as I've been touting Transformers comics lately, it's perhaps surprising that I have not checked in with an animated Transformers series with any real seriousness since Generation One, the show I grew up on that helped make me a fan in the first place (that and the original Marvel comics, and the awesome old toys with the tech specs and what-not). When Beast Wars happened, I couldn't get over Optimus Monkey, and all efforts from the nerd-o-sphere to tell me 'no, it's actually really good!' fell on my intentionally deafened ears. There have been several iterations since then, such Beast Machines, Armada and most recently Transformers Animated, which I also heard was really good, but I hated the design of the characters, all distended and cutesy-looking. I couldn't stop calling them Cuddle-Formers.
Slowly, however, it started to dawn on me that cartoons have come a very long way since the glitchy old 1980s style, and if TF fans are saying these later shows are good, are they just too young, or am I just too set in my ways? Most likely the latter, although I still maintain that the original animated The Transformes: The Movie was such a 'next-level' departure in gravity and tone from the cheesier aspects of the series that it's the main reason this franchise has endured long enough to have so many permutations. It opened with the gruesome murder of an entire planet, for pete's sake. Upon further review (and rewatching the old series to see just how bad some of it was), it became clear that the potential of all the G1 ideas is what I responded to more than the actual canon itself, and that's what I would really like to see in new TV shows (and movies, too, but those are a lost cause until actual nerds take the helm from Michael Bay's claws).
Anyway, the problem I kept running into when trying to open my mind to the new stuff was perusing toy shelves and seeing that, in the various revamped versions of the TF Universe, names were given out to characters that already belonged to my favorites, but with no connection to the original version. Despite the cast of hundreds, it's as if there are only four characters in all of Transformers that can't be messed with – Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Megatron and Starscream – and everyone else, who cares? Make Wheeljack a Decepticon, make Scavenger an Autobot, make Ironhide elitist, make Blurr a gruff guy instead of an energetic motormouth, whatever. It may not seem like much to most people, but to me, that kind of thing was tantamount to having Jonathan Frakes play Spock, or Greedo hanging out with Chewbacca and hooking up with Princess Leia. These are characters, not just a random assembly line of toys and trademarked brand names and – oh. *sigh* Hello, Hasbro.
However, after finally seeing a lot of my 'take G1 concepts and actually make them awesome' desires realized in the great video game Transformers: War for Cybertron (and fingers crossed for its upcoming sequel Fall of Cybertron), when the opportunity arose, I decided to try and check in with the latest new animated series called Transformers Prime with the new Season One Blu-ray collection. And boy howdy, am I glad I did.
Fair warning now, but Here There Be Spoylers.
This is as close to what I wanted out of a new Transformers series as I could've hoped for in this, the post-Bay age. It's stunningly well-animated, on par with feature films in terms of textures, lighting, sound and action, far beyond anything I've seen on episodic television animation before. It's also surprisingly dark and gruesome at times, with a serious and epic feel (thanks in part to the majestic score from Brian Tyler) that elevates the rising tension throughout the entire season, culminating with a very intense and satisfying four-part finale. The commentaries included in the Blu-ray edition reveal that Transformers Prime had the benefit of an actual staff of full-time writers hashing out these stories instead of the usual one writer juggling a bunch of freelancers, and that dedication really shows in the compelling final product. If you enjoyed this series when it was broadcast in standard def on The Hub, you're going to love watching it on Blu-ray. This show is beautiful.
The character designs are interesting, taking the hideous messes that are the Bayformers and giving them color, appropriate personalities and, most importantly, identifiable faces. Each of the Bay movies has been an exercise in frustration when trying to figure out where the heads are on those models. Here, they incorporate the robo-realism of those movies with some actual character. In short, I can actually look at the cast without twitching. The only major holdover from Bayland (besides Executive Producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who wrote the Bay movies) is the fact that Bumblebee still makes fart-bleep-blorp noises instead of talking and has the movie's same general look, but he's a lot more tolerable here than there – and, for that matter, than he ever was on the G1 show. How Bumblebee became mandatory, I'll never know. He was annoying as hell back then. He's kinda fun now, though.
Anyway, the show was so engrossing that I binged through the entire disc in one day and made a party out of it with a friend of mine. It's not without its flaws, but they weren't glaring enough to really derail the fascination with the dark new twists on the best ideas of old. Plus, it opens with an old G1 favorite by the name of Cliffjumper driving around being awesome and being voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Of course, he's been killed off before you can finish saying "whoa, there's no way they got The Rock to be a regular member of the voice cast, is there?" However, it clearly establishes that this isn't going to be sanitized kiddie fare all the time – there's gonna be some of that harsh reality that made The Transformers: The Movie such a stunner in the first place. Then they turn Cliffjumper into a horrifying zombie – and he's only the first of many. This show is not afraid to be scary.
