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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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…

World of Confusion

Trigger Warnings – None

Vague Marvel Universe Spoilers

Hey so yesterday got a bit out there didn’t it, with the dark side of myself and the whole self-acceptance and inconsolable rage that controlled me for half of my life kinda deal, that was probably a lot to drop on people out of the blue, seeing as you have no idea what to expect from day to day on my blog. I kinda like that, keeps it interesting and refreshing each time you pop in, might consider some themed weeks in the future but for now I’ll stick to the sporadic pinball routine of flinging darts at a wall covered in topical post-it notes for something to ramble about and seeing as yesterday was a heavy topic, I decided I’d lighten things up today with a discussion about comics, those paper things that Hollywood got a hold of and made cool by injecting them with Tom Hiddleston and Robert Downey Jr.

Comics are a weird medium that are sort of declining in popularity and not because of paper being outdated, books still sell, but instead comics struggle with having a confusing well-established continuity and universe that is entirely unfriendly to new readers so unless you grew up reading Amazing Spider-Man, you’re not likely to start anytime soon. However, with the characters in these books growing in popularity and the confession of a profound love for all things Marvel no longer being a social faux pas, there is a possibility of a new age of comic lovers, should they find a safe doorway into the medium. Understandably, this is quite difficult, starting things halfway through is not the easiest way to do it but it’s not entirely impossible. So, if you’ve enjoyed your Dark Knights and your Thor movies but you need some more caped crusaders to scratch the itch, here’s a hint on how to get into it, not from an avid comic fan by any means, but by a writer, a generally ‘nerdy’ fellow and someone with too much time on their hands that they actually decided to write this

The key is start wherever you want. Seriously. You do not have to start at the very first issue of The Incredible Hulk to enjoy it, you simply have to find a character that interests you from first impressions and take a read. I know one issue with comic books is they’re not readily available, you have to go somewhere that sells them especially and if you ask the guy at the counter “Where do I start?”, he’ll smirk and silently judge you for your ignorance, the nerd culture is not a warm welcoming society, I think that’s pretty obvious. Just go in, act natural and take a browse, look for a familiar character or just a comic book with an interesting cover, one covered in explosions or rippling muscles or whatever. Ok, buy it, that is your single investment in the universe of that series for now and just read the book. If you find you encounter a moment that refers to an event you know nothing about and it interests you, look it up on the internet, lord knows comic book history is probably easier to find more in-depth information about than say, your own family history, considering one has a devoted fanbase and the other has some slips of paper in filing cabinets somewhere. If you don’t find yourself interested in this past event they’re all referring to, spoiler alert, it won’t get more interesting for you. The Marvel Civil War sounds dull? Ok, avoid Captain America and Iron Man comics, stick to the films… wait… ok, you’re screwed there but you get the point.

You see, comic-book nerds, such as they are, will judge you for not knowing all there is to know about their particular favourite franchise but they spent years building that archive of superhero trivia, they began learning as kids and just kept building on it but you can start at any age and at any point. I mean, take TV as an example, you don’t have to start at Season 1, Episode 1 with every single show you watch. Futurama, Simpsons, Family Guy, Archer – all shows you can enjoy without knowing the full backstory to every single character, having that knowledge just allows you to enjoy a few extra jokes the writers slipped in for the dedicated fans but on the whole TV universes and film universes set themselves up to be accessible at any given point down the line, some take exception to it but for the most part that’s how it is. Doctor Who, another good example, I did not start my love for the show with William Hartnell, I started at Eccleston, liked what I saw and then when my Dad revealed that actually Doctor Who is a reboot, not a brand new show and when he was growing up, he watched Tom Baker fight the Daleks, I started working backwards through the continuity and still have a lot of gaps in there. Whovians, forgive me, but I have watched very little of the Fifth Doctor, Sixth and not even a single Seventh doctor episode, but I don’t sit there watching Capaldi screaming “Why is this so confusing? Should I start from the beginning?”. No, fictional universes are easily documented in meticulous detail, just fill the gaps with an internet search or a discussion with a friend who shares the interest

DC Comics have done something pretty smart on this matter, they knew their universe was a complex mess of backstories so announced a huge relaunch, which did piss off the hardcore fanbase but when DC cleared the mess up by saying the relaunch will basically go in the same direction as the original, all was well again and the fans sorta piped down about the whole affair. Admittedly, kinda defeats the point of the reboot but with their new series of books being made available as digital downloads, there’s no more hunting in the dark caves of a specialist store somewhere following a monk who smells strongly of Doritos into the promised land of Aquaman comics, now you can read about it on your tablet and it’s out there in the eyes of the mainstream as a recommended read for those whose internet history suggests a fondness for Batman movies. Good move DC, let’s see if Marvel follows suit

Anyway, this should have at least cleared up some tension for you folk if nothing else and this isn’t me trying to push you all into a comic book shop as if I’ve sold out to either Marvel or the Android’s Dungeon, this is just a light topic that isn’t going to offend and it might help some of you who maybe can’t wait til May to see Iron Man go toe to toe with the Hulk and need something to tide them over or perhaps to further your passion for a universe you already take an interest in, maybe reading the comics will make the films better or worse, it will at least change how you view them. I have no real business writing this, I don’t read comics myself but as a writer with grand schemes for a long running series of my own, I want to put this out there in case my ambitions ever take wing and ten years from now I hear kids complaining “I’d get into TDWC, but I missed the first three seasons so I don’t understand what’s going on”