Television

The First Generation

Transformers Week on Rhoades to Madness begins in an unexpectedly appropriate place: The Beginning.

The roots of my geekdom were sown early in life when a little show hit the airwaves in 1984 about a high-stakes battle between good and evil waged on Earth by extraterrestrial robots that could shapeshift into vehicles. Transformers (Generation One) was probably the geekiest genre mash-up ever conceived, and this was three decades before geeky genre mash-ups would become all the rage. I mean you have robots, aliens, cars, and planes as the main focus, and later the series layered on ninjas, pirates, bounty hunters, zombies, dinosaurs, and (robot) girls. Throw in the fact that it is essentially Japanese and you had nearly anything a geek could want in entertainment.

It is no wonder, then, that as all of us born and raised with energon flowing through our veins have reached an age where we drive what is both trendy and popular, that the Transformers franchise is enjoying triumphant success nearly 30 years after it debuted.

Well, it is some wonder, actually. Let’s be frank, Transfans, G1 was conceived as little more than a commercial for retooled transforming toys absorbed from other lines. The animation was crude and rushed even for the era. Much has been made of bots suddenly wearing the wrong colors and voices coming out of the wrong characters. The storylines were ridiculous at best, almost surreal at worst. But somehow, some way, G1 became more than the sum of its parts – more than met the eye.

At its core, G1 – and all of the Transformers series – is a battle between good and evil. And this being the 1980s, a time before such a thing as “shades of grey” was generally explored in mainstream entertainment, especially children’s shows, G1 was all about that battle. There was no angst, no rocks or hard places to choose between, no characters that straddled the line between virtuous and corrupt.

Optimus PrimeOptimus Prime was the hero’s hero, a shining knight wearing red and blue armor. He was GOOD. He was too good. His unfailingly honorable and honest way of looking at the world was both his greatest strength and his most punishing liability. It got the Autobots into about as many messes as it got them out of, and it often caused Optimus to pull his punches when they should have been their strongest. He seemed to look on the Decepticons not as craven, despicable, irredeemable creatures, but as bots who had simply lost their way…despite all evidence to the contrary.

MegatronMegatron – Prime’s opposite number – took advantage of this weakness on numerous occasions but could never capitalize on the Autobot leader’s starry-eyed idealism. Because Megatron, for all his evil and power and scheming and megalomania…was really slaggin’ stupid. For starters, he let the pathologically treacherous and incompetent Starscream hang around against pretty much everyone’s better judgement. There never was any attempt made at explaining just what ol’ Screamer brought to the Decepticons’ table, so Megatron pretty much looked like an idiot anytime he didn’t blast the little weasel into scrap.

That, and the schemes. Oh, the schemes! For all their brute force and appetite for destruction, the Decepticons never could come up with a straightforward plan of attack. Instead, they’d try and hypnotize humans at a dance club, or prop up some politician to help discredit and shame the Autobots, steal Random Earth Object X, ally with the “Sub-Atlanticans”, build giant purple griffins, or bring Cybertron into Earth’s orbit. These plans invariably fail because, hey, bad guys, but also because they were overwrought and insane. (Now I want to name a Transformer “Overwrought.”)

The Transformers: The Movie

Whole lotta killin’ and one little “shit.”

Then came The Transformers: The Movie, and things got even weirder. Optimus Prime and Megatron were essentially killed off, although Megatron STILL FUNCTIONS as a Unicron-altered version called Galvatron. Optimus is replaced by Rodimus Prime, who spends the rest of G1 wondering if he’ll ever be as good a leader as Optimus and never showing any signs that he will be. Galvatron, despite his sensible first act of vaporizing Starscream, proves to be even more unstable and batshit nuts than Megatron, making even the most hardline Decepticons wonder about him.

Then you had Wheelie and Blurr and Grimlock’s descent from brute to comic relief showing that as goofy as the first couple seasons of G1 were, they looked positively sensible next to the mess that followed. It is entirely possible that this mishandled attempt at mantle-passing is what has locked the Transformers franchise into the same basic shape for 28 years with little variation. Optimus and Megatron continue their never-ending battle across multiple universes and variations with no acceptable heirs in sight.

But despite or perhaps because of this stagnation, G1 triggered a virtual avalanche of successors, movies, games, comic books, and – of course – toys. Nostalgic 30-something geeks are currently being treated to an overwhelming amount of G1 love.

So as flawed and dopey as the original truly was, it certainly got something right. Great voice work, unforgettable characters, and a concept that captured the hearts and minds of kids everywhere turned the imperfect show into a perfect storm. I still adore it, even though my adult brain tells me it’s ridiculous and craves more mature things like a “coherent plot” or “rational characterization.” I even miss the famous Autobot/Decepticon symbol transitions and the “Transformers will return after these messages!” screens.

But I have grown up (somewhat), and as Transformers Week continues, I’ll tell you why another entry in the franchise has supplanted G1 in my mind – but not my heart – as the superior show. And no, it’s not the live-action movie series, but I’ll discuss those too. Also in the mix is the ever-growing legion of toys and my undying love for the tragically underappreciated Wheeljack.

Until then…

7 thoughts on “The First Generation

  1. Great article I’m still a big fan of Transformers. Jazz was always my favourite which is why I’m not a big lover of the live action movies. Never saw Beast Wars but Armada sucked. G1 all the way for me.

  2. Man, what are you doing talking about this rotten old show… ah, you know I’m kidding. You know I’ve got your back here, though I’m more than a little curious about this show you say has supplanted G1. Though I have to say a G1-style show with better writing would be pretty cool. (And I must admit, I have absolutely no idea where the TV franchise is right now.)

    And I will say there’s one possibly not-so-tiny thing you left out in your reasons of why Transformers hit so big to begin with. It’s not just that it’s Japanese in origin… it’s that it’s also American. It’s some of the big out-there ideas that Japan comes up with filtered into American sensibilities and American-style animation and comics. I strongly suspect that if they had just adapted a Japanese cartoon instead (which they could have done, even with the toyline merge) Transformers would have been more like Robotech or Voltron: remembered, and remembered fondly… but only remembered. Not current. It might have been “brought back” the way those programs and other 80s programs have been, but I don’t think it would have been the near-continuous franchise that it wound up being.

      • Robotech isn’t as well remembered as the others, no, but I did see that there was an animated movie (direct to video) made for it a while back. So it’s not completely forgotten. It’s definitely not in the league of Voltron, but it’s also not, say, Tranzor Z.

  3. I remember Voltron, but not Robotech I don’t think a great deal of those shows made it to UK shores. Go-bots did, mores the pity. I just never liked that show mainly because it followed Transformers G1 and wasn’t as good. The fact the main hero was a plane never sat right with me. If Transformers taught me anything it’s that fighter jets are evil.

  4. Pingback: Weekly Weblinks: Generals and Generations | Morgan on Media

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