Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Top 5 Worst Transformers Ideas Ever

Transformers really is such an elegantly simple concept. Take one thing that kids like--toy cars--combine it with another thing kids like--action figures--and add a dash of simple morality play and simmer over sci-fi space opera, and you've got a recipe for success. Inspired additions like "dinosaurs" and "spaceships" and "combiners" prove that yes, you can improve on perfection. It's hard to screw these ideas up.

And yet, screw them up they have, and frequently. Now, overall, Transformers has been pretty good and increasing in quality from the '80s to the present day. But every once in awhile, a real stinker gets through. These are those stinkers:

5. The Throttlebots: You'd think "motorized Transformers" would be a no-brainer, right? The Generation One line experimented with motorized and mechanized Transformers a few times over the course of the line, to varying degrees of success. The Jumpstarters and Battlechargers had pull-back-and-go motors, and automatically transformed into robot mode as they rolled along (though the Jumpstarters had much more articulation). The Triggerbots and Triggercons had mechanically-rotating parts which would reveal 'hidden' guns in either mode. And then there were the Throttlebots. Like the Jumpstarters and the Battlechargers, the Throttlebots were equipped with pull-back-and-go motors. Like the Battlechargers, they didn't have much articulation (neither group possessed poseable arms or hands). The Throttlebots, however, didn't even have the auto-transformation feature or the snap-on guns possessed by those progenitors. They turned from little brick-like cars into little brick-like robots, whose lack of anything resembling arms (their doors opened outward) and wheeled leg-sleds (the pull-back-and-go motor worked in both modes) caused them to look like the Thalidomide generation of Cybertronians. The fact that poor Bumblebee got saddled with one of these mutant bodies for years is one of the great tragedies of Transformers.

4. The Cybernet Space-Cube: It's 1993. Transformers is enjoying a moderately successful resurgence in popularity, thanks to the Generation 2 line of toys, which mixes updated versions of the '80s figures with all-new toys. You realize that this is the perfect time for a new Transformers cartoon. Unfortunately, you have neither the time nor the resources to put one together. So, what do you do? Well, computers are all the rage, and it seems like they'd be a perfect fit for a show about hi-tech robots from outer space. And, you know, the last Transformers cartoon isn't all that old; in fact, it's perfectly good. So you combine the two, thinking they're two great tastes that taste great together. And you do this with a new, computer-animated opening sequence and the Cybernet Space-Cube, a silver Macguffin that flew through space and showed you old episodes of Transformers on shifting screens within itself. The result: any time there was some sort of interstitial or scene change or camera change, the Space-Cube would show up, shifting screens around mechanically accompanied by machine-like noises that often drowned out the sound of the show. It served no purpose other than to put a gussied-up, intrusive '90s frame around an '80s cartoon. Annoying, useless, and utterly unnecessary. And here it is, in all its opposite of glory:

3. Beast Wars Mutants: Beast Wars started with a good idea: robots that turn into dinosaurs and other animals instead of cars and airplanes. It was kind of a gamble, sure, mainly because it was a departure from the original concept of Transformers and because the animal alt-modes tended not to look very realistic. But after a slightly rocky start and bolstered by a fantastic cartoon series, Beast Wars found its stride. The original Transmetal sub-line remains one of the most consistently awesome incarnations of Transformers ever. But Beast Wars, especially toward the end of the series, had its own share of missteps. The Transmetal II/2 line would have made this list with its easily-chipped metallic paint jobs, its ugly figures that didn't look like anything in either mode, and its decision to change from Roman to Arabic numerals because they didn't think kids would understand what "II" meant. They had no such qualms with the word "Transmetal," however. But, without the TM2 line, we wouldn't have gotten the awesomeness of dragon Megatron, and that'd be a real shame. But there was one subset that had almost no such redeeming qualities: the Mutants. There were only a few of these figures made, and for good reason: they transformed not from animal to robot, but from one animal to a different animal. During the transition, you could see little robot parts inside, to signify that they were trapped between the two animal modes, but they really just serve to remind you that all you really want is to turn it into a dude with a gun. The backstory is actually kind of interesting for these guys, but being totally unable to turn them into something that can hold its own against the average Predacon or Maximal really makes them feel useless. You can take cars out of the Transformers equation, but not robots.

2. Action Masters: Incidentally, something else you can't take out of the Transformers equation is transforming. Yet, someone at Hasbro toward the very end of the original toyline decided that doing just that would be some sort of fantastic idea. Action Masters gave us Transformers that didn't change into anything, who came with weapon or accessory partners that did sort of transform. Strangely "accessory that looks sort of like a robot turns into accessory that looks sort of like a gun" wasn't quite enough transforming for people who bought Transformers because they transform. There's really only two reasons that this isn't number one on the list. First, the figures introduced a feature that would become standard for Transformers from that point onward: articulation. Say what you will about the Action Masters, but at least they had a wide range of motion. The second reason is quite simply because Action Masters doesn't hold a candle to our number one contender.

