“More Than Meets the Eye: The Transformers Revisited” by Jim Cleaveland

Rather than waste your money on the new big-budget Transformers sequel, why not instead enjoy this loving look back at the series’ roots and thoughts of what could have been from Jim Cleaveland — which originally appeared in the first issue of Kaleidotrope in October 2006, now out of print?

2007 will see the release of Michael Bay’s live-action movie based on the 1980s toy/television/comics franchise The Transformers. Judging by the trailer—a NASA probe lands on Mars, a big blocky shadow falls over it, and an unseen figure smooshes the probe—there is a certain likelihood that said movie will disappoint, and a possibility that it will suck like a hull breach. Yet I really do have high hopes for this film. Not high expectations, mind you, but high hopes.

Like many of my generation, I was a fan of The Transformers as a kid. A decade before I’d ever heard the term “fan fiction,” I enjoyed writing my own stories about these characters, and I therefore familiarized myself with the details of their world with all the obsessiveness that a child brings to such pursuits.

Years later, as an adult, I went back and analyzed just what the show’s strong appeal had been for me, and I realized that, if you turn a blind eye for a moment to the franchise’s toyetic origins, The Transformers actually does have some wonderful concepts and science-fiction story potential. I don’t know how much of this the writers were consciously aware of at the time, but it’s certainly there, and I’d like to see it explored in a thoughtful manner.

Robots in Disguise—Subtext in the Transformers

The Transformers are an artificial race from an artificial world, who do not know their origins. They do not age, and by any earthly standard are virtually immortal, yet they’ve spent most of their history in civil war, Autobot against Decepticon. Indeed, their agelessness and durability are the only reason the war has been able to continue—since no matter what they throw at each other, they can’t finish each other off, and no new generation will ever come along to change things. The lack of generational turnover has left them culturally stagnant, a race of immortal old farts continuing the same behaviors literally for eons as their world falls into ruin around them.

Now, however, they have come into contact with a race that is laughably weak and short-lived compared to themselves, but which, because of those very qualities, has progressed by leaps and bounds while they have remained at a standstill. As they learn from our example, for the first time in ages their society begins to change.

As for their “transforming” ability (an ironic talent, considering their cultural stasis), I’ve always thought it would be very useful for a robot to have two or more different configurations, each capable of a different function—provided an engineer were skillful enough to build such a thing. The evolution of this kind of robot, with the ability to transform itself, is not entirely implausible. And, on Earth, why not use that ability for camouflage?

The name “Autobot” is itself very likely short for “Autonomous Robot”. In the TV show, at least in the early seasons, it was implied that this was the original name for the entire race, and that the Decepticons began later as a seditionary movement among them. (It seems like a safe guess that “Decepticon” is a name they were branded with because of their actions, not a name they chose for themselves.)

The first issue of the comic book proposed that whatever the planet Cybertron’s original purpose may have been, it was not built to support a race of inhabitants. Rather, the robots “evolved” out of the planet’s clockwork to help its functioning, and over time these mobile components gradually achieved sentience. The comics later abandoned this nifty idea in favor of a more dramatic but, in my opinion, less interesting explanation of the race’s beginnings, but I’ve always liked the original one.

I’ve also found it significant that, personality-wise, most of the Transformers were portrayed as completely human—not stereotypically emotionless machines—even to the point of having their own spiritual beliefs. This begs all sorts of wonderful metaphysical questions about the nature of artificial intelligence, consciousness, and religion.

Then there’s the fun of watching contemporary humanity’s reaction to our first alien contact. We gradually realize that only one of the alien factions is actively hostile to us, and so we ally ourselves with the other side, which is prepared to come to our defense. But even these allies are deeply reluctant to share their technology with us, so we are left helpless primitives as a war is fought over top of us. Earth is a metaphor for every strategically important Third-World boondock that’s ever been fought over by two musclebound empires.

And of course there’s the dangling plot thread of the artificial planet Cybertron’s origins. Who built it? What was its original purpose? There’s all kinds of story potential there.

