Christmas 2015

Merry Christmas dear readers, is the turkey sitting nicely in your gut (or vegan equivalent? So as not to discriminate). I hope this year finds you all doing well and of course, wishing you the best for the year to come. As is becoming of yearly traditions, I am here to fill you in on my Christmas and a recap of the lead up to it, from my perspective, because that is what you are here to read. I am not a newspaper nor a company, merely a man with a blog that you all seem to take some interest in, however slight or strong it may be.

I will admit I have not looked forward to Christmas – unemployment, tight finances, dwindling social life and a constant stream of happiness from the world around me seemingly for everyone bar me has had me greet festivity with bitterness in my heart. As I write this, that bitterness begins to come forth once again, as it often does in an evening. I made my efforts though, I am not one to let my personal woes ruin the joy of others and so I participated in gift-giving, jumper-wearing and cheer-spreading, albeit with a somewhat pained grimace where a smile should have been. Today in itself consisted of the usual gift-unwrapping followed by films, Doctor Who, dinner and then everyone toddles off again to do their own thing, my thing being returning to my little cell of a bedroom to brood and contemplate on doing something creative until it is suddenly 2:34AM and all I have achieved is removing my trousers and staring at the utter lack of notifications I have to attend to on my Facebook.

Christmas, in a sense, has yet to actually come for me because whilst I have received cash from the folks and a new shirt from one of my brothers, the bulk of my gifts are coming from friends I have not had the chance to see yet and perhaps on those occasions I will feel more cheery. As it stands, home life is not cheery, tensions are high here and there has been far too much aggression in the air to call this a holly jolly holiday. Interesting, when one considers this might be my last Christmas like this – though I feel perhaps that was considered by everyone present and some perhaps greeted that thought with the silent response of “Thank goodness”, there has been no attempt to bury hatchets here and hostilities are either laid plain or knives are sharpened behind backs. Indeed, perhaps even this blog is my knife, though whom it would cut remains to be seen as my work is met with the most trifling interest by my family.

I apologise, I am a downer on a day of joy, such is my lot. I wish I had stories of charity and cheer to tell and whilst this season has not been an endless suffering on my part, indeed one party was attended and unexpected gifts have been assured to be coming my way yet as it stands, at this time on this day, I feel a black mist grip my soul and drag it back down like always. I look forward to the new year, if only because I have ambitions to drive me and feasible means of achieving some of them and the prospect of being in work again is seemingly more apparent – two employers have expressed great interest in me and once the world of work is back in order then they will hurry to usher me in and get me sorted out as either their new team player or latest addition to the rejection bin.

I have no right to complain, I spent Christmas in a warm home with turkey on my plate, no job to tear me away from my family and there was no actual family tragedy today, just muttered words and a general consensus of “Let’s do this for as long as it is bearable”, with some of us giving up an hour in and some sticking through to dinner before departing. Families do that I suppose, the Christmas card image of a family gathered and united in love is appealing but fairly untrue, especially in homes on the breadline like mine. Ultimately, you must think me a terrible whine, to speak of how poor I find myself and woe is me but you are not obliged to read on, this is merely a personal filling in and as it stands, this is the truth of it – a modest Christmas with a family divided and I am little more than a misery.

I do not know what 2016 will bring. I hope it will be the year that changes everything and intend to work hard to make it so and yet, I have said that much for each year of my life since I left school and here I am. On the upside, with a gym contract I’m obliged to for twelve months, at £9.99 a month, I can at least be depressed and fucking jacked up like a beefcake, I’m too much of a tight git with money to let the best part of £10 vanish from my bank account each month and not turn up at the gym – I’m lazy enough, I don’t intend to charge myself £10 a month to be so.

Still, Christmas is a time to be thankful so let me end on the lighter note as to what I am thankful for. I am thankful to my family for providing me a home and for the efforts they have made for me all year round, to my Dad for being willing to invest in me and help me take my first steps towards revolutionising my work by buying me the equipment. I am thankful to my friends for their steadfast loyalty, especially at this time and whilst the run-up to Christmas would provide many of them valid reason to make less effort, some have made more effort than ever to check that I am okay and provide me with some reason to smile or laugh. Lastly, let me give thanks to the unexpected friends I have found this year, old grudges washed away and casual acquaintances have made new strides to know me better, it is always something that can make me smile.

Merry Christmas everyone, I will provide a 2015 retrospective later this year and in it, I will look back on my year and my plans for 2016, for those who take interest in such matters

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Christmas Is Always Coming

So, let’s talk about Christmas, it’s obligatory with it being less than ten days away at this point and I do plan to discuss my actual day of Christmas with you on Christmas as it happens, a sort of sum up like last year followed by a retrospective of my year as a whole. However, for now, let’s discuss Christmas, in particular why some may view me as something of a Scrooge on the topic. I never really partake in festivities to the same degree as my friends – no antlers on my head, no Christmas jumper waiting to be sprung out come December and you’ll never get me singing along to Jingle Bells. A variety of reasons surround this, first and foremost is my social anxiety which insists that although everyone else in the room looks like a colossal dickhead wearing red noses and tinsel scarves, I will be the most dickheadiest of dickheads if I join in, that somehow my foolishness isn’t just fun, it’s utterly disgusting and degrading to watch and people will remember the display as a reason to hold me in slightly less high regard. On the other hand, there are some other reasons I’m not huge on Christmas as a whole, which I’ll cover over the course of this post.

