- Referred to as The Transformers
- September 17, 1984 to November 11, 1987
- First run syndication
- Based upon Hasbro’s Transformers toy line
Two warring robot factions-the Autobots and the Decepticons-bring their eons long war to Earth.
The Transformers is the first-and in my opinion still the best-iteration of The Transformers concept. It gets more right than it gets wrong and for the limitations of a children’s cartoon from the 80s it still remains very satisfying and very enjoyable for me as an adult. I understand some of that is nostalgia, but with a combination of good animation for the time and stories written by writers who were largely involved in television or other material aimed at adults it still holds up.
The tone of the stories was never talked down to the audience, but visually certain things like Dr. Archeville who was that scientist from ‘The Ultimate Doom’ were clearly aimed at engaging the demographic that was also begging parents to purchase the toy line upon which the show was based.
While He-Man was a big deal, the miniseries which began The Transformers television series was an epic event if you were of the rate age demographic. This came out in the wake of Star Wars and increasing popularization of Japanese animation on television in the United States. It had elements of that and appealed to the kids who were still hooked on epic space battles.
One of the important elements to this was Optimus Prime. He was robot space dad to a lot of kids at the time. He was caring and paternal to the Autobot characters. He proceeded from a place of duty and honor. He was a genuinely good character that children could look up to. And I dare say with any voice other than Peter Cullen behind the character, the character would not have worked. Peter Cullen is as integral to The Transformers and the legacy of Optimus Prime as Kevin Conroy is to Batman: The Animated Series and Batman. In both instances it is nearly impossible to hear anyone else doing the character and not compare them.
As good as Optimus Prime was he would’ve been nothing if he didn’t have an equally evil counterpart in the Decepticons. Enter Megatron. The 80s had some of the best animated TV villains. They were not just bad. They bordered at times on genocidal-like Megatron! They reveled in the evil they did and felt that the ends justified the means whatever their goals were.
Megatron was selfish and sinister, and it certainly helped that he transformed into a gun. For some reason that he was a powerful energy blasting weapon made him just a little bit more evil. Not that he transformed into it that often which I guess had something to do with children’s standards at the time. Often he would fire his arm mounted cannon, and that was just so cool. Frank “I Have Been Around Forever and Have Been A Part Of Childhood Since The Dawn Of Time” Welker gave the character a sneer and just a hint of disdain.
While Prime had loyal Autobots, among them his confidant of Ironhide, Megatron had the scheming and just disloyal Starscream. As a kid I could never quite understand why he kept Starscream around. Starscream sought to undermine Megatron at every turn, yet at the end of the day he was still Megatron’s second in command. As an adult you can make some head canon that Megatron kept Starscream around as a scapegoat. If there was a failure then blame Starscream.
It didn’t escape my young ears that Starscream sounded just like Cobra Commander from G.I. Joe. But my young years also didn’t care. In both instances the voice worked perfectly. Not only was the voice for Starscream sniveling and cowardly, but it also conveyed the devious and underhanded nature of the character. There was a level of condescension in everything he said and an underlying cowardice as well.
The voice work in general for The Transformers was fantastic and stunningly perfect for each character. They communicated who and what they were. Jazz. Soundwave. Ironhide. Ratchet. Wheeljack. Grimlock. Rumble. All had great talent behind them. As wonderful as 2-D animation can be, its main limitation is that the actors are not on screen to convey the character through their actions. Much of how you understand the character must be accomplished through the voice alone. Many of these people are still working today or have made such an impact on the genre that their names are still held in high regard.
Especially engaging is that the stories were set against the backdrop of a million years old war. And more importantly it wasn’t the first war. The struggle between the Autobots a the Deceptions had ebbed and flowed for millions of years way back into deep time. One side briefly defeating the other, but neither side coming out decisively on top. It was a never-ending conflict punctuated by brief moments of peace.
Most of the stories were one off adventures. They had no message. Their saving grace was that they were driven by the characters. What we knew and understood about them was what drove the plot. Optimus Prime for example didn’t one day raise a big middle finger and go off on the Autobots just for a laugh in order to get a story.
Sometimes though they were romance stories (romance among robots worked like it did for us) or even had an environmental message from time to time. The Season 2 Episode 27 episode “The Golden Lagoon” has a strong message about the environment and how war can change a person as the episode’s main character of Beachcomber is forced to set aside his ideals in order to protect what he loves. That there was a message went over my head, but I was left thinking about deeper things by the end. And that’s another thing the show had going for it-quality storytelling.
Being essentially a 30-minute toy commercial, they had to introduce as many of the toys as they could as they came out. This caused potential continuity issues. In the pilot film/miniseries “More Than Meets the Eye” it was clear that only so many Autobots came to Earth. The thing was that by the end of Season Two there were a whole bunch of others active in the stories that were obviously not there when the Transformers first came to Earth. Where did they come from? Never really explained. You could assume they either showed up later or you never saw them until they came on screen the first time.
A few were created during the course of the series like the Stunticons, Aerialbots, or Dinobots but most walked on to the scene with no explanation. The Decepticons had the benefit of being in control of Cybertron so they could always pull forces from there, but the Autobots were not so fortunate. Any still on Cybertron like Alpha Trion were stuck. Let’s not talk about how when as the plot necessitated the Autobots were able to muscle their way onto the Decepticon’s spacebridge and past Shockwave.
The show lost a step or two with Season Three. Season Three was the continuation of the story after The Transformers: The Movie. Introduced were a whole bunch of new characters with a few leftovers from the preceding seasons involved. But that wasn’t the issue. At least not in my opinion.
Before Season Three the Autobots were the underdogs. They were fighting the good fight and trying to get back their home. Now they had control of Cybertron. The Deceptions were barely eking out an existence on a planet called Char. They were not a danger to overcome but more of a nuisance.
While Megatron was now Galvatron, he seemed to be a little goofier. Not in a comedic sense but in a campy evil sense. He wasn’t as dangerous as he once was. And the animation was not as quality as it previously had been. Then again, the toy line sales were not as monstrous as they once were so the budget was being cut. And it shows. The quality went down. Not that it was a terrible show, but it certainly lost that spark it once had.
The Quintessons-introduced in the film-were revealed to be the creators of the Transformers. The Transformers were originally a military and domestic line that rebelled under the cruelty of their creators. That was one heck of a revelation in my opinion. And though fantastical it makes much more sense than the use of space magic we get today.
The end of the series was essentially “The Return of Optimus Prime” in my opinion. That three-episode Season Four felt so disconnected in my opinion that I have trouble viewing it as part of this series even though it officially is.
The two-part “The Return of Optimus Prime” should also include “Dark Awakening” as the events of both are very connected. Not only did Prime comeback but he also saved the galaxy and brought an end to the long running war between the Autobots and Decepticons. If you bring him back that is most definitely the way to do it as well as wrap up a series.
The original Transformers series has everything you could possibly want. Action and adventure. Excitement. Great visuals. Great characters in great stories doing big things. Good is ultimately good and evil is ultimately evil. And it’s all written without talking down to the audience.
The original The Transformer series is an 80s toy commercial that still holds up today. It stands firmly on its own because it put the story first and aimed for quality. While the third season isn’t strong as the others (and the fourth should be ignored) overall it’s a fantastic bit of work. If you like The Transformers this is the version of the story you should check out. I can’t recommend it enough!
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