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"The Transformers" Complete First Season: How Did a Show This Bad Launch a Franchise?

Please note the almost complete lack of Transformers cliché catch-phrases in this review.For fans of the Transformers, the famous robots in disguise, the newly released DVD set of the original TV show’s first season is a cause for celebration. The Transformers has been unavailable on home video since the original DVD release from Rhino went out of print, and knowing that the ever-reliable Shout! Factory had acquired the license was icing on the cake for fans.

It’s hard to believe that a quarter-century has passed since the public was introduced to the war between the noble, heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron. The quality of the 16 episodes released here is mixed, with some episodes looking decidedly better than others, but all showing signs of their age. Many episodes show film grain and slightly faded colors, even in the sharpest, best-restored episodes on these discs. However, without a deep-pocketed company willing to splurge for a full digital restoration, odds are this set is as good as it’s going to get for the foreseeable future. I’m not entirely sold on the decision to include the bumpers that demarcated the commercials when the show was originally broadcast, however. Most TV on DVD releases leave things like that out or set them aside for the bonus features. However, this Transformers set leaves them where they originally appeared when broadcast, and they feel slightly disruptive as a result. They are also rather repetitive, considering that there are only about a half-dozen distinct bumpers for all 16 episodes. All the episodes are given sensible chapter stops, allowing viewers to skip over opening and closing credits, and multi-part episodes even allow for continuous play (one opening and closing sequence and no “Next Episode” bumpers) if you select the “Play All” menu option—a very nice touch. Shout! has also restored several episodes from the edited versions on the earlier Rhino release, and remixed a new stereo soundtrack from the original audio elements.

The set is packaged in 2 thinpak DVD cases wrapped up in a slipcase, and comes with a third disc containing all the bonus features. Headlining the bonuses is “Triple Changer,” an interesting if somewhat talky documentary on how a mixed batch of toys from Japan launched the franchise. While it reveals some interesting information on exactly who contributed what, this 20-minute documentary is a few too many talking heads, none of who seem to have worked on the show itself directly. Also included are several of the original toy ads, with the faces of all the kids in the ads digitally blurred out. There’s also a rare Transformers PSA of Bumblebee talking a kid out of running away from home, reminding us again that “Knowing is half the battle.” Add in a printable script for episode 4, a booklet with episode synopses, a nice, big refrigerator magnet of the Autobot logo, and an appealingly low price tag, and the only reason why a Transformers fan wouldn’t buy this box is because they’re waiting for the larger, complete series set coming later this year. In fact, I suspect many Transformers fans have already pre-ordered their copies.

But if you’re not a Transformers fan, then this set is a much harder sell no matter how well the show is presented, because this first season of The Transformers is an abysmally bad TV show.

There are numerous objective reasons for this negative assessment. I doubt anybody can seriously claim that the animation was any good, since its appallingly low frame-rate creates incredibly stiff and static animation even in the highest-octane action scenes. In fact, the commercial bumper where the Autobot Jazz spins out as a car to transform into a robot with guns ablaze (left) is more smoothly animated and more exciting than any of the episodes in the entire season. The animation is also incredibly inconsistent—even within the same episode, characters will go wildly off-model, get miscolored (sometimes quite badly), or drastically change scale relative to each other. The show also seems to hope that we won’t notice Optimus Prime’s trailer appearing and disappearing every time he transforms, not to mention the incredible loss and gain of mass when Megatron transforms into a handgun or his lieutenant Soundwave transforms into a walkman. And what’s a walkman and a handgun doing with a bunch of planes, anyway? There are moments when the wrong voice comes out of a character, or when the same character speaks with two or three different voices in the same scene. Several of the participants in “Triple Changer” note that nobody expected The Transformers to have lasted this long, and it’s easy to believe this claim. It feels like the crew were given precious little time, guidance, or money, and the lack of all three are plainly evident.

