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"Beast Wars": Maximizing or Terrorizing?

by on July 20, 2011

When descendants of the Autobots and Decepticons crash-land on a mysterious planet with no signs of civilization, a new war must be waged. Maximals and Predacons must reformat into animal forms to start off the new Beast Wars!

Beast Wars: Transformers was something of a Hail Mary pass in the Transformers mythos. With the franchise slowing after nearly a decade of dominance, Hasbro decided to try something new. Robots disguises as cars no longer sold as well; could robots disguises as animals do the trick? And instead of going cel-animated, they took it to Mainframe Entertainment, which had recently made waves by producing the first fully-CG show, ReBoot. The result was a three-season show featuring a battle between an Optimus and a Megatron, but not the ones kids knew. (Humorously, the first Optimus and Megatron toys came with a comic indicating they were the same characters).

Taking on beast forms to survive on the Energon-rich planet, the heroes and villains fight for control and to find a way home. With Maximal Protoforms stuck in orbit, they must fight for potential allies and decide if they’ll be Maximals as intended, or converted into evil Predacons. Optimus Primal, Rattrap, Cheetor, and Tankor lead the Maximals against the devilish Megatron, Tarantulas, and other Predacon forces. The Protoforms exist mainly to introduce new characters, and the requirement for beast modes disappears after the first season. The plot quickly grows from fighting over resources and territory to fighting over the future (and past) of their races, as they find the original Transformers in stasis, awaiting the events of the original cartoon.

As a show that existed to sell action figures, the plot and characters can wildly change with little to no consequence. Characters change models nearly once a season in some cases (Optimus Primal, Megatron, Cheetor all get a third form by the end of the series). Characters leave the show as soon as their toys are (presumably) no longer on shelves. (Terrorsaur and Scoroponok die in the first season finale, to rarely even be mentioned in the subsequent episodes.) With writers reportedly told not to introduce any characters (especially ones that wouldn’t have toys) by and large, the rare non-Maximal/Predacon/Autobot/Decepticon to show up are the cavemen characters that form many plot points, and Transmutate, a character who has one episode of notoriety (but years later, would get a figure). Compared to other, non-CG Transformers shows, this one feels less like a war with armies and more like two feuding tribes.

Speaking of “the other Transformers”, Beast Wars quickly goes from being “two new factions fighting on an unknown planet” to “the descendants of the Autobots and Decepticons trying to reshape their timeline on Earth.” (There’s time-travel involved.) If you’ve never seen the previous Transformers cartoon, the show does its best to explain things. The creators fully admit to not having much knowledge about it and throwing stuff in there just because it sounded cool, but it ends up all coming together and working. Fans of the original series will appreciate cameos by Starscream, Unicron, Ravage, and even Optimus Prime and Megatron get their moments in the storyline.

They don’t take away from the depth and focus on the main characters, as disposable and modular as they are. Dinobot, the Predacon-turned-Maximal ruled by a code of honor, is a fan-favorite for his depth and characterization throughout the series (or at least, for the one-and-a-half seasons until his toy was no longer in production.) Waspinator is always fun for his destined-to-die nature. Characters have believable arguments, and Optimus Primal takes a decidedly different approach to leading than Prime did; he’s more of a scientist than a military leader. This Megatron, likewise, is more prone to insanity and religious-esque outburst and prophet-following. Two episodes in the middle of season 2 stand out as particularly drama-filled. “Code of Hero” features the last stand of an anti-hero, and proves that he’s more than meets the eye. “Transmutate”, likewise, shows that the heroes can be nicer, and not all villains are bad… or it’s just “The Scarlet Ibis” with robots. As notable as those are, some of the character designs just go straight-out crazy, such as a gorilla that rides a flying surfboard, or the T-Rex with jetpacks.

Animation ranges from severely dated to just dated. Much like its sister series from Mainframe Entertainment, it’s a victim of the capabilities of the time. The show does improve as it goes, with some semblance of lighting in use by the final season, even applying shadows to character models (if not the terrain). The music and voice acting are perfectly fine, starting Gary Chalk’s run of Optimuses (Optimi?) that would continue for years. Megatron is overacted, but that’s more the character than the voice actor; start a drinking game every time he says “Yes!” in a self-satisfyied way and you’ll be demanding to “maximize” and “terrorize” yourself soon enough. Much of the music seems to be borrowed from or echoes the ReBoot score; given the same production group by and large, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that many of the tracks were the same.

Extras are a mixed bag; this isn’t the first time the series has been released on DVD, and doesn’t include everything from other releases, such as a notable deleted scene or animatic from the finale. The few interviews and character/model designs are good, and the included comic is a nice prelude to the actual series. Commentaries would have made it better, and the lack of anything such as toy promos, television promos, and the like is to be sorely missed. Admittedly, a few episodes feature glimmers of the logo where the commercial break would be, implying that “Beast Wars will be right back” type scenes were cut, but not perfectly.

Beast Wars: Transformers is a great series that gets characters and drama down, and is an interesting diversion from “Optimus Prime turns into another vehicle”. While the animation is more dated than ever, the story itself has aged well. Definitely give this series a look if you want something different out of your robots in disguise.

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