Fandom Is a Long Time Coming*
Fun fact everybody: I’ve been on the internet since 1995. The internet was a very different place back then, but fandoms were always there from the start. Back in those days, when teenaged me was not doing teenaged things on the internet (ask your parents), I dailed up to the internet to reconnect with my childhood. I loved Transformers as a kid. I still am a fan of the franchise. I even won a Wikia Qwizards contest about that very subject, so I think I know a thing or two about the subject. I remember watching TV on a Saturday morning and a toy commercial came on. It was all done in CGI and featured a bat flying across a jungle when it’s suddenly attacked by an alligator. Both turn into robots and begin fighting. “From deep under the skin, lurks the robot within!” boomed the announcer as children played with this new line of Transformers toys. The Beast Wars had begun, and it was a game changer for the Transformers franchise. This new toyline was followed by an (eventually) popular CGI cartoon produced by Mainframe Entertainment. Some 20 years later, everyone looks back at the Beast Wars fondly, but let me tell you something: In 1996 everyone hated it. As great as fandoms can be, they can also be a pretty toxic place, particularly when something happens that changes the status quo of a beloved childhood memory.
That was the case in 1996; fan sites on Geocities screamed with seething outrage. The alt.binaries.transformers newsgroup (again, ask your parents) was a massive pool of fuming rhetoric. “Trukk Not Monkey” memes started up as fans complained how the hero of the series turned into a gorilla instead of a big rig.
Never had there been so heated a debate since the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Groups like the “Bring Back Transformers Foundation” petitioned television networks and Hasbro to bring back the original Robots in Disguise. Through it all, nobody was really considering this new iteration of the franchise through an objective lens. With each new episode, fans howled bloody murder about how their beloved franchise was being trampled under its feet. No matter what they did, it was not enough to appease fans… Until an episode of the cartoon titled “Possession” came out. That story featured one of the Predacons being possessed by the ghost of Starscream, one of the primary bad guys from the original Transformers. Suddenly, fans were cautiously interested, because the Holy Grail of Generation One was evoked. With the second season, the entire storyline being developed was derailed in favor of turning Beast Wars into a time travel story that tied into the original Transformers. Suddenly, Beast Wars, wasn’t so bad. It was the annoying little brother who was finally allowed to play basketball with the big kids because it proved it could slam dunk. “You’re not so bad after all.”
Everything was fine until Beast Machines came out. Beast Machines went a step further with the whole “robots into animals” thing that really irked fans (I’ll talk about this another time). Suddenly what was loved was hated a lot. This sort of reaction continued any time there was a new iteration of Transformers released to the public. From Japanese cartoons imported during the Anime boom of the early 2000s, to Michael Bay’s Hollywood blockbuster Transformer films, every time these new iterations were compared to the original Generation One series, and none could stand up to the original.
If this image makes you angry consult a doctor. You might need to get a life.
With all this focus on a franchise that is over 30 years old, you have to wonder, just how great was Generation One. Really. Seriously. Objectively. Were all the subsequent iterations worth all the heavy criticism? Good question! Nostalgia is a funny thing ladies and gentlemen; it derails objectivity and I think it blinds us from some bitter truths, which I am about to lay bare to you today. So buckle up kiddies, here are FIVE reasons the original Transformers were not as great as you remember them…
1. The Animation
The biggest problem with the Generation One cartoon was the inconsistent animation. Sources state that a total of seven animation studios were contracted or sub-contracted to rush this show into production. This caused a lot of sloppy animation and a plethora of visibly embarrassing mistakes.
Considering that Hashiro spent 12 hours a day bent over a drawing board to animate this half hour toy commercial, I think we can excuse him for drawing the wrong insignia on Soundwave.
When you had many hands doing the animation and a tight production schedule, that didn’t leave a lot of time to do the job properly. This was also the 1980s, so this was all done by hand. As a result you often saw very different animation styles from episode to episode.
What’s worse is that the inconsistencies weren’t just between episodes, they were between entire scenes of the same episode. They rushed this into production so fast that they didn’t even have time to coordinate animation teams to make everything match up properly. The best example of this is the season one episode “Roll For It”.
Body image issues are epidemic among Transformers due to their constantly changing proportions.
