I’ve had this one in my pocket for a few weeks. Transformers is one of the biggest toylines and brands of all time and it all started here. Hasbro imported a variety of Japanese transforming robot toys, put them all together and have been counting the piles of money ever since. Transformers kicked off with a three-part mini-series titled More Than Meets the Eye, released in the UK on video as Arrival From Cybertron, with title cards, next episode previews and last episode recaps removed to make an hour-long movie, which is the form I’m looking at it in today.
I’ve included the season one intro, which it’s really funny to refer to because it was only used for the original mini-series and the first season before they switched to a revamped version for the second season and then made another change in the third season. If you asked someone to sing you the theme tune they would belt out a slightly nasal version of “Transformers – Robots in Disguise!” to this tune.
The first episode deals with the energy shortage on Cybertron and the need to travel off planet to find more. Bumblebee and Wheeljack scavenge for energon and are tackled by a Decepticon “welcoming committee” on their way back to base. Soundwave and Laserbeak spy on the Autobots for information. Jazz, in his most “jive” line of the series (played by the legendary Scatman Crothers) confirms that “The other side of Cybertron is blacker than the inside of a drive shaft!”, so the Autobots head out with the Decepticons in quick pursuit. Soundwave, of all people, gets to beat up about half a dozen people in one go, and Prime sees the Autobot ship, the Ark, head down to planet Earth, submerged inside a volcano.
Four millions later, the volcano rumbles and the ship is exposed, leading Decepticon Skywarp to be brought back to life with an Earth jet mode (as compared to the Cybertronian jet mode that he and others had in the earlier part of the episode). The rest of the Decepticons are brought back to life, followed by the Autobots when Starscream’s unnecessary need for a potshot inadvertently brings Optimus Prime back to life with his awesome truck and trailer mode (back to life, Prime turns to the computer and humorously gives it a thumbs up as a sign of “Thanks!”).
Much like the Thundercats special I looked at last week, there’s just no messing around. No time is wasted in setting up the premise of the show in a manner that’s simple without being dumb. The writers and producers had obviously thought about things and refined them. Even little details like Decepticon Shockwave being left behind on Cybertron to manage things there in Megatron’s absence make sense because his toy doesn’t transform into anything resembling a credible Earth mode.
As good as the writers and writing is, as well as the animation, it’s probably the acting that pushes things over the edge into immortality. Peter Cullen is STILL Optimus Prime today in his seventies, as is Frank Welker playing Megatron. It’s the versatility that makes things impressive. Who plays Napoleon complex Autobot Cliffjumper? Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. Who plays streetwise sergeant Jazz? Hong Kong Phooey. Who plays conflicted Autobot Mirage, tough guy Trailbreaker, sinister Megatron, stoical Soundwave, feline Ravage and many more? Fred from Scooby-Doo.
Probably the standout actor for the show is Chris Latta, though. A stand-up comedian who had an act where he played a psychotic gangster and probably would’ve been a shoo-in for a role on a show like The Sopranos if he hadn’t died a few years prior as a result of his previous excesses. He’s equally versatile as his more experienced colleagues like Don Messick and John Stephenson, playing dad Sparkplug, inventor Wheeljack, and, of course, the man who gives Machiavelli a run for his money in the scheming and self-serving stakes, Starscream. He’s got an annoying whine that makes him totally unlikable, a coward who would stab anyone in the back to give himself the advantage, but like all good wrestling bad guys he actually has all the goods, plus more, to where he’s also one of the most popular characters.
That’s the thing with the show, even with this special taken in isolation – the characters are so well established that they immediately become archetypes. Megatron is a totally credible evil leader, with a cruel laugh and no compunctions about shooting first. Soundwave is highly capable, tough, with no visible eyes or mouth and his processed monotone making him a sinister character, and incredibly loyal to Megatron… imagine if he was a good guy! Ratchet, who gets more of a focus in the comics than the cartoon, is presented as gruff and serious, but still caring and devoted to his role as the doctor.
And, beyond all those, we have Optimus Prime. Some have called him one of the greatest leader characters of all time and he’s almost cemented himself as one of the biggest heroes ever too. Of course, today we get him as a slightly edgier character, ripping off faces in the Michael Bay movies and sticking swords through chests and sparks, but this version, which still persists in animated shows, is a leader that cares about his men and all life, bringing together some moody and difficult characters like Huffer, Brawn and Sunstreaker under the same banner as the others. I’d call him the Hulk Hogan of cartoon characters, but he’s actually rooted in an older, more quietly moral vein of a Bruno Sammartino. The sort that seeks no fight, but knows when you need to fight you must and be brave and fight no further than is needed.
The episodes once the Transformers hit Earth mainly focus on the search for energon to fuel reconstruction of their respective ships, with the aim of returning to Cybertron. A montage takes the Decepticons all over the world through different seasons to collect energon. About a dozen or more classic Transformers concepts are created during the episodes, like Prime and Megatron duelling above a damn with energy weapons, which were most recently recreated in a weapons pack with another character. Also a few memes, like Hound pressing on Spike’s back from behind to get him to expel water in a “questionable” image.
If you’ve watched the show once then you’ve probably watched it a hundred times and can quote the lines no matter who the character is. I always liked Thundercracker because he was a blue jet, nothing more complicated than that, so his gleeful joke about wrapping up the defeated Bumblebee “and put a little bow on him!” is one I can remember. For other, it’s Ironhide’s comical interjection “Leaking lubricant!”. There’s also the acting out of scenes, whether physically or just with the toys, like a fallen Prime straining as he changes back into robot mode after a fall.
The mini-series finishes with a final climactic battle that without the final scene could’ve wrapped everything up and still classified it as a classic, but they leave the door open for more, and more they did. It helps that this set the table for everything that followed, otherwise it might’ve been a very different level of success.
Tomorrow: I’ll be turning over a rock to look at something similar, but still very different.