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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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!