I realise my blog can sometimes be seen as a den of negativity, in this past week I emptied my bowels of discontent onto the heads of Marvel and Minions alike and beyond that this site usually serves as a highlighter pen picking out the worst of the worst in the news of the world and complaining about it. So, here’s a rave, a feature I might try to work into the blog as inspiration takes me in which I explain why I like something and why, I feel, people might be inclined to agree with me. Franchises mainly, as a film and game critic it’s a strongpoint of mine to be able to pick apart media for positives and negatives so with that in mind, here’s one of my favourite nostalgia properties, Transformers, analysed by me with a burning question to answer – How has a blatant toy commercial lasted so long and why is it a story we can retell to no end?
You’re likely to know all about Transformers, be it from G1 cartoons, the Unicron Trilogy that originated in Japan, the more recent Animated and Prime series or, heaven forbid, the Bay movies. Robots fighting a civil war on a distant planet come to Earth to harvest the natural resources here in order to gain the edge in battle, disguising themselves as vehicles to do so (Mistaking cars for the dominant life form on Earth). The story of two factions, the paragon Autobots and renegade Decepticons, is a clear cut moral conflict that appealed to the American market post-Vietnam war when people weren’t sure if heroes were heroes considering the horrors they had witnessed their own soldiers commit for shits and giggles on innocent civilians. Transformers, much like He-Man and Thundercats, had a clear definition of good and evil established and character motivations were unambiguous with Megatron being a means-justify-the-end conqueror content to squash humanity underfoot and Optimus Prime being a bot dedicated to freedom. Straight off the bat, if you never picked up on it, Optimus Prime is an avatar for the American dream, being decorated red, white and blue and preaching about the right to freedom for all sentient beings.
Now without a doubt Transformers started as a way to shlock otherwise uninteresting generic robot toys to a large market by giving them all cool names and an established lore for children to take part in but it did so in a way that was perhaps more interesting than the likes of He-Man, using a tactic of variety. By this I mean the number of Autobots and Decepticons on each side is so immense, you can draw up a list of ten of each without breaking a sweat and still probably have another few names in your back pocket. The large cast did mean only a few characters had established personalities that could essentially be summed up in sentences (Ironhide is a war veteran, Wheeljack is Frankenstein, Soundwave is rational and Starscream is a dick) but this allowed imagination to run wild. I have fond memories of getting Transformer figures of characters I knew shit all about but it didn’t matter, you could make them whoever, aside from the likes of Optimus Prime, the rest of them were interchangeable plastic moulds for you to assign a character to in your own head, all that mattered was what side they were on. For children then, this offered a combination of familiar faces to emulate and lesser characters to improve on and the simplistic personalities the characters started with served as gateways for imaginative play. You pick up an Optimus Prime figure, the FIRST THING you do is Peter Cullen’s voice (Which is beautiful. Did you know he was originally going to give Optimus a more gung-ho brash tone but decided against it when he realised real war heroes aren’t such loud boasters, they’re more quiet and reserved resilient types so that’s what he went for and it stuck – at last an 80’s protagonist with a voice not suited to singing Wham! lyrics). Point is, familiar characters are easy to play and easy to work around as kids but you get more toys, you’re then encouraged to give them whatever personality you want. Nobody much remembers the likes of Red Alert or Sunstreaker, you’ve got to come up with something for those guys OR buy more comics and find out, both paths open to you and nobody can judge you either way.
The original cartoons, rewatching them, are awful in terms of writing but it allowed it to stay simple and episodes were based around singular plot points that reset the balance of power at the end. Usually it was:
MEGATRON: “I want the thing!”
STARSCREAM: “I have the thing! I am the leader of the Decepticons!”
OPTIMUS: “You can’t have the thing! I must capture/destroy the thing!”
STARSCREAM: “I no longer have the thing!”
