Saturday, April 20, 2013

Silverbolt and Blackarachnia: Over a Decade Later

I've been rewatching the second and third seasons of Beast Wars lately: not that season one is bad, but this is just how things have worked out. The series is at the point where I can view most of it was a gauzy, comfortable nostalgia. It never reached its full potential, but it was still a show that I'll enjoy for many more years.


Except I still have a...a thing against Silverbolt and Blackarachnia's relationship. It took me a while to define what that thing was, and then to understand why the writers didn't have the same problem. My feelings on the subject haven't changed, so I feel like talking about it today.

To start, the issue is not that these are Transformers with genders, having a romantic relationship. Transformers are already so heavily anthropomorphized that to complain about the presence of female Transformers, and of romance, is ridiculous. Everything is done in the service of making these characters more relatable, no matter how little sense it might make, and female Transformers make no less sense than noses or bipedalism

No, I actually like the idea that Beast Wars has a primary romance and that it causes character development. Both of these things are, on their own, net gains, and the writers do produce some heartfelt, moving moments. The major problem is that Silverbolt and Blackarachnia's relationship depends on the sudden casting of a female villain as a victim, and as someone who doesn't know her own mind until a man tells her different.

I still cringe watching episodes from "Bad Spark" onward, where Blackarachnia tries to insist she is really a Predacon despite Silverbolt constantly badgering her to admit she is a Maximal inside, due to actions he interprets as showing an inner goodness. Blackarachnia eventually becomes a full Maximal in mind and allegiance despite her initial resistance, and such a set-up is pretty painful to watch, especially when at the end, she's literally given no choice.

The third season episodes "Proving Grounds" and "Crossing the Rubicon" are together the most significant of all these episodes. "Proving Grounds" is an interesting character piece, in which Blackarachnia storms off because she believes the Maximals are going to force a restoration of her Maximal programming, but in the end is told she was allowed to remain a Predacon if she wishes, a state which Blackarachnia has asserted as part of her personal identity.

And then, in the next episode, "Crossing the Rubicon", the experiment that Blackarachnia has been building up towards backfires and she is in danger of dying. The only course of action is to remove the Predacon shell program, transforming her into a Maximal.

Naturally, the disconnect between the themes of these two episodes goes unmentioned, and by creating essentially a life-or-death situation in "Crossing the Rubicon", the writers erase all potential objections. They create a practical as well as moral need for Blackarachnia to become a full Maximal, and Blackarachnia's only objection is a small, slight expression of insecurity, because she is not one to risk her life for pride, and has accepted her fate.

Still, it tastes bad.

It tastes bad because the entire arc suggests that however passionate Blackarachnia was about retaining her identity, she was absolutely wrong, and Silverbolt was absolutely right. "Proving Grounds" makes it all worse, because everything in that episode suggests Blackarachnia will be allowed to retain her Predacon identity if she wishes, and that this kind of self-determination is a positive thing to promote.

But because of what happens afterwards, the series poured all that emotion into a character's choice and just took it away, or maybe it intended the character to have been wrong about her most treasured belief, all of it undermining the notion of Blackarachnia as an independent character.

I think the reasoning is that since Beast Wars is a series of simple and clear morality, there is no room for a reprogrammed Maximal who considers being a Predacon to be important to her identity. Despite the qualities it's lauded for, Beast Wars is still a series of absolute good versus absolute evil.

In this view, it's okay for Silverbolt to pressure Blackarachnia to admit his truth, because he is trying to push her to the side that is absolutely Right. It is for Blackarachnia's own good, even if she simply doesn't know it. It is all done with the best and most loving intentions.

But Beast Wars is a work of fiction, and in-story justification can't erase the implications of a piece. Even if the morality of the series is rock-hard, it still looks like a character having their identity flipped around and denied by another one, who is also supposed to be their love interest.

