I forgot when I started.
Sometime long ago, I began working on a convention panel titled: The Top Ten Episodes of Transformers. Originally, the panel was just the Top Ten episodes of Generation One (the original 80s cartoon). But then I learned about the Japanese-only series. And there was the argument that Beast Wars was part of the Gen-One Continuity. So I thought to expand the panel, and eventually I took on the very ambitious task of reviewing every single episode of the Transformers franchise, from Gen-One all the way through the newest shows – either Robots in Disguise or Prime Wars, depending on how you see it.
It has been interesting to watch the show evolve overtime. To watch it, ahem, transform from a fairly typical (if very excellent) 80s cartoon into a really ambitious and phenomenal animated series. Some shows are better than others. Some are consistently good, others alternate between excellent and subpar, and some are just offensively terrible (looking at you, Master Force).
For my panel, I make allowances for the evolution of the medium. To hold an 80s cartoon to the exact same standards as a 2010s animated series is wholly unfair. But even allowing for where cartoons and animated entertainment were and are, some shows come to the forefront. Some episodes too, thus the Top Ten list.
But watching the series evolve, I have found myself pondering larger, more general questions. One is watching how the shows go about characterizing. In the 1980s, characterization was very passive. It was often a combination of a character’s general look (how big is the person, what are their eyes like, etc) and their voice (how did the voice actor portray them, what type of words did they use, so on). There was rarely much in the way of exposition or active character-development. Such things interfered with the seeming frenetic pace needed in cartoons. And yet, it is often those shows that not only are remembered but stand the test of time.
Perhaps then it is for that reason that later shows would embrace this model. Shows around the millennium and after found time for characterization. They found time to slow the story down a bit and give the stars the chance to breathe and flesh out. They also did it in tiny bits.
A prominent element in later series (seen in Beast Wars, and then later Transformers Animated and Prime) is a much smaller cast. The original Transformers series opened with roughly a dozen and a half Autobots, and a dozen Decepticons. New characters were added almost every episode. You had mainstays of course (Optimus Prime, Megatron, Bumblebee, Starscream, Hound, Soundwave, etc) but a good chunk of Gen-One was all about the new characters. This was partially because the show was a 30-minute commercial for the toyline so they needed to get in the plug for the new figure.
Come Beast Wars, however, and the cast drops to five and five on each team. New characters are introduced but far fewer, more slowly and deliberately, and they are introduced organically as part of the narrative (rather than just showing up as was the case with Gen-One). This allowed the show to devote more time to the individual characters we started with and it helped develop the audience’s understanding of their personalities and their relationships to one another.
Seen in Beast Wars but really used prominently in Animated and Prime was to piecemeal the characterization. Rather than just give a single character or two prominent episodes to build them up, supporting characters were also given moments to shine within those episodes. In Transformers Prime, characters like Soundwave and Ratchet play typically very small roles, but are present in most every episode. This means that, over time, the audience pieces together a lot about them. When they do finally get ‘their episode’, we already know so much about them that the narrative is able to really hit the ground running.
I’ve been pondering all of this of late because I feel like it helps illustrate in what direction entertainment has evolved. It’s one thing to say ‘modern cartoons are more developed than the 1980s’, but it’s another thing to say ‘character development is vastly more conscious and deliberate’. Both are true but one helps put the attention where it belongs. Art and animation improvements are nothing to sneeze at but a good story told with stick figures will stand the test of time.
I’ve been pondering this of late as I consider how I go about creating and developing characters in my own stories. I find the piecemeal approach to character development very appealing in part because it feels organic. Rarely in our daily lives do we really ‘learn’ about another person. Even a nigh-instant friend or coworker, we don’t get a whole lot on them right out of the gate. Instead, we do things with them – see each other at work, say hi at the gym, chat on the metro, that sort of thing – and gradually get little details. It stands to reason, then, that characters in a novel or a short story should be handled in a similar manner.
The smaller cast, though, is something I struggle with. While I see the merit of it, and I do like being able to spend more time with characters, I also love the large casts of characters. Maybe it’s the result of growing up in the 1980s and living with 80s cartoons running through my veins but I like a large team of heroes. It gives the world depth and it makes things feel stronger. The VGM in Crossworld clocks in a dozen, give or take depending on the book. The thought of cutting even a single character makes me balk. The same of Red Moon Rising. With six or seven knights, about as many in the World Alliance, and a few more than that in Solaritec/Brotherhood of the Sun, it was a dizzying cast. And yet, each mattered.
Those stories are coming back, dagnammit.
Keep a weather eye towards the future as the Top Ten Episodes of Transformers likely will be at a convention near you.
Speaking of conventions, I will be in Williamsburg Virginia April 20th-22nd for Ravencon!
But before that, on Sunday April 8th, I will be in Raleigh North Carolina, speaking at Marbles Museum leading into a showing of the new movie, Ready Player One.