Not enough evidence for you? Okay nay-sayer, you’re forcing me to bring out the big guns: How about 99% of Transformers season 3?
More like season DGAF
The writers took huge strides to create a certain level of continuity and galaxy-spanning storylines that season, but it was constantly marred by horrible animation. That particular season was a rush job slammed together mostly by Korean animation studio AKOM. It is notorious for characters having inconsistent size scales, incorrect coloring, and various unforgivable continuity errors. It’s like they didn’t care to do any sort of fact checking which is the only explanation for dead characters appearing in later episodes, or (more commonly) Autobots seen in groups of Decepticons and vice-versa, or (every now and then) combiners standing right next to their gestalt forms. The only decently animated episode that whole season was “Call of the Primitives”, but on that note…
2. A Lot of Plots Were Kind of Dumb
Another regular complaint old school Trans-Fans give newer iterations of the Transformers is that the stories aren’t intelligent enough. Everything from Beast Wars to Cybertron had stories that G1 fans called out for being just too silly. They blew a gasket when Michael Bay’s movies featured robots with gapped teeth, who peed on people and farted.
Don’t get me wrong, the original series had some very thought provoking episodes that tackled some pretty adult concepts: the dangers of blind religious faith, gambling addiction, subliminal advertising, war profiteering, and a commentary on psychology trends of the 1980s. Between these, and the stories that were obviously meant to push new toys, you also had a bunch of really dumb episodes.
Not buying it? Well lets do a little comparison kiddies:
The Premise of the Low Road: Other than the typical complaints about Beast Wars (TRUKK NOT MUNKY!) this episode got a lot of flack for the fact that the story was entirely based on hacky visual humour. In this story, Rhinox is infected with an Energon Discharge Virus (yes, really) that causes him to sneeze explosive blasts of Energon. At one point in the episode, Rhinox learns that he can sustain himself by reverting to Beast Mode and eating wild beans. The story ends with Rhinox defeating the Predacons with a massive Energon Fart.
Admittedly, I haven’t seen a blue flame like this since college.
The Complaints Against This Episode: Fans didn’t like an entire episode that was entirely about comic relief. How dare they resort to silly fart jokes! This is a beloved half-hour toy commercial! Treat it with respect! The argument was that Generation 1 never ever got this silly. Ever. Funny you should mention that because…
What’s the Deal About Kremzeek! Again?: This story was about the Decepticons working on some energy-draining device. Something goes wrong, and BOOM, suddenly they created this cute (but annoying) little energy-draining imp called Kremzeek. Kremzeek is then unleashed upon the Autobots and make their lives a literal pain in the ass.
I wasn’t mincing words.
The wacky antics that ensue is a trip to Japan where the Autobots and their ally Dr. Yoshikawa try to stop the little pest. Ultimately, they send Kremzeek packing back to the Decepticons. Sadly, the Autobots have more work cut out for them when they discover another Kremzeek was cooking inside Blaster like an Easy Bake Oven and goes on the loose again.
So Why Isn’t “Kremzeek!” Different?: When you boil down these two comparisons to the basic elements of storytelling, you have your trigger (the Energon virus and the creation of Kremzeek) and the resulting quest (finding a cure and stopping Kremzeek from trashing Japan) to the resolution, both tales rely heavily on lowbrow humour. Whereas “The Low Road” literally takes the low road with toilet humour, Kremzeek is rife with slap-stick humour. It’s like comparing Dumb and Dumber to the Three Stooges; the same lowbrow concept delivered in different ways. In lieu of sneezes and farts, we got Jerry Lewis-level wackiness and horrible racial stereotypes.
And on that subject we come to our next comparison…
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen vs Various G1 Episodes
What was this one about again?: The second of Michael Bay’s Transformers films revolved around the awakening of a long lost Decepticon called the Fallen. The Decepticons were looking to revive him while the Autobots were looking to stop him. Also a robot humps Megan Fox’s leg, because we can’t have nice things can we?
Seriously though, who hasn’t had this dream before?
What it’s criticised for: Well, a lot of things really. The lowbrow humour could have made it a candidate above, but the other criticism from fans about this one is the depiction of the characters Skids and Mudflap. Two comic relief characters who are basically the Jar Jar Binks of the Transformers universe. They are walking (or rolling) racial stereotypes, particularly Skids with his buck teeth.