Till All Are One—Multiple Continuities

Most of what I’ve just said refers to the original Transformers television series, that being the version of Transformers with which I think Americans are most familiar, and certainly with which I am most familiar. In fact, there have been a lot of different Transformers shows and comics over the past twenty years, each iteration differing to varying degrees from the others, and this makes discussion difficult. Many fans take a common-sense approach of just picking and choosing the continuity elements they like from the various different incarnations, and I certainly cannot blame them for that.

The multiplicity of versions truly is enough to make a fan’s head spin. For instance, even though the television series and Marvel comic book begin almost identically, the storylines rapidly diverge. In the series, Earth’s governments and the Autobots quickly become allies. In the comic, the mass of humanity remains convinced that the Autobots are just as great a threat as the Decepticons.

The television series changed its format drastically in the third season, moving twenty years into the future and killing most of the original cast (a controversial decision which is almost certainly what got them canceled the following year), so it’s hard not to speak of it separately from the first two seasons.

Following the show’s cancellation in the United States, Japan picked up the storyline and kept it going for years, producing stories unfamiliar to American audiences. While Marvel’s American comic was still running (and still set in the present day, not the 21st century of the TV series), Marvel UK was producing a separate British version—and many of its concepts were later incorporated into the U.S. storyline when British writer Simon Furman moved over to the American title.

In the 1990s, Canada’s Mainframe studio produced two new series, Beast Wars and Beast Machines, which follow loosely from the old American television continuity; these series explored the possibility of robots being fused with organic material, becoming more like conventional living beings, as well as delving more into the metaphysics and mysticism of an artificial race (with interesting, albeit mixed results). Several years later, the comic book publishers DreamWave and Devil’s Due got the legal rights to produce their own Transformers comics, which incorporate some elements of the earlier continuities but are basically their own, new storylines. And, still more recently, some Japanese-made Transformers series such as Transformers: Armada and Transformers: Cybertron have been translated into English and broadcast in the U.S.

When the movie comes out, it will doubtless usher in a new continuity of its own.

Transformation—On Maturity, and Saying No To Grit

When all is said and done, The Transformers is a cartoon show marketed to children, based on a line of toy robots that turn into trucks. While I believe that it successfully transcends those humble origins, those origins are still present. As has happened with superhero comics, The Transformers is trying to grow up with its audience, and the new movie is the latest evidence of that.

Yet the problem with children’s properties endeavoring to reach an older audience seems to be that that they must pass through a very ugly puberty first. To prove the property is not just kids’ stuff, the creators make their stories as dark and “gritty” as possible. Certainly that was the case with the superhero comics of the late ‘80s through the ‘90s, a period some fans have dubbed “The Iron Age” for its brutal violence and nihilism, which seemed at odds with the bright three-color world Superman and Wonder Woman used to inhabit.

Similarly, too many attempts to inject greater realism into the Transformers’ story (including the original 1986 The Transformers: The Movie, for which I have never particularly cared) have involved giving the Transformers a much higher casualty rate in their battles. While I agree that greater violence would be an absolute necessity for a realistic version of that other 1980s mainstay, G.I. Joe1, I think that increasing the vulnerability of the Transformers is counterproductive.

The Transformers are giant, ancient alien robots, and they’re supposed to be superhumanly tough. They fight their war on a mythological timescale in which individual warriors battle for eons before finally falling. An episode titled “The God Gambit” involved the Transformers visiting a primitive world and being mistaken for deities, and the natives’ error is hardly surprising. The Transformers know all too keenly that they are mortal, but they die a lot harder than we do.

In addition, and laying aside the damage a greater body count does to the subtext of the show, it certainly does leech the fun out of the thing. I truly hope that the upcoming movie does not go this route.

Less Than Meets the Eye—Shortcomings

In fairness, The Transformers has its share of shortcomings as science fiction and as art. As I say above, it did begin as children’s fare (and highly commercialized children’s fare, at that) and that shows through in many ways.

