Taking over a billion dollars worldwide, the success of Transformers: Age Of Extinction shows that the enthusiasm of the paying punter hasn’t paled for Michael Bay’s takes on giant-robot warfare. That ought to please Kotaku’s own Yannick LeJacq, at least – he put forward his case for a little Bay loving back in June.
I’m yet to see Age Of Extinction. Sure, the reviews proved to be almost exclusively negative (the film holds a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 18 per cent, and 32/100 on Metacritic) but that’s not to blame for my cinema no-show. I’m just a bit fatigued by Bay’s single-minded bombast. Dark Of The Moon ran for an exhausting 154 minutes. I remember praying for it to finish, from the two-hours-in mark onwards.
Besides, my oldest son’s now reached the age where he’s aware of Transformers and wants to both play with them (my poor Laserbeak’s lost a leg already) and watch their adventures on DVD. Enter my collection of the 1980s cartoon series – the show that kick-started my own love for these robots in disguise. Perhaps he already knows that some of these stories are better than anything Bay’s team could hope to achieve in another four big-budget critical flops.
My son and I sat down with some box sets to pick out seven must-see episodes from the first four – well, three and a bit – series of (The) Transformers, aka the televised adventures of Generation One. A further three series followed in Japan, but in the UK and US, this is where we got off. So where should you hop on?
Where better to begin than at the beginning. This episode is the very first of season one, dating from September 1984, and represents the opening chapter of a three-part story. MTMTE begins with the war between the (good) Autobots and (not so good) Decepticons on their home planet of Cybertron, shows how a clutch of each faction’s representatives came to be on Earth, and then reactivates their crash-immobilised bodies to spread chaos across a new theatre of combat. It shows how the Transformers gained their Earthly alternative forms – in much the same way as Bay’s first movie depicts – and leaves our heroes in something of a pickle, in the midst of a collapsing oil rig with countless humans to save. It’s where we meet Spike Witwicky, who’ll later father the insufferable Daniel (though I suppose he did partially foil Megatron’s plan to destroy Autobot City). Also, what the hell is up with Starscream’s voice?
The Dinobots are cool. The fact that Age Of Extinction had Dinobots in it was probably responsible for half its box office takings. And here, in season one, is where the Autobots’ prehistoric wrecking crew began, as the creations of medic Ratchet and engineer Wheeljack – a very different origin story to that told in Marvel’s Transformers comic. For some reason, Wheeljack elects to keep these new Autobots loyal to their inspirations – so while Grimlock (Tyrannosaurus), Slag (Triceratops) and Sludge (Apatosaurus) are incredibly strong, their brains are minuscule. Upon activation, the trio trashes the Autobots’ base and leader Optimus Prime promptly has them sealed away. But later, when a bunch of ‘bots are overpowered by Megatron’s forces at a hydroelectric power plant, an observant Bumblebee sends word back to HQ and the Dinobots are dispatched to sort shit out. Somewhere along the line, Megatron’s equilibrium circuits are temporarily fried, leaving him fumbling about on the ground like a great big murderous drunk, which immediately has the traitorous Starscream making like he’s top dog. But Megatron’s not one to forget, and the rebellious Seeker will get his in the future.
Sticking with season one for another entry, Heavy Metal War is great for a few reasons. One! It’s called Heavy Metal War, which is just fantastic. (Side note: there’s a moment in SOS Dinobots where the Autobots visit a natural history museum, and a punk-fashioned human observes: “Wow, now that’s what I call heavy metal.” Guffaw.) Two! It marks the debut appearance of The Constructicons, the Decepticons’ team of lime-green machines that turn into, yup, construction vehicles – but who, more pertinently, combine to represent the Transformers’ first-ever ginormous gestalt, Devastator. Three! The Dinobots, now expanded to a quintet, take the fight to Devastator because they are amazing (and just a bit dumb) and just don’t care if the odds are completely against them. Four! The Decepticons finish the episode in a river of lava – but it’s OK, because they’ll be back (they even do the hand thing). Five! Right in the middle of proceedings, Megatron and Optimus have a one-on-one scrap in which the former cheats his way through, using various additional powers borrowed from his lackeys. Six! That brawl is much funnier if you watch the (NSFW) Mr Smoov version. Go on, Optimus! Shove it right up his arse! Which looks like a Quintesson, naturally.
