Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Greatest Generation

If fandom is something involving interaction with like-minded people, the seeking out of additional information, and the construction of meta, fanart, and fanfiction, then my first fandom was Transformers. Beast Wars: Transformers was my entry into that, but the Transformers work with which I most expressed the most overt geekiness was the third season of the original Transformers cartoon. In doing so, I cemented a lot of personal tropes and desires that I would express in later fandoms.

I actually like Beast Wars better on both a critical and affectionate level, but one of my peculiar tendencies is to lavish more attention on works I consider engaging but critically inferior. Perhaps it is because a less well-constructed work leaves more room for imaginative analysis, or that I revere the better works so much it would feel almost blasphemous to try to create my own inferior homages to them.

I left Transformers fandom around 2002, but recently re-watched Transformers season 3, partly in tribute to the year 2010, with the Japanese dub of the season once billed as a sequel series, Transformers: 2010.  My feelings had changed and yet had not changed, and I felt a comforting boost of joy and nostalgia. For my pleasure (and maybe yours), I’ll share my new thoughts on an old favourite.

I was born in 1984, and thus was too young to catch the original Transformers boom. I never saw season 3 when it originally aired in 1986, but only in 1999, due to the fandom’s tape-trading circuit. While the early Transformers cartoon is somewhat remembered by the general public, the third season is considerably less so. It had an all-new cast of Transformers, and lost a lot of the iconic staples and imagery that fans remember from their childhoods—gone were the deserts and canyons and transforming Earth vehicles, though these were already beginning to be phased out.

This was because of The Transformers: The Movie, which jumped the timeline forward from 1985 to the then-future 2005, killed off a lot of the original characters, and introduced new sci-fi settings into the mix. The third season followed from it, and some Transformers fans insist that the third season was a huge shark-jump, an enormous drop in quality with unlikeable characters and suddenly cracked-out storylines.
This opinion has become somewhat less popular throughout the years, with there being a notable number of fans who prefer the third season outright, or who are neutral towards it, or who see the entire original cartoon as a single body to be embraced or discarded as it will. The attitude that Transformers suffered in season 3 seems to be more the province of casual fans rather than fandom veterans, though as with everything else, there are exceptions.

When it is observed through adult eyes, however, it is hard to imagine the Transformers cartoon suffering any precipitous drop in quality. The series always suffers from poor animation, nonsensical plots, bad science, and tenuous continuity. And too, it always had some small spark of warmth and wit that makes it easier to understand why it is still so beloved.

I will admit that it was, on multiple levels, foolish of a series to shove an old cast out of the way for a new one, instead of gradually introducing them into the ensemble. However, any criticisms I make feel like lip service. I have utterly no interest in the original Transformers cast, and thus to have them bumped from primary character status is the best thing for me. It is only with this new cast of Transformers that the cartoon becomes engaging to me at all.

The third season of the Transformers cartoon left a deep mark on me and my relationship with fiction. I realized my taste for flawed characters who walked a little off the beaten path, who were snarky or standoffish or insecure. This was also the first time I began to more deeply consider why I chose to favour certain characters, and I still indulge in those thoughts for later characters. This was all in spite of the fact that many Transformers fans considered the newer characters more flawed and less competent than the characters who came before them.

Of course, when I speak in the generic, I’m really referring to the two new leaders, Galvatron and Rodimus Prime. Rodimus’ flaw was that he was insecure. A handful of episodes dealt with his insecurities over suddenly assuming leadership, either as one-off lines or major plot points. Galvatron’s flaw was that he was the TV version of insane: screaming, capricious, and violent.

However, since I now have a more cynical view of the cartoon’s quality, and realize that all of its faults were intrinsic to the whole, I don’t take too seriously any of the ethical issues raised by the characters or the storyline of season 3.As part of this new mindset, I am now uninterested in fretting over whether Rodimus Prime and Galvatron were “good” leaders or not. By adult standards, none of the Transformers leaders could command their way out of a wet paper bag, no matter how confident they were. The best thing you can hope for is that they entertain; no need to sweat if they might be leading their faction into a dark age, because Transformers didn’t really go into that.