“Yeah, this album is dedicated to all the Autobots that told me
I’d never amount to nothin’, to all the people that lived above the
Energon that I was hustlin’ in front of that called the Guardians on
me when I was just tryin’ to make some chips to charge my brother,
and all the ‘bots in the struggle, you know what I’m sayin’?”
G-1 fans will decry this movie for being racist and that their beloved G1 cartoon never went that angle. Funny you should mention that….
It’s a Small World (of Intolerance): The Generation One cartoon has a lush history of reducing different ethnicities to horrible caricatures. While you had strong African-American characters like Jeff the astronomer from “War of the Dinobots”, that doesn’t count because Jeff was American.
It was when it came to dealing with other cultures where the G1 could have used some sensitivity training. Latinos were regularly depicted as superstitious peasants or car jackers. The Japanese were regularly depicted as brainy scientists who spoke only in broken Engrish. Russians were grumpy Cold War sabre rattlers. Can we even begin to talk about how offensive Lord Chumley is to the British? Even alien races were depicted as proxies for crude stereotypes. “The Face of the Nijika” presented a horrible depiction of Mongolians, and I’m pretty sure the Skuxxoid’s are basically what happens when you throw Buck Rogers chic, anti-Semitism, and a David Icke book into a blender. Even some of the Transformers themselves are horrible racial stereotypes. The character Outback is basically Crocodile Dundee on wheels, for example.
Skuxxoid’s were basically Ferengi’s with guns
If that’s not bad enough, the depiction of the Muslim nations in the original Generation One cartoon is repellent. There were three episodes in particular, “Aerial Assault”, “Five Faces of Darkness Part 1” and “Thief in the Night” that reduce an entire culture to oil-producing Laurence of Arabia extras ruled by a wacky dictator. Oh, did I mention these stories all take place in the fictional nation of Carbombya?
To be honest this episode took place in the year 2006, which was a fairly accurate depiction of America’s opinion about Muslims in the future.
Oh and let’s not forget that they keep track of how many camels they have in country, and the gracious ruler Abdul Fakkadi offers Rodiumus Prime some choice livestock for saving his country from the oil-hungry Decepticons.
Any Robots in Disguise Episode vs The Girl Who Loved Powerglide/Sea Change (G1 Season 2)
People liked us for like 30 seconds until they actually WATCHED the show.
Okay, what’s the problem with Robots in Disguise: A lot of fans constantly mocked this series for not being “serious enough” when compared to the original cartoon (which, as shown above, has been clearly debunked.) They also didn’t like that a running joke in the series featured the character Side Burn’s (sort of) romantic interest in the female character Kelly, who was basically one of the many sources of comic relief during the course of the series.
“This show is just too Japanese!” – Transfan with no sense of irony.
A romantic interest between a robot and a human being? A lot of old time fans thought this was really dumb. Which is an interesting thing to point out because….
Wait a minute: There are two Generation 1 episodes that basically take this direction of awkward romances. First of all, “The Girl Who Loved Powerglide” is a story about how the Autobot of the same name protecting wealthy society girl Astoria Carlton-Ritz, who has been targeted by the Decepticons because of an energy formula hidden in her necklace. What starts as an annoying escapade where a talking jet has to babysit a spoiled rich kid, quickly becomes the Grease of Transformers because the two fall in love with each other. Very Romeo and Juliet, but instead of the usual death-by-poison, it ends with a tearful goodbye and Powerglide revealing he has a little mechanical heart inside (awwww!)
You may be able to deny the nostalgia in your memory but not the nostalgia from your heart.
On the other hand, you have “Sea Change,” where the character Seaspray falls in love with a human slave girl. Things get even wackier when they hop into a magical pond that changes them into whatever they want. Seaspray turns himself in a hunky merman to impress the lady he’s falling for. It’s a heartwarming tale that basically preaches that you can overcome any body image issue and win the girl of your dreams so long as you have a magic pond that can turn you into the merman equivalent of Fabio.
Cosplay is not consent! Cosplay is not consent!
