Happy Birthday, Transformers!

(As those of you on Facebook have probably heard, I am in the process of transitioning Tools of the Imagination to a new site. We’re still working out the kinks, but stay tuned)

On this day in 1984, the first episode of The Transformers (now referred to as Generation One, or Gen-1) aired on American television. The fusion of several Japanese toy lines (Diaclone being chief among them) with comic writing veterans, The Transformers would be a huge success (you can read my assessment of the show here). It would spawn a host of follow-up shows and eventually become one of the most successful and influential entertainment brands ever (don’t think it’s influential? Here’s a story about a soldier changing his name to Optimus Prime. Beat that.)

So why has this series been so popular? Why has what essentially amounts to a 30-minute toy commercial been so enduring and so endearing?

Part of it, certainly, is the sheer gimmick of it all. Alien robots that turn into vehicles? That’s a recipe for fun (the occasional Battle of the Go-Bots not withstanding). It’s got all the elements of awesome. Aliens? Check. Robots? Check. Transforming things? Check. Mix that together and you’re incapable of NOT having at least a little fun.

Part of it’s also the sheer novelty. Anytime a new field or form of art comes along, the firsts in that field will always been the trendsetters and the leaders for future generations. With sixty years of rock n roll history, artists still look to Chuck Berry, Elvis, and the Beatles. Pro-wrestling still looks to Buddy Rogers, ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham, and Dusty Rhodes. Animation still looks to the Disney Classics. And for good reason.
Well, when it comes to kids’ cartoons or the mecha genre, we still look to Transformers.

Part of it also is the whirlwind of cultural upheaval at play that produced the Transformers. Without getting into a socio-political lesson, Transformers was the result of rampant deregulation that allowed toy makers to directly fund children’s entertainment. The Transformers really was conceived of as a way to promote a toy line.
And yet, nobody told the creative team they couldn’t still make something good. Nobody told the writers they couldn’t come up with some compelling characters and engaging narrative.

And that’s why I think, ultimately, Transformers has lasted. The quality.

Gimmick will only take you so far, as evidence by the failure of comparable shoes like Go-Bots and BotsMaster and others.
Likewise, novelty will only carry you so far. If all Transformers had was being the ‘first robot show in the 80s’, the subsequent dozen follow-up shows wouldn’t have lasted.
As for the cultural elements surrounding its creation, well, the 1980s left behind far more than survived.

No, there’s something fundamentally captivating about the story of the Transformers, beyond the aliens and robots and everything else. At its core, the story is about a working class and intellectual class fighting an underground war against a warrior class.
It’s a story about those few believed in, the unexpected raising to the challenge. It’s a story about teamwork and about awareness. The good guys, the Autobots, are mindful of their effects on the world, seeking to gather energy safely. The Decepticons are destructive, seeking to get whatever they can, however they can.
Careful vs wasteful.
Mindful vs mindless.
Brains vs brains.
Self-sacrificing vs self-serving.
This was a show that showed us heroes can die and taught us villains come in all forms. It was a world of wonder and adventure. A world where anything could happen and the laws of physics were mostly suggestions.

There were so many wonderful things about this show. It didn’t speak down to kids but talked up to them. It varied from dark and gritty (Secret of Omega Supreme, Fire in the Sky) to comical and silly (Hoist goes Hollywood, The Girl Who Loved Powerglide), and everything in between. The Autobots traveled the globe, interacting with a (admittedly very American-centric) variety of cultures, and learned about humanity. It was a show that helped us to see that heroes weren’t made or destined, but decided. It made us believe the least likely can be the most dangerous, and that freedom is a right of sentient beings. It taught us morals without cheesy PSAs or heavy-handed messages.

For goodness sake, the main villain was a gun while the main hero was a cargo hauler. That, right there, just about sums of the franchise in one go.

Later generations of the story would deviate from the formula in different ways. And the show would fluctuate from the excellent (Beast Wars, Prime) to the mediocre (Robots in Disguise, the Unicron Trilogy) to the awful (Beast Machines). And yet, the franchise always comes back to where it started.

So happy birthday, Transformers. Thirty years and going stronger than ever.

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