My unconcern was also helped by realizing the series developed no real arc with either Rodimus or Galvatron. Their fans and haters alike will focus on certain episodes to define the characters’ infamous traits, but proportionally more of the episodes forgot these and treated them as normal cartoon leaders. In addition, with Galvatron the lines between “insanity” and just being a cheesy cartoon villain are sometimes pretty blurry.

As I’ve tried to grow and develop as a writer, I’ve realized that characters’ prominent traits usually need to serve a larger purpose, some relevance to the plot. Character flaws, for example, are things to purposely overcome or never overcome, depending on the tone of the story; they build towards a change, good or bad. Nothing of this sort happens in The Transformers. The flaws of Rodimus and Galvatron appear and disappear again and again, building towards nothing that isn’t resolved by the episode’s end. Much as the two characters fascinate me, I still see how poorly their story was told. Again, this is not an artifact of the series’ drop in quality in the third season, but part of the series’ general difficulties. The earlier seasons had no character arcs, either.

Yet because I love it, I am generous. I can see season 3 as a season that was trying to grasp at things that North American TV cartoons didn’t have a lot of at the time, especially through Rodimus’ existential angst. Sometimes it seems like it was trying to become something a little bigger than seasons prior. There are fleeting signs of a series that might care more about telling its own stories instead of appeasing the audience, which is a major step in writing a quality work.

I would have killed to be a fly on the wall when Hasbro and Marvel and whoever else decided to write Rodimus Prime and Galvatron in that way. Wanting to sell new leader toys is understandable enough, but why take this route wither their characterization?

Regardless of why they appeared, I liked them. I do have a stronger awareness that Rodimus should not have allowed his insecurity to get the better of him at all, but it’s still an interesting aspect on many levels. I also love how sarcastic and snippy Rodimus is at times, which his detractors fail to mention and is an amusing selling point. Galvatron is also amusing when he is angry, his rage is fun too, and there’s an additional dimension to his relationship with his much put-upon lieutenant, Cyclonus.

Cyclonus is another favourite of mine. He’s basically an evil robot Klingon who’s loyal to the bad guy despite living in a culture of backstabbers. At times, this loyalty looks doubly foolish, since he’s prone to getting a punch in the face from his leader when the writers remember Galvatron is supposed to be crazy.

I used to find an ethical dilemma here, constantly trying to prove that Galvatron did care for Cyclonus, but I just don’t worry anymore. Now my stance is that these characters are absolute villains in a children’s series, so it doesn’t really matter if one character I like will strike the other on the same side. In more serious or nuanced characters I might look twice, but for now I just let their relationship be. I still appreciate Cyclonus because he is imposing and arrogant rather than weak and sycophantic, giving some grandeur to his convictions, as foolish as they might look to an adult complexities. His genuine concern for Galvatron is also still strangely touching.

There is also Ultra Magnus, Rodimus Prime’s right-hand-man. With Rodimus, Galvatron, and Cyclonus, Magnus completes the quartet of beloved characters from season 3. While I like or tolerate the rest of the movie’s new Transformers, these are the ones that I truly declare myself a fan of. It makes for a neat package.

In Ultra Magnus’s case, he gets a bad rap from the fandom because of his “I can’t deal with that now!” line from the Transformers film, delivered when they’re under fire in space and it’s noted that their friends’ ship had gone down. Because of this, and the character’s humbleness, Magnus is seen as insecure and wimpish, though not met with such bile as Rodimus Prime is.

There have been many other versions of Ultra Magnus, met with more appreciation because they are more “badass” characters. Still, the 80s cartoon Ultra Magnus is my favourite. There’s something kindly and loveable about him, and he’s not really insecure outside of that meme--just modest and altruistic, always willing to step up to the plate when he’s needed. Magnus may come off as stolid, but I like stick-in-the-mud characters, sometimes.