1. Beast Machines: In every facet of Beast Machines, there's something to hate. The toys were hideously ugly, and often looked nothing like their animated counterparts (something that the series had worked to correct for the last couple of seasons of Beast Wars on both sides of production). The toy sizes were determined (apparently) not by any logic, nor by importance (until this point, Optimus and Megatron tended to be the largest beast characters), but by which characters Hasbro wanted to be popular. Hence, we have a deluxe-sized Optimus Primal, a mega-sized Cheetor, and ultra-sized Nightscream. The toys continued a trend begun by Transmetal II/2, where the character doesn't look like much of anything in either mode (with the exception of some Vehicons, which were moderately okay). The series was almost completely devoid of guns, especially on the good guys' side, apparently due to Story Editor Bob Skir's own personal crusades. And then there's the show, oh dear Primus, the show. While the characters ostensibly continued from Beast Wars to Beast Machines, you'd never know it from their personalities. Nothing stayed constant except names and some alt-modes. Part of this is because Bob Skir and Marty Isenberg, the Story Editing team, are utter hacks. You may remember them from the "Gargoyles" episode about virtual reality, which was just like their "Batman: The Animated Series" episode about virtual reality (with the Riddler instead of Lexington). You probably remember their two-part "Batman" episode that ripped off "2001" and "Blade Runner" right down to the voice actors. In fact, the only good thing I've ever seen come out of that writing team is "His Silicon Soul," which still built out of their earlier plagiarism.

But I digress. Skir and Isenberg introduced into Transformers the ridiculous idea that technology is inherently evil. That might have made for a good series (perhaps a counterpoint to "Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors"), except that it was in a franchise based on robots. Robots, as you may or may not know, are made of technology. So our primary conflict is not between good and evil, as in G1, nor between different factions in a war, as in Beast Wars. Instead, it's between two groups of fanatics who are both wrong: Megatron, who wants to destroy all the sparks so Cybertron is a paradise of machinery with no free will; and Optimus, who wants to turn Cybertron into an organic, plant-filled animal haven, ridding the world of evil technology.

Add into this horrendously pedantic plotline a bunch of muddled references to Transformers series past, where the Key to Vector Sigma behaves like the Hate Plague and the Hate Plague in turn behaves like something completely different, and your result is a series that has almost no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And, as I only recently learned, a lot of the bad can be traced back to one man, who ought to be familiar to the patrons of this blog. This executive at Mainframe, the computer animation production house behind the Beast Machines cartoon, told Marv Wolfman (who co-wrote the series bible) that the show had no ties to earlier series and to do with G1 continuity whatever he wanted. This executive told Skir and Isenberg to completely disregard any previous incarnations of the characters and series, because Beast Wars was too "continuity-heavy." This executive cancelled ReBoot. And the name of this Mainframe executive?

Dan DiDio

Yes, the Dan DiDio. Now, I've met Dan briefly, shook his hand, listened to him talk about the state of the DCU. I've generally liked what he's done for DC, with the exception of his tendency toward turning decent characters into cannon fodder. I've never cared for his writing (his "Superboy" run essentially killed the title), but I don't mind his editing, not nearly as much as some people do. But to learn that he's the voice behind the worst thing ever as far as Transformers is concerned, to have my irony meter explode at hearing him express aversion to continuity...well, my opinion of Dan DiDio dropped quite a bit.

My opinion of Beast Machines, however, can't possibly get any lower. No other idea in the history of Transformers has ever taken the "robots that turn into things" idea and screwed it up in more spectacularly awful ways than Beast Machines. There's a real sort of prescience to giving the series the initials "B.M."


NeverAsk said...

The friggin' space-cube. I still hear people bring that up as the reason they couldn't get into Transformers as a kid. My own brother to this day can't watch an episode without making those silly sound effects.

LurkerWithout said...

I caught less than a half-dozen episodes of the Beast Machines show. I kept trying to figure out how they could fuck up Silverbolt and freaking Rhinox. But they did. Plus they added a plant. I don't think it turned into anything. I think it was just a roboplant. Plus Cheetor as leader? SERIOUSLY? He didn't even get a "I must mature into leadership" thing like Hot Rod did in the movie. It was just Optimus has turned into a freaky priest, know I will be leader...


Erin Palette said...

Hey Tom,

Despite how it may appear, I have a serious question for you regarding the Transformers. To whit: why do the Autobots and Decepticons hate each other?

Being a child of the Cold War, I completely understand why GI Joe are the good guys and why Cobra are the bad. Heck, I even understand why He-Man and Skeletor hate each other. But I don't get why two very scientifically advanced races of sentient robots want to destroy each other.

Now I freely confess that my knowledge of Transfandom is lacking. As a girl, I watched the cartoons on weekday afternoons, but I never saw the movie, and so when the series "jumped" from present day with Optimus to the future with a bunch of retards I'd never heard of, well... I stopped watching, and never really had the urge to get back into the fandom after that.

My initial inclination is to assume that "Autobot" and "Decepticon" are basically militant ideologies; give the Republicans and the Democrats energy weapons and they're almost as likely to start shooting at each other during a session of congress.

But then I realized, there seems to be no political drive to either of these groups. The Decepticons, when they aren't fighting the Autobots for no real tactical gain, seem to engage in what amounts to piracy: stealing energy and other natural resources to either construct new 'cons or escape Earth. The 'bots, on the other hand, tend to just sit around chillaxin' in the Ark, until and unless there is some Decepticon plot that needs thwarting.

So is it a subtle satire? Are the Decepticons slash-and-burn developers intent on raping the land? Are the Autobots eco-friendly stoners?

And if they are, why for Eris' sake are we being taught a lesson in ecology and Gaia reverence by ROBOTS?

As I said, I am perplexed. I would appreciate you addressing this at some point during your Transformers week.

Thank you.

(Verification word: skcdr, which I'm pretty sure is the sound of an Insecticon transforming.)

Simon said...

How can you not include the utterly inane "Pretenders" line, which for reasons that elude me are based on the principle that the best place to hide robot warriors is _inside_ of heavily armored humans?

Woody! said...

What about Headmasters? Not only did the body transform but the head did, too. I think that's what made me grow up and move on.