Feature: Transforming Saturday Morning TV

PrintE-mail Written by Grant Kempster

Life in the 1980s was so much simpler, especially if you were a sentient robot capable of nimbly transforming into varying modes of transportation (or inexplicably shrinking boom boxes). Energon was in plentiful supply (as were the supporting characters), getting home to Cybertron was like popping down the shops and every day wound up in a pitiful attempt at a final showdown that amounted to little more than a metallic game of conkers. Yes, everything was simpler back then. But why?

When Transformers first aired in September of 1984 (UK audiences would have to wait until 1985 to see Hasbro’s finest interrupt Roland Rat’s inane ‘Fonzie with a stroke’ brand of presenting), audience expectations were simple. After all, here was a 30-minute cartoon that was essentially an elongated advert for toys.  But the coalition behind the animated series (which included Sunbow, toy-makers Hasbro and even Marvel) knew exactly what they were doing.

A year prior to the emergence of Optimus Prime and co, another cartoon snuck onto screens across the world and set a new precedent. Not only was He-Man and the Masters of the Universe a gaudy promotion for Mattel’s toys, it was actually derived from them. For the first time, the merchandise was driving Saturday morning cartoons and that changed everything.

With the ‘more than meets the eye’ concept already in place, a simple (yet timeless) story was put together: Having fallen to Earth, remnants of an endless war on their own world, the Transformers continue their eternal struggle, with the evil faction vying for world domination while the good guys do their best to stop them. And frankly, that summed up the first 49 episodes. But then something amazing happened.

Having witnessed the unabashed devotion to brand Transformers, Hasbro decided to break new ground themselves by creating a theatrical animated movie. With a story and everything! Granted, writer Ron Friedman opted for the tried-and-tested ‘hero’s journey’ tale, but such creative laziness was practically imperceptible next to the kinetic animation, brand new characters and rousing (if deliciously cheesy) soft rock soundtrack.

Transformers: The Movie didn’t just prove to be a popular summer movie, it also changed the game for the subsequent third season of the TV show, although at a cost. Having taken the gamble of killing off the series’ lead characters in the movie, the third season forged ahead with its new cast and decided to do something else original. It created a plot arc.

By examining the origins of the Transformers’ creation (culminating in the much anticipated return of Optimus Prime), the series attempted to deliver a little big screen storytelling to small screen audiences. It was a bold move, but perhaps it was either too much for the tiny children’s brains, or maybe the audience the franchise had nurtured had moved on to pastures new. Whatever the reason, what is affectionately now known of as Generation One ended three episodes into its fourth season.

Well, I say ended. As you’ll notice as you read on, while it might have seemed like Transformers stayed in hiding until Michael Bay spurted them back onto the screen 20 years later, this is certainly not the case. In fact, to be honest, they’ve hardly left our screens (presuming you’d spent a large portion of the late 80s in Japan, that is).

In essence, the animated story continued thanks to Japanese manufacturer Takara who took it upon themselves to breath new life into the franchise with the advent of the slightly trippy Headmasters (weeny little Cybertronians who become the heads to their Transtector body units). The 35-episode run was, however, limited purely to Japanese television, and while it included characters we had come to know and love, it somehow managed to abuse their memory, sending off Rodimus to pastures new and killing off Prime again just for kicks.

If Transformers: The Headmasters seemed to distort our cherished memory, then what came next would provide the televisual equivalent of an acid nightmare. Transformers: Super-God/Chojin Masterforce (yes, that was its actual name), turned the dial up to 11 and didn’t just jump the shark, it orbited the thing. Having already introduced us to mini robots in Headmasters, Takara decided to go one better and give us Autobots and Decepticons that were parading around as humans. But wait, it gets better. Before long humans get in on the action, melding with Transformers to become super robot life forms known as Godmasters. There were 43 episodes of this mental monstrosity.

If only it ended there. Hanging around like the psycho girlfriend that won’t take a hint, Takara insisted on re-envisioning the show one final time with Transformers: Victory which, interestingly enough, decided to stop all the crazy robot/human penetration and go back to basics with stand alone episodes. The continuing slew of merchandise managed to sustain this for a 32 episode run (not counting the six clip shows), but it couldn’t carry their next project, Transformers: Zone, which didn’t make it past one episode.