My interest in the characters is what fuels my affection for the Transformers cartoon, creating an iron-clad shield against the series’ cheapness and ludicrousness. The earlier seasons don’t have that shield, which is why I cringe when I manage to catch a piece of them, and of most other 80s cartoons. Still, there are minor things that appeal to me outside of the four main characters.

First, while Rodimus, Magnus, Cyclonus, and Galvatron are the only characters I would declare myself a specific fan of, I have some affection for nearly every character associated with them--the original ones from the movie. Kup, Arcee, Blurr, and Springer on the Autobots’ side, and Scourge on the Decepticons’; I don’t include kid-robot Wheelie since he appeared later in the film, but I don't hate Wheelie as much as other people do. Arcee still bugs me somewhat, because she’s often just “the girl robot”, but I can’t totally hate her.

The idea that these six Autobots and three Decepticons should be “together” is indelible in my mind, and will taint any attempts to engage with other incarnations of them outside of the cartoon. Logically, I know that they (except for Arcee) were just toys that happened to be produced in the same year, and they could be mixed and matched however a Transformers writer pleases, which is what happened.

These characters had many other incarnations in the 1980s Marvel comics of the US and UK, in modern comics produced by Dreamwave and IDW, and even stories exclusive to the Transformers conventions. However, other portrayals of these characters never feel quite right, even if their stories were written better than the cartoon’s. Also, because better writing requires a less capricious status quo, “my” characters also ended up as secondary or tertiary cast members rather than the leads.

Further appeal can be found in some of the plots of season 3. While criticizing season 3 for being too outlandish is ridiculous in light of the many “wacky” episodes that aired before it, there were plenty of insane episodes in this season. In keeping with taking a less serious view of the cartoon now, I can laugh along with many of these insane plotlines, and find a cheerful joy in them due to my taste for the bizarre.

This bizarreness is also reflected in the art style of the series. Many episodes are populated with offbeat aliens and creatures, including the new antagonist Quintessons, and these monsters make the series even more engaging. The designs of the new Transformers are also more appealing, with a brighter range of colours, strange “futuristic” vehicle modes, and sleeker, more organic body designs.

And, even though it was established in a hasty and clumsy way, I still appreciate on principle the idea of the previously static Transformers universe undergoing some kind of change. Maybe not if I didn’t enjoy the result, but even so, for all its haphazardness, season 3 did try to establish a backstory and mythology for the Transformers, and did things like having the kid sidekick grow up and have a son of his own.

One of the ideas was that the Quintessons, random aliens from the Transformers movie, would turn out to be the creators of the Transformers, banished when their slaves rebelled. This is a very obvious retcon to an adult viewer, since nothing suggested this was the case when the Quintessons first appeared, and you can see painful attempts to shoehorn this in. Nonetheless, it was something. The comics, and many other continuities, instead proposed that Transformers were create by the robotic god Primus, for a grander purpose, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Quintesson origin because the Transformers had to fight for their freedom.

As the Transformers brand has gone on to become a multimedia, multi-continuity franchise, nothing like season 3 was ever attempted again. While longer series had changes to the cast rosters, the leadership positions remained intact, with the main leaders always named Optimus and Megatron. Furthermore, while these series made several tweaks to it, nearly all incarnations of the Transformers replicated the premise from the original cartoon and comic.

My bias finds no problem when Beast Wars started this trend, especially since that series acknowledged the re-using of names in terms of historical gravitas, but after several more times it began to feel redundant. Since the franchise’s primary goal is to sell toys to the generations of toy-buyers that cycle ever more quickly, it’s no surprise that they would raid their own stores for the same thing over and over…very few would remember the previous iteration.

Still, I would like to see a greater variety of Transformers premises, which is another reason season 3 appeals to me. It was one of the rare times an “Optimus” and a “Megatron” were not in charge, and it was not just about fighting the enemy robots on Earth. I still enjoyed the newer material (I loved Transformers: Animated), but I craved difference, even when I was not the target audience.

