The second part of this story is even harder to look at by itself than the first, and, as was the case with More Than Meets The Eye - Part 2, is really a bridge from the opening episode to the finale. There is a hefty recap which focuses more on the plan to enslave humans than it does on Megatron refuelling Cybertron, playing up the importance of that element in the story. It also shows how Megatron is mastering a plan in which defeating the Autobots would be a side effect rather than a primary goal, and indeed from hereon in he ignores them in pursuit of his plan, hoping their destruction will come as collateral damage. On reflection it’s possible to see that his main aim throughout the series isn’t to directly combat the Autobots and beat them, it’s more about beating them through controlling the sources of power and by extension achieving mastery over Cybertron. He is as much about his own maniacal tyranny as he is beating Optimus Prime.
As previously established, Megatron is using Arkeville to achieve his aims, and the question of what Arkeville gets out of this is partly answered by him mentioning that the Decepticon leader has promised him dominion over what’s left of the Earth when the Decepticons are done. Megatron’s response to this shows that he has no intention of honouring this agreement in any real sense beyond leaving Arkeville with a pile of barren rubble, and certainly isn’t intending to use Arkeville as a puppet leader; he is simply tricking him for his own gain. Why Arkeville doesn’t realise he’d be left with a dead planet is another question, but given the lack of any dimension to his character it isn’t worth pursuing. He is what he is.
More than ever Megatron seems to be going it alone in this story. Arkeville doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation, but the rest of the Decepticons also don’t seem to be in on the plan beyond blindly following orders. Under Megatron’s direct command, Soundwave’s audio disruption brings down the strike planes as well as the Autobots when they clash at the start of the episode, which seems to be a scaring off tactic rather than one designed to win a battle. Starscream quite rightly challenges Megatron over this, but is cast aside without a reason given as to why finishing off the crippled Autobots is less important than the ongoing scheme. Megatron gives an unusually strong threat to terminate his lieutenant if he questions him again, and the viewer can’t help but feel this would all make more sense if the rest of the Decepticons had a proper understanding of what their leader was doing. He doesn’t seem to trust them at all. In fact later in the episode his plan leads to his own base being destroyed when the violent weather creates a tidal wave that tears it apart. He is clearly banking on his plan working and therefore not needing a base on Earth, but by this point his troops should be seriously questioning his sanity.
The Autobots are almost a spare part in this episode until they begin to move on Cybertron. The scene in which Prime reverses the polarity of his windscreen and Jazz talks about magnetic tow cables not only shows abilities that aren’t mentioned anywhere else, but this is followed by an unusual piece of padding in which Bumblebee basically changes a wheel and then falls down a hole. This is clearly promoting him as being one of what we now recognise as the ‘big four’ again because he hasn’t had anything else to do in the story so far, and again his clumsiness is intended to be endearing even if the end result is more irritating. Him jacking himself up for Spike to change the tyre is a moment of weird alien wackiness, and in a way mirrors the frailty of Bumblebee on Sparkplug’s inspection ramp in the second issue of the American comic, but here it just creates incongruities such as where the spare wheel goes in robot mode, and why he doesn’t just transform and fix the tyre himself, which would after all be on his shoulder. Of course the answer is that it’s all about promoting the relationship between him and Spike, and by extension the viewer. Bumblebee as ever is your hapless friend, or in this case something more akin to a lame dog. Never the less, it’s unusual for the show to spend this long on something that is irrelevant to driving the plot. Nothing in this sequence moves the story on, whereas in most cases every line of dialogue serves a purpose.
The way this story is an ensemble piece is highlighted by the introduction of the Dinobots and Skyfire in the second half of the episode. The volcano erupting is more padding so that Skyfire can rescue the Autobots thrown into the air (in a surprisingly gung-ho manner for his character as introduced previously), otherwise this scene would be about the Autobots rescuing humans from the lava flow. This is also shown by the scientifically impossible way in which the volcano is then “switched off” by putting a plug in it as soon as Skyfire has had his toy promoting spotlight moment.
Similarly, the Dinobots have a scene artificially created to add them to the story in case viewers had forgotten their unique role in the Autobot arsenal. Again they seem to have been mothballed and put back in their cupboard - stored and only called upon when needed. It is arguable they are just coming through the door having been summoned by Wheeljack when they appear, but this moment looks a lot like when they’re ‘unbricked’ in their introduction story and that Wheeljack, their creator, is activating them. That this approach to their characters continues in this story is interesting - the Dinobots are definitely not treated as independent equals to the Autobots. As with Skyfire, this leads to an entirely superfluous toy promoting scene in which the Dinobots successfully stop a tidal wave with a line of trees.
All of this leads to the Autobot raid on Cybertron, for which Skyfire is of course needed, although it has to be asked exactly where this ‘information’ about Sparkplug Prime is suddenly in possession of came from. It’s another short cut in terms of rushing the plot along, and this episode’s conclusion is full of moments like this. Having an entire planet to survey, the Autobots arrive at Decepticon headquarters and the hypno-chip control through a rapid sequence of question-raising coincidences. How does Spike breathe? Where does Wheeljack’s intel come from? Why is there a tripwire randomly positioned to drop the unsuspecting passer by right into the Decepticon base? Why do the Autobots crash through the floor at exactly the right spot? Why does the Decepticon lab have human sized doorways? And above all, given the fuss the Decepticons made in the first part of this story about using a hypno-chip controlled Sparkplug to get into the Autobot base, why does the one room on Cybertron the Decepticons really need to keep an eye on have no one guarding it?
The third instalment is where The Ultimate Doom really comes together, uniting events on Earth and Cybertron to make a finale more thrilling than the second episode’s build up deserves. Despite not coming at the end of the season it provides a fitting conclusion to the first chapter in the saga of the Transformers on Earth, and across the three episodes the entire established cast appear at some point (apart from Chip). That’s 34 separate characters comprising the 1984 toy range (minus Frenzy and Buzzsaw, who have yet to appear at all) plus Jetfire, Shockwave and the Dinobots from the early 1985 releases. It’s a huge undertaking, and shows why the middle episode is partly comprised of vignettes that give otherwise redundant characters screen time. The final episode handles this deluge of bodies more cohesively by giving everyone a role in some way instrumental to the main plot, and in itself it features everyone except the Dinobots, Hound, Sideswipe, Sunstreaker, Gears, Huffer, Windcharger and the cassettes other than Rumble.
This enormous rosta also explains why for this episode the action is kept entirely to the principle cast. The Earth is in mortal danger, yet apart from the hypno-controlled human slaves we never see how Cybertron’s gravitational pull is affecting civilisation - compare that to earlier episodes where the Autobots spend a lot of time helping save humans as Decepticons execute their plans. Cybertron is similarly quiet, and oddly unaffected in the way Earth is. There are the tetrajets and the drone cars that chase the Autobots, but these don’t seem to be actual Transformers as they don’t speak or transform, making Cybertron again seem solely inhabited by Shockwave the caretaker. At least this time Bumblebee does make reference to being home when Spike stares in awe at the landscape - something missed entirely by Chip on his very hurried visit during Divide and Conquer.
As with part two the episode includes a handy recap; this time almost in embarrassed fashion by cutting together events to make them look far more exciting than they actually were - Bumblebee is now shown to be falling into the lava filled volcano from which Ratchet and the other Autobots are ejected, rather than the less impressive crack in the ground he actually ended up in.
This is quickly forgotten though as the episode begins with one of the most dramatic sequences in the series so far. Brawn makes a heroic last stand against the arriving Decepticons, taking out two strike planes and getting a disabling shot in on Soundwave, before Shockwave tries to shoot Spike. This is a first for the series - a Transformer actually trying to kill a human outright rather than just threatening to - and coupled with Spike’s distress at his father’s situation this creates an unusually emotionally and dramatically charged scene.
This is helped by the animation for the episode, which at times has a unique and dynamic feel - similar to the way Fire on the Mountain stands out from the episodes around it. As with that episode, here the animators try for a sense of scale and many of the Transformers are made to look huge/imposing by having the camera look up at them. Shockwave is probably the best example because he is almost always shown from a human viewpoint, making him seem Skyfire size. There is a great shot of him holding Spike in the air, which not only has Shockwave’s proportions drawn beautifully, but shows with an outstretched little finger his disdain for human-kind. There are other frequent attempts to keep Transformers and humans in proportion too - Optimus is often shown kneeling in this episode to keep him better framed with smaller characters and humans while preserving his size. It gives a more dynamic pose for the action sequences too, and moves away from the ‘everyone stand in a line and fire’ manner in which large ensemble battles are presented in earlier episodes.
In addition, characters are generally drawn in better perspective and more detail than the norm when they’re the focus of attention, and perspective is also used to provide a number of unusual long shots that play with depth of field. There are simple examples such as Spike running into Wheeljack’s workshop - showing its scale compared to him - but shots such as Optimus and the Autobots surveying Megatron’s slaves loading the ship in the distant background aren’t common in these cartoons, possibly because of the additional animation requirements that could be got round by using close ups or cuts between the two points of focus instead. All this adds to the richness of the visuals for this episode.