If the Transformers foray into Japanese surrealistic story telling had proven anything, it was that the show seemed to work best when it was at its simplest. But it was a lesson learned too late, and it would be six years (not counting the pathetic attempt to reskin the Generation One series with dodgy CG) before we would see Prime on the small screen again. Although this time he would be a monkey.

In 1996, the concept of a reboot was almost unheard of and having had the franchise worked into a corner by Takara, Hasbro could only see one way forward for their ailing commodity: turn them into animals. Thus, Transformers: Beast Wars was born, featuring some familiar names but very unfamiliar forms, this time in all-new and exciting CGI! Over three seasons (totalling 52 episodes) the show not only gathered a strong core audience (mainly by retracing the footsteps of the original 1980s series), but also belied its initial brief of distancing itself completely from the Generation One canon, by thrusting its characters into the original story’s timeline for the finale.

Chiming in the new millennium and following hot on the heels of Beast Wars unexpected success was Transformers: Beast Machines. But this was no straight continuation. This self-professed ‘religious epic’ attempted to add gravitas to the story once more, ignoring the portend of previous incarnations, not to mention alienating hardcore fans by suggesting that Cybertron was once an organic planet. Unsurprisingly, this faired less well and once again sunk the franchise’s small screen exploits. At least as far as the Western world was concerned. Yes, that’s right, those cheeky chaps at Takara had been working their magic again behind the scenes.

Lets keep the tales of their two cell-animated Beast Wars series – Beast Wars II and Beast Wars: Neo – short (both of which were produced to plug the gaps between air dates of the CGI show in Japan). Suffice to say they bore little resemblance to the successful Western series – with the small exception of a cross over which featured in a theatrically released movie – but proved popular enough to run for 78 episodes collectively.

Like so many multi-facetted franchises that endure due to their unexpected success, 16 years into its lifespan Transformers found itself at breaking point. Unable to move forward in new directions or evolve into new unexplored forms (I don’t think anyone was ready for Transformers: Badger Force), Takara and Hasbro finally made the decision to reset the clock. Thus, Transformers: Robots in Disguise was born. It didn’t last long though, managing just one season. Yet while this incarnation of the Autobot and Decepticon’s epic war may not have hit the right note with fans old and new, it opened the door to the idea that not every incarnation needed to co-exist. Finally, Transformers had room to breath creatively and while Takara and Hasbro’s next project might not have made the same waves as their 1984 counterpart, they certainly paved the way towards its return to success.

Known by fans as the Unicron trilogy, Transformers: Armada, Transformers: Energon and Transformers: Cybertron once again rebooted the story, creating a 30-year story arc that saw the return of their planetary foe as well as nods to previous incarnations of the series. For the first time since the Generation One show ceased in the mid 1980s, Transformers as we once knew them were back in the mainstream eye.

Then there was Michael Bay. We’ll move on.

Rather than attempting to compliment Bay’s cinematic Transformer adventures, Hasbro decided to team up with Cartoon Network for the latest reinvention. The result was a glorious ode to Generation One that returned to the roots of the original show, yet with a very stylised and cartoony edge. By appealing to fans of the original show (who would now most likely be watching with their own kids), Transformers: Animated proved to be very popular. Although it would appear that there was still something missing? Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie had pulled in over $700 million, but those audiences clearly weren’t tuning in to watch the show.

So as the last of the Transformers movies takes its final bow in cinemas, is it any surprise to see a more Bay-centric animated show approaching our screens in Transformers: Prime? Not really.

What Transformers has learned over the 27 years that it has been on our screens, is that in order to survive it needs to roll with the punches, evolving to suit the market and never be afraid to start again if things go a bit, well, Takara. With modern day storytelling, its unlikely that we’ll ever see another show that spins round in circles as the Generation One show did, but with any luck Prime will strike the right balance to keep fans grinning for a while to come. Besides, no matter what, we all love robots that change into stuff. And as long as the story is simple enough for the kids to follow yet engaging enough to keep them watching, Hasbro will undoubtedly continue rolling them out.

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