3. Humans Were All Over the Place
Another frequent complaint about newer Transformers series was, according to fans, there was too much focus on human characters. For a series about space robots that transform into vehicles, why were they focusing on human characters so much? This argument was most vocal when Transformers: Armada came out. To be fair, Armada was basically Hasbro’s answer to Pokémon, where the Autobots and Decepticons were fighting to collect a third set of robots called Mini-Cons. It was an entire series based around a gimmick, I’ll give you that.
You… you don’t like me? But I’m collectable!
Characters that appeal to the target audience? DO NOT LIKE!
This was also a complaint about the Michael Bay movies: Fans felt that there was too much focus on Sam Witwicky and his relationship with Mikaela Banes and the antics of Sam’s intrusive-almost-to-the-point-of-creepy parents. Let’s not forget other incidental characters as Seymour Simmons of Sector Seven or expert hacker Glen Whitmann. Fans didn’t like how each movie was basically “intergalactic robot war” mixed with “a boy and his car” story, or “young man goes to college” or “young man gets completely new girlfriend who isn’t Megan Fox something, something, there was Leonard Nemoy in this one so that was sort of cool”.
To be fair some of the criticism was warranted: this is a plot point.
When Transformers: Animated came out, this complaint was compounded by the fact that not only were the Transformers hanging out with a little girl named Sari, but they also battled a plethora of human supervillains like the Angry Archer, Professor Princess, and Master Disaster (to name a few) in between fighting Decepticons.
On the other hand, Bronies were totally on board.
Whenever a story involved humans, in the mind of a Transfan = too many humans. Generation One never had that.. Oh wait a minute…. It totally did!
Youse space robots need roommates? Me and the kid are looking for cheap rent.
I think people seem to forget that the Autobots were regularly hung out with an oil rig worker and his teenaged son. Not enough for you? Let’s talk about Chip Chase, the computer whiz in a wheelchair who regularly out computes the super-smart space robots? Spike’s girlfriend Carly? Dr. Archeville, the crazy mad scientist? How about Senator Burger, the Drumpf-like politician? Raul, the Latino stereotype who won our hearts with his sick break-dancing moves? Or how about Daniel Witwicky, the progeny of Spike and Carly, whose antics neutered Grimlock into a comedic stooge? Marissa Fairborne anyone? How about Cobra Command—er I mean “Snake”? There were three entire episodes about humans turning into robot heads and guns for crying out loud.
Human’s on the brain? More like humans IN the brain!
The fact of the matter here kids, is that human characters have been an integral part of the Transformers narrative. In fact, the only series that have a distinct lack of human characters were the previously-maligned Beast Wars/Machines series (unevolved anthropoids don’t count!) Even the Transformers comic books have a very strong presence of human characters.
MUNKY NOT TRUKK!
Human characters are necessary because when it comes to giant space robots, particularly giant space robots that are marketed for children, you need to humanise these characters. You also need to make them inclusive to the target audience. From the perspective of a child, how cool would it be to hang out with Optimus Prime? He is an iconic hero; what kid wouldn’t want to? Heck a grown man legally changed his name to Optimus Prime not that long ago. There is an appeal here. The whole idea of human characters brings the characters “down to Earth” so to speak (pardon the pun). Without human characters interacting with them, they lose any means for the viewing audience (who are children) to relate to these characters. Transformers is not unique in this regard. Take a look at Superman. They are constantly telling stories where they bring him down to a human level so we can better understand what drives the character. If writers didn’t do this, how could you keep a franchise from growing stale?
Who needs to be relatable? Ammiright?
The inclusion of humans (who are frail and weak by comparison to the Transformers) in these stories helps reinforce the roles of the characters. It helps cement the Autobots as good guys (because they always save humans in danger) and the Decepticons as bad guys (for terrorising them or using them as pawns).
There’s no room for subtly.
Optimus Prime would not be half the heroic character he is regarded as if there wasn’t a driving compassion to protect those who are a great disadvantage against their mutual enemies. Sure, Prime is a Cybertronian war hero trying to stop a planetary civil war between two factions of his people, but even though Autobots are not born fighters, they can defend themselves and have been doing it for millions of years. What really makes these characters likable is their overall compassion for other sentient beings who can’t defend themselves.
The Transformers are “living machines;” they have human feelings and emotions, and the only way you can properly define that to audiences is by showing them interact with the beings they are imitating.
5. It Was Always About Selling Toys
Admittedly really awesome toys.