Now, don’t be mistaken in thinking I want December 25th to be just another day on the calendar and we don’t bother at all, that’s not it, I think it’s nice that we all agree to dedicate some time of the year to togetherness and family time and so on – though it sucks to the nth degree not all of us get that. Christmas, forced onto the mainstream by a previously Christian dominated society and now kept around for people of all walks of life due to a combination of tradition and marketing, is fun when you’re in the right setting for it with the right people and resources and so on – hard to be miserable at Christmas when you have all you want. The problem is just that though, Christmas is such a beacon of light and joy that some of us expect it to cast out the negativity simply the grace of existing and we can overlook the pains, struggles and loneliness of our fellow men because we think “It’s Christmas, someone will do something for them and they’ll probably feel better with a belly full of turkey and some nice new trinkets to unwrap”. Here then. we have that phrase, that phrase that is the bane of my life every single year between the end of October and December 26th.

“BUT IT’S CHRISTMAS!”

You know what? So fucking what if it is? We’re aware what time of year it is, which by the way, I resent for creeping earlier and earlier into the year, partly because I’m a November baby and partly because it applies the pressure to be cheerful and excited on depressed folk like me before they’re even in the right frame of mind to adopt false happiness. Christmas isn’t some be all, end all cure to the woes of the world, whatever Bob Geldof insists on telling you. The reality is Santa doesn’t deliver world peace, bosses don’t always let things slide because the big day is coming and not every broken heart finds someone willing to bring them out of the cold, let’s not delude ourselves. If we perpetuate Christmas as being the best thing to happen in a year, it loses that status because we don’t need to do anything, it becomes that for the consumerist masses just by being Christmas – people already have their Christmas spirit pumping without the need for volunteering in a soup kitchen or checking in on their lonesome neighbour who doesn’t have kids to come visit or whatever. By doing that, Christmas becomes less and less like the fairy tales and slips more and more into what cynics like me have been calling it for years – a mass of over-excited meatheads stuffing their faces and buying shit.

So, Christmas lovers, maybe you’re think I’m being a Grinch hmm? I just don’t understand because I’m a misery right? Maybe you’re right, this year is seeing me be the most depressed I’ve been at Christmas time since my schoolboy days, for reasons too personal to disclose here. However, last Christmas (Don’t), I wasn’t as bad, I had money, friends and even though Christmas didn’t happen at my home, I did my fair share of philanthropic gestures and gift giving and even then I STILL wrote an article about how overhyped Christmas is and how unfair it is on children in particular. I love Christmas and that’s speaking as a staunch Atheist to whom Christmas has no religious meaning to give remembrance for, it’s literally just “Winter is shit but hey presents and food happen!”. but I still love this idea of a time in which we stop to think about people and how we can express our love for them, my only concern is that perhaps we lost sight of that.

You know the shpiel here, that Christmas has become about buying affection rather than earning it, in showing love through consoles and laptops rather than actual words of kindness or shows of support and many of you will roll your eyes at the goody two-shoe deal here but it is so important we remember that and we must remember that Christmas isn’t a time of joy for us all, no matter how much you wish it to be. Tragic story time, my Dad when I was young, despised Christmas, so much that seeing decorations filled him with dread and sorrow because to him, it didn’t mean joy and laughter, it meant a time of spending money and fulfilling other people’s dreams because if he didn’t, he had to disappoint them. We had no decorations in our house until Christmas Day itself and they’d come down again afterwards as soon as Dad could manage it, just so he didn’t have to see that tree for one second longer than he had to. I didn’t understand as a child, I don’t think my Dad ever realised that as a kid, I was always happy at Christmas with anything he got me – probably because kids are so shit at being grateful for stuff. We’ve always lived on the breadline in this home and to then have December 25th pop up “JUST A HEADS UP, YOU BETTER SPEND AT LEAST LIKE… £500 ON GIFTS OR PEOPLE WILL THINK YOU DON’T LOVE THEM” when you can barely afford £5, it’s terrifying and makes you resent Christmas as being a toll, a challenge to PROVE your love and selflessness, as if everything else you did all year didn’t count.

Christmas is getting a little too big for its own boots here and stomping on the poor and the heartbroken, it brings joy not only because we are all given what we want and are giving those we love what they want but because everyone looks happy when you push the unhappy ones out of the photo frame. I’m not even going to try and count the number of times my depression has been muddled up with a lack of Christmas spirit, that somehow all this obnoxious corporate money-grabbing and ugly jumper parties should be the strongest mood medication I could ever want. Somehow though, it is not but I still partake in Christmas – gifts have been bought, nice gestures done without the hope of them being returned have been performed and on Christmas Day, as is my tradition, I contact everyone I consider a friend to at least give season’s greetings.