Even though I have a slight preference for Rodimus Prime over Galvatron, I’d have to say the best episode of Transformers season 3 is “Webworld”, written by Len Wein and Diane Duane (yes, really), which focuses on Galvatron and Cyclonus instead. Threatened by the other Decepticons, Cyclonus tricks Galvatron to going to the planet Torkulon to be “cured” of his madness. It’s a world of webs, staffed by creepy simian aliens who put Galvatron through parodies of real-life psychological therapies. Galvatron ends up destroying the planet after he prevents the Torkulons from essentially trying to lobotomize him with giant insects (yes, really). It’s a strange episode full of purple and blue and orange with aliens everywhere, and nicely encapsulates both the stupidity and the small moments of earnest emotion that Transformers could have.

Not all the episodes of season 3 were great, however. Like most people, I disliked there being several episodes which focused on the new kid sidekick Daniel (offspring of the previous kid sidekick, though Daniel was much younger), and some were just a little too boring or absurd. However, my mellowed attitude means that even such episodes were easier to get through. There is also the alternate anime continuation “The Headmasters”, but as it’s a different continuity and has its own issues with characterization, I will ignore it for the purposes of this essay.

Still, the other shoe must drop, as they say, and by the end of season 3, I would have to contend with the same kind of hurried alterations that fans of the original seasons did. The two-part episode “The Return of Optimus Prime” aired after so many people complained about Optimus being gone. It depended primarily on continuity errors and contrivances, everything designed only to get Prime back on the table as quickly as possible. I can’t blame them, not when I embraced the same kind of immediate gratification for TF:TM, but obviously I didn’t like it, especially when later episodes acted like Rodimus Prime hadn’t existed at all.

Despite this revival of Optimus, the Transformers cartoon ended shortly afterwards. I’m glad that it did; there was something wrong about Optimus Prime living in the same world as Galvatron and Ultra Magnus and the rest--he was intrusive, a creature from an earlier aeon. Furthermore, if the show had continued, the 1986 characters would largely suffer the same fate as their predecessors: shuffled aside to make room for newer toys.

There were hints of that in the three-part “The Rebirth”which closed off the series. In this “season 4”, the new 1987 characters had the spotlight, and a whole bunch of them were introduced rapidly. There were even hints that Galvatron would be challenged in the future by one of the new villains, though the series ended on a cliffhanger.

In all this, it’s surprisingly easy for me to forget about the actual Transformers: The Movie. I had rewatched that more recently, and waited until the end of my rewatch to discuss it. As with season 3, I love this film dearly, though there is far less meat to it. Most of the character traits that I talked about weren’t present in the movie. Ultra Magnus is probably the character that gets the most play on those terms: Galvatron is there, but he is more of a standard “cool” character there, his insanity coming later, and Rodimus Prime mostly exists in his previous incarnation as the “teenage” robot Hot Rod. Just as with the television series, very little about the film makes any logical sense, but it’s still a treat, a blinding nostalgic rush of bright colours and laser blasts.

What more can I say? It’s one of those things that means a lot to you, but that you don’t feel comfortable recommending to anyone else, even other nerds. After getting older I can see the flaws more clearly, but the attachments to the characters are just as vivid. Here was where it all began for me, and it’s nice to go back once in a while.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately for me, after G1 Transformers would disappear from Philippine airwaves and won't come back until I was almost done with college. By then I hardly watched any television and I had lost much of my affinity for the show. I so wanted to get into Rodimus and Galvatron since I loved the movie back when I was a kid and I remember crying buckets when THAT SCENE happened.

    I tried getting into Beast Wars, but I couldn't spark the same fondness. I was through with the franchise until Bayformers, which triggered a wild nostalgia that got me flying to Malaysia (where Hasbro's toys has a regional distribution point) just to get better prices LOL.

    I could never afford to get TF toys as a kid, and as an adult I ended up owning around 15 different Star Screams LOL.