A turn for the horror-themed here, and a skip onwards to season three (1986, post-Movie), The Dweller In The Depths is set on Cyberton – or rather, in its ancient bowels. Down there, there are all kinds of nasties, including some failed experiments the Quintessons were mucking about with before they invented the Transformers. (Oh yeah, sorry – in the animated series, it’s these multi-faced floating freak things who created the Transformers, but that’s an origin story pretty much ignored in all other media.) The Trans-Organics are one such mis-step on the production line, monstrous creatures that have electronics jutting out from gooey flesh, looking like Doom DLC baddies that never made the final cut. But the meanest of all is the Dweller, a metal-tentacled worm thing that sucks the energy from its victims and leaves them grey and zombie-like. So, we’ve got vampiric monsters, robo-zombies, and (used-to-be-Megatron) Galvatron in typically off-his-nut form, save an almost touching pause when he leaves his loyal Cyclonus to be drained – what’s not to like here? The Dweller In The Depths is a one-shot classic that draws inspiration from HP Lovecraft. Its writer, Paul Dini, would go on to be a senior contributor to Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond. Oh, and the Batman games.
While we’re on the subject of Galvatron being a few electrodes short of an all-you-can-eat buffet of whatever Transformers like to chow down on (another round of pink Energon?), Webworld finds the character at his barmiest. I mean, you’d have a few disconnections in the brain area too if you were actually two robots in one – a mean, merciless leader in the here and now and a meaner, but slightly more lenient equivalent in the pre-Movie past. The sparks are flying, and Cyclonus doesn’t like it. Galvatron’s right-hand man is subsequently tricked by the scheming Quintessons into taking his boss to the planet of Torkulon – effectively a living psychiatric ward. The five-faced manipulators’ plan: to have the erratic Galvatron lobotomised. Galvatron doesn’t just escape, but by connecting to the planet’s core he learns of its weakness, and sets about ensuring that no further patients will come its way. There’s some prescience to the Len Wein- (Swamp Thing, X-Men) and Diane Duane (Star Trek)-written story; its suggestion of one computer corrupting another is a malware warning from the mid-1980s, beamed towards an ever-connected future. It’s pretty funny, too, as Transformers goes.
Another great one-shot from season three, Call Of The Primitives wipes out all of its players to leave just those robots who turn into animals left. They, both Autobot and Decepticon, are summoned to some forgettable space rock where they’re challenged by a being made of pure energy, Tornedron – a being that gets the better of the lot of them, including the giant Deception dinosaur/base, Trypticon. The massive robot’s collapse proves to be this new enemy’s undoing, though, as his almighty frame hides Grimlock from Tornedron’s attentions. Emerging (with weirdly beefed-up arms) to a scene of defeated allies and rivals alike, the Dinobot leader sets off to quite literally reverse this unfortunate series of events. There are WHAT? moments – this whole Unicron creation story is pretty ropey – but the anime-style artwork and the fact that it marks the final appearance of the Dinobots (sob) makes Call Of The Primitives one of the first episodes anyone should turn to after seeing The Movie.
Just seven? OK, we’ll close with the first post-Movie return of the bot that got all the kids crying, Optimus Prime. Although, if his death was the stuff of nightmares in cinemas, his reanimated appearance in Dark Awakening will only cause further bedtime distress. Another season-three episode with roots in horror, pretty unusual for a show aimed at kids, Dark Awakening opens by riffing on the Ultra Magnus-commanded shuttle separation of The Movie, and lands a crew of Autobots on their own space-drifting mausoleum – where, of course, Optimus is up and about as a zombie, with a plan that he’s not entirely clear about but that definitely spells disaster for his former friends. Turns out that the Quintessons are up to their tricks again, and while present-leader Rodimus Prime eagerly gives up the Matrix of Leadership to the stumbling Prime, it soon becomes evident that Something Isn’t Right. There’s a surprisingly violent fight between Prime and (the now reverted) Hot Rod, the suggestion that Springer and Acree are an item, and Prime ‘dies’ all over again. Daniel cries some more, too. Someone, please, put the child out of his misery. (You were close, Snapdragon, but not close enough.)