Metabots and Deconstructicons: Transformers Goes Postmodern

[28 January 2009]

By Monte Williams

Transformers Energon aired in 2004 and 2005, and so naturally anyone young enough to have appreciated the show on its own terms and merits rather than as a sequel or a supplement to the original Transformers animated series of the ‘80s is likely too young to be perusing PopMatters. That leaves older Transfans like me, who can be further divided into three camps:

1. Those crazed enthusiasts and apologists who follow the Transformers property no matter where it leads, and who sometimes embellish the established, official continuity with earnest works of fan fiction and even, yes, slash fiction. (I’ve long maintained that there was a strange impotence subtext to those “Optimus Prime can’t transform!” plots in the original series.)

2. Victims of Autobotic Asphyxiation, whose capacity and frame of context for not just Transformers criticism but indeed pop cultural criticism as a whole seems to have atrophied right around the time Max Headroom was canceled. Members of this proud, stubborn lot will only begrudgingly deign to even acknowledge the existence of any Transformers series other than the original; if it isn’t a relic from one’s childhood, it is irrelevant.

3. The casual, politely indifferent fans. For this lot, any reboot of the long-running
Transformers series is theoretically greeted with an open mind; I say
“theoretically” because we are so casual in our fandom that we might not even be
aware of the latest incarnation of Transformers. Case in point:
Transformers Energon is out now on DVD in a handsome package entitled “The
Ultimate Collection”, but while the series ended four years ago, I’d never seen the show
until I sat down to review it last week.

Immediately, I noticed that Transformers Energon boasts a much richer color palette than the morphing-robot cartoons of my youth. Also, the robots are clearly computer-generated, versus the traditional cell animation ‘bots with which I grew up. While I am usually a staunch critic of CGI, I concede that it is fairly sensible to use computer software to design and animate robots; the Autobots and Decepticons of the vintage ‘toon were simultaneously boxy and somehow soft in appearance, whereas the rigid, sharp renderings in Energon are flawless, if also largely lacking in character.

Next, I could not help but notice that Transformers Energon is not a traditional narrative as I understand the form, but rather little more than a series of frantic, intrusive, accosting, barely coherent and seemingly unrelated moments, “paced” with the aid of frenzied cuts like a rock video, with all the grace and inviting sophistication of, say it with me, a commercial for children’s toys. More than anything, what Transformers Energon calls to mind is The Mattel and Mars Bar Quick Energy Choc-O-Bot Hour! from “Girly Edition”, a classic Simpsons episode from 1998: “Major Nougat! Gooey! Cocoa! Put down those entertaining Mattel products! Colonel Kataffy is up to his old tricks!”

Energon‘s pilot episode, “Cybertron City” begins with an inevitable expository rant:

“I am Optimus Prime. It has been twenty Earth years since the Transformers War ended with the Decepticons. The evil living planet Unicron was damaged and blown into deep space, along with my arch enemy, Megatron. Since then, the Autobots have forged an uneasy alliance with the Decepticons, and together we have joined with the ingenious humans in a quest for one of the rarest and most powerful elements in all the universe: Energon. Energon is the source of life itself, and harnessing its power promises to bring a better life to humankind.”

If that introduction isn’t sufficiently accommodating for you layfolk, perhaps Wikipedia’s summary will help:

“In this series the Transformer’s big gimmicks are the Autobots’ ability to combine with partners of the same size, the Decepticons’ ability to use powered up forms, and the addition of Energon weapons and stars that can be placed on any Transformer. Mini-Cons, from the previous line, are still present, but all Mini-Con pegs are ‘dead,’ and do not activate a function on the toy.”

Notice how Wikipedia seems to be discussing the television series and its promotional action figures simultaneously and interchangeably. Welcome to the Transformers universe.

Notice, further, that Wikipedia’s synopsis reads like the directions to the latest Pokémon card game; the Energon series indeed feels in many ways rather similar to Pokémon cartoons. (I attempted to sit through an entire episode of the latter back in the late ‘90s as part of some ill-advised essay for my college newspaper, and the only surviving line from the entire piece is a paranoid, nonsensical scribble: “Cloyster is an ashtray sculpted by LSD-crazed baboons.”)

Like Pokémon, Transformers Energon features a veritable orgy of loud, moronic characters whose tiresome and comically poorly-dubbed dialogue is delivered by grating, manic voice actors. Also like Pokémon, there are a handful of human characters in Energon to provide scale, context and contrast for the monsters, or in this case, the bigass shape-shifting robots.

The first human we meet is a brash teen boy by the name of Kicker, who in his first 30 seconds of screen time (in the opening scene of “Cybertron City”) embodies such a spastic tantrum of contrived, aggressive, pandering “cool” that I immediately felt ready to sign any nostalgic petition the obsessive Autobotic Asphyxiation crew might wave in front of my face; the first dramatic development of the entire series sees Kicker leaving his assigned base against the orders of Autobot leader Optimus Prime, only to be confronted by a towering sentry known as Demolisher. We are then treated to the following exchange:

Demolisher: “Hey, what are you doing out here?”