Okay time to ram it home: The whole point of the Transformers cartoon was to sell toys. Plain and simple. In 1980, the Federal Trade Commission, under the Regean administration, lifted the restrictions on what was acceptable for children’s television programming. This allowed television shows to be developed based on commercial products like toys. Before the 1980s, toys were based on television shows, not the other way around. Hasbro was one of the first toy companies out of the gate to take advantage of these new rules. The whole point of the show was primarily to sell toys. This was the case across all three seasons.
That’s not saying that subsequent iterations of the Transformers franchise weren’t about selling toys, but the point I’m getting at is that the impetus to sell these products superseded any other quality controls.
Try to remember that the idea of a television show based on a line of toys was a relatively new thing when the original Transformers cartoon first came on the air. The idea of a franchise having a long-running continuity or that people would actually care about the characters and the stories behind them was an unknown quantity. The Transformers were originally a gamble, a Japanese import that could have floundered big time. They put the toys on the shelf, they tried a television series and a comic book and hoped for the best. But this was all new ground to be broken at the time. So the focus was all sell, sell sell.
You know what else sells? Sex! Hence the trigger placement.
While you can forgive the fact that they were treading new ground, it doesn’t negate the fact that the primary purpose was to sell toys. They approached it with the same subtly as a used car salesman. It’s the only reason why there were so many mistakes, why the stories weren’t stellar, why there were so many production flaws. Why this series was so sloppily put together is a testament to the lack of regard Hasbro had. These were half hour toy commercials as far as they were concerned and that was all the effort they put into it. This was the case right until the very end of the series. The final three episodes of the series, according to writer David Wise, introduced a new character every 28 to 90 seconds.
It wasn’t until Beast Wars came out that Hasbro finally realised how important it was to properly cultivate a franchise, to put care an attention into the quality of they were putting into a show, and build their franchise based on peripheral media.
At the end of the day, the failures of the Generation One cartoon were lessons learned that made future iterations better and better. If the level of quality that was put into the Generation One cartoon as they did with the shows they make today it would have never see the light of day on television. It’s embarrassingly bad.
If you read all of this and are mad, I think you’re missing the point of this little exercise. The entire point of this article is to point out that the quality of the things we grew up with were not as great as our nostalgic memories tend to profess. I’m certainly not saying that the original cartoon shouldn’t be liked, or was terrible. It just wasn’t that good. But here’s the thing: It’s what you grew up with. It’s what I grew up with. I have a soft spot for the original Transformers cartoon, blemishes and all.
At the end of the day, nothing new that comes out can be compared to memories of nostalgia. Someone complaining about the newest iteration of Transformers is like a your grandparents complaining about not understanding new music.
What I’m saying, Transfans, is this: You’re getting old and the world is moving on without you. You’re already a fan. In order to sustain a franchise, they need to reach out to new fans. You’re not the little kid that Transformers is trying to market to. What you liked as a kid doesn’t translate into something that children today will like. That’s why everything is so different than what you remember. So, you don’t feel included, and it is the lack of inclusiveness that makes you so upset and that affects your objectivity.
It’s that lack of objectivity that prevents you from really enjoying anything new. I’m not saying all the new iterations have been great, but there have been some passably decent series that have come out since.
Here’s the thing folks: At the beginning of this article, I stated that I had been part of the Transformers fan community since 1995. That was true until 2010. Then I took a big step back. The main reason is the amount of negativity that revolves around the fan base. Many fans around my age are just so bitter and negative. It’s toxic. I had to step out of it because negative angry people like that are just not healthy. It should say a lot about your fan base when you’re actually driving people away.
If you’re a staunch Generation One fan who has hated everything since 1987, I feel really sorry for you. You spend so much exhausting time complaining about everything that doesn’t fit your ridged view. It reminds me of something comedian Patton Oswalt once said about a guy in his audience. He was talking about a heckler who interrupted the setup of one of his jokes, but I think it’s appropriate here. He was in the middle of setting up a joke and this idiot in the back of the room started shouting. Patton berated this man from ruining something everyone else was enjoying and finished his rebuke with a line I think really applies here. To the heckler he said: “You’re going to miss everything cool and die angry.”
More appropriate words have never been spoken.
[This article was originally published on June 20, 2016]