Wednesday, 1 July 2015

TransFormers: Prime Soundwave

Considering the TransFormers brand is, in several very meaningful ways, all about change, it's surprising how many in the Fandom are quite rigid in their view of some characters. Just look back at the outcry