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.

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