So, what am I saying here, you ask? The article has sort of read as a general guilt-tripping Santa-bashing bitterness sandwich but I guess ultimately, I want you to read this and remember that Christmas in and of itself is not special, Christmas is as special as we make it for ourselves and others. If you think buying lots of stuff is all it takes, well done, you’re nothing more than a patsy Amazon and Wal-Mart will bleed dry year upon year, but Christmas is about charity and charity isn’t just giving to the homeless, it’s showing love. PLEASE take this time to check on people and that they’re ok, if that’s the only genuinely good thing you do that isn’t all about presents, please make sure that miserable fuckers like me are at least safe and comfortable this Christmas. I guarantee you that everyone who hates Christmas has a reason for it and it’s no good telling them to just cheer up; do something that makes this time of year a little easier for them.

Merry Christmas.

The Unicron Trilogy Part Three – Cybertron

The last leg of the trilogy, Cybertron, known in Japan as Transformers Galaxy Force, this series was under a lot of pressure from the offset to not fuck up like Energon and Armada before it, would the world be subjected to three bad shows in a row (Two and a half, Armada did redeem itself in the end) or would Cybertron be the salvation of this trilogy? With the responsibility of making these cartoons put into new hands, Cybertron was conceived as being the sequel to Energon to bring the continuity to a close so we were to expect returning cast members, sly references and so forth. However, what resulted was not pure to that vision, seeming content to dismiss the early fuck ups and stand as a good show on its own merits. So, how well did visions become reality? Allow me to tell you…

Lore

In the aftermath of the second destruction of Unicron, he is truly no more, his dead body blown to smithereens. However, his absence from the universe is causing said universe to collapse in on itself in the form of a supermassive black hole truly worthy of a Muse song. Cybertron is on the verge of falling into this hole so Optimus evacuates the entire planet and hides the refugees on Earth whilst trying to think what can be done for his home world. Vector Prime, an ancient being and guardian of the space-time continuum says the only hope they have is to seek out the four cyber Planet Keys and the Omega Lock into which they fit, that will awaken the heart of Cybertron, Primus, who is the only being capable of stopping such a black hole. Here is your basic premise then, yet another scavenger hunt for relics of extraordinary power whilst dealing with Megatron and Starscream’s nefarious dickbaggery.

Cybertron, in and of itself, went well. The fear of not having enough plot to fill the episodes was never realised, though perhaps because they stretched certain plot points into three episodes when you only needed one for it but at least there were was substantially less filler than Energon beforehand. However, Cybertron, whilst supposedly serving as a continuation of the Energon series, seemed to “forget” a lot of established facts from beforehand – the writers apparently had wanted to retcon all of the previous mistakes and start afresh, much to Hasbro’s annoyance and whilst efforts were made by the localisation team to force it into the “After Energon” space they had prepared, it was jarringly done so we had errors like this:

  • The Autobots have never heard of Earth or humans before, despite being to Earth at least twice
  • All the Autobots human friends from previous series have vanished and no effort is made to contact them
  • Even though humans and Cybertronians coexisted in the open in Energon, Optimus Prime gives everyone strict orders not to allow any humans to notice their presence
  • Jetfire is suddenly an Australian?
  • Red Alert returns, despite being absent from Energon, and likewise we never hear from Ironhide or Rodimus, main characters from Energon
  • When Optimus first combines with a team member, he is utterly confused, stating it’s impossible and astounding, even though the last series was nothing but “We have to combine!”
  • Megatron and Starscream died in Energon but in Cybertron, they’re alive and well and wreaking havoc and nobody even mentions “Hey, weren’t you dead?”. There is no explanation given for how they came back, even in the localisation
  • Hot Shot, who was a youngster in Armada but a veteran by the time of Energon, is now a youngster again

Indeed, the show was happy to just do whatever it pleased and leave Energon and Armada firmly in the past. Whilst disappearing cast members happened between Armada and Energon, this was explained with a ten year gap between the two series so obviously different characters had been assigned to different tasks or aged or whatever but Cybertron never states what time it is set in so who knows? It has to be after Energon surely because Unicron is no more, that much is clarified, but how long after we can’t tell and somehow the futuristic human society of Energon is replaced by what was considered a modern one in 2006.

Now, I’m going to add a new section here because whilst Armada and Energon are little more than running a Japanese cartoon through Google Translate and recording the results, Cybertron had a full writing team working to make the cartoon relevant to the West and much more interesting so exclusive to Cybertron, let’s look at some changes in the translation between Galaxy Force and Cybertron.

Differences

Transformers cartoons in Japan are batshit insane to say the least. You’d imagine they’d be even more action packed and dialogue heavy right? Nope. Every character is an interchangeable humourless bore, save characters who exist for no other reason than to be comic relief, and they barely say much beyond announcing their names, transformations and life goals on a loop. Galaxy Force wasn’t bad, don’t get me wrong, but Cybertron did a fair bit of modification and honestly, for the better. Usually you think of American dubs as being a bastardization of a good show but because Energon and Armada had been such flops, Hasbro left nothing to chance and upped their game, fixing anything that could possibly disappoint fans.

