As a child growing up the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a trio of favourite cartoon shows which aired on American television networks after school and on Saturday mornings The Real Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Transformers. As is probably still the case with children shows today, there was plenty of marketing synergy at work. You would watch the show for an half and hour, only to be followed by an obsessive need to own the toys, comics and any other expensive, officially licensed product. Lest we overlook the obvious, there were movies to see as well.
There were of course other popular shows than the three mentioned above, but for me (and my little sister!), they represented the holy trinity of fantastical adventures, memorably one-dimensional characters and the sort of humour any kid could enjoy. Who needed to do homework when characters like Egon, Ray, Raphael and Ironhide were kicking butt? However much I sat down excitedly to watch the further quests of mutant turtles and ‘professional’ ghost hunters as they vanquished threats to our planet, it was The Transformers, from producers Tom Griffin, Joe Bacal and Wayne Luther, that caught my imagination the most. Mutant animals and the paranormal were understandably cool, but compared to the transformation of cars, trucks, planes, helicopters, boats, ships, guns, radios, planets and impossibly small tapes into gigantic, sentient robots equipped with their own guns and rockets to do battle as ancient warring factions…it was no contest. That the origin of the show was a Japanese toy line, which in retrospect comes off as shrill marketing, was of absolutely no consequence. Brilliantly coloured Autobots and Decepticons were enough to keep me more than thrilled and dreaming for hours.
I could not say what the first episode I ever saw was, although it feels safe to assume it was in the first season for I do recall falling in love with Bumblebee, Wheeljack and the rest of the original gang before even knowing about Unicron, Hot Rod or Galvatron. Looking back, the animation quality was pretty impressive all things considered, the real treat being the transformations themselves. That was definitely something I had never witnessed in a cartoon before (and in anticipation of any questions, I had a very North American upbringing. Transformers, heavily influenced by Japanese sci-fi stories, was as foreign as my childhood cartoons ever got) It demonstrated creativity on a level I had been unaware of up until then. The ingenuity of having machines shape-shift into different types of vehicles by inserting their heads into their chest cavities, the arms becoming doors and their joints becoming the wheels left quite an impression on me. The logistics of the transformations did not always add up with the greatest of precision, yet it felt like there was just enough logic to them to earn a passing grade. There were exceptions to this rule, ones even a child could pick up on. For instance, where does Optimus Prime store the cargo hold of his transport truck form whenever he is his anthropomorphic self? An even more pressing matter was how the titanic Megatron contorted his body into the shape of a pistol. Granted, it was a huge pistol because his Decepticon colleagues were using it, but still, it made no sense! Those issues, albeit noticeable, did not discourage my engagement with with the show. What was perhaps most curious about my love for the show and its premise was that I was by no means a lover of cars or trucks per say. In fact, I never became obsessed with them, even till this day. It was much more the idea of taking something from ordinary life and making something extraordinary with it that got me going.
Another significant reason why I gravitated more intensely towards The Transformers was the idea of sentient robots. Regular people tracking malevolent paranormal activity is simple to understand. Heroic, virtuous mutant turtles is stretching it a bit, although turtles are animals and animals have brains, so presumably if a mutation increases said animal’s cognitive skills, the mutants’s ability to discern right from wrong improves. On an extremely basic level, there is a logic behind all of that. Machines wilfully choosing between right and wrong, sometimes even changing their minds and switching allegiances, is not the least bit logical. Machines recognizing what is a good deed and what is a bad or selfish deed is not logical. A robot striving for power, a very human attribute, is not logical. In the world of The Transformers however, those ideas sold perfectly. The combination of the simple need to differentiate between good and evil, something any growing kid must learn, with the awesomeness of battling robots made for an incredible cocktail. Real people must wrestle with good and bad each and every day and, machines being all over the place, people constantly interact with them. As crazy as it sounds, that marriage of initially incompatible ideas became very attractive and made for a thrilling and uniquely engaging half hour, minus the commercial breaks, naturally.
