As many of you may know, I am in the process of reviewing the entire Transformers franchise, in an effort to ascertain the Top Ten Episodes (which I present as a panel at various conventions throughout the year; and I’m available for booking!). The review process involves watching each episode in each series and measuring it against comparable series of the time, along a set of about eight different standards (art, animation, narrative quality, acting performance, etc). In the previous years, I’ve watched the original series (Generation One), the Japanese Trilogy (Headmasters, Supergod Masterforce, Victory), Beast Wars and Beast Machines, Robots in Disguise (the 2001 version), the very poorly named Unicron Trilogy (Armada, Energon, and Cybertron), and have finally now reached 2007’s Transformers Animated, the series released in the wake of the initial live-action movie.
While each series is measured against its contemporaries and not each other (it would be unfair to judge a cartoon series from the 1980s against a series from the 2000s, what with the advancements in animation and voice recording technologies), it is clear that some series are just better than others. But a Top Ten list doesn’t do a good job of exploring the entire franchise so I thought I might discuss some of my revelations here.
#1 – Magnitude and Scale are not the same thing
At times, Transformers deals with issues that border on global if not cosmic. Planets are in danger, whole continents are under threat, the very fabric of reality may be torn asunder. These are just a day in the life of the Autobots and the Decepticons (or whoever). Yet, these are not automatically the most significant or moving stories. In fact, sometimes, it’s the opposite. Sometimes, the smallest and most personal stories are the ones that leave the biggest impact and have the strongest impression. Some of the best stories Transformers tells take place in an isolated, secluded place with few are in danger. In at least one instance (the Golden Lagoon), no one is really ever in danger. At least, no human or robot.
#2 – Chemistry surpasses skill
Watching over twenty years (thus far) of cartoons, I’ve heard a lot of voice actors. This includes everyone from flash-in-the-pan workers who have a limited resume to some of the greatest that ever worked (Frank Welker). Yet, for every episode with a singular stellar performance, there are other episodes where it isn’t the performer but the cast that make the episode.
Individual performers can make a monologue incredible, but it is the interplay between performers that make us care about and believe in the team. Episodes with mediocre performers who have some chemistry together, have some rapport, often stand out against episodes with technically and artistically superior performances that feel individualized. Sometimes, a good performer’s skill is not in his or her individual ability, but in their ability to draw out and mix with another performer to help make that chemistry happen (looking at the late, great Chris Latta on that one).
#3 – What you remember isn’t what you recall
There’s an old basketball saying, “Slam dunks get you on the highlight reel, but layups win seasons”. This applies to cartoons, and probably any long-running entertainment format. The audience will recall the good episodes (the Top Ten list), but the impression the show leaves is made up of all the episodes. If you have a few good episodes among a staggering array of crappy episodes (looking at you, season three of Generation One), it will ultimately leave a sour impression in the viewers’ minds. You want the average of all your shows to be decent, if not better than that.
One major flaw in the Top Ten list is that some shows are never represented because each episode was consistently good, but simply not great. But when you step back and consider the seasons as a whole rather than the individual episodes, the list looks different. This is important when people remember Transformers as a franchise, rather than a few vague memories of distant cartoons.
#4 – Kids are smarter than we think
The best episodes of Transformers are unquestionably the ones that dealt with complicated issues and weighty moral matters. Granted, they were scaled for younger minds and censored a bit for daytime viewing, but Transformers dealt with death, loss, betrayal, mental health, and a host of other matters unusual for a children’s action show. We may recall the transforming robot aliens and the gun battles but what sticks with us are the matters of moral struggle, the weighty topics addressed between laser blasts.
Striking the right tone is critical in children’s entertainment. Too blunt and kids may be traumatized by the very thing you are trying to help them with. Too subtle and kids may miss the message entirely. Too saccharine and kids may not respect the matter at hand. Too abrasive and, again, trauma may result. It is a delicate balancing act to find the tone. But the task of children’s entertainment is to find that balance in tone, not to avoid the subject matter. Quite the opposite, it is very much the role of children’s entertainment to prepare kids for the world and to do so, they must be introduced to these matters early on. But in a manner that their minds and hearts can handle and accept. Few shows have done this better than Transformers.
#5 – Teams are People
Related to #2, talking about chemistry, the best stories in Transformers are told when characters have individualized goals. When it’s the Autobots vs the Decepticons, great. But when it’s Starscream and Skyfire, Blaster and Soundwave, something more significant comes forward. A real story begins to manifest, not merely a set of events. Even without conflict, just having and developing different motivations adds wealth to the story. Tarantulus is actively working against the others, Terrasaur is ambitious but not actively treasonous, Waspinator is a kiss-up, Inferno is a sycophant, Scorponok is too dumb to be anything but blindly loyal, Quickstrike will bite at any leash, and nobody quite knows what to do with Blackarachnia. This motivational minefield makes stories – even simple, mundane stories – so much more engaging to watch. And it gives the actors a lot more to work with.
When you have ‘the good guys’ and ‘the bad guys’, you find yourself limited in performances and stories that can be told, as well as ways that stories can progress. But when your team is made up of individuals that are developed, and whom have different relationships with each and every other person, you end up in a world where some fans would pay just to see their day-to-day. From that love comes fandom in all its forms.
There are a lot of lessons that can be learned when you ask ‘what’s the best’. Many of those lessons have surprisingly little to do with the best.