On the subject of detail in close ups, it’s also possible to discern much more of an anime influence in this episode than usual, demonstrated by small details such as the way Prowl’s forehead crest is exaggerated and made sharper, and in the way Spike runs just before he’s captured by Shockwave. The low camera angles and dynamic poses of the characters also generally add to an anime feel.
The flip side of this seems to be more technical errors in the animation than usual, and certainly at the start of the episode it’s common to find characters talking without their mouths moving, or indeed their mouths moving while they aren’t talking. In busy scenes background characters are also very sketchily drawn and don’t stand up to scrutiny, extending at times into characters appearing in mid-shot. This could be a stylistic decision, but doesn’t match the detail in which the close ups are drawn.
In terms of the plot the episode shifts the focus mostly away from Megatron’s plan to how the Autobots are going to counter it, and the divide between the action on Cybertron and the way it marries up with Optimus’s surf attack on the Energon production plant draws the various plot threads together in a suitable finale.
A factor in solving the problem is Bumblebee finding the mind control program in the Decepticon HQ on Cybertron, ensuring that as a heavily promoted character he plays a key role in the resolution. It’s notable though that the program is stored on what looks like a laserdisc as opposed to one of the Decepticon cassettes or a floppy disc. Although laserdiscs have been commercially available since 1978 and CDs since the autumn of 1982, shiny disc technology was still something that looked futuristic in 1984, which is why it’s used to further the sci-fi feel of Cybertron’s technology. In contrast, Chip uses a floppy disc to store the mind control program at the centre of Roll For It.
As a cultural aside to this, at the time children would have been more familiar with the idea of cassettes as a data storage mechanism for home computers than CDs, but the Decepticon cassettes aren’t ever used for this purpose - instead relaying their spy observations through audio playback. It’s interesting how this limits Soundwave’s range of communication methods given his role in the Decepticon ranks as communications officer. He uses computers, but doesn’t necessarily act as one himself, remaining purely an audio player despite the fact we have already seen the internet used in the series (Roll For It). This in turn perhaps shows the generation gap between the writers producing the stories and the real world experiences of the children watching them. How many would assume the Decepticon cassettes stored binary computer data played back through a synthesised voice, as opposed to simple audio recordings of their own voices?
Throughout this story we have seen how Megatron doesn’t consult with his troops over the execution of his plan. He is driving it himself, and as soon as he has a copy of Dr Arkeville’s plan doesn’t need him either - leaving Starscream to recognise his importance and whisk him away for the story’s epilogue episode next week. Megatron uses his own troops in the same manner he uses the enslaved humans - and when he sees victory in sight he even discards them in his hurry to return to Cybertron. In terms of the plotting this does of course mean he is the only character to be aboard the Decepticon ship when the Autobots improbably manage to destroy it with their hand guns (how far can they fire then?), but it again reinforces how he is only ever intent on looking after himself.
For once though he almost wins, the Autobots are almost undone, and the drama of the conclusion is nicely played to bring the story to a close. It’s easy to forget the largely superfluous second episode when looking at the story as a whole, because compared to most other solo stories, and even the original three part pilot, The Ultimate Doom has a storyline about as good as they get in this era of the show. It’s still building the mythology and exploring ideas rather than relying on an established heritage as will come in future. It’s a story that needs more than a single part to give it space to unfold, and shows perhaps how much better some of the single episode stories might have been if they’d been afforded a similarly long running time. As much as is possible in a syndicated cartoon it is a game changer. No one dies, but the scope of Megatron’s ambition is increased beyond simple energy obtaining missions, the Decepticons are leaderless and in disarray, and the ravaged Earth is left in such a state that the following episode, Countdown to Extinction, is used to mop up the aftermath. Really this should be where the first series of the cartoon ends.
I do like how we start off almost in the midst of things with Trailbreaker and Brawn out on patrol. A bit of awful dialogue from Brawn, you know the one. There is something world weary about Trailbreaker's voice. He really feels more like the old-timer than Ironhide. Great to see that Starscream is not held in high regard by Thundercracker. It's a shame that Thundercracker never really got any characterisation in Sunbow. Interesting how the Sunbow Optimus Prime is not presented as the wisest of all Autobots, when inviting opinions. Though it was nice to see a satellite deployed as opposed to triggering Teletraan-1.
The animation in this episiode is one of the stronger over the episodes. some nice laser and explosion effects, again we do have more than a few colour errors but hey, it's Sunbow.
The one thing the cartoon has over any of the comic portrayals is just how much transforming actually occurs (again dynamic scenes eat up page counts in comic form) but it happens frequently, hammering home the gimmick but without them drawing attention to it.
Skyfire is back! Yaay, my love of Jetfire mean I do always like seeing him and I think Gregg Berger's voice for him really fits. He does end up being the Autobots transport and doing little else, like a much more tolerable Sky Lynx. It is nice to see the Decepticons wander around Earth looking for energon rather than staying confined to North America the way the comic does.
More Bumblebee getting out of his depth. I know it's become fashionable to rag on Bumblebee in recent years in his more modern incarnation, but watching this series in dribs and drabs as we are, I am finding Sunbow Bumblebee to be a monumental pain in the ass. Great voice portrayal by Dan Gilvezan but he is annoying in the extreme.
It's great that Skyfire saves the day, because the Autobot tactic of heading straight towards the big cannon was not going to end well.
The end scene between the Decepticons is dreadful and seems woefully out of place, but then seems like the greatest piece of dialogue when we get that horrendous bit inside Bumblebee.
I agree about Thundercracker - you get the beginnings of a character in this episode, but you can tell even from his typical mobster henchman voice that it's never going anywhere. I like the fact he doesn't take any crap from Starscream though.
I agree about the animation too - occasionally in the series you get episodes which are significantly better drawn than the others, and it'd be nice to define why there is a difference. Whether its down to different studios within Sunbow doing the episodes or just down to individual animators. Fire on the Mountain and Ultimate Doom 3 really stand out.
Bumblebee getting in trouble is quickly becoming a staple of the series, even to the point where in Ultimate Doom 2 a whole sequence is fabricated for that purpose and nothing else. I don't get why this is supposed to make him endearing, but it obviously did. He is an obvious candidate for filling the role he did, I bet Bumblebee outsold the other minibots several times over, but I can't help but wonder how things would have been different if one of the other pocket money toys had been the one that was pushed. There are no other obvious candidates though apart from Cliffjumper. Also - The Decepticons don't have a character that fits that role - there's no focus character in their ranks from the pocket money end of things.
No wait! wrong Countdown to Extinction... although there's a video mix waiting to be made there...
1.14 - Countdown to Extinction
Something as significant as the Ultimate Doom storyline is cataclysmic enough to warrant an epilogue, and unusually for the lack of continuity found in syndicated cartoons it gets one in this episode. Quite rightly this isn’t labelled The Ultimate Doom - Part 4 because that particular doom has passed, instead the viewer is presented with a second but more short-lived ultimate doom provided by Dr Arkeville and his new friend Starscream.
There is a vague ongoing continuity running through the series because of the constant need to introduce new toys, but these four linked episodes show that the production team weren’t averse to the idea of building a narrative week on week, as well as just ensuring characters didn’t appear on screen before they were introduced. These days it’s common for children’s cartoons to have fairly complex plot arcs that rely on accumulated knowledge, which makes one wonder what the original Transformers series would have been like had it worked in the same way - more like the comic.
The story picks up where it left off. As the Autobots dutifully assist mankind in repairing and rebuilding, the viewer is finally given a glimpse of the devastation bringing Cybertron into Earth’s orbit created. Given their numbers it can only be a token gesture at best, but while the Autobots put the humans first the Decepticons selfishly attempt repairs on their own base. The arguing here is reminiscent of the jibing at the start of Fire in the Sky, and is notable for the introduction of Frenzy - one of two original 1984 toys who haven’t appeared at all in the series so far (Buzzsaw being the other).
It may seem odd that he suddenly appears out of a hole in the floor as if he’s been there all the time, but Rumble’s argument with Skywarp would be very unbalanced without a second voice on his side. The other cassettes don’t speak and Soundwave’s monotone voice doesn’t lend itself to a fight - evidenced by the comical way he offers “Look who’s talking Thundercracker” to the fracas and is completely ignored. The Decepticons are so limited in number there is no one else who can back Rumble and make the argument look realistic, which is also probably why Frenzy surprisingly has the strength to throw Skywarp across the room.
This raises the question of why Soundwave doesn’t assume control of the Decepticons during the times Megatron is absent, or indeed even when he’s present. Soundwave is technically in charge of the cassettes, but having achieved this level of middle-management doesn’t seem to harbour any higher ambitions. At this point both Megatron and Starscream are absent and the remaining characters clearly need someone to manage them, yet Soundwave isn’t interested. He presents a figure more worried about self-preservation, ignoring Starscream’s bluster and bending only to Megatron, which suggests a historical connection between those two characters that is never really explored in the series. Most of the rest of the Decepticons seem to be threatened into serving Megatron as henchmen and stooges rather than the more respectful relationship he seems to have with Soundwave. It begs the question why Soundwave is so loyal to him. He and Shockwave are also presented as the only Decepticons other than Megatron with genuine intelligence.