For the most part, what they changed was dialogue, adding flavour to the lines and giving each robot a distinct personality, albeit a gimmicky one. Jetfire is an Australian stereotype, Scattershot is a little trigger happy but also sort of anxious, Red Alert is a stick in the mud, Overhaul is a macho man, Landmine is a veteran and Optimus Prime has developed a sense of humour. No two characters could be muddled up and the voice actors seemed to give much stronger performances with these scripts that had been crafted with much more care and attention, even going so far as to slip in some jokes. Cybertron took itself seriously about plot but not about execution – when it became apparent that fight scenes between Optimus and Megatron were usually them punching each other and fists meeting midway, a joke is added in which they both pause in silence and Optimus just says “Wait for it…” before a stock explosion clip is added, like it had been the last three times they did that same thing. Characters often talk as they transform too, seeing as each episode dedicated a lot of runtime to transformation sequences so sometimes they just babble, sometimes they repeat plot points or sometimes, often Optimus, they will make a joking statement or witty retort.

Other than that, the plot got some tweaks. Mainly the humans, who two of which were meant to come from unhealthy home environments but that’s omitted and instead of Coby being afraid of his Dad, he more respects him but his Dad is something of an authoritarian, made light of at times and he’s given funny Dad-like irks (He is distracted from scolding Coby because his wife tells him someone doesn’t believe he’s the best fisherman ever). The humans are also given a use beyond being culture consultants with the plot element of the Omega Frequency, a high-pitched whine the Omega Lock gives off that is so high only children can hear it. There were some minor changes made to diversify the cast, Nitro Convoy became the female Override. Many changes existed but it’d be hard to cover every last one – it was mainly reducing the amount of unfriendly content and adding in lots of quips and one-liners. Thunderblast, a female Transformer, is considerably less sexualised in America than in Japan, her Japanese counterpart referred to as a Siren but her American instead called a jokester. Finally, Burning Justice, characters had a tendency to burst into flames when enraged and whilst the only explanation given in Japan is it is the flames of justice igniting in the soul of the said Transformer, American dubs explained it was either the character was powering up, really damn pissed or occasionally they would remark “Why the fuck am I on fire now?”, just in PG language…

Behind The Scenes

Conceived as a final installment in a trilogy, the Japanese writing team didn’t like this idea and went their own way, ignoring the previous lore in the writing and animating stage. Hasbro caught wind of this and were pissed, it had already been advertised as the third part of a trilogy and here it was, it was not. Imagine if Return of the Jedi wasn’t Luke’s triumph over Vader and the Emperor but instead we have ourselves Luke Skywalker back on Tatooine only everyone is played by different actors and the story is still the same but just different enough to make you seventeen shades of uncomfortable. Hasbro brought in a new writing team for the American dub, no longer would they rely on rushed translation jobs, this had to be good and somehow, had to line up with the events of Energon. Bless them, they tried, but the cartoon wasn’t made to be part of Energon so they couldn’t explain why continuity errors all that well – there was a comic series released which had Vector Prime explain characters have forgotten the events of Energon because the black hole has altered time and space and warped the memories of everyone on Cybertron, explaining why Optimus doesn’t recall ever beating Megatron or ever combining with Wing Saber and so on.

We saw the use of CGI animation again, much better executed than Energon beforehand, though limitations still shone through – characters had rather emotionless faces but there efforts made to show them smirking when they made jokes and somehow Optimus looks furious with his face guard up but otherwise they were essentially very large slow moving statues made to perform minimal movements. Characters would walk a bit or raise an arm or whatever, if they did anything more dynamic it was against a colourful anime background of blurred purple speed lines so the clip could be reused in any episode. The colouring was off as well, being perhaps a little too bright and bold compared to the less colourful backdrops and humans who dressed in more subtle tones of blues and greens. All in all though, Cybertron was much better put together and if you could look past the little “But wait…” moments that cropped up, you had yourself an enjoyable cartoon.

Reception

Cybertron had a lot to do to prove itself to the fans, who had twice been disappointed by sub-par rushed jobs of cheap dubs and to the credit of Cybertron, it did well. The toys sold pretty well, not with the immediate rush of Armada but the hype train was long since dead by Cybertron, the “catch them whilst they’re young” plan had worked a treat for Armada but new fans were slow to get into Cybertron and TV networks were reluctant to give Transformers much space considering how they’d used it previously to half-heartedly sell toys using twenty minute commercials. However, Cybertron had done well enough to redeem the franchise, justify its renewal in further incarnations and Hasbro ensured no shortage of merchandise was ever an issue as toys galore were made, pretty much every name in the bank got used for at least one toy.

As a cartoon, Cybertron sat well with fans, the dub had been given some actual work to make it enjoyable and the actors all gave much stronger performances in a project that returned Transformers to the roots – campy robot fights full of painful one-liners and “And then something cooler happened” moments. Fans of Galaxy Force were miffed that the localisation was so far removed from the original Japanese cartoon but otherwise, Cybertron is generally seen as the “best” of the trilogy and is one of the most well remembered cartoons based on Transformers. Cybertron paid homage to pop culture, Transformers history and not only did it draw inspiration and learn from the past, it improved on it, providing a colorful cast of unique characters in a plot that was never content to sit and repeat itself to death like Energon or bumble around in boredom like Armada.