The television series was clearly done on a budget and with time constraints. The animation is lackluster, especially in the third season when the character designs became far too complicated to be easily animated. The background music is generally excellent but, as is typical of television animation of the time, the same tracks are repeated again and again throughout a season’s run—the most amusing result of this being that whenever a character is listening to rock music, it’s always the same song. Still, as a Doctor Who and Ultraman fan, I can’t seriously hold low production values against a show. Besides, as often as the animation was poor, the character designs and backgrounds were gorgeous.

Dialogue is frequently corny, with many silly puns and odd name-calling in lieu of cursing (e.g. “You metal meatball!” “Take that, Decepti-jerk!”). The voice acting is absolutely top-notch for the first two seasons—with greats like Casey Kasem, Peter Cullen, and Frank Welker—but, as with so many aspects of the third season, the voice acting goes downhill at that point—partly because Kasem left the show in protest over a nasty Arab stereotype in one episode. True, Dick Gautier’s Rodimus Prime is wonderful, but every time characters like Galvatron or Wheelie open their mouths, I want to crawl in hole and pull the hole in after me2.

The science portrayed is rarely any more accurate that what could be found in a superhero comic of the same era. Terms like “galaxy” and “light year” are thrown around with no real idea of the distances involved. It certainly flunks my standard “hard science fiction” litmus tests: the aliens are humanoid, and the spaceships travel faster than light. Of course, those two faults are present in almost all American popular science fiction, and while that’s not a good thing, it’s certainly not a problem unique to this show.

There are two big plot holes that have always bugged me, however. First, the ostensible reason that Earth is so strategically important to the Transformers is our planet’s natural energy resources (fossil fuels and such), Cybertron’s own fuel reserves having long been expended by the war. The Transformers are an advanced race eons ahead of our own, so why the heck haven’t they mastered fusion? Or solar power? Why would they still need to derive energy from oil and coal? If we had our act together, even we wouldn’t be relying on those.

It also isn’t clear what constitutes “death” for a Transformer. In most cases, Transformer death is shown to be as permanent as human death, the implication being that losing power to certain critical systems will damage them too badly to ever be simply reassembled and switched back on. Yet, in a few cases, Transformers are shown to be essentially “knocked cold” for eons at a stretch, and then reactivated with little trouble. Most notably, in the very first episode, a group of Transformers crashes to Earth and lies deactivated for four million years, until their ship’s computer is jolted awake and reassembles them. This long period of dormancy is an important plot point for the entire series. What is the difference between death and mere dormancy (what the DreamWave comics have dubbed “stasis lock”)? I’d have liked to see an episode of the television show explaining that.

Dare to Keep All Your Dreams Alive

DVD collections are available for the original series, as well as for the 1986 movie, Beast Wars, and Beast Machines. The entire runs of both the American and British comics are available as trade paperbacks.

The Transformers: The Ultimate Guide by Simon Furman is a gorgeously illustrated encyclopedia that focuses mainly on the DreamWave Comics continuity, since Furman was writing for them at the time, but it has ample sections on the various television series and Marvel continuities as well.

In 2004 ibooks published a short-story anthology titled Transformers Legends, edited by David Cian. It’s currently out of print, but it’s exactly the sort of genuinely mature (not violence masquerading as maturity) approach to the characters and their world that I’ve wanted to see for ages. I wish it had become the first of a series of such anthologies. Unfortunately, ibooks also published a trilogy of Transformers novels at this time, which I and most fans found deeply disappointing, and that probably hurt this little anthology by association, which is a pity.

Lastly, there is a huge quantity of fan fiction available online. As you would expect of internet fan fiction, it is of wildly varying quality, but it’s certainly worth checking out.

So, the new movie is due out in May of 2007, and I hope for the best. While many people have reservations about Michael Bay as director, DreamWorks has an excellent track record. I am pleased to see it reported on the Internet Movie Database and elsewhere that Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, the voices of Optimus Prime and Megatron on the original television series, are rumored to be voicing those parts in the film.