This though is only background noise in an episode which is largely about Dr Arkeville’s ‘other’ invention and Starscream’s plans for it. Being an evil genius he of course has a secret lair, in which is hidden an exponential power generator - a device capable of accomplishing Megatron’s Ultimate Doom plan much more quickly and simply than using mind control. Given that he knows the destruction of the Earth is a potential outcome of its misuse, the viewer is left to wonder why Arkeville even mentions this to Starscream in the first place as he clearly didn’t trust Megatron with the knowledge. He still seems to be clinging to the idea of ruling the Earth once the Decepticons are done with it. However, once Starscream has the generator Arkeville becomes redundant to the plot and is noticeably an inconvenience for the rest of the story. Were it not for the fact this is a children’s cartoon he would probably have been killed off at this point as he has no bearing on the events of the rest of the episode. Because he can’t be killed Starscream has to take him to Cybertron to stop him disarming the device, but the business with Shockwave claiming humans are banned from Decepticon HQ serves no purpose, and neither does electrocuting Arkeville and strapping him into a chair. It doesn’t lead anywhere.
Obviously in terms of toy promotion this is Starscream’s episode. If you take his scenes out of the plot the rest of the cast are really filling time until they can foil his plan at the end, but for all the exposure he has he sadly gets very little actual character development. Considering how well defined Skyfire was by the end of Fire in the Sky, if this is Starscream’s big moment it should do the same for him. He does show some unexpected technical skill in wiring up the timer and adjusting the generator so it will perpetually build power, but we don’t really learn much more about him other than that he seems to have a laboratory of his own on Cybertron complete with ‘medicroid’ repair units he refers to as ‘his’. Perhaps both these things hark back to the unlikely idea that before the war he was a scientist (as stated in Fire in the Sky) but that role fits Shockwave so much better. This would have been a great chance to learn why he wants to usurp Megatron - perhaps with some kind of origin flashback like the one Skyfire had - but instead he remains even more one-dimensional than Megatron in his pursuit of power. Of course he does have that bizarre shiny badge which apparently provides irrefutable evidence he is now leader of the Decepticons. Given Shockwave clearly seems impressed by it there is an unanswered question there as to what that actually is and how Starscream came by it.
Despite the fact the rest of the episode is a series of set pieces designed to occupy the remaining cast until Starscream is ready to be thwarted, the scenes are enjoyable romps and Megatron’s characteristic cry of “Retreat!” even becomes a trap as the Autobots are drawn into quicksand while the Decepticons can fly away. It’s nicely thought out and ticks all the boxes, including the weekly spat between Prime and Megatron and the chance for a few characters to demonstrate their unique abilities, such as Ironhide using his liquid nitrogen to harden the sand and Jazz transforming to play Laserbeak’s recording out of his speakers.
Although Laserbeak’s recording only mentions Arkeville’s secret lab, both Megatron and Prime seem to know where it is, and the various plot threads eventually draw together with the Autobots arriving at the lab to find the Decepticons while Starscream is on Cybertron preparing for the energy collection. Shockwave is the linchpin, showing loyalty to Megatron to turn the tables and it’s great that for once Megatron and Optimus have to work together - Megatron to save himself and Prime to save everyone else. That moment is well written and forms an unusual conclusion with Megatron lost in his thoughts, not realising the generator is melting his ‘housing’, before he snaps out of it and uses Prime as the robot nearest to him to fire it into space. It shows though how in gun mode Megatron is limited to being a tool used by someone else, something that doesn’t sit right with his stature. Perhaps this is reason enough, aside from guns becoming politically incorrect toys, that in later years he became a tank.
Countdown to Extinction is a well put together episode on the whole, picking up the unfinished plot strands from the big three part story preceding it and showing that Starscream’s ambition is no less awesome than Megatron’s. It could also be argued that the more direct nature of Starscream’s plan shows him to be even more ruthless than Megatron, who seems to delight in trying to show his prowess by attempting grander ideas which demonstrate his brilliance as well as his might. Starscream here is all about the end result; Megatron’s Ultimate Doom was as much about humiliating humans and orchestrating a grand plan as it was simply refuelling Cybertron.
The conclusion though does leave hanging in the air the question of what happens to Arkeville. The fact he ends up stuck in a chair on Cybertron completely forgotten is a sad end for his short-lived character. Perhaps there were intentions to bring him back into the series; given his rebuilt robotic form he could have become an interesting equivalent to Marvel’s Circuit Breaker after being betrayed by the Decepticons, but given this is his last appearance the episode has to lose marks for simply not knowing how to deal with him properly.
Great episode this one. I love the Insecticons. So many new ideas to discuss.
We're almost at the end of the first season folks!
1.15 - A Plague of Insecticons
After the excitement of The Ultimate Doom the series returns to the bread and butter business of introducing new characters in the form of the Insecticons. One of the earliest arrivals in the 1985 line, the toys had even reached European shores by February of that year where they were offered as competition prizes in the UK Transformers comic. It’s plain on numbers alone that the Decepticons were badly in need of new faces at this point, but it is also becoming obvious that Megatron’s existing minions are all very similar personality-wise, and have no distinguishing features that separate them in terms of skills. While the Autobots can boast a vast array of different abilities among their ranks, the Decepticons really only have Megatron and Soundwave as the characters with anything about them to differentiate them from the others. The Insecticons are about as different from any other characters as you can get, and so therefore make not only an essential addition to the bad guys, but also allow for a unique introduction.
One of the problems inherent in writing new characters into the story is of where they come from, and Skyfire and the Dinobots’ debuts are handled in interesting ways, even if they are transposed from what makes logical sense. It’s pleasing that the writers have deliberately avoided using the easy option of having them simply arrive from Cybertron via the spacebridge, and the idea that the Insecticons abandoned the doomed Decepticon ship before it crashed four million years in the past is quite exciting and makes them sound even more disloyal to Megatron and intent on self preservation than even Starscream. While most Decepticons seem to stick with Megatron because their lives lack the ambition to exist without him, the Insecticons from the start are set up almost to be a rival Decepticon group. In the modern era of Transformer storytelling it’s accepted that different sub-factions or splinter groups exist in a sometimes uneasy harmony because the storytelling is much more complex and far reaching, but it’s clear that while the Dinobots wear the Autobot symbol and the Insecticons the Decepticon, both groups’ behaviour suggests they see themselves as separate units with allegiances primarily to themselves. In both cases their transformations also show this by being distinctly different to the rest of their ‘side’.
What is odd then is why they should be on the Decepticon ship in the first place and why neither they nor Megatron recognise each other when they first meet. The encounter is more one of distant tribes separated by generations meeting for the first time, which makes sense as far as the Insecticons go because we learn they have lived their lives on Earth for the previous four millions years. Anyone’s memory after that length of time is going to be rusty. That might also explain the corruption in their speech, but it doesn’t explain why Megatron acts as if he is meeting them for the first time when presumably they were members of his crew.
Like the Dinobots, the Insecticons also seem to display a slower, more instinctive intelligence. Presumably in terms of writing this is purely to match their beast-like transformations, but being that they’re essentially robotic life it raises the same question SOS Dinobots did about whether some robots are deliberately created to be less intelligent than others. Perhaps the implication there is of a class system on Cybertron, and whereas class in human society is largely determined by circumstance, on Cybertron it could be that a servitor class is deliberately engineered for mundane tasks. The series does feature various drones and automaton, such as the nameless and speechless pursuit vehicles which follow the Autobots as they escape Cybertron in The Ultimate Doom. Perhaps the Insecticon and Dinobot brains are of a class between that and a fully fledged Transformer.
On that subject, it also stands out that Megatron refers to Ravage as “the Ravage cassette” in this episode when he asks Soundwave to activate him, the impersonal nature of which clearly separates the three beast cassettes from Rumble and Frenzy, who are always treated as equals to the other Decepticons. In any case, the Insecticons here are far simpler than the really quite sinister and adult sounding biographies they have in the Marvel universe.
The Insecticons’ ability to turn into insects also raises the question of how Transformers gain new transform modes. The pilot episode suggests that they can’t do this themselves because Teletraan-1 does it for them. However here Thundercracker says “Their idento computers adapted them for life on Earth by turning them into Insecticons” which by use of the possessive pronoun suggests the Insecticons have done it themselves. The cartoon bible though points at the escape pod as having done it - “the computer system of the [escape] craft developed the robots to transform from robot to mechanical insectoid forms” - which sounds more fitting in that an escape pod is likely to contain the ability to change transformations for the purpose of disguise to suit wherever the pod lands.
