While tonight’s Showcase entry has been available streaming on other sites and through numerous home video releases, plus airing on Discovery Family on and off, I haven’t been able to show it until recently. So if for some reason you haven’t watched the original Transformers cartoon, you are so long overdue, and I can help with that.
The Transformers began as a three episode miniseries, later titled “More Than Meets The Eye”, before given a full series launch as a weekend show in syndication. The show would move to weekdays in season two and ended as it started, with a three episode miniseries entitled “The Rebirth”. Tonight we get to watch that first miniseries thanks to the Hasbro Pulse YouTube channel. (Use the homepage season playlists since for some reason they’re really out of order in the regular videos list, even splitting multiparters between other uploads.) Why it’s not on the official Transformers YouTube channel I really couldn’t tell you.
Four million years ago (give or take a week) war had broken out between two factions of robotic lifeforms on Cybertron. The peace-loving Autobots sought not to be the staging area for conquering the universe while the Decepticons refused to realize running an entire universe is a bit difficult. Long story about to be seen, the leaders of the two factions and their soldiers on the toy shelves with them end up on the planet Earth, waking up in 1984 to battle for the energy resources lost during the war. Led by Optimus Prime, the Autobots waged their battle to destroy the evil forces of Megatron and his Decepticons. (That sounds oddly familiar.) Enjoy!
The early show may have featured Cybertronian vehicle modes for some of the characters (including one that we’ll get into over at The Clutter Reports this weekend) but since only a handful use them on-screen I understand why Floro Dery, the character model designer, just kept the robot modes matching their later Earth modes. Well, more or less since for whatever reason he didn’t really bother to match the toys nearly as well as I would have liked. This set the stage for what Transformers would look like once Hasbro and Takara started making original toys for The Transformers: The Movie (which thanks to Fathom Events I got to see in the theater for the first time on Tuesday for the 35th anniversary of the film) and beyond. (The early toys were from other Japanese toylines, including a few not owned by Takara, like Jetfire’s Macross Valkyrie fighter origins.) It took a lot longer for the toy engineering to catch up, thanks to Hasbro acquiring Kenner and later trying to match the movie aesthetics from the Bay films in toy form.
It’s interesting what’s survived to this day. Autobots lost the power of flight right after this miniseries, except for Sideswipe’s jetpack and later Autobots with plane or rocket alt modes. Meanwhile the Decepticons kept their ability throughout the series, with the episode “War Dawn” even showing that Orion Pax, the Autobot that would become Optimus Prime, admiring them for that ability. I guess there was enough time between wars that he didn’t know what a Decepticon was.
Then there are the abilities of the Transformers that could be seen as superpowers. While they came from technology you had Trailbreaker’s force field, Mirage’s ability to turn invisible, Skywarp’s teleporting, Hound’s holograms, and so on. This has mostly disappeared from future iterations of Transformers media along with individualized weapons, while integrated weapons and place to store them would become more prominent, if only because it was one less thing to lose from the toy when not in robot mode. Since Marvel Comics were behind the original lore, the Transformers having “superpowers” and special gear is not surprising but as Hasbro took over or let other media companies continue the multiversal lore these went away, for better or worse.
And yet “Energon Cubes” would become a huge part of the lore. Seen here as something Soundwave came up with to convert Earth energy for easy transport, Energon has gone on to become the power source and lifeblood of Cybertronians, existing naturally in ore, crystal, and liquid-like forms throughout the multiverse. Other forms of energy can be converted into a sort of artificial form of Energon, but that’s brought up less and less as the franchise moves on. Autobots working with human allies, even in stories where one or both factions keep the war on Earth a secret, is also the norm, and it makes perfect sense. If you’re on an alien world, making allies of the locals in your war is a good idea. While this is primarily an Autobot thing even the Decepticons have tried it a time or two in their own way…by force usually. And of course transforming, where Hasbro has found new ways to transform to keep the franchise fresh over the years, and have recently even begun revisiting old favorite ideas like combination and Headmasters.
I sometimes wonder if Starscream’s goal of overthrowing Megatron isn’t just to stop him from insulting Starscream at every opportunity. One of the later comic writers had a good idea where Megatron is actually trying to teach Starscream how to be a better leader. Also notice how when Mirage invades the Decepticon ship Starscream’s first goal becomes “get rid of the Autobot intruder before he destroys the ship, and Megatron’s first goal is still “get revenge on Starscream”. It makes you wonder despite Starscream’s incompetence, which we see in later episodes, who really has the best intentions of the Decepticon cause in mind. Other versions seem to suggest Megatron is obsessed with his own power over the Decepticon cause. Sadly no other version has ever played that angle of their association.
The original series is dated in some areas and the animation errors got worse when the show went into syndication in seasons 2 and 3 as Toei needed a back-up studio who wasn’t nearly as good to make the minimum amount of episodes for a season (nowadays Netflix releases five episodes and calls it a season and some TV channels aren’t much better) and went with one who wasn’t as good. Season 3 was probably the hardest hit by this. The show would later be re-released as Transformers: Generation 2, to match the toyline. Old episodes were given extra flashy computer transitions “through the magic of the Cybernet Space Cube”, which did fix a few errors in this miniseries, like when Megatron appears to talk through Prime when ordering the Decepticons to attack the Autobots on their ship, but the rest of the random episodes were made worse as the computer “enhancements” were tossed in willy nilly and the end result was more of a distraction than a repair job.
As stated, the whole series is available on home video (currently through Shout Factory in the US as of this article) and various streaming services, including YouTube via Hasbro Pulse. There may be dated elements but I think overall the show holds up, if only as historical reference of where the Transformers animation franchise began. I’m hoping they’ll work with Shout Factory and Takara Tomy to bring the Japanese G1 shows and the other shows (probably not the first Robots In Disguise depending on who owns that but maybe an official sub of Car Robots?) to the channel as well…if only so I can use them in future Saturday Night Showcases.