The Transformers also holds a special place with me for being the first form of storytelling in television or film where I felt an attraction towards the antagonists. It would not be accurate to argue that I actively sided with the Decepticons (freedom and safety are always better options than slavery, persecution and death), yet there were some deliberate attempts at making the villains as diverse and amusing as the heroes. For starters, many of the voices were cooler on the the side of the Decepticons than the Autobots. Frank Welker was the genius behind many of said voices, including two of the most notable heavies: Megatron and Soundwave. The former’s raspy voice was perfect for the Decepticon leader, especially when laughing. Oh my, what a beautifully maniacal laugh Megatron’s was. As for Soundwave, the voice really did come off as just that: a sound wave. Added to this was the hilarious fact the he would always refer to himself in the third person and blurt out orders with the monotonous tone of, what else, a machine. Other recurring and favourite diabolical demon machines were Starscream (voiced by Chris Latta), who continuously tried to usurp Megatron’s throne, Shockwave, who had a button for a face, and the awe inspiring Devastator, an even larger robot comprised of six smaller Decepticons. The Decepticons also looked, to put it bluntly, bad ass. The colour schemes were slightly colder and more muted than those attributed to the heroes, with a bit more emphasis on the dark blues, greys, greens and purples. Above all else, there was the symbol, that purple robot head showing off a devilish grin like an evil king, much the opposite of the Autobot crest, a warm red face which frowned. As a fan, it could not get any better than that.
Or could it?
One could easily describe 1986 as a banner year for The Transformers cartoon. The second season had been a rousing success, featuring even more characters than in the first, the episode centring on Omega Supreme being a standout and a great way of teaching kids not to judge a book by its cover. The most important event in the cartoon universe that year was the release of Transformers: The Movie. This being an article about a television show, we will try to limit the amount of words spent elaborating on the topic of the feature length film, but to avoid it altogether is impossible. It should be pointed out that I did not see the movie when it was released in theatres for I was too young. Truth be told, most of the episodes I saw were reruns and not during their television premiers. The same applied to the movie, which my parents for me on VHS one day. Another pertinent detail is that I had not, or simply cannot recall having seen season 3 episodes at that point. How this was possible I cannot say, perhaps dumb luck. Point being that the movie was something of a game changer, both for the beloved characters and for myself. It felt different right from the outset. It was bigger, looked noticeably more handsome and sounded better than the regular show (‘You’ve got the touch!’). That said, for a young lad such as I who, just like any other fan, adored Optimus Prime (voiced by the incomparable Peter Cullen), the movie was a shot straight to the heart, cracking it into a million pieces. The death of Optimus Prime was like a death in the family, and as such a little part of the fans died on the inside. Even with the demise of the greatest leader in the history of the universe, both real and fictional, the film was still a rollicking ride. Old characters were replaced with new ones, therefore beginning a new chapter in The Transformers cannon.
In the end however, in part because I might have grown bored with The Transformers in the year or so after seeing the film, or maybe because despite finding the new characters like Hot Rod and Ultra Magnus acceptable for the movie, I just was not up to investing time in learning about them in the regular show, I slowly drifted away from the Autobots and Decepticons. Were I to venture a guess, I imagine I grew up.
Time elapsed, a lot of time in fact. Flash forward to 2006. To my great surprise, Transformers: The Movie was given royal treatment on DVD in a two-disc set. Old emotions began to stir inside, prompting me to bite the bullet and make the purchase. Reliving the experience for the first in maybe 16 or 17 years was, suffice to say, amazing. For crying out loud, Lenard Nimoy and Orson Welles lent their voices to characters! Another three years after that in 2009, fortuitously around the time of my birthday as I recall, Shout Factory released the mother load of all television show sets with a 16-disc Transformers complete series collection in an attractive box graced with the image of the Matrix of Leadership. To access the discs, one must slide the cover open just like a real Autobot leader slides open the Matrix! I have yet to revisit every single episode in the series although I vow to accomplish the feat someday. I did at least get through the first season and a portion of the second, which was quite the experience and brought back some terrific memories. Seeing those episodes again with fresh adult eyes also taught me some valuable lessons:
The show is completely ludicrous.
The writing is often quite pedestrian.
The jokes are terrible.
The sound editing is frequently inconsistent with the action on screen, suggesting that the show was cheaply made.
Most importantly, I don’t care about any of those faults because I love Transformers too much.
Autobots, roll out!