What is less clear though is how the Insecticons developed the ability to turn organic crops into a viable fuel source. It seems unlikely they could do this themselves because if that was the case, one of the fundamental premises of the series - the quest for energy - takes on an entirely different slant. Imagine the Autobots as farmers on an organic planet growing crops to shuttle back to Cybertron. It doesn’t seem to make sense; both they and the Decepticons have only shown an interest in fossil fuels and electricity. Perhaps organic matter can be turned into energon, but of a lower grade than that which can be made from oil - just enough over time to keep the Insecticons alive. That might also account for the slurs in speech and more primitive behaviour discussed above.
Their position as demons of local legend is also a great idea, and echoes the brilliance of comic stories such as Steve Parkhouse’s Man of Iron. Again the Transformers are globe trotting, and this week the action takes place in the swamps of the Indonesian province of Bali. This means that once again the Autobots need to rely on Skyfire’s services to reach the action, and a pattern is beginning to emerge in that Optimus seems to send a strike team ahead using Skyfire to establish the situation while the rest of the Autobots follow in convoy as backup. He did this in Fire on the Mountain, and interestingly both episodes feature Brawn and Windcharger as the advance guard, this time though with the addition of Bumblebee in one of his regular toy promotion slots. For such a small and ineffective character he does seem to get to do an awful lot.
In the battles that ensue, the Insecticons are beefed up beyond even their cartoon bible biographies to make them a force to be reckoned with independent of the Decepticons. It’s great the way their abilities are demonstrated in the fight scenes, particularly the way Shrapnel absorbs electricity from the lightning and then channels it through his hands. Eveything about the Insecticons seems designed to differentiate them from the regular Decepticon team.
One odd element is Shrapnel’s ability to create clones, which is not mentioned in any reference to him anywhere other than the cartoon bible’s introduction to all three characters where it says “Although there are only three primary Insecticon characters, others of similar form (but non-speaking) join them in their mercenary march for energy sources”, which really does come across as an addition made after the idea was introduced. Perhaps it’s a vague attempt to suggest these three toys could be bought multiple times, in the odd way that Scourge is introduced in the movie as commander of a fleet of copies of himself, but it’s also possible that the intention at this point was to make the Insecticons a faction large enough to challenge Megatron’s authority and therefore make the element of uncertainty surrounding their allegiance in this episode seem more realistic.
Megatron himself is something of an opportunist in this episode; for once he doesn’t use brute force to bring the Insecticons into line, instead he attempts to charm and persuade them into his ranks. He also seems curiously relaxed about the situation, coming across as something of a generous benefactor when he removes his arm cannon and leans against the wall with folded arms while offering the oil tanker to the Insecticons at the dock.
A plague of Insecticons is a real bonus to the show’s format at this point. Not only is the story original and thought provoking, but the art and animation is more assured than usual with colour and shadow being used effectively to add depth to the composition of each shot. Visually it’s an episode of high contrasts, and creative ideas such as Optimus riding into battle stood atop two of his warriors in car mode is thrilling to see. The Insecticons provide a breath of fresh air when it comes to the increasingly formulaic nature of the week-in week-out knock down fights of the existing cast too. It’s great that the episode finishes with them effectively on top and Megatron trailing after them with his pride dented. It’s a worthy introduction for three unique characters, and an excellent all round episode. When Spike realises that “rubber tyres are insulation” the viewer can’t help but wonder how more modern, plastic wheeled Autobots would cope in the circumstances, and that these days they certainly don’t make toys, or cartoons, like they used to.
This week, musings on the origin of the Constructicons and the nature of Transformer weaponry; it's time for the last episode of the first season:
1.16 - Heavy Metal War
The first series of the Transformers concludes with one of its best episodes, not only introducing the Constructicons and Devastator, but throwing the Dinobots at the mightiest Transformer yet for a real battle of the heavyweights.
The introduction of the Insecticons highlighted how bland and minimal the Decepticon ranks are compared to the diversity of the Autobots, but bringing them in as a self contained splinter faction did little to improve the poor array of skills Megatron’s team contains. The Constructicons are a perfect antidote to that with Scrapper presented almost immediately as their answer to Wheeljack, the role that is ably filled by Shockwave in the comics. Although he isn’t stated to be the leader of the sextet, he clearly is, and initially is the only one who speaks as the team expertly raid a facility installing energy discs that will provide unlimited power from the Earth’s magnetic field. For once though it isn’t raw energy that Megatron is after, and he needs Scrapper to create the device that he intends to capitalise on.
Unlike the other new characters so far, the Constructicons get very little in the way of a back story. They still get an episode devoted to them for their introduction, but Heavy Metal War dispenses with the idea of telling the tale of where they come from in favour of throwing them straight into the action. In common with the concise scripting of this series, Megatron’s two sentence précis, “My Constructions have returned to our temporary base right on schedule. They were worth the time we spent building them in these caverns” neatly sums up everything we need to know about the current status of the Decepticons and explains where these six new ones have suddenly appeared from. At least is does if you’re six years old and don’t really care. If you’re several times that age and spend hours arguing online about these things it opens a can of worms that even the series itself can’t control because future episodes will conflict with the premise that the Constructicons originate on Earth.
Perhaps Megatron took the precaution of stowing the cerebral cores of additional Decepticons on his ship when he left Cybertron, specialists that weren’t needed for the assault on the Autobots which were removed from their original bodies to conserve energy. In that way the idea of rebuilding the Constructicons on Earth and bringing these specific robots out of mothballs makes sense because right now construction specialists are exactly what the ‘Cons need with their base in bits on the floor of the ocean after the events of The Ultimate Doom. This seems to make more sense than the scientist devoid Decepticons suddenly being able to create life, something explored previously under the entries for SOS Dinobots and War of the Dinobots.
The fact Scrapper’s invention is the key to unlocking Megatron’s plan for the episode binds together the two main elements of the plot. It’s worth noting that despite his bluster, Megatron clearly hasn’t felt able to chance his arm with the duel idea before, showing that he doesn’t believe himself alone to be more powerful than Prime. What does make perfect sense is the notion that his bumbling army are so ineffective in their attempts to vanquish the Autobots that he might as well take all their weaponry and do it himself.
Which of course raises questions. The implication is that Transformer abilities, powers and weapons are driven by the ‘power chip rectifiers’ that Megatron takes from his team. So by removing the chips, the Decepticons no longer have their powers and they’re transferred to Megatron as a tangible asset. Starscream’s, “but I need my power chip rectifier” suggests without it he is defenceless.
During the duel Starscream says, ”My power chip gives him the use of my cluster bombs” and “he has the use of my null ray too”. Regardless of the fact that Megatron appears to select a weaker weapon than his own to attack Prime, and one might think that cluster bombs are Starscream’s own personal choice of weapon - a use once device in the way human weapons work that any Decepticon could be armed with. However, this process instead implies that the power chips are an enabler that programs a Transformer to use a particular weapon. So with the data from Starscream’s chip transferred to him, Megatron can control and use cluster bombs, but without it he can’t - in the same way a computer needs to be programmed to perform a specific task before it can do it.
However this doesn’t make sense for separate weapons that work autonomously, like hand blasters, unless they are coded to individual Transformers by the power chips in the way a Mega City judge’s Lawgiver will only work in the hand of the judge it has the palm print of. This though we know is not the case because of the way Wheeljack uses Sideswipe’s and Bluesteak’s guns in SOS Dinobots, so perhaps it is only weapons without a physical trigger that are attached to a Transformer that are controlled by the power chips.
The fact Megatron doesn’t look like a walking arsenal with every other Decepticon’s weapon strapped to him also suggests that the power chip rectifiers have a part in creating the weapon/power. Megatron’s hip canon here can fire Starscream’s null ray, implying Transformers generate the power of their weapons from an internal system, which is being programmed by the power chip. That might also explain why they can go a lot longer than appears realistic before having to reload; they’re essentially creating ammunition inside themselves.
The duel itself is an odd notion, and it seems unlikely that a figure as rational as Optimus would accept the challenge knowing that his defeat and consequent banishment of the Autobots from Earth would leave the humans at the mercy of the Decepticons. Testing his honour is one thing, but you’d think Prime would think responsibly defending an innocent planet from Megatron’s plans would be more honourable than getting dragged into a fifty/fifty fight against a known cheat that could spell disaster for the humans and Autobots alike, even if Teletraan-1 is monitoring the battle. He must have been incredibly confident of winning.
Megatron’s absorption of the Decepticon weapons turns him into a more powerful gestalt form, which conveniently foreshadows the way in which the Constructicons unite for the episode’s climax. Teletraan-1 awakens the Dinobots, who are again shown to be dormant until required (see War of the Dinobots for more on this idea), for a true punch the air moment as it becomes apparent that they are the Autobot computer’s last line of defence against interference from the Constructicons. For much of this series the staple weekly fight between Optimus and Megatron is usually the highlight of the episode, but here that bout is relegated to mid-card in deference to the mightiest match up the first season provides: the Dinobots versus Devastator.