There’s certainly enough there for a clever writer and director to work with, if they just recognize the potential. Here’s hoping for the best, and that there’s more to the plot than a NASA probe getting smooshed.

Dare to keep all your dreams alive, and roll out!

Collect Them All!

Even with a huge cast of characters, nearly every Transformer has a well-defined personality, so that every fan has his one or two favorites, even if they’re obscure. Here are some of my own personal favorites

Starscream (Decepticon)—Decepticon leader Megatron’s subordinate, Starscream has become one of the all-time great backstabbing weasels of popular culture. He views himself as a mighty general, but in fact he’s just a sneak and manipulator, constantly conniving to wrest power away from Megatron, and that’s probably all he ever will be.

Skyfire (Autobot)—A friend of Starscream’s from before the War, he is discovered by Decepticons in modern times, inert but repairable. Megatron has him reactivated, and naturally assumes that Starscream’s old friend will join the Decepticons. Yet Skyfire is appalled to find his old academic colleague has become a fascist soldier. He sacrifices his life to prevent the Decepticons from claiming victory in a battle—and by this “betrayal” of his friend, Skyfire shatters the last remaining bit of compassion in Starscream’s black soul.

Soundwave (Decepticon)—One of the few Transformers who actually behaves like a stereotypical robot, his face is an expressionless mask, he speaks in an echoey monotone, and he moves with an economy of body language reminiscent of the Terminator. Yet his stoic demeanor is skin-deep. He clearly has a parental compassion for the “cassette” robots stored within his body, particularly Ravage. Conversely, outside of the television show, he is frequently depicted as an eavesdropping blackmailer to his fellow Decepticons.

Beachcomber (Autobot)—The Autobots’ geologist (who quite naturally has more business on Earth than on the steel-covered ecumenopolis of Cybertron) is a near-pacifist with the personality of a quiet beatnik. He fights when absolutely necessary, but he’s essentially a civilian, by his very presence demonstrating that, whereas the Decepticons are an army, the Autobots are a complete civilization. up with its audience, and the new movie is the latest evidence of that.

Hound (Autobot)—Hound makes no secret of the fact that he prefers the unspoiled organic wildernesses of Earth to the war-torn world he comes from, though he speaks wistfully of the “quiet and peaceful” days before the war. He has one of the niftiest abilities of all the Transformers—projecting holographic illusions of anything he can imagine.

Tracks (Autobot)—David Wise has said that, if he knew Tracks was going to be voiced “to sound like Thurston Howell III,” he would have written the character differently, but I’m glad he didn’t. The juxtaposition of that snooty, urbane Harvard voice with Tracks’s love of downtown New York is completely charming, and his episodes co-starring with street-smart ghetto kid Raoul make for a nicely improbable “buddy story.”

Rodimus Prime (Autobot)—Optimus Prime’s replacement as Autobot leader, after his death in the 1986 movie. I didn’t like the amount of violence in the movie, nor the very different third season that followed from it, but I have come to like Rodimus, mostly because of Dick Gautier’s voice acting in the television show (Judd Nelson voiced Rodimus in the movie). The burden of leadership was forced on Rodimus when, by Autobot standards, he was still terribly young, and Gautier nails that combination of youth and world-weariness perfectly.

Chip Chase (Human)—Despite his youth, Chase is one of the most brilliant scientific minds on Earth, and is therefore a perfectly logical ambassador to the Autobots. His being wheelchair-bound adds some pathos to the self-effacing little guy, and I was disappointed when the character was effectively written out of the show.

1 I’m fond of Joe as escapism, but a children’s show about flesh-and-blood soldiers who are all mysteriously immune to gunfire is deeply problematic.

2 Leonard Nimoy did a very impressive Galvatron for the 1986 feature film, but he didn’t stay on board for the subsequent television series.