Kicker: “It’s none of your business, Demolisher!”

Demolisher: “You’re not supposed to be out here, now get back!”

Kicker: “Heh! You can’t stop me, metalhead! Ha ha ha!”

Poochy

Poochy

Here I should note that Kicker delivers this triumphant witticism while flying his motorcycle over the head of the giant Demolisher, maneuvering said motorcycle through a dizzying series of midair flips and twists, and finally looking into the camera to deliver a thumbs-up to the viewer.

I am reminded of Roger Ebert’s sad analysis of the giddy teen protagonists in Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie: “None of them ever says anything more interesting than ‘You guys!’”

As the premiere episode repeatedly reminds me of The Quick Energy Choc-O-Bot Hour!, it strikes me that Kicker is in fact the Poochie of the Transformers universe (“When Poochie’s not onscreen, all the other characters should stand around and ask, ‘Where’s Poochie?’”); he is an egomaniacal, abusive and volatile prick who incessantly berates the Autobots, each of whom somehow continues to protect and seemingly even admire him.

Transformers Animated

Animated Optimus Prime

Richard Dawkins describes Kicker thusly: “Arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Actually, that was Dawkins’s description of God. But that’s just because Dawkins has not yet had the misfortune of seeing Kicker in action.

cover art

Transformers Animated: Transform and Roll Out

(US DVD: 17 Jun 2008)

Kicker quickly proves to be an insurmountable flaw in what would otherwise still be at best a distressingly numbing television show; the best I can say for Energon is that, like the similarly maddening G.I. Joe Sigma 6, its animation is competent enough that the show might make for reasonably engaging viewing if you were to mute your television.

Objectively, I am fully aware that the Transformers cartoons of my ‘80s childhood were no less asinine than Energon; I vaguely remember an episode wherein one of the robots, who could transform into a boat and who therefore always spoke in a “gargling” style of voice, inexplicably fell in love with a mermaid, and later turned into one himself. Still, my age and crankiness alone cannot account for how quickly my reaction to Transformers Energon became one of almost violent distaste; for decades now, I have watched professional wrestling, reality TV, talk shows, MTV and hundreds of cartoons, and yet I feel compelled to insist to you, delicate reader, that Transformers Energon is literally the stupidest television show I have ever seen.

As the Energon pilot ends, Optimus Prime suggests to his Autobots, “Something tells me this is far from over.”

For me, at least, Prime is wrong; I cannot sit through a second episode.

Still, I do have a journalistic obligation here. Luckily, there is a solution.

As noted above, the G.I. Joe Sigma 6 cartoon series was an impenetrably obtuse and ridiculous program, but the Sigma 6 toys were a triumph of clever design, intriguing aesthetics and marvelous articulation, and as I wandered the toy aisles of California and Idaho in 2008, I noticed that Hasbro’s latest toyline, based on still another new cartoon called Transformers Animated, featured daringly redesigned Autobots and Decepticons with sleek, streamlined alt-modes and dynamic, even cartoony robot sculpts.

It seemed to me that Transformers Animated figures were the Sigma 6 of morphin’ robot toys, and the two Animated figures I received for Christmas proved my giddy theory was sound; they are quite simply the sexiest robot toys ever created.

Determined to salvage some meager scrap of potential PR optimism for the company that has given me such transcendent playthings, I tossed my Transformers Energon DVD aside in disgust and immediately Netflixed Hasbro and Cartoon Network’s Transformers Animated pilot, entitled Transform and Roll Out.

Prime himself says it best: “Consider this an upgrade.”

Charming, inviting, funny, exciting and rewarding, Transformers Animated is everything that Transformers Energon failed to be (and I’m not just saying that because of its refreshingly old-school animation style.) Astonishingly, it took only ten or 20 seconds for Transform and Roll Out to convince me that Transformers Animated represents the pinnacle of animated television series about robots that turn into cars and dinosaurs. (Full disclosure: I have never seen the divisive but mostly celebrated Beast Wars series.) And it wasn’t even a proper episode that won me over, but rather one of the two “Animated Shorts” that comprise the entirety of the DVD’s special features. Less than two minutes long, this (intentionally) comical and unassuming slice-of-life snippet concerns Optimus Prime’s awkward attempt to inspire a group of young school children during their Career Day festivities:

Optimus Prime: Greetings, young humans of Black River Elementary School. I am Optimus Prime, of the planet Cybertron. I am… uh… extremely honored to be invited to speak at your school’s… uh… um… Career Day.

Precocious Student: Are you the one that turns into a fire truck?

Optimus Prime: Well, heh-heh, actually, I was hoping we could save all the questions for the end.

Precocious Student: Oh. Where does your head go when you turn into a fire truck?