It’s awkward that Prime’s desire to keep to the terms of the duel means he initially completely ignores what’s going on (which again suggests that the Dinobots aren’t seen as ‘proper’ Autobots because Prime doesn’t appear to deem them bound by the agreement), and then when he does come into the fray it’s resolved by a hologram and a single shot from his blaster. This conclusion does rob the Dinobots of their potential moment of victory as the most powerful warriors in the series, but that conclusion is unlikely in the Constructions’ début episode where Devastator is necessarily promoted as the most powerful toy to own. The Decepticons obviously can’t win, so a more creative solution (or indeed a straightforward underhand trick) is needed to explain why Devastator isn’t the outright winner of the title fight.
And so, as many of the preceding episodes have done, the first series of the Transformers ends with the Decepticons defeated and Megatron claiming he will rise again. For spectacle alone, Heavy Metal War matches A Plague of Insecticons and War of the Dinobots for originality and excitement, even if it does shirk on giving the Constructicons as interesting a back story as the other new characters have had. It’s a neat package that ties together the two uses of the combination theme, and as more and more Transformers join the fray, the stage is set for the world of the Transformers to expand into a longer second series.
I'd love to hear other theories about the purpose of the power chip rectifiers, but as we're at the end of the first season and watching these episodes isn't a new thing for anyone on here - what are your top five episodes of season one? at least give us that to talk about!
I think for me they'd be:
1. More Than Meets the Eye Pt 1 2. Heavy Metal War 3. War of the Dinobots 4. A Plague of Insecticons 5. More Than Meets the Eye Pt 3
There is a question actually on the 'incorrectly coloured strike planes' front. The Rhino DVDs, which were in turn used for the UK releases, feature far more colouring errors than the actual broadcast episodes have (which are now out on the Shout Factory DVDs) because they used the wrong footage in some cases for their remasters.
How interesting. I use the Metrodome dvd's. Do other masters exist in the digital age?
The Metrodome ones are the Rhino ones.
From the TF Wiki:
In 2002 Rhino remastered the Generation 1 cartoon series for release on DVD, to subsequent controversy. As the original broadcast masters (the tapes used for broadcast) had degraded to an unacceptable level of visual quality over the years, Rhino opted to use pre-broadcast masters that had far superior clarity and picture quality. Unfortunately, as these pre-broadcast tapes used unfinished animation, the episodes included on Rhino's DVDs suffered from animation errors, missing special effects and colouring mistakes that did not occur in the original 1980s broadcasts.
Additionally, Rhino contracted post-production studio Magno Sound & Video to remaster the monaural soundtrack to a 5.1 surround soundtrack worthy of a DVD release. Unfortunately, Magno's engineers added in some 30 tracks of new sound effects to this new soundtrack, and once again Rhino's DVDs introduced new elements that were largely seen as undesirable. Rhino representatives rather disingenuously attempted to claim that these sound effects were there all along and that fans had simply been unable to hear them before, despite evidence to the contrary.
For their Generation 1 DVDs, Shout! Factory have notably cleaned up the extra sound effects and animation errors introduced by Kid Rhino and Magno Sound & Video that have previously been present in many different companies' releases worldwide. Though much closer to the originals, the cleanup was not perfect; some scenes required mastering from lower-quality records, resulting in noticeable jumps in visual and aural quality within episodes.
Which tells us that the current US release boxset from Shout Factory is the closest DVD release to the original broadcasts. I've thought about buying it several times for our Sunday run, but it's still about fifty dollars on Amazon.
With the two Dinobot introduction episodes and Heavy Metal War credited to him, Donald F Glut undoubtedly proved early on in the Transformers series that he knew how to write a good story for the Cybertronians. While it’s true he also wrote Divide and Conquer, one of the low points of the first season, his hit to miss ratio is high enough that seeing his name on screen is enough to get attention. Glut is also a self-professed fan of gothic horror, and a quick perusal of his own website reveals an entire career built around exploring the genre in fiction, non-fiction and film with a particular interest in Frankenstein.
It’s natural to assume then that themes lifted from Mary Shelley’s work would make their way into his Transformers script writing at some point, and sadly Autobot Spike is the fittingly lurching end result. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the theme, Glut himself in an interview conducted in 2001 cited the episode as his favourite of the ones he wrote. He also claimed that, “I always tried to add some “human drama” to my animation scripts, no matter what the series or studio or characters, and these episodes gave me that chance”, which gives us reason enough to look at this episode from that point of view.
For a children’s cartoon the central conceit of a human mind in a robot body is an interesting one, and it’s entirely possible young viewers at the time might watch the series imagining what it would be like to be among the ranks of the Autobots fighting the evil Decepticons, or vice versa. A similar idea was also mooted at the end of A Plague of Insecticons, where Wheeljack offers to design a transforming suit for Spike, and of course by the time we reach the movie Spike and Daniel will have exactly that. It’s a theme that recurs in the Transformers wherever there are humans involved, whether it be as expansive as the whole Headmasters line and its descendants, or something more modern like Silas being fused with Breakdown in Transformers: Prime. Autobot Spike can’t even claim to be the first time this idea was experimented with, given Chip’s possession of Prowl in Roll For It and the Frankenstein undertones of Glut’s own SOS Dinobots, which as with this episode involves the newly created and largely brainless Dinobots wrecking Autobot HQ.
The difference with Autobot Spike is that it enters slightly darker territory by separating Spike’s consciousness from his body and planting it in a robotic one, rather than just giving him an exosuit. The story tries to deal with the potential fallout of that, which is a tough call for a children’s cartoon to package in any meaningful way. The end result is a collection of scientific ideas that don’t make sense, and a surprising misinterpretation of the source material from a writer apparently so well versed in it.
The first problem is that it makes no sense that Sparkplug, despite his credentials as a mechanic, now apparently knows enough about Transformer life to be able to create it himself from a bunch of spare parts. It would have made more sense for Wheeljack to have done this as his idea of using the body of Autobot X to store the minds of injured Transformers at least stays within the realms of the Cybertronian science shown in the series. In fact the original breakdown for the episode in the series bible doesn’t mention Sparkplug’s involvement at all, just Ratchet and Wheeljack. However, narratively speaking it has to be Sparkplug who initiates this because he needs a vested interest and belief in the project if it’s going to make any sense that he risks his son’s life by using it.
Autobot X comes to life in a typical, electrically-charged Universal movie monster style, also adopting the early cinematic interpretation of the creation as a mess of stitched together parts - complete with bolts in his neck. The viewer is also presented with the stereotype that a lack of intelligence means a destructive, thuggish personality. While this is the image that younger viewers who’ve seen reruns of old films might expect to see, deliberately foreshadowing the problems to come with Spike, it is completely at odds with the moral message of Mary Shelley’s story.
What happens next is of course Megatron’s fault. His targeting of Bumblebee to create a diversion as the Decepticons escape from the rocket base is fitting for his character, but serves as a reminder that humans rarely, if ever, suffer any ill effects from the rampaging antics of the bad guys. Here though it’s a necessary part of the plot, and Spike ends up in hospital where the doctor makes the jarring and extraordinary proposal that his recovery would be best served by finding a way to “remove his mind from his body” while it recovers.
Aside from the fact the idea makes no sense whatsoever, it’s an awkward way to find an excuse to transplant Spike into the body of Autobot X. Tellingly, in the interview mentioned earlier Glut confuses the characters when he talks about this episode saying it gave, “Spike something more to do than ride around in that wheelchair and be smart”, which suggests the original intention may have been to find a way for Chip to escape the confines of his disability, more realistically involving him rather than Sparkplug. That notion makes much more sense, but conceivably could have been discarded because of the implication that disabled people need ‘fixing’ in some way to be complete. That would be a surprisingly sensitive observation for the early 80s, but would explain the awkward use of Spike in the role instead.
So the viewer is made to believe not only that Spike’s mind can be extracted from his body, but that it can also be inserted into a robot - with only the merest hint of concern about the whole process from his father. Genuine human peril isn’t something you’d find in a children’s cartoon, which is why this whole episode is probably a bad move, but the way Spike then turns slowly evil because of what Bumblebee explains away as a “side effect” makes no more sense than the transfer process itself.
What we’re really looking at is a depression brought about by Spike’s circumstance which he vents through violent actions, but the script makes this child friendly by explaining it away as a feeling that “something else” is in there with him, presumably the last vestiges of Autobot X’s original intelligence, whatever that was. Spike sees a Frankenstein film, after which he determines he is a monster too and is then persuaded to the Decepticon cause by Megatron.
This brings us to the root of the problem with this episode: the misunderstanding that Frankenstein’s monster was aggressive by nature simply because he looks like he should be. In Mary Shelley’s story the creation mentally is an innocent at birth and descends to evil actions because of the way he is rejected by his creator and the society around him. The story is an exploration of human nature and of how the creation (effectively ‘rebooted’ with no memory of his past life) comes to terms with it. In Spike’s case he is already conscious with moral awareness and isn’t rejected by his father or the Autobots, in fact the process they put him through shows the complete opposite. Spike may rather have chosen to die than be transplanted, but there is no reason other than the spurious ‘thing’ in the body with him that he suddenly turns against the people who love him.