Soon, we learn the status quo of this series involves a very much pared-down cast, compared to the constant flow of new charac-toys inherent to G1 – all of which we loved as kids and would still like to see more of in TF:P down the road. With few exceptions, Prime focuses on these cast members exclusively – five Autobots (Optimus, Bumblebee, Arcee, Bulkhead and Ratchet) and six Decepticons (Megatron, Starscream, Soundwave, Breakdown, Knockout and latecomer Airachnid). It seems Earth was a strategic location for Cybertronians to stash energon (and have all sorts of crash landings, apparently) during the war, and now that their entire home planet is dead, the Decepticons have taken to mining our homeworld for as much energon as they can, while the tiny team of Autobots hide out in Nevada, cooperating with the government through Special Agent Fowler (the always awesome Ernie Hudson) and "groundbridging" to any locale they need to in order to keep the Cons at bay.
Peter Cullen is once again behind the voice duties of Optimus Prime, as he should be until the day he shuffles off this mortal coil. What's wonderful is that the legendary voice-man Frank Welker is back as the nefarious Megatron, and he's unexpectedly great at it. Why unexpectedly? Well, he was fantastic as the original voice of Megatron in the G1 days, but when last I'd heard him try to recapture that raspy gravel, it was in the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen video game, and it sounded like it was physically painful for Welker to do it now that 20-odd years had passed. Thankfully, he's refined his take on the Decepticon leader's voice to where it's enough like it used to be, but with more bass and a smoother natural sound that still works exceedingly well.
The voice cast also includes Firefly veterans Adam Baldwin as Breakdown and Gina Torres as Airachnid, who is a permutation of the Beast Wars character Blackarachnia – a treacherous spider-like female Con who is delicously evil, but could've benefitted by keeping the '-nia' ending of her original name. Minor nitpick, though, as her debut episode "Predatory" is a surprisingly intense little half-hour horror film that is powerfully effective – not to menton female focused, as her Autobot nemesis is Arcee, who makes for a kick-ass female hero to help bring in the nerd girls. Clancy Brown shows up as Silas, the head of the Autobots' human enemy M.E.C.H., which is pretty much a take-off on A.I.M. from Marvel Comics, being a terrorist group obsessed with scientific progress and, thus, the alien robots they refer to as "transformers." Cute way to incorporate that term. Jeffrey Combs, who memorably voiced The Question in Justice League Unlimited, is truly excellent as Chief Medical Officer Ratchet, who crankily resists the human presence and is quite controlling at times, but is always amusingly exasperated by just about everything.
Did I not mention the humans yet? Well, that's because they're usually the least interesting things about any iteration of Transformers, but we've got 'em here and they're not all bad. Aside from the entertaining Fowler, there are three kids who stumble their way into the lives of Autobots and wind up pairing off with one of their own. There's Jack Darby, the somewhat non-descript average 16-year-old white kid who partners up with Arcee, and whose mother June eventually gets involved with the mess as well. She's voiced by Markie Post, and some nerdy corner of my brain is incredibly delighted that Christine Sullivan from Night Court had to say the word 'Unicron.' There's also Miko Nakadai, who is a charmingly weird speed-metal-loving Asian girl rebelling from strict expectations, and who becomes the bulky Bulkhead's bestie. Despite that, she's also frustratingly annoying because she almost pathologically never learns from her ridiculous mistakes stemming from how eager she is for any form of excitement, and is constantly running into the middle of zombie swarms or other dangerous firefights that she has no business being near. Even after running off into a collapsing mine nearly gets both her and her pal killed, she remains a nutjob with an apparent death wish. Then there's Rafael, who says he's 12, although he looks about 5 and exists only to be the resident whiz kid who Knows Things. He may be a nod to Chip, the wheelchair-bound compu-stud from G1, and at one point he gets injured and I thought they might actually paralyze him, but alas, no. Raf is the only human who can understand Bumblebee, and even he doesn't know why. This may be laying the seeds for Season 2 shenanigans, or it may just be 'blah, he's a plot device, don't question it.'
So, the human characters are less irritating than Spike Witwicky was back in the day, but that's not to say I don't still have a bone to pick with Transformers Prime. Most irksome is that they're still playing that character shell game here and there. For example, Breakdown is a burly bruiser here, where he was supposed to be a twitchy, paranoid kind of guy before. Why do that? Seriously, WHY DO THAT, folks? Are you suggesting there weren't enough rough-and-tumble Decepticons in the pantheon to take that spot? Hell, I can name three other Stunticons that fit that bill better than Breakdown. I don't really mind drastic alterations to alt-modes, but I do get annoyed with drastic alterations to characters.
The other notably inexplicable character shift is with Wheeljack. Originally, he was a fun mad-scientist type whose inventions often poofed in his face and is best known for creating the Dinobots with massive power and bargain-basement intellects. Here, for reasons unknown, he's a nomadic dual-sword wielding badass warrior of epic proportions, as if there weren't at least 20 other Autobots who would have made more sense in this role. Now, I love me some Wheeljack, and his look is a pitch-perfect update of G1, but… seriously, why not Sideswipe, Sunstreaker, Hot Rod, Brawn or Smokescreen? Hell, Mirage might've worked best, considering the loyalty-centric plot of that episode. Instead, they turn Q into James Bond. I don't get it. I'll never get it.