More subjectively, the stories in The Tranfsormers are nearly incoherent, with almost no sense of logic and even less consistency. The worst-written action cartoons of today spend far more time and energy in creating their backstories and ensuring at least a little consistency between episodes. The enormous cast of characters is also completely unwieldy, with the majority of them getting so little to do that they may as well not be there. Characters seem to develop powers or abilities never seen before and never seen again, just to solve some minor plot point of an episode. Most of the stories also rely on plot twists and events that require one or more characters to be completely, willfully, ludicrously stupid, and to act genuinely surprised when their actions blow up in their robotic faces. This is especially damaging to the Decepticon leader Megatron, who would be a truly great villain if only his strategic and tactical planning skills weren’t somewhere between those of Wile E. Coyote and Lt. Col. George Custer. One also begins to suspect that the Autobot/Decepticon War has lasted for as long as it has because neither side is able to hit the broad side of a barn consistently, despite incredible volumes of fire. It makes Megatron’s late-season boast that “I always hit what I aim at!” especially laughable. Of course, this last flaw was a common affliction of the action cartoons in the 1980′s, but this show and G.I. Joe turned it into a strange, sick sort of joke, ensuring that both are almost completely drained of menace or peril. A spaceship can explode with enough force to knock a planetoid out of orbit, but the passenger inside it is floating in space in the next scene, not much worse for wear. The one act of heroic sacrifice with real consequences in the entire season is undone a mere two episodes later. Even the densest child watching the show can figure out fast that nobody’s ever going to get hurt badly, and one can question whether “violence has no consequences” is really more socially responsible than showing characters coming to bodily harm when they’re being shot at.

Autobots! Transform and Roll Out!The few good things about the show boil down to a skill at creating memorable, if barely two-dimensional, characters and a few outstanding voice-acting performances. Peter Cullen lends Optimus Prime far more gravity and emotional heft than the script deserves, even when it’s forcing him to say things like, “As the humans say, ‘Lay it on me, man.’” However, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of inspiration when he commands, “Autobots! Transform and roll out!” with such a sense of purpose. His Optimus Prime may even be the single biggest counterweight making up for the show’s general ineptitude. Frank Welker’s Megatron is a nearly-even match for Cullen as a performance, although his contribution is largely wasted because the character is so grossly ineffective at being a villain. Slightly more effective is Welker’s Soundwave, who speaks in an unforgettable, heavily processed, and slightly creepy monotone. Finally, Scatman Crothers pops up in one of his last performances as Jazz, and his delightfully distinctive rasp and energetic delivery is enough to make one forgive a lot of sins. In general, though, the show is so awful that the non-fans might be more entertained by using it as fodder for a drinking game.

In fact, watching The Transformers 25 years after its premiere can’t help but invite the question: how did a TV show this bad manage to launch such an enduring franchise?

Admittedly, the show was not alone in creating the Transformers phenomenon. The toys themselves and tie-in comic book combined with the TV show to boost the property’s public profile, but that by itself couldn’t possibly be enough to explain The Transformers‘ popularity. Kids have no problem rejecting things that they don’t like no matter how much marketing is behind them, so there must be something to the property that was captivating. There is undeniable power to the primal good vs. evil narrative. Today’s versions many have more nuance and subtlety, but the same binary dynamic is still in play in works like Avatar the Last Airbender or Harry Potter. Even so, that alone is definitely not enough to explain the Transformers’ popularity. One might turn to the basic principles that kids (or at least boys) like cars and kids like robots, so cars that turn into robots is a sure-fire sell. However, the extremely similar Go-Bots (which actually beat the Transformers to the toy market and ran almost simultaneously on TV) has been largely forgotten today. The only workable theory I can come up with is that the combination of the setting and the characters was compelling enough to jump-start the imagination of the kids watching, so much so that their natural sense of imagination took over and subconsciously filled in all the holes, gaps, and flaws. Rather than strip children of their sense of imagination, as claimed by many critics of toy-ads-as-entertainment like Transformers, this series may actually have encouraged it, although probably unintentionally. The warm, nostalgic feelings fans have for the show may not be about the show itself, but about the show that they constructed in their heads—”the show I thought I was seeing when I was a little kid,” as James Tucker has phrased it in another context. The theory may also explain why so many kids have such fond memories of such overtly awful shows as from Speed Racer, Super Friends, and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends: the fact that the shows’ low points far outnumber their high ones isn’t as relevant as the fact that they provide a fertile enough environment for imagination to take root. Then again, the first Transformers live-action movie was an intermittently entertaining, over-stuffed, under-developed, cacophonous mess whose only sense of imagination seems to be in creative ways of blowing stuff up, so perhaps this first series didn’t inspire as much imagination as one might hope.

In any event, newcomers seeking a way into the world of the Transformers would be better off seeking out Transformers Animated, which, except for missing Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime, is a better TV show in almost every way. If you didn’t already pre-order this set months ago, you’re probably better off leaving it on the shelf.

UPDATE June 18, 2009 10:22 AM (Eastern): Shout! Factory is acknowledging that there are still some errors on this season set, specifically on the episodes “A Plague of Insecticons”, “Heavy Metal War”, and “Ultimate Doom, Part 3.” These errors have been corrected and the updated versions of those episodes will be on the complete series set and future pressings of this boxed set. Details will be forthcoming on a trade-in program for those who have already purchased this boxed set; keep an eye on Toon Zone News for more information.

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