And yes, it is worse because Blackarachnia is a female character, when women in fiction are often denied their choices to reach a "happier" outcome. There are all sorts of Unfortunate Implications involved, and they don't need to be spelled out.

This pairing / story arc also depends on suddenly recasting Blackarachnia as a victim. Doing this to the only female villain has similar sexist implications, but it also requires a sudden radical shift in viewer's perceptions.

Until "Bad Spark", we had oodles of episodes that treated Blackarachnia as a villain like any other, not to be spared by the narrative. Perhaps it would have been too depressing to "out" her as a former Maximal, but this also meant that these new truths about the character just...appeared. We now had to accept Blackarachnia as a victim, when we had been reading her as a villain.

To "ease" viewers in, perhaps, by the second season Tarantulas and Blackarachnia are no longer seen as mutually manipulating and trying to destroy each other. Instead, Tarantulas is frequently seen as victimizing Blackarachnia, with her only struggling to keep ahead instead of giving as good as she gets.

But it doesn't work. The same Blackarachnia we are now meant to see as being abused by Tarantulas was the one we spent the first season perceiving as a villain that was evil with impunity. Of course characters have multiple aspects, but these aspects are gradually revealed, building up on what we already know. But for so long, we've only seen Blackarachnia as that one thing, and it's very hard to suspend disbelief.

On Silverbolt's side, several things. The first is that he severely compromises Maximal security in order to get near Blackarachnia via gifts, for the purpose of trying to convince her of her inner goodness. Despite the potential for disaster, Silverbolt suffer for it, except for one briefing with Optimus (a great scene, of course, but it has few repercussions). He turns out to be right about Blackarachnia, and she doesn't put this technology to disastrous use as she initially intended, so all his actions somehow become justifiable.

Furthermore, the narrative that you can change a person by love is seen as so damaging to women that it's ridiculous to see it slip by in a situation where the genders are reversed. The way that Silverbolt tries to justify Blackarachnia shooting him in aggravation is, while funny, a little on the disturbing side, especially when he's proven correct, in a sense. She really was trying to get rid of him without killing him.

Secondly, Silverbolt does not have to change, nor is he pressured to question himself and his identity. He does not even have to question his views of Maximals and Predacons, for the Predacon he loves ends up becoming a Maximal as he wanted, rather than their learning to suss out their differences.

Stories where a character gets everything they want and reaps no consequences for their actions are boring, ugly things, and Silverbolt should at least have had to sacrifice something if Blackarachnia had to. It could be argued that only Blackarachnia was in need of changing, but it still would be possible to do something to make it less one-sided.

I know I don't "get" the absolute morality of Beast Wars, but if you ignore the bedrock assertion that all Predacons are Evil (Dinobot discovered his inner Maximal, remember?), there's no reason given as to why Blackarachnia needs to become a Maximal in form as well as allegiance. If she remained a Predacon but totally opened to her feelings for Silverbolt, at least he would have had to sacrifice a bit of his sanctimony.

Yes, the series shows that after her transformation, Blackarachnia is far more lighthearted and more open about loving Silverbolt. But there was no reason why it had to be written that way. Some kind of emotional compromise would have made the story less-one sided, and the ending wouldn't have been so predictable and unsettling.

All these issues could be wiped away if it's assumed that because Blackarachnia was "meant" to be a Maximal and was only transformed by Predacons, she must be returned to a Maximal state at all costs, with her personal identification as a Predacon being a delusion.

But she was brought online as a Predacon, and one's existing sense of personal identity trumps what they might potentially have been. Blackarachnia's own words about identifying as a Predacon are enough to justify the retention of the identity. What a character actually feels and believes trumps any "what-ifs", and should also trump a narrative of black-and-white morality.

So, while I enjoy romance and character development, the transformation of Blackarachnia was handled too poorly, required too much suspension of disbelief and too much glossing over of her personal convictions. It's the story of a character who didn't know her mind about anything, and another character who had to sacrifice nothing to get what he wanted.

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