While I understand the ideas behind keeping the cast small and easy to handle and explore, my other main quibble is wanting to see everybody else – or at least more of everybody else. Having a horde of nameless drone Decepticons just doesn't cut it, although the fact that they look a lot like Cylons makes them acceptable in the short term. In the "Making Of" featurette on the blu-ray edition, they mention that Ironhide was dropped and replaced with this new fella Bulkhead to avoid confusion with the movies – although Megatron and Starscream being killed in Dark of the Moon seems to make that argument suspect. If, however, that means we never get to see an actually cool version of Shockwave here, I'll be fairly cross. Moreso considering the pretty cool rendition of Soundwave that keeps with the staunchly loyal and seemingly emotionless right-hand-man he always was for Megatron, but scales back that cool voice of his to supremely subtle levels. Thus, he becomes this faceless, silent threat who kicks complete aft when he needs to. Also, Dinobots are essential. Get us a combiner in here – Bruticus looks way too awesome in Fall of Cybertron to not show up here. I'm sure Season 2 will deliver some of these goods.
This is Soundwave. He is quietly cool, and they keep that awesome reverb of his even though he only repeats what other people say.
Okay, enough of my minor quibbles. This show is pretty damn good and it looks absolutely amazing. The creators say they're striving to make a movie each week, and that's well and truly achieved with some truly fantastic action choreography, smoothly gorgeous CG rendering, excellent use of light, sound, music and impressive gravitas in its character development. Arcee's arc is particularly interesting, as she's lost two partners in the line of duty and she's boiling with the need for revenge to keep herself from wondering whether or not it's a failing on her part – buttons that Airachnid delights in pushing whenever they face off. Plus, she's a badass motorcycle instead of a pink car, which is a welcome change from the O.G.1.
You may have noticed that I casually mentioned Unicron earlier. That's right – the planet-eating dark god from the original animated film is incorporated as the epic season finale, but with a very intriguing twist that helps us swallow the peculiar happenstance of so much Cybertronian activity centered around the Earth. Namely, Unicron IS the center of the Earth. Our planet formed around the dormant husk of the Chaos-Bringer, and now he's waking up, thanks to Megatron's dallying with Dark Energon, aka The Blood of Unicron. This is a stellar idea and a game-changer as far as the general desire to see the Transformers leave Earth and hang out on Cybertron more often. It also addresses the problem of bringing in Unicron without having him be a planet-sized monster. This way, with the entire Earth as an extension of his power, he can be a lot more involved in the day-to-day goings-on rather than being this one-time be-all end-all threat. Megatron's use of the D.E. and subsequent spiritual connection with Unicron pays excellent homage to his classic deal with the devil. John Noble of Fringe provides his voice when he manifests and does a very respectable job, although it's hard to measure up to the long, wide shadow cast by the inimitable Orson Welles.
Transformers Prime: Season One ends on a very intriguing cliffhanger that plays on the backstory between Optimus Prime and Megatron, which draws on story elements established in IDW's comics, and the Limited Edition Blu-Ray package also includes a cool 96-page IDW comic book written by Mark Johnson with various artists, detailing the origins of the partnership between Arcee and Cliffjumper and how they came to Earth. It's actually a fun story with some solid art, although the depiction of transformation looks more like a Looney Tunes character who swallowed one of those black-ball bombs and blew up.
The Blu-ray (why is that capitalized? I don't know, but it is) is a 4-disc set, sporting 26 episodes – 15 of which have audio commentaries which include appearances by Cullen, Combs and Hudson – as well as a "Making Of" special and a featurette on Hasbro and how they work with the animators to make good toys based on their shows – not to mention a quick blurb of a teaser for Season 2, which has just begun on The Hub (or wherever you get your Transformers Prime action) if you want to check it out.
You want tech specs? This is Transformers, so of course you do. Here's the Blu-ray style:
Video: 1.78:1 1080p Anamorphic
Audio: English 5.1/2.0 Surround
Run Time: Approx. 10 hours
Street Date: March 6, 2012
If you like Transformers at all, give this show a shot. You get more actual characterization in one episode than Michael Bay managed in three movies. If you tend to be a G1 purist, give this show a shot anyway. It's really cool. The biggest problem you'll have is getting over this:
No one likes it when you take down the cool mask, Optimus. You look like a Lego guy. Leave the masks up, people! Robots don't need mouths – they can just have speakers!
Seriously, though, you can get used to Optimus Mouth fairly quickly, considering how great the show build around it is. Truth be told, that's probably just a personal problem for me to deal with anyway.
Watch Transformers Prime. It's pretty much the show we old die hards have always wanted, and there's no way it's not going to appeal to a new generation as well. It's that good.