As such, Autobot Spike makes a hash of trying to reuse themes that are simply too complex for the nature of the cartoon. On top of the nonsense about the transfer in the first place it shows Glut trying to fit a square peg into a round hole for the sake of knocking out a cartoon script in a hurry. It’s possible to argue that because this is just a cartoon it doesn’t make sense to interrogate it too deeply, but in this episode none of the key characters behave in ways that fit what we have come to learn about them, and it doesn’t provide any positive moral outcome. Glut managed to successfully interpret the Frankenstein story with the two episodes covering the creation of the Dinobots, which in keeping with Shelley's original novel made more sense of the theme of rejection in the way they are discarded as a mistake. This episode though only manages to come across as a one line pitch that needed so many compromises to get it to screen, it should have been canned once the realisation dawned that to make it work as a children’s programme it couldn’t properly explore the idea it was based on.
End of term is always mentally busy for me, but now the holiday is here I've got a bit of breathing space to get caught up with writing. Just scraped this one in in time. Fortunately there isn't a lot to say about Changing Gears.
18 - Changing Gears
With the Transformers’ second season being a much longer affair than the first it’s reasonable to think that writers outside the core team would be drafted in to flesh out ideas and help pad out the long run. Changing Gears falls squarely into this category. It’s a one line ‘what if?’ pitch about Gears’ personality being flipped, fleshed out by Larry Parr with a standard Decepticon energy collecting plot. Parr contributed just two stories to the entire run of the cartoon (Revenge of Bruticus being the other) and as such it’s easy to see the episode relies on series staples and doesn’t deviate from the obvious.
It may also go some way to explain why the basis of the plot is formed around a misinterpretation of Gears’ personality. Making him happy shouldn’t need a chip removed from his chest because both the long form Marvel biography and his entry in the cartoon bible say that his complaining is an act put on to make others feel happier about their own plight. The cartoon version reads: “The complainer of the group...hates everything about Earth. A self-proclaimed misfit... finds fault in everything and everyone”, which we certainly see, but also “acts this way to help cheer up others as they try to cheer him”. This is shown by the way the other Autobots act around him at the start and end of the episode, but if being the grumbling complainer is an act he voluntarily puts on, why does removing a chip change him?
In fact you could read it that removing the chip doesn’t actually make any difference to Gears at all; it just gives him an excuse to drop his grumbler act for a bit. That would certainly make more sense than the odd idea that his personality has something to do with how an energy collecting machine works. Perhaps the sun needs a stern talking to before it will give up its energy?
At any rate, presented as even more of a moaner than Ironhide and Huffer, Gears gets his shot at stardom here as the cartoon switches its minibot promotion away from Bumblebee for twenty minutes. It’s easy to think that Gears hasn’t been in the series at all to this point, and it’s surprising to note that he appeared in eleven of the sixteen first series episodes, but he certainly doesn’t have the recognisable individuality that most of the other mini vehicles have by this point. Windcharger and Brawn have become the advance guard carted around by Jetfire, and Cliffjumper has moments of bravado that make him out to be more of a prototype Hot Rod than ‘bumbling’ Bumblebee ever is, such as the suicide dive into the energy shield in this episode. But of the original mini vehicles Gears is certainly the least recognisable at this point, and coming in to focus for this episode it’s interesting that his animation model is closer to the toy and less anthropomorphised than the rest, other than the evident need to humanise all the Transformers’ faces.
Taken at face value then, the most thought provoking aspect of this episode is the idea that Transformers’ personalities and characteristics are removable, and presumably therefore reprogrammable. It’s an odd idea that detracts from the mystery of the robots’ sentience, and the thought that a Transformers’ essence is something that might be inserted on a production line makes the characters far less appealing. Do they act the way they do because they’re intelligent living beings, or because they’re programmed to?
In Gears’ case removing what Megatron refers to as his “personality circuit” doesn’t so much remove his personality, as force him to pretend to be happy. It’s obvious from lines such as, “How can I help you Megatron, you rotten hunk of scrap” that he isn’t actually happy when working for the Decepticons, more unable to express his displeasure or override his actions. It’s more like a block has been put in place than something released by the removal of the circuit, like a robotic equivalent of Valium. In terms of the narrative it’s a useful way to ensure his compliance as a slave, but the reality is that it makes about as much sense as it does that a personality circuit would be needed to drive an energy collector in the first place. The premise has merit, but the execution and lack of reasoning make it impossible to find any logic behind. Probably good job Shockwave isn’t in this one.
Aside from this, the episode’s plot is standard stuff and ticks the usual requirement boxes: the Decepticons have a plan to gather energy, Prime and Megatron clash, Bumblebee displays his loveable ineptitude by failing to make a jump and the Autobots rout the Decepticons. In fact in this case Megatron doesn’t even get a chance to call for a retreat as Soundwave et al depart as soon as it looks like the game’s up. Unusually we see the Autobots clearing up after the ‘Cons and dismantling the solar needle to restore the African countryside to its former state, but beyond that it’s only some nice moments in the animation such as Ratchet’s flying kick on Thundercracker or Prime drop kicking Megatron over the horizon that make this episode worth watching. It isn’t a particularly bad one, just standard fare for the series with an attempt at using an interesting idea that doesn’t really pay off.
Slippin' in a little midweek analysis to get back on track for Sunday.
19 - City of Steel
The introduction of the Constructicons in Heavy Metal War gave the Decepticons a much needed new dimension. Rather than being scavengers they have now become builders, and as such Megatron’s plans go in a new direction in this episode with the idea of turning Earth into Cybertron, rather than using it as a fuel source to either return to or revitalise their home world. Given the Decepticons spend most of the first season skulking about under the sea it might seem more than a little grandiose for Megatron to suddenly decide to rebuild one of America’s most densely populated areas in Cybertron’s image, but it does show the faith he has in his new team for being able to do such a thing. Scrapper seems to have joined Soundwave and Shockwave as the only other Decepticon Megatron displays any true respect for.
The other Constructions also begin to gain personalities in this episode and pleasingly have distinct voices, even if some do sound a lot like some of the Autobot cars. Of note, Long Haul at one point says, “I didn’t join this outfit to become a dump truck”, which lends credence to the idea that the Constructicons weren’t first built on Earth (which was suggested by Megatron’s line “they were worth the time we spent building them” in Heavy Metal War), but reconstructed from storage to suit his need.
Given the globe-trotting nature of the series so far, there is a question as to why New York is Megatron’s chosen location for a new base. It may be that the density of the population means an abundance of raw materials for the Constructicons to use, after all we see Mixmaster turning a car into iron girders in seconds when fed one by Skywarp, but it’s more likely that by focusing attention initially on the Empire State Building (rather than any of the other landmarks in the Manhattan skyline) writer Douglas Booth simply fancied the idea of putting in the King Kong homage at the end of the episode. This is foreshadowed by the fact the Empire State is the building replaced by the main Decepticon tower, coincidentally in an awesome display of the power of the Constructicons.
It’s a first though for the cartoon to use a real world location for a story set in America. Whereas stories outside the US so far have used real but imprecise locations, such as ‘somewhere in’ Bali, India or Peru, on home soil the places used are fictional rocket bases or power plants. It’s odd to hear New York referenced by name and goes some way to making this all feel more real.
Some of the characters’ appearances in this episode have noticeable differences to usual; Megatron especially has a fuller and lighter face than usual. By way of explanation the Transformers wiki suggests that City of Steel was one of three second season episodes drawn by Animation Korea Movie Productions (AKOM) rather than Toei, the usual company. AKOM was founded and owned by Nelson Shin, producer of the Transformers series, and the wiki adds, “It might not be a coincidence that animation duties of the cartoon were shifted more and more from Toei to AKOM as the series progressed”.
AKOM are noted by many for producing poorer quality animation on the whole than Toei, but also that for some sequences they used a higher number of frames of animation per second. This is noticeable in City of Steel where the camera pans as objects move (such as Laserbeak sweeping over the city or Scavenger moving onto the hydraulic platform at the start), or in some transformation sequences - especially the Constructicons. However, the overall effect is that the movement seems sped up rather than being more fluid.
In a nice piece of continuity, five of the Autobot cars arrive in New York using the hydrofoils Wheeljack created for them to reach the Indian power plant at the start of The Ultimate Doom Part 1. It does make you wonder though where Hound et al are coming from, as Prime asks Sparkplug to signal them to meet him in Central Park, suggesting they’re returning from a mission overseas.
Megatron used the idea of incapacitating Optimus Prime to ensure his plans would go unhindered before in the episode Divide and Conquer, but this time we’re introduced to the idea that Prime (at least) can exert control over his limbs if he is separated from them and they are nearby. Several times he talks about being able to “sense the presence” of his body parts, and can make them move without being directly attached to them. His arm is also able to work independently as a defence mechanism when attached to the top of the tower, although it is under the direct control of the Decepticons rather than working autonomously. If all Transformers can do this it’s a wonder we don’t see it happen more often, although it’s hard to imagine Hasbro being keen on episodes promoting the idea of children pulling their toys apart. Well, until Hero Mashers became a thing.