Conclusion

Cybertron was what captured me in the fandom at a young age, Armada was the worm on the hook but Cybertron reeled me in and got me interested in knowing more about the history of the franchise, as is my obsession with my obsessions. Though not necessarily the most sophisticated and adult interpretation of the characters, Cybertron was made by people who cared, by voice actors who enjoyed the work and for an audience who wanted to believe Transformers had not yet seen its eternal decline. After this, Transformers went onto become a big deal thanks to Michael Bay’s own interpretation and the countless works inspired by the renewed brand value of shapeshifting machines firing pew-pew lasers at each other. Cybertron was not what we expected but considering what it was, that turned out to be a good thing.

The Unicron Trilogy Part Two – Energon

Carrying on from the previous article, for those of you who find yourself interested in this esoteric topic, today’s article will look over the second installment in this trilogy of Transformers cartoons, Transformers Energon (Known as Transformers: Super Link in Japan). Made in Japan but dubbed first in English and then sent back to Japan to be redubbed in Japanese, the series was devised as a direct sequel to Armada before it and to avoid the failings of the crude animation of Armada, it was animated primarily in cel-shaded CGI with hand-drawn animation being reserved for the human characters and backgrounds. However, though efforts were made to make Energon much more dynamic, exciting and altogether ‘better’ than Armada, what resulted was not so and Energon is remembered as a low-point of the franchise and the shitty little sibling of big brothers Armada and Cybertron. So let us now analyse it using the same three-stage formula utilised in my Armada retrospective!

Lore

Ten years on since Armada, Megatron is no more and the Autobots and Decepticons co-exist in an uneasy truce with their kind living on both Earth and Cybertron, making efforts to rebuild from the aftermath of war. However, the peace does not last when rogue Decepticons, dedicated to the revival of their leader Megatron, start harnessing powers beyond their comprehension and soon enough, Megatron is reborn and the war begins anew. Like Armada beforehand, there is a looming threat in the form of Unicron, thought dead but somehow still functional but what is new to this series is the other threat, a mysterious alien called Alpha Quientesson (Hardcore fans of G1 may recognise the name), who leads legions of ravenous beasts called Terrorcons with the goal of harvesting all the Energon in the universe so as to revive Unicron’s hollowed out shell as his own personal weapon of mass destruction.

Whilst Armada started shite and got good, Energon was the opposite, a series that started strongly with hints of serious character development to be had was lost as the series went on and though there were 51 episodes made, the plot came to a standstill by around episode 20, giving us 31 episodes of “Unicron is destroyed… wait no, no it’s not… Ok now it is… damnit nope… Oh look a shiny coin!” Armada added depth as it went on but Energon seemed to lose it, despite starting out with some seriously interesting points:

  • Demolishor, a previously loyal Decepticon, doubts whether or not he actually believes in Megatron’s vision anymore. This made us think perhaps he’ll change sides right? Nope, he’s killed off and brought back by Megatron as a mindless drone.
  • Inferno, an Autobot but with a Decepticon past, struggles to resist the will of Megatron within his own head. Resolved by Inferno killing himself to silence the voice inside his head only to then be brought back from the dead and relegated to the background for the rest of the series.
  • Kicker, a human, hates Transformers despite being assigned as their ally. However, it’s never explained in clear detail WHY he hates them and his hatred for their kind is forgotten about two episodes after his introduction to the series
  • Rodimus, an Autobot leader in his own right, constantly fights with Optimus Prime about differing ideologies. Is this the start of a huge topic for debate? Nope, Rodimus gives up his side of the argument and says “Well Optimus is in charge so I guess he knows best…”
  • Wing Saber is dedicated to capturing his nemesis Shockblast, which he succeeds in doing but only briefly. Shockblast escapes and how does Wing Saber react? He doesn’t, he says nothing and his rivalry with Shockblast is never mentioned again

Individual episodes are then essentially filled with useless footage of thirty second long Transformation sequences and whilst the cast is expanded like Armada, new characters add nothing to the team and are just shameless excuses to promote toys. There is also a lot of time dedicated to having characters Skype each other to repeat plot points the audience is already aware of. There were a myriad of other poor choices too – most action sequences took place in outer space so the characters had no reason to transform most of the time, combiner teams (the central gimmick of the series) were only ever there to be combined into an ultimate robot and had no personalities beyond “We are a team of robots that combine into one big one”. Energon then, fell short of greatness by not so much a gnat’s wing as a dinosaur’s meat shaft…

Behind-The-Scenes

If Armada was a rush, Energon was a blur. We are talking artistic mistakes, typos in episode titles, repeated stock footage to fill gaps in episodes, Energon was about as lovingly crafted as one lovingly crafts their own turds. Energon suffered from consistently poor choices of character colour schemes (that made them hard to differentiate at a glance), gimmicky and wooden performances from their bulky character models and background designs that were poorly considered (i.e Unicron is mostly black in colour, as is the background he is set against in his scenes and when characters are inside his body, it is too dark to see who is doing what at any given moment… for 30 episodes, characters are fumbling in the dark trying to do a thing we stopped caring about them doing ages ago). The CGI, whilst allowing a consistent standard of animation hand-drawn animation could not, was sub-par and character faces were hard to read for any emotion. As a result, the movement of faces was limited to them opening and closing their robotic lips in sync with what they were saying but you could not visibly tell if a character was happy, sad, angry or pensive, they all just constantly looked somewhat perplexed… as did the audience. In defense of the animators, their budget was miniscule.

