produced by Hasbro and Sunbow Productions, originally aired September 1984 to November of 1987, available on DVD and Blu-ray
More Than…The Sum Of Its Parts
Transformers is a fascinating case-study on art, economics, fandom, and merchandising. Few other franchises, save maybe Star Wars, have faced the same artistic scrutiny as Transformers, due to it being essentially a commercial for toys.
And yet, unlike many of its 1980s brethren, Transformers still stands the test of time (to one degree or another), living on something more than nostalgia and schlock value. Within the origins of this franchise, we see a uniquely successful series that has endured, in some ways in spite of itself.
With the release of the fourth installment of the live-action Transformers film series, it seems like a good time to go back to where it all started by evaluating the first two seasons of the show (the third season, taking place after the 1986 movie, is too different to compare in the same breath).
Thirty years ago this September, Transformers would air in most markets across the country. While it wasn’t the first cartoon series to benefit from the perfect storm of cable deregulation, broadcast deregulation, and overall 1980s culture, it would be one of the first big successes and one of the – if not THE – most successful.
To understand the appeal of Gen-1 (short for Generation One, the fandom for the first animated series and it’s related media), you have to recognize the appeal on three levels. The first and most obvious is the simple visceral appeal of ‘alien robots that turn into cars and planes’. Right off the bat, that’s a recipe for something interesting.
Beneath that, however, are two deeper qualities which most of Transformers peers lacked. The first is a simple pulp sci-fi narrative aesthetic, as opposed to the overly cheesy Saturday Morning Cartoon plots of its peers. The plots of most Transformers episodes had more in common with the likes of Bradbury, Verne, and Asmov than they did with Scooby-Doo or Richie Rich. While certainly not the strongest of narratives, they still had a character and strength that tried to challenge the viewpoint and assumptions of the audience, like all good sci-fi should.
The third quality is one that we see less and less of as the franchise has continued, which is the nature of the Autobots and the Decepticons. In Gen-1, the Decepticons represented the warrior-class of their home planet Cybertron. Whether true military combatants or pit-fighters, pretty much all the Decepticons came from a fearsome and violent background. Counter to that, the Autobots came almost exclusively from either worker or intellectual backgrounds. They were scientists, artists, and common workers. This mismatch of roles makes the set-up of Gen-1, more or less, a group of construction workers and college professors engaged in a guerrilla war against a squad of Marines and UFC fighters. There’s almost no way that’s not going to be compelling.
Story – 4 out of 5
Transformers episodes can be hard to rate narratively because the plots are sometimes a bit mediocre when compared to sci-fi and other ‘grown up’ series, but they’re light years ahead of most of their cartoon peers. Some episodes are definitely hammy or just flat-out silly (“Kremzeek”, “Hoist Goes to Hollywood”) while others are truly stellar (“Secret of Omega Supreme”, “Fire In the Sky”). The best episodes have their problems, but the worst episodes are at least entertaining.
Art – 4 out of 5
The Autobots and Decepticons are very four-colors, no doubt. The polarized color scheme (purple and green for the Decepticons, red and yellow for the Autobots) only helps to underline that fact. Yet, the figures that were illustrated in the show were very heroic reimaginings of the toy line from which they were created. The awkward Bumblebee was remade into something a little more active without sacrificing the character and Megatron was turned from a rather cumbersome form into a daunting and intimidating figure.
The crown jewel of the show, though, goes to the Seekers (the jets, which was initially just Starscream, Skywarp, and Thundercracker). The original toys were rather narrow and straight but the show reimagined them as truly dynamic designs that were almost angelic. One of the major successes of the show could easily be just how badass they made the Seekers look.
Animation – 3 out of 5
The animation in the series was plagued with problems. Lip-sync was a huge issue, characters were miscolored all the damn time, and don’t even get started on size consistency. The show had a huge problem with consistent animation, from one episode to the next, from one scene to the next, even to one shot to the next. A good example of this is “Microbots”. One shot will be woefully subpar while literally the next shot will be some of the best animation on US television to that point. This inconsistency balances out and maybe even tilts the show towards the better end of the spectrum but mediocre is still the best it can rate.
Characters – 4 out of 5
Like the stories, the show unfairly dominates when compared to other cartoons while it is a little lacking when compared to comparable sci-fi of the time. Most characters in the show are one-note figures who have an accent and a singular persona but they rarely evolve from there. While Optimus Prime grows some character in season two, he never really ceases to be ‘robotic John Wayne’. Some characters even de-evolve as the show goes on. Starscream starts as a dangerous and intelligent (if impatient) foe who, in later episodes, is almost turned into comic relief.
That said, the ‘one note’ of each character is played perfectly, which is largely attributable to the acting (more on that below) and the voice directing. Some characters do grow as well. Sky fire and Omega Supreme are given some amazing stories, and the humans are likewise dynamic (few people even remember Raoul, Carly, or the wheelchair-bound Chip Chase).
Acting – 4 out of 5
The voice acting might be the single strongest element of the show. The cast list reads like a who’s who of some of the best voice actors in the 1980s. Peter Cullen may have played Optimus Prime but the likes of Jack Angel, Michael Bell, and Casey Kasem are not to be ignored. And, simply put, any show with the legendary Frank Welker will be the better for it.
The actors did their part, but the voice directing and production also deserves a nod. These are some of the best-sounding and best-executed performances around. Whether they knew had the money to get the good microphones or what, the voice performances are beautifully captured.
Overall – 4 out of 5
Transformers is a cornerstone of modern animation and, honestly, sci-fi itself. This is a high concept show that delivered more than promised and succeeded more than it failed. And even if you want to dismiss the interesting characters, fascinating world, and energizing stories…did you miss the part about the alien robots that turn into cars? Cause come on!