The Constructicons are left to deal with the remnants of Prime’s body and their building abilities are displayed again in the way they reconstruct Prime’s parts into what is termed a ‘reptilicon’. This shows not only that Scrapper’s team are as adept at constructing robot bodies as they are buildings, but they delight in experimenting with the darker side of science. Crocodiles in the New York sewers may be a cliché, but more interestingly once again an animal based Transformer is shown to have limited, instinct based intelligence - not dissimilar to the animal based cassettes. They have a programmed function and don’t step outside that to show any kind of independent intellect. Similarly, the Constructicons are also responsible for the comically named ‘battle taxis’ that Megatron employs against the Autobots, again showing their ability to automate mechanical devices.
In terms of toy promotion this episode finally gives us Buzzsaw, the last of the 1984 toy line to make an appearance in the show. Given there are so many recoloured duplicates in the Decepticon ranks it seems unlikely that Buzzsaw and Frenzy were left out for so long simply because they look like Laserbeak and Rumble, and more likely that there was simply no need to promote them because they were pack ins that came with other toys. In terms of representing the cassettes, Rumble, Ravage and Laserbeak cover all the bases and promote the two toy packages available to buy.
Ultimately the episode concludes with the King Kong reference, crow-barred in for those who may not have got it by Wheeljack explicitly referring to the film as his helicopter attack is swatted away by Devastator. It creates an interesting spectacle to finish the episode on, but diminishes the might of the most powerful Decepticon by making him appear ape-like and stupid, and as was the case in Heavy Metal War he is once again disappointingly defeated by a single shot from Prime’s blaster. The same problem exists here as it did then - the Decepticons can’t win these battles because of the nature of the programme, so the way such a powerful character is stopped is always going to seem underwhelming.
That said, City of Steel is an enjoyable episode because it expands the horizons of the show. It presents a new idea in that the Decepticons may want to monopolise Earth rather than leave it, and that they have become more powerful opposition through their ability to construct and build. During the first season they struggle to seem as accomplished and resourceful as the Autobots, relying on theft to achieve their aims, but Megatron’s empire can now begin to expand under its own steam, which allows for a wider range of plot ideas for episodes to come.
Feel like I ought to be blogging these for posterity with some illustrative screencaps.
20 – Attack of the Autobots
David Wise is notable when it comes to the Transformers cartoon because he has more writing credits than any other contributor to the series (unaccredited rewrites from script editors not withstanding). Attack of the Autobots is his first offering, but his work in time will come to include such noted classics as The Key To Vector Sigma and The Rebirth (and somewhat less illustriously, The Girl Who Loved Powerglide). Wise would in time go on to become head writer for the original Ninja Turtles cartoon, where several of his Transformers plots are recycled (tfwiki.net/wiki/David_Wise).
From acorns grow mighty oaks then, and such is the case here as Wise provides a perfectly serviceable early season one style story in which Megatron uses something akin to magic to get one over on the Autobots in his bid to return to Cybertron. It's a simple, uncluttered tale that irritatingly has a larger than usual number of 'just because' moments, which in turn introduce several interesting new ideas that don’t get explored fully because of the short twenty-two minute run time.
The first of these new ideas is that Transformers need to spend time recharging, which initially seems at odds with the fact they've spent the series so far trying to find sources of Energon to burn as a fuel rather than recharging themselves in machines like batteries. However, when considered in the human context of needing sleep as well as food to function properly, recharging makes a perfect equivalent for sentient mechanical life - especially as we aren’t told specifically what is being recharged. It’s a shame this idea isn't pursued further in any of the fictions (do Transformers dream?), or the opposite thought of what ever-waking robots might do during periods of inactivity if they don't sleep or recharge.
All this goes unexplored because the recharging machines are a simple plot device for Megatron to instigate his plan, equating to being a more apt version of slipping a Micky Finn in Optimus Prime's bedtime cocoa or poisoning his favourite soup. In this case we're presented with two unexplained new technologies at once. Not only has Megatron suddenly come up with a “personality destabiliser” circuit which slots straight into the sleep machines (presumably the Decepticons tested this on their equivalent versions), but he manages to do this unseen because of a new not-quite-invisibility spray.
It's believable now Megatron has Scrapper on board that he can trot out new devices on a regular basis. Being responsible for the creation of the ability transferring device in Heavy Metal War, Scrapper is likely to be able to provide similar technologies for altering Transformers (although sadly that connection isn't mentioned), but the invisibility cloak is a bit too Dungeons and Dragons for what the series has given us so far - especially because it is a spray of all things rather than a powered shield as one might find in other science fiction such as Star Trek.
Of course the other failing of this, whether it be because the audience still needs to see the characters or that the Autobots do too when they work out what's happened, the invisibility is more 'glowing wireframe' than invisible - the sparkly illuminated outlines of which are far more obvious than Megatron's native gun metal grey. It isn’t so much a stealth approach, more a ‘look at me!’ approach.
It’s also questionable why Megatron and Starscream enact this part of the plan. Does Megatron no longer trust any of his crew’s intelligence to the extent that he has to execute everything himself? If this sequence had been Ravage sneaking Soundwave into the base in his mouth while the Autobots were distracted by Megatron shooting up the front door it would have sat far better than the need for a Dastardly and Muttley routine with an incongruous spray. We've seen before in The Ultimate Doom that the cassettes can pretty much walk into the Ark unnoticed, and any perimeter alarms going off could easily be explained by the diversionary attack. The fact that we later find Teletraan 1 recorded Megatron installing his device makes a nonsense of the spray as it is, and raises the further question of why the Autobot computer didn’t tell Prime in the first place before he’d used the recharging machine. As soon as the Autobots are infected, Teletraan is gushing with plot exposition to explain what’s going on.
Mind control or alteration is a theme that has cropped up frequently in the series so far, with Wheeljack controlling Skywarp in Roll For It, Dr Arkeville’s subjugation device in The Ultimate Doom and Gears being enslaved by Megatron in Changing Gears being just three examples. Here the Autobots as a whole are not actually turned evil as Teletraan claims, but become subject only to Megatron’s commands - denoted visually for viewers by their red eyes. It’s possible then that his new personality destabilising technology could be related to the mechanism that used Gears’ personality circuit in the solar collector in Changing Gears. Perhaps Scrapper is specialising in mind control technology at this point. It would be pleasing to think that the ridiculous notion of Gear’s personality powering an energy collecting device was just a ruse to be able to make a copy of it as part of devising this new plan.
Optimus becomes the focus for the Autobots’ naughty behaviour, while elsewhere this episode is a spotlight moment for the vastly underused Autobot second in command, Jazz. The scene with him testing his new speakers at the start might seem a bit of fluff just to keep him out of the way so he can later lead the rescue attempt, but the way his love for music is used to save the day at the climax of the episode is a neat way to link up the plot and promote his character.
What works less well is the way that Sparkplug manages to create an ‘attitude exchanger’ to fix the problem almost instantly. He may well have access to the personality destabiliser left in the recharging chamber, but the way he has suddenly become an expert on Cybertronian life (also shown in Autobot Spike where he creates a functioning Autobot body) has completely sidelined the element of technical genius that Chip Chase was brought in to contribute. Chip himself won’t be back until the seventh episode of this season, and even then is involved in a charity event rather than anything involving his intellect.
Sparkplug’s exchanger is the third bit of unexplained technology pushing the plot along in this episode after the spray and the destabiliser, and its ability to recharge the Autobots with ‘purifying ions’ sounds more like a suspect well-being device found on late-night shopping channels than anything of practical use. It’s fortunate then that the climax of the episode has a typical ‘stop the Decepticons’ finale in which the completely unrealistic possibility of an Earth rocket reaching Cybertron is forgotten as the script goes all the way back to the pilot episode idea of the Decepticons simply trying to go home. This time they have Dr Harding’s solar energy satellite in tow and the silliness of the pseudo-science in the episode is forgotten as the Autobots battle against the clock by riding the Skyfire airbus to bring the rocket down. It’s endearing that among all the science in the episode that doesn’t make sense that Jazz justifies his sonic boom plan by explaining the rocket is still in the Earth’s atmosphere. At least he cares that the plot makes sense.
Attack of the Autobots is typical of the direction the early part of the second season takes. Whether the first thirteen episodes were put into production early enough that the newer 1985 toys weren’t finalised, or Sunbow simply wanted to give more time to the original cast, the stories stick almost exclusively to the pre-Ultimate Doom players and work interchangeably with any of the episodes from that time. It can be said of the first season that not enough stories occur before the newer characters (Dinobots, Insecticons, Constructicons) are introduced, but those missing stories are here - firmly focusing on the original cast while the early 1985 names crop up sporadically. It isn’t until the fourteenth episode, Dinobot Island, that the floodgates open, and a ton of new character arrivals bring the show in line with what was in the shops.
