Watching all of Transformers is going to kill me.
I’ve been working on a convention panel called ‘Top Ten Episodes of Transformers’. In it, I discuss the ten best episodes of the long-running franchise, starting with the original 1984 cartoon, up to the current series. Watching episodes sequentially, I’ve made it up to 2002’s Transformers Armada, looking to complete it sometime next week. This has included all of Gen-1, the Japanese series (Headmasters, Supergod Masterforce, Victory), Beast Wars & Beast Machines, and 2001’s Robots in Disguise. If you don’t know what any of that means, just suffice to say that it’s a lot of cartoons.
I’ve not be quiet about how watching the series has been detrimental to my fandom. I’ve spoken about how sub-par the last season of Gen-1 is, how awful the Japanese series and Robots in Disguise are, and how off-the-mark Beast Machines turned out to be. That’s seven bad to awful seasons, compared to the five good seasons (Gen-1 seasons 1 and 2, and Beast Wars).
Transformers Armada is looking to end up in that former category.
Transformers Armada is pretty bad. It started off promising, with some great animation and an interesting revamp on the whole story. Then it deteriorated rapidly. There are a few…I won’t say good episodes, but episodes with promise. Some neat concepts, some clever ideas that made it only halfway to fruition (halfway if we’re being generous). It’s just ultimately a pretty poor show.
When I started working on this panel – Top Ten Episodes of Transformers – the goal was to highlight the best episodes of the franchise, which I’ve been doing. But more and more, as the bad seasons pile up atop the good, it’s turning into a rather morbid study on what makes a good show good, and a bad show bad. When I say seasons 1 and 2 of Gen-1 are better than Season 3, why do I say that?
I find myself scrutinizing the criteria for ranking episodes (if you want to know what criteria, you’ll have to come see the panel at a convention). While that criteria separates the wheat from the chaff, it doesn’t do a good job of explaining why the bad episodes were bad, especially in the cases where the episode had some good ideas that it couldn’t pull off.
One of the single biggest criteria that I’m finding makes the difference is multiple narratives. Does the episode have more than one story going on at once? The stories can be really simple, comparatively, but do they even exist? B-plots are pretty common in ‘adult’ shows, but in kids shows, they’re often lacking. The arrival of the b-plot, of the narrative complexity to support that level of multiple story lines, is something I’m coming to associate with 80s cartoons like Transformers (GI Joe, Thundercats, Real Ghostbusters, etc).
Many of the shows that I’m disdaining (the Japanese series, Robots in Disguise, Armada) lacked this level of storytelling. Each episode was based around a single story, a single progression of events. This is demonstrated by the shows that fell halfway down, not good but not truly awful, like Beast Machines and certain episodes of Armada (and a rare handful of episodes in the Japanese series), is that they have these b-plots.
Another is the role of deus ex machina. The Japanese series were awful about this, as was Car Robots and Armada. The sudden swings of fate, the miraculous happenings that came from out of nowhere, etc. Even just the ‘burning emotions within the defiant hero allowing him (and it’s always him) to thwart the forces of evil’. These things are common place in those shows, but for the most part are lacking in Gen-1 and Beast Wars. And again, it only partially appears in middle-quality shows like Beast Machines.
The last matter that I feel makes a difference between good and bad, as well as awful and bad, is the role of the humans. In Gen-1, Spike played a pivotal role to the Autobot struggle (well, actually less him and more Chip Chase and Raul, but that’s another discussion). Beast Wars was devoid of the token human, but the Japanese series, Robots in Disguise, and Armada all had them. And they all contributed absolutely nothing to the adventure.
With the exception of the humans in Gen-1, the humans in the Transformers (at least as far as Armada), are good for cheerleading and nothing else. They don’t help with the fight, they don’t help with the investigations, they do little to nothing to progress the plot in any way. This is further demonstrated by Daniel (Spike’s son), in Gen-1 season 3, who contributes little in some episodes and is a little more beneficial in others. This turns in Headmasters when he is rendered incompetent, useless, and even regresses in age (or at least behavior) by maybe a decade (seriously, there’s a point where this child who has fought Decepticons throws a tantrum on the bridge of the ship while in combat).
All of this is helping me to understand what makes a bad show just that: bad. This seems especially relevant with the relaunch of Mystery Science Theater 3000, where a space-bound misfit and two robots make fun of old, bad movies. Bad movies come in a strata, with some being simply unwatchable while others are strangely delightful. I would theorize that these criteria (multiple plots running in tandem, plausible and/or foreshadowed events or narrative progressions, and all characters contributing meaningfully) might make the difference. There’s a difference in a show (or movie) that’s poorly made versus one that is carelessly made. An ambitious movie that falls short because of quality is far more forgivable than an unambitious movie because it demonstrates a lack of care, a lack of passion.
I don’t know if that’s the case with these shows. I’ve researched the production of the series as I’ve watched each season, but that only tells you so much. Knowing that Gary Chalk voiced Optimus Primal, and then Optimus Prime might tell you who it is delivering the lines, but it doesn’t mention if he studied Peter Cullen’s performance. It doesn’t go into whether or not he stared the bathroom mirror, working to capture the character just right. Knowing who the writers were doesn’t explain whether they banged out a script over the weekend, or if they agonized over the story they were entrusted to tell.
I can’t speak to the passion of these shows, nor do I ever want to wholly denounce a work of art just because I don’t care for it, or because I think the quality is lacking. I can say with total certainty at least one person involved with each of these shows loved it. For at least one person, this was their big break, their chance to live their dream and maybe even work on their favorite franchise. That alone is reason to respect the work, even if I/you/we don’t care for it.
This is why I won’t ever do a ‘worst episodes’ of the franchise. It’s beyond disrespectful to just flat-out mean. Each episode mattered to someone, and that alone deserves respect. Yet, the flipside is that if an episode or even a whole season is poor, it’s worth evaluating to understand why. Why was it poor: was it due to a problem in execution, or in production? The ability for a voice actor to salvage a bad script is dubious at best, and good art can only do so much to save poor directing. To understand where a show went wrong can not only illustrate how future shows can go right but it can also help salvage the reputation of a show by recognizing where it does shine.
As I move forward with this project, I’m excited for the future. I know more bad awaits after Armada (as the first installment in what came to be known as the Unicron Trilogy along with Energon and Cybertron), but then comes Animated, Prime, and then 2015’s Robots in Disguise. I am currently planning to also review Rescue Bots, as well as maybe some of the internet-only series like Cyber Missions and Combiner Wars. Once I finish all the current slate, I imagine there will be another new series to review. After all, this franchise has been going pretty strong since 1984. This September will be the 33rd anniversary. And with the live-action movies making more money than they have any right to, it’s a safe bet Transformers isn’t going anywhere.
Independent of panel work, the writing continues. Each week we draw closer to Anime Mid-Atlantic without any movement for RocKaiju, the less confident I am it will be at the convention. I am doing all I can with my publisher to make it happen, however.
This summer promises to be a big one. I’ve got a lot in store and a lot I’m working on (too much, maybe). But what is beginning now will finalize over the summer and hopefully ready for release sooner rather than later. It’s an exciting time ‘round these parts and I hope you’ll stay tuned for the next adventure.
See you then!