Editing and script-work wise, we had ourselves a hastily mashed together assortment of fight scenes, banter exchanges and transformation sequences. Nothing flowed naturally and as a result, the episodes were confusing, seeming to be twenty minute chunks of a single long flowing film that didn’t do much in the way of establishing shots so we’re just expected to go “Oh, we’re at this point in the plot, I remember”, meaning you had to watch EVERY episode to make any sense of anything – that or wait for Optimus Prime to recap the plot but even then he only stated the obvious. The scripts were rushed translations of a Japanese writing team’s work and so many lines didn’t make sense in English, may characters were named incorrectly, sometimes multiple times in a single episode and the performance of the actors reflected a lack of understanding of the script. Energon also had some deadpan silences where clearly nothing had been written in and actors improvised… badly, often saying stuff just to fill the gap. Given all of this, Transformers Energon left a sour taste in the mouths of fans who still hadn’t gotten over how much of a dud Armada was.

Reception

Transformers Armada was a mess that defied expectation, it started bad but redeemed itself whereas Transformers Energon had a hopeful start but condemned itself to the slot of “Worst thing to come out of the franchise, shit I’ll watch Michael Bay’s stuff over this” in the eyes of fans. Energon was released in line with the 20th anniversary of Transformers but came as a real smear on the honour of the franchise, a hapless shambles of a poorly strung together plot pushing toys nobody wanted all that badly (The toys themselves did not sell as well as Armada before them and many characters sat on shelves for so long, they were eventually repurposed into discount multipacks given new names and sold off as minor characters from other continuities). Energon has been fixed rather recently, 2014 saw the release of a re-mastered version of all 51 episodes as a DVD box set with the script retweaked and awkward silences filled with something more than just “So…” and typos/colouring errors were fixed but at the time of release and for years afterward, Energon was seen as an abomination and efforts made it to fix it have been too little too late to save it from being a lowpoint in the franchise.

Conclusion

Energon lost me too, it wasn’t on any channels I had access to as a little kid so I never really got into it, having never really had the chance. I owned some Energon figures simply because they were cool looking Transformers. Energon was sold around the gimmick of combining characters together – most of the cast could transform into goliath sized wrecking machines by combining together, be it two robots, three or even five and Optimus Prime himself seemed capable of combining with just about anything he touched. Energon had grand ambitions but failed to deliver and ultimately did more harm than good, in fact Energon’s redeeming grace was that it was so shit, Hasbro asked a different company to make the next series of Transformers and what they delivered was gold-dust, especially by comparison. So next time, let’s draw this to a close with what fans consider the best thing to come out of the Unicron Trilogy, Transformers Cybertron, a series that definitely learned from the past to make big strides in the right direction.

The Unicron Trilogy Part One – Armada

Yes, I’m doing it, might as well even if it is purely for my own love of writing. For those of you not nerdy enough or not pathetic enough to have read my post about Transformers, you might have noticed a lot of references to something called “The Unicron Trilogy”, a Japanese take on Transformers (Well, three takes out of a dozen but these three are known for being the most widely bought/sold Japanese Transformers toys and amongst the precious few Transformers “animes” to be dubbed in English, though the degree to which you can call them an anime in the typical sense one imagines it is debatable). Basically, three separate continuities designed by a number of animation companies were seen by fans as being linked and indeed, within the continuities themselves, there were arguably some connections (Between Armada and Energon, it’s hard to argue they are not directly related though Cybertron/Galaxy Force’s link to the others is vague at best, that or Optimus Prime and company all have serious processing errors in their hard drives by the third series…). The three continuities are all ones I’m very familiar with and can discuss at length and seeing as I have a blog and whatever the topic, the responses are usually “Oh I’ll have to read that later… MUCH later”, might as well just chill out a bit!

Part one of the trilogy, Armada, generally remembered as both a hobbled together mess of sloppy robot drawings and a bizarre gateway to the world of Transformers for kids growing up in the early 2000s, aka me. Armada was designed to be a reboot, a rebirth for a franchise that had grown stale and weirdly experimenting with concepts that ultimately didn’t take off anywhere other than Japan (Headmasters, Humans inside Transformer suits, blatant Gundam ripoff plots) and whilst this was a sound concept, in execution, ehhh… they stumbled, from a technical standpoint certainly. I’ll go into that later, let’s tackle this topic in three chunks shall we? The lore, the behind-the-scenes and the reception. Awesome, let’s go!

Lore

In an attempt to add a new layer to the Cybertronian Civil War, Mini-Cons were introduced as a neutral faction of tiny robots with extraordinarily helpful powers, be that for construction or destruction relied on their Autobot/Decepticon colleagues. Anyway, sick of the futility of war, the Mini-Cons flee on a refugee ship that gets shot down by a Decepticon battle cruiser and crashes into the moon, causing Mini-Con stasis pods to be jettisoned all over the surface of the Earth. What ensues then is a scavenger hunt for Autobot and Decepticon alike to find the Mini-Cons and use these tiny tin toys to gain the edge on the battlefield. However, this is then overshadowed when everyone involved realises there is a larger power in play than any of them could have realised, a planet-devouring giant called Galactu…UNICRON! Yeah, sorry, wrong giant. Erhem, from here, you can perhaps guess what happens – put their differences aside, save the universe, celebrate, realise they actually make great teams working together, war ends, mourn losses and carry on in a new united world. Yay.

