Television

The Prime Example

Prime's Optimus PrimeA common complaint among Transformers fans is that the more modern shows are “too kiddy,” which is a lot like punching yourself in the face and saying “stop hitting yourself!” Transformers was, is, and probably always will be primarily for kids. Which is for the best. Lifelong fans are born every minute, and they’ll have their own version of Transformers to love.

And while the version I grew up with is G1, I have come to love the current adaptation…differently? More?

Prime's MegatronFor starters, Transformers: Prime is about as adult as a kids show is likely to get. An Autobot dies in the very first episode, then is brought back as a mindless techno-zombie, much to the horror of his comrades. Megatron, while still evil and megalomaniacal, is more subtle, more sinister, smarter. He is actually shown to respect his rival Optimus Prime in some twisted way. It all works to make him a more credible threat, someone to be genuinely feared. In fact, Megatron nearly wins in the series’s opening storyline, re-animating every fallen bot on Cybertron into an army of the undead. And when it becomes clear that Starscream only has treachery on his mind, Megatron is fully prepared to execute him. By hook and by crook, Starscream escapes, but he is no longer welcome among the Decepticon ranks.

On the Autobot side, the cast is smaller. Rather than having a seemingly-unlimited number of characters that could pop in at any time, Prime focuses instead on five heroic Cybertronians, Optimus, Bumblebee, Arcee, Ratchet, and Bulkhead. The smaller crew allows for a lot more exploration of character. Arcee in particular is a troubled soul, with not one but two of her former partners brutally murdered by the ‘Cons and a particularly nasty history with Airachnid. Ratchet (voiced beautifully by the fantastic Jeffrey Combs) is some sort of cross between G1’s Ratchet, Wheeljack, Ironhide, and Kup, a crotchety old inventor and medic who serves as Optimus’s right-hand bot.  Bulkhead is the good-natured wrecking-ball, a kind of Ferdinand the Bull type. Bumblebee’s development is hampered by his inheritance of Movie Bumblebee’s inability to speak.

Bumblebee, Bulkhead, and ArceeAnd Optimus is…well…Optimus. Once again voiced by Peter Cullen, Prime’s Prime is still prone to idealism and stilted speeches. Everything is serious business, and the threat is always grave. But this Prime harbors no illusions as to what Megatron truly is. He won’t be tricked into leaving the planet out of some archaic sense of honor. Convinced Megatron was about to bring about some Cybertronian version of the End Times, Prime was thoroughly prepared to kill his old mentor and would have, too…had Unicron himself not intervened.

While still largely black-and-white, there are some glorious shades of gray on the fringes. Starscream currently operates as a wildcard, popping up and supporting whatever side best suits his current needs. Airachnid reluctantly joined, then very violently turned on the Decepticons. A human group of villains hunts ‘Bots and ‘Cons indiscriminately for their technology, forcing both sides to occasionally team up…or use the humans against each other.

There are, of course, still kids involved. Their inclusion is mandatory and thus largely nonsensical, but Prime does a decent job of making them seem relevant and  useful without overdoing it. Level-headed Jack leads the party and serves as a de facto partner to Arcee. Raph is a tech-savvy youth who can understand Bumblebee’s beepings and helps the Autobots interface with human computer systems. The most annoying one is Miko, a loud-mouthed fangirl who never wants to “stay at the base.” She could easily be more annoying, but her flaws are tempered by the fact that we know this girl on some level. None of us would want to be left behind when there’s a massive robot throwdown going on, and we’d be snapping pics with our cell phones too.

Miko, Agent Fowler, June, Raph, Ratchet, and JackThe animation for the show is beautiful. It’s a several cuts above nearly everything we’ve seen from any of the TV shows, and while certainly nowhere near as visually stunning and realistic as the movies were in their best moments, it does a lot more with less. The bots are surprisingly expressive with a great range of emotions and subtle facial movements. And, naturally, the fight scenes are amazing, dipping into just about every action movie choreography and cinematography trick in the book. The show’s technical needs occasionally cause large gaps in the airing of new shows, but it’s a small price to pay for the stunning results.

And voicework…damn. Already mentioned Cullen and Combs, but damn near everyone is great. Frank Welker is back as Megatron, Steve Blum is a convincingly sleazy Starscream. Ghostbusters’ Ernie Hudson breathes life into Agent Fowler. Clancy Brown, who was the voice for Lex Luthor longer than anyone, commands the evil “MECH” group. There’s even some Firefly love going on with both Adam Baldwin and Gina Torres voicing Decepticons.

About the only negative thing I can say about the show is that it’s on Hasbro’s “Hub Network,” which means I can’t watch it on my measly basic cable hookup, and I have yet to find less…ahem…savory ways of watching Season 2 that are very reliable. But even so, Transformers: Prime is a gift to those of us craving a more “adult” take on the franchise while still sticking close to the beloved G1 roots…and even improving on them.

Unicron...sort of.

And thus concludes the overlong “Transformers Week” here at Rhoades to Madness. I hope the Transfans among you have enjoyed it. As for the rest of you, I promise I’ll get back to other topics now.

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