Metabots and Deconstructicons: Transformers Goes Postmodern

Energon Optimus Prime

I am happy to report that after 25 years, the 'Transformers' franchise has finally gone postmodern… no thanks to 'Transformers Energon'.

Transformers Cybertron: The Ultimate Collection

Distributor: Hasbro
Cast: Gary Chalk, Sarah Edmondson
US Release Date: 2008-07-22

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!"


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.

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