As series arcs go, Armada had a funny run. Initially starting slow with a three-part TV movie followed by several dull episodes of “Let’s find the Mini-Con” and a basically flip-the-coin to see who wins at the end of the episode, Armada received lots of shtick when it first came out but then… it got good. The cast expanded with new Autobots and Decepticons, each new introduction was interesting and executed well but no current characters were pushed to the back and then some characters got added depth and the plot started alluding to something bigger whilst tackling themes such as “What does it mean to be a leader of men?” and “Are we born evil?” in a non-pretentious manner (Though perhaps somewhat childish manner but hey, their target audience was literally written as “4-9 year old boys”) However, the series ultimately failed to win hearts, being pushed to 6AM slots in America and by the time the writers were in their element, nobody cared any more. Armada is redeemed by three saving graces:

1. “Hey, CERTAIN CHARACTER had an awesomely emotional death scene, you really felt for them and I cried”

2. “It introduced a whole generation to Transformers”

3. “Transformers Energon was WAAAAAAAY worse”

So a mixed bag – a plot that started slow but at about the midway point of the series, if you’re still watching by then, it becomes much more interesting, adds an actual sense of serious threat to the characters situations and introduces some fun twists and turns before finishing up with a nice lead in for the sequel

Behind-The-Scenes

Shambles, that’s the first word I think of, shambles. Cartoon Network put a lot of pressure on these guys to deliver on a cartoon to coincide with a line of toys that were coming out and as a result, there was a rush to make this cartoon and it showed in the animation, the voice acting (Actors took like one shot at a line so sometimes they confuse character names, plot points and are even dubbed for the wrong characters at times) and the awfully dull episodes at the start, seeing as the production company were being paid for the work on the condition they had episodes ready to be released alongside new toys so their early work was just “Ehhhhhhh and then Optimus punches Megatron and done, dub it and toss it at the screen like a monkey’s turd”. Armada perhaps came back at a bad time, it’s release coinciding not only with toys but the much better executed return of the TMNT – after all, when your mate drives up in a Mercedes, your little Ford Fiesta looks like a bucket with wheels on next to it. Armada is littered with mistakes and as it was mostly drawn like G1 before it, the characters suffered from wrong colour schemes and hideous disfigurements, sometimes all detail being omitted and instead we got glimpses of colourful talking blocks with faces on that loosely resembled transforming robots. The dialogue is especially atrocious, with the scripts seemingly never having been edited, conversations seemed incoherent and characters would respond either inappropriately (I don’t mean they flopped their cock out, I mean someone would give advice and their response would be “Uh? Hey, what? LEAVE ME ALONE! *pause* So even you would abandon me…”) or, as they often did, just with stock phrases like “What did you say?” and “Huh?”. Seriously, “Huh”, “Wait up!” and “Transform!” are like the holy trinity of Armada dialogue. The series as a whole got polished for the home releases but it was too little too late and Armada sat as well in the hearts of hardcore fans as a dead dog does on your Christmas dinner table…

Reception

Of the Unicron Trilogy, Armada had the rough job of trailblazing and whilst for fans of the original Transformers it failed to resonate with them in so far as offending them by being a sloppily made pile of hasty crap, with the kids it struck a chord. I can admit, as a child I never noticed the poor quality and if I ever did, it didn’t stop me loving what was to me, the best thing Saturday had to offer alongside no school, video games and Yu-Gi-Oh cards. The toys, the whole reason Armada existed, sold at such a rate they had to supply the demand by recolouring and renaming old Transformers and claiming they were characters from the extended universe of the Armada series. The demand even prompted Hasbro to think “Maybe Armada wasn’t all bad, as a glorified advert for plastic cars, it did the trick” and thus, Energon and Cybertron were commissioned and further toy lines announced to meet with the ever growing market of new kids getting into Transformers. Energon then, they decided, had to be bigger and better – more effort, more toys, more characters and soon they’d be rolling in the birthday wonga of every kiddy in America.

Conclusion

Armada, to me, tried hard and whilst it started poorly, it recovered in the final lap of the race and in my heart it holds a special place. As I mentioned, it served a dual purpose, introducing my generation to Transformers and selling toys, which it achieved so well they ran out of toys to sell and had to repaint whatever old shit they had lying around and call it something cool like Stormbreaker, Dirtbrawler, Buttscratcher, you get the gist. Of the trilogy, Armada is not the worst, that’s it’s defence in the eyes of the Transformers community, it’s the Fantastic Four of comic based films – Ehhh, it’s not really the best you could’ve done for these characters but hey, it’s not Batman Forever level bad. So that’s that, Armada, part one done! Next time, Energon… oh boy Energon… you thought this was bad? Armada is commonly rescued by the phrase “But Energon was worse” so… prepare for that…

Old Man Wolfe RAVES – The Lasting Appeal of Transformers

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!”

MEGATRON: “STAAAAAAAAARRRRRSCREEEEEEEEAAAMM!”

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!

