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.

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