And they all lived forever locked in an eternal struggle for political conquest. Some episodes went out there but they didn’t shake it up too much. Well, the first movie did, first animated movie, that killed off every major character and gave some of them shiny new forms and some shiny new characters altogether, which received mixed responses but was overwhelmingly met with cries of “OPTIMUS!” (No joke, the fan response was so strong, they had to include an end narration in the home release that assured children Optimus Prime would be reborn because the kids who saw the film in theatrical releases cried for days, it’d be like ending every Doctor’s regeneration with the previous body getting up and saying “I had a fun time but I’m going home to eat cake and play XBOX”) Erhem, this is long-winded, you can see I know my shit here. Anyway, Transformers offered a simple lore but with a rich tapestry of characters and with almost every character getting merchandise based on them, it was an easy thing to get into, it’d be like knowing every single Pokemon ever designed is available as a plushy, you’d eventually figure to buy one you like. That’s what Transformers was, more so than GI Joe which had interchangeable white dudes in camo gear plus some minorities just because, Transformers was more “THIS ONE IS A SPORTS CAR! THIS ONE IS RED! THIS ONE IS A T-REX! YOU THINK OF IT, IT’S A TRANSFORMER! SHIT MAN, EVEN BOOMBOXES AND TRAFFIC LIGHTS” (Not a joke, there is a traffic light Transformer)
Now you might think that explains the original appeal but why hasn’t it died off or only existed as a property some company foolishly tried to reboot into another animated series below the radar? Well, owing partially to the confusing ownership of rights between American and Japanese toy companies (The Japanese invented the toys but the Americans figured out how to make them sale-worthy and thus began a longstanding but oddly rickety partnership) nobody involved ever let Transformers die off and when G1 ran its course to a point of dwindling interest, it was reborn in various forms. Beast Wars, The Unicron Trilogy (Japan’s take which is a blog post in itself about how that worked), RID, Rescue Bots, Animated – since the 80s, there hasn’t been a generation of children that hasn’t had immediate access to an Optimus Prime they’ll always remember. For me, I started with an old video tape of two singular episodes of G1 and a single figure of Mirage, the Formula One car that could turn invisible. As I grew older, my Saturday morning cartoons were the Unicron Trilogy and my first Optimus Prime figure was Armada Optimus, the small one though so no trailer (violin plays) but then for one Christmas I went big with Cyberton Optimus, holy shit that was awesome, especially as I had Wing Saber and they could COMBINE and man that was fun. Each iteration of Transformers as a cartoon offered the same characters, with some slight differences owing to either writer’s choice, marketing decisions or legal disputes meaning certain character names belonged to certain people yadda yadda yadda, no two series are all that alike (Well, the Unicron Trilogy within itself seems all too happy to repeat some trends but I digress)
As the audience for Transformers matured, the franchise itself did too, hitting at more sophisticated audiences with Beast Wars and Prime, seen as the “best” iterations of Transformers cartoons, but also with various comic book series that delved into deeper realms the TV shows left alone – politics, post-war diplomacy, interpersonal relationships, even a sense of racism (Autobot/Decepticon peace treaties leading to the use of old war faction names as slurs against people who used to be aligned with said side). However, far be Transformers from just getting bigger and bigger and leaving people on the outside looking in like Game of Thrones or Agents of SHIELD where, if you’re not desperately trying to keep the pace by now, you’ve missed the boat and will have to endure many conversations you can’t follow, Transformers split its universe into numerous respective lores that you could opt into or out of and there was always an easy to digest option available in the form of a TV series. You liked the Bay films and want more but not G1? Oh okay, well Animated came out just in time for you, the artistic style is kinda weird but the characters are memorable and the plot doesn’t twist itself into a bagel like every other fucking thing on television seems to do at some point. You want your kids to watch Transformers? Rescue Bots is super kiddy friendly, think Aquanauts with robots. The team at Hasbro sort of accept two core universes now, Prime and Bay Film Universe, and seriously, if you’re even remotely interested in Transformers at this point then watch Transformers Prime, it is so well done, easily the best-written TV show based on these characters. With a lore that boils down to good versus evil, robots versus robots and only perhaps three characters you must never fuck up (Optimus, Starscream and Megatron), any writer can run with them and utilise the imagination of their childhood to give you new looks and new attitudes for these ten ton super robots to love and discuss and perhaps even inspire your works (Heck, I wrote my own Transformers lore as a kid using what figures I had to hand as core characters and sometimes even adult me is like, if fan fiction were my thing, I’d write a lot of Transformers stuff)
So, let’s summarise and answer those starting questions:
How has it lasted so long? – A huge expanse of characters all diverging from one core concept allows any team of writers to run wild, each iteration doing something the one before it did not and reimagining these characters in new and exciting ways that appeal to each new generation, ensuring every generation of children has at least ONE Transformers continuity they remember fondly
Why can we retell it to no end? – Because it is a classic story of good versus evil, freedom versus tyranny and the timelessly appealing combination of Sci-Fi, giant robots and fun gimmicks. Unlike say Spiderman, characters in Transformers are much more flexible to play with and can be remembered in a variety of ways. Optimus the Truck, Optimus the Fire Engine, Optimus the Gorilla – all that matters is that core concept, beyond that the only limit is the creativity of the writers and of the audience, who in time become the writers
So there you go! Let me know if you enjoy things like this, I know it certainly went on for quite a while and if anyone’s ever interested, I’ll go over the Unicron Trilogy in a follow up to this. Beyond that, let me know if there’s ever something you’ve thought of as timeless, maybe I’ll agree with you and I’ll gush my undying love for something you suggested to me for about 2000 words, who knows? If you’ve read this far, you’re either hankering for the Matrix of Readership (BADUMTISH) or just really want me to like you. Either way, thank you for enduring a seemingly endless ream of fanboy burbling!