Big sidestep into how Mirage's character is portrayed this week.
21 - Traitor
Traitor is an example of where writers who have very little to do with the show (this is the only script from George Hampton and Mike Moore) take a one line idea based on a character bio and turn it into something that fills an episode while promoting the toy at the same time - in this case very successfully.
To improve the variety the show offers through the second season, writers increasingly turned the original ‘quest for energy’ into the sub-plot and picked out detail from the characters to either create a main plot (such as Gears’ grumpiness in Changing Gears), or to show viewers they need a toy because of its unique abilities (such as Jazz’s love of loud music in Attack of the Autobots). This week Mirage, and to a lesser extent Cliffjumper and Bombshell, come under the spotlight. The end result is one of the most enjoyable early second season episodes - helped by the fact that it has the best animation seen since the original three part pilot.
It hinges on Mirage’s biography, and the ‘Mirage is a traitor’ label generally attached to his character. For most characters the Marvel and Sunbow bios are in tune with each other, but they sometimes divide where the cartoon wants to use a character in a different way - ‘caretaker’ Shockwave being a good example. Crucially in Mirage’s case the difference is the way the last line of his toy box tech spec, “Unsure of the Autobot cause… can’t be fully trusted” is interpreted either as meaning he is ambivalent about Autobot goals, or actively negative about them. The irony is that while his full Marvel bio leans more toward ambivalence than the cartoon version (which suggests he may actually be a Decepticon spy), it is initially in the comic that he comes across as more outspoken and untrustworthy.
To look at that in more detail, his toy tech spec starts by saying he is, “not thrilled about being an Autobot freedom fighter” and that he “prefers hunting turbofoxes with his high priced friends on Cybertron”. This is expanded in the full Marvel bio to represent him as an upper class toff who feels out of place in an army, and that Optimus Prime doesn’t feel he can fully count on him because his mind is elsewhere. This then implies the “can’t be fully trusted” line is to do with the possibility of Mirage going AWOL in battle because he considers it beneath him, rather than being against the Autobot ideal.
However in the actual comic, at that point scripted by Jim Salicrup rather than bio writer Bob Budianski, Mirage is not portrayed like this. In Power Play (US #2) he questions why the Autobots can’t just take the fuel they need when Optimus suggests an alliance with the humans, which in turn leads him to think, “The Decepticons will not pander to this world’s populace! They’ll simply seize what they need! Perhaps Mirage is on the wrong side!” Later in the same issue Mirage comes face to face with Ravage, and unable to use his electro-disruptor he tries to distract his assailant with conversation about life back on Cybertron, although this is more an act of stalling for time than an attempt to switch sides. His actions therefore don’t really match the more passive biography.
In contrast, his cartoon biography takes “can’t be fully trusted” and spins it in a darker direction. Whereas most of the cartoon biographies are clipped or edited from the original ones, Mirage’s is rewritten:
“PROFILE: Enigmatic, a ‘mystery man’. Does not share the group's enthusiasm. Others are uncertain of his dedication and are reluctant to trust him fully. Reserved... a loner... an effective fighter who prefers to penetrate enemy lines on solo missions to gather intelligence. Suspected as counter-spy.”
Most damningly the suggestion that he may be “suspected as counter-spy” is not in either the original tech spec or the expanded Marvel version, and is evidently interpreted from his given function of ‘spy’ and that here it actually states other Autobots don’t trust him. Oddly this bio is far more in line with the way he is shown in the early comic. When in the cartoon pilot he questions why the Autobots can’t just return to Cybertron he is ignored by Prime on the grounds the Earth needs to be defended, but Mirage then atones for his crass thinking by playing his part in sabotaging the Decepticon ship at the end and is celebrated for that, showing he is one of the good guys after all.
By way of direct comparison - the scene at the dam in More Than Meets The Eye - Part 2 is replicated in the UK comic version, Decepticon Dam Busters (UK #29-30), where at the point in the cartoon Mirage simply asks why they can’t go home, the comic equivalent explodes with rage at the humans, calling them “snivelling little organisms” after they are less than gracious about being saved.
What all of this leads to is the strange conclusion that the actions of the comic Mirage far more suit the cartoon biography, and vice versa, so it is strange that the ‘Mirage is a traitor’ label often used to describe him is largely founded from this episode rather than the comic where he seems far more inclined to turn on the Autobots. In this episode the viewer is left wondering about Mirage’s allegiance for only a short time, and is rooting for the truth to be exposed while Cliffjumper continues to persecute him for most of the story. Far from being a hated traitor, in the eyes of the audience Mirage is a misunderstood hero because of the dramatic irony of knowing he is actually trying to prove himself. This is more the Mirage of the Marvel bio than the cartoon one, who would be far more likely to just walk out and join Megatron.
Regardless of the spin put on it, this premise makes for an exciting story with fewer than usual illogical jumps. Really the only questionable moment in terms of character motives is why Cliffjumper is so quick to accuse Mirage of treachery in the first place, aside from the fact he is something of a hot-head. If previous stories had shown Mirage’s allegiance to be doubtful then perhaps it would make sense for Cliffjumper to leap to his conclusion as quickly as he does, but it seems this comes from the writers’ unfamiliarity with the source material and assumptions made from Mirage’s biography. Why Mirage didn’t see the new Decepticon installation in the desert is never explained, but it would make no sense anyway for him to conceal the fact because turning a blind eye to the Decepticons gaining a new power source is of no real direct benefit to him.
When it comes to it, it isn’t Cliffjumper’s accusations that trigger Mirage’s need to prove himself, it’s Ratchet telling him to relax (the implication being he’s been overdoing it and is making mistakes), although this is followed with the thrilling revelation of the Decepticon badge in his hand, perhaps suggesting momentarily to the viewer that he is about to switch sides.
It’s nice that the plot is tied to the ongoing continuity by the need for fuel. Given the Decepticons’ incessant attacks on energy installations though, you would think by now that somewhere called the ‘Experimental Energy Research Centre’ would be very heavily protected, or at least under constant Autobot observation, but the two scientists working on the electro-cell project seem completely surprised by Starscream and Skywarp’s interest in what they’re doing.
The story also reintroduces the Insecticons, necessary for the plot because they’re the easiest way to extend the theme of subterfuge and suspicion into the Decepticon ranks - they being already established as a separate entity to Megatron’s main team. He draws them into the story with the promise of energy, somehow aware that they are “in the area”, but the way the plot weaves their uneasy alliance into the suspicion between Cliffjumper and Mirage makes for an unusually complex and exciting story.
This gives Bombshell his moment in the limelight, with his mind controlling cerebro shells perfectly suited to making Mirage look like the traitor Cliffjumper suspects him to be. Because of this he comes across as the leader of the trio in this, purely because the focus is on him, whereas in their previous outing (A Plague of Insecticons) Shrapnel was the toy most being pushed, which made him look like the one in charge.
The plot alone is good enough to make this an above average episode, but the quality of the animation also shines. The characters are very well drawn compared to other Toei episodes, with well proportioned faces and detail in the bodies. There is also good use of perspective and variety in the choice of shots, including some dynamic close ups, naturalistic movement and animation intensive sequences such as the camera circling Megatron when he talks to Starscream by the electro-cell machine.
The two Decepticons also add to the fun with their ongoing bickering, and it’s hard to fault the script at all bar Cliffjumper’s initial irrational assertion that Mirage is lying, and then perhaps the odd way in which he apologises to him at the end - his claim that he may also have a hole in his head being a rather oblique way of admitting he was wrong. It does also seem a little anti-climactic that when the story reaches a point where Mirage is definitely acting against the Autobots (albeit under Bombshell’s control) there isn’t the big confrontation with the rest of the Autobots the episode seems to have been building to. Instead Cliffjumper punches Mirage unconscious and Ratchet then immediately finds the cerebro shell.
In all though, Traitor is a clever idea worked into an engaging story that pushes two of the lesser used Autobots and features the first return of the fan favourite Insecticons. Supported by superb animation and not one, but two knockdown fights between the two sides it’s certainly recommended viewing.
Traitor was a revelation for me. I've always been a fan of Mirage, but it made me a fan of Cliffjumper. Brilliant interaction and characterisation, so often lacking in many episodes. I only saw it last year for the first time. I'd started season two expecting Coneheads and '85 'bots, but got this instead. And I loved it.
I hate Autobot Spike though. Terrible episode. Scared the kids 'n'all.
I was the one who let you know, I was your sorry ever after, '84, '85. Give me new toys and I'll decide, but I'm really only after, '84, '85.
I think Autobot Spike was misjudged on the part of the writer. It was fitting a square peg in a round hole and in trying to steer a very adult idea into a kids cartoon it just went wrong.
Traitor was a surprise to me too, I hadn't looked in detail at Mirage before but the way he is handled in the different media is really interesting. His cartoon bio is definitely written for the purpose of using it for an episode plot, but then it shies away from going through with the idea of actually making him a traitor. Presumably because the symbol on the toy would still be Autobot so he couldn't change sides.