Millions of Minions

I’m going to go out there and say it – I fucking hate the Minions by now. What had originally been adorable yellow jelly beans waddling around the background of an enjoyable kids film has become a marketing campaign drawn to ungodly lengths and bloated into such disgusting proportions, there were actually people in a position of wealth and movie-making authority who said “You know what? Give them their own film”. Minions have outstayed their welcome, their yellow cyclopean forms appearing on lunchboxes, phone cases and even underwear for children and adults alike and honestly, I think that has ruined what charm they had and exposed them for what they always were – the most marketable and palatable bland shite in the entire Despicable Me franchise. I’m disproportionately annoyed by these talking tic-tac twatbags so allow me to vent for your amusement, if you so please.

In the original Despicable Me films, the Minions served the purpose of comic relief, side distractions to keep the kids paying attention to the film and appealing to the goldfish mentality of some audiences. Face it, if a film isn’t constantly gripping you, you can drift off, change channel or relegate it to background noise whilst you do something more interesting like Angry Birds or picking your nose. I enjoyed their role, adding a little laugh between scenes but never taking the spotlight for very long, serving more as means to an end for a joke. The focus was always on Gru and his girls, the more interesting characters who needed to be developed and had stories to follow, the Minions are just comedy fodder. However, starting with the second film making Minions central to the end scheme of the antagonist, the Minions began taking more of the limelight away from Gru, a character I actually like (A loveable baddy-turned-daddy that punches sharks in the face? I love it) and soon enough, Despicable Me 3 isn’t a thing but the Minions get their own film? Who gives a film to a mass of moronic herd-like creatures that can’t speak a coherent language? That sounds like a formula for UKIP: The Movie!

The Minions put me in mind of the now faded in obscurity characters of the Rabbids from Rayman, background characters from a Rayman party game that became so popular due to their stupid antics and lack of clear communication, they got their own game and lo and behold, the magic surrounding them faded and soon enough they exhausted every joke in their arsenal, only to be swept under the rug and Rayman resumed his post as the big money in that franchise (Which they rebooted to wipe the memory of Rabbids from the continuity and good on them for doing so, new age Rayman is brilliant stuff – a comedy platformer combining nostalgia with innovation). I wish Minions would go the same way and maybe they will but for now they seem to be firmly stuck to the shelves, the world of cinema and our social networks. Why? Well, I have some ideas.

So the Minion design is minimalistic and interchangeable but with some iconic features that instantly make them stand out as part of the brand – goggles, tic-tac shaped body, funny sounding babble – this makes them characters we can easily modify and project onto, such is the way of lasting marketing characters. Compare the Meerkat uses this same effect, put a meerkat in a shirt and tie, it’s Sergei, put it in a smoking jacket, Alexander, onesie, Baby Oleg, you get the picture. This allows your audience to play with your logo, to cling to it and use it as they see fit and whilst they think they’ve come up with something clever, cute and original, from a marketing standpoint, they’ve basically declared “I am a mindless consumer of your cut-and-paste crap”. Minions have leaked into memes, philosophical quotes, heck, Minion porn is a thing, look it up… NO! WAIT! SHIT! DON’T DO THAT! They’re just easy to use, easy to draw, easy to customise and appealing to the “I’m so quirky” type adults and the “I like to eat crayons” type children. A well designed brand is exactly that though, a simple symbol you can slap on anything and people know what it is – Marvel’s logo, McDonald’s logo, Nike’s logo – something small and easy to recognise so people see what its slapped onto and consume it with the ravenous hunger of a zombified dachshund.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the Minions, I thought they were fun but they were fun in small doses, they’re comic relief, not central characters. Minions are a side order to the meal of a good film, you can have a bucket of mashed potato and call it a meal if you want but how many of you would really do that, especially when you know the place serves some decent steak or whatever you prefer this metaphorical menu to serve. There shouldn’t be a Minion craze as there is but here it is, an easy way to tramp stamp any fucking thing it touches. I just find it to be such a poisonous inescapable influence, I’d have to unfriend almost every friend on my social media accounts to escape their yellow smug faces tacked onto posts like “Every family has a crazy one. If you don’t know who, it’s you” or “I could be a Monday person if Monday didn’t start until 2PM!”, you know the types, the ones shared by the likes of Debbie or Laura, she says size matters because nobody likes small glasses of wine and she’s a right proper random bitch lol… Shudder. Maybe I’m a horrid miseryguts who doesn’t see the appeal of these jovial jellybeans any more for his shit-tinted shades he wears all day but to me, they outstayed their welcome and their quirks became annoying and I do not believe they ever deserved their own film (Which is a contrived mess of puerile gimmicks clearly meant only to entertain children, I understand it’s intended for children but making shit films and excusing them as being for kids is something so irritating to me, it’s a blog post in itself)

Okay, anger dispelled, can we just collectively ween ourselves off sticking Minions on every shareable picture on the internet and agree that if this trend won’t end, let it live on as another Despicable Me film, not Minions 2. Seriously, how cool would it be to see the girls grow up in Gru’s footsteps? Have a kiddie friendly Charlie’s Angels style romp with Gru’s kids and work some Minions into that somehow. I’d watch it.

DESPICABLE ME 3 – GRU’D AND EVIL. MAKE IT HAPPEN