Optimus Prime: Well, i-it sort of gets… um… eh. Tucked in. Um. Anyway, it-it’s not important.

Precocious Student: How do you see?

Optimus Prime: Excuse me?

Precocious Student: When you’re a fire truck with your head tucked in, how do you see?

Optimus Prime: Well, it’s rather complex. You see, our optical units are made up of…uh… a network of visual sensors… connected by…

Precocious Student: Can you turn into a fire truck right now?

Optimus Prime: Well, huh. I wasn’t planning on-

Students: Fire truck! Fire truck! Fire truck!

Prime finally concedes, and a stylish and dramatic sequence accompanies his transformation. The children cheer still louder, only to greet Prime’s transformation back to robot mode with resigned sighs and even a disgruntled dismissal of, “It’s just this again.”

The short ends with the same precocious child raising his hand yet again to ask a question Transformers fans have debated for decades: “Where’s your trailer go when you turn back into a robot?”

After this quietly brilliant short ended, I mused to my wife, “That was certainly better than anything Energon had to offer.”

Her response: “That was better than any of the crap you watch.”

(I am offended, if only on behalf of The Venture Bros.)

The Animated pilot begins with the old Autobot symbol cut-scene fade from the original series, which then leads to actual footage from said original series, which is itself revealed to be a historical document which a young, studious Optimus Prime is watching. He soon pleads to moody medic Ratchet, “You ever get the feeling you were programmed for something more than just repairing space bridges?”

Ratchet’s knowing reply: “I’ve got a diagnostics program that can delete that feeling like a bad line of code.”

In the Animated universe, the Decepticons were thought to have been destroyed long ago; the notion of reducing the Autobots, known for nearly 30 years as heroic warriors, to a mere maintenance crew of disenchanted laborers is a brilliant one, and Ratchet’s casual, uncaring dismissal of Prime’s angst (essentially suggesting he medicate rather than look too closely at his life) is daring social critique coming from a children’s cartoon.

While it is not above slapstick silliness and the same groan-inducing robot puns that have plagued the franchise since the ‘80s (Prime encourages everyone to “lend a servo”, and Bulkhead covers his mouth with his hand as if he might vomit: “I think I’m gonna blow a gasket!”), Transformers Animated is a fluid and intelligently written television show that is practically saturated with self-awareness. (That precocious student from the animated short might look familiar to some longtime fans.)

Spoiler: The Decepticons are not really destroyed. The most cheerfully preposterous of their lot is Blitzwing, whose three faces take turns cursing his treasonous colleagues. Each face speaks in a broader accent than the last, and the most frightening of his three visages speaks last, finishing the previous face’s threat of “The name is Blitzwing, insect. Remember it, ‘cause it’s the last thing you’ll hear before I…” with a totally unexpected, “…express my feelings in song!”

He then sings a bit of “Itsy, Bitsy Spider”, stirring memories of World Wrestling Entertainment’s deliriously meta creative peak in the late ‘90s, when heated rivals The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin came to face to face in the middle of the ring… and spent 15 or 20 minutes telling jokes and singing Jimmy Buffet duets.

How ironic that the first Transformers series to treat itself so lightly is so uniquely deserving of our serious attention. In Transformers Animated, the Decepticons are not the lone source of antagonism the Autobots must endure; there is also a rigid caste system with which to contend (“Don’t be a hero, Optimus,” Ultra Magnus chides. “It’s not in your programming.”)

There is even bureaucratic incompetence, as in a pivotal scene wherein Optimus attempts to activate his ship’s emergency defense mechanisms, only to have an automated voice politely inform him that, “This function has been disabled in compliance with Cyberton’s ongoing efforts to conserve Energon.”

Autobotic Asphyxiation victims have been predictably trying to smother any threat of affection for Transformers Animated, which is a shame because for all its daring rebooting and goofiness, this series gives old school fans exactly what they want: Megatron is a terrifying badass, Bumblebee is an endearingly annoying little punk, and Starscream is a scheming sycophant (believing he has successfully assassinated his leader, he shouts “Yes!” and then hastily mumbles, “Right, then: solemn face, solemn face…”); Animated is essentially the ‘80s Transformers series all over again, just with smarter writing, vastly improved animation, coherent continuity and better production values. (I mentioned Energon‘s palette, but the coloring work in Animated is absolutely gorgeous; deep, convincing and sometimes astonishingly subtle and complex.)

If the Transformers forums I have frequented are any indication, Animated is seducing new fans everyday, and I keep thinking back to How Far Will A Man Go For G.I. Joe, wherein I speculated about the future of the G.I. Joe property and wrote, “Here’s hoping Hasbro chooses to go forward.”

With Transformers Animated, Hasbro and Cartoon Network have taken a more daring and satisfying leap forward than I’d have ever believed.

Here’s hoping they never look back.

Monte Williams has a Bachelors Degree in Communications. Would you like fries with that?


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/69398-metabots-and-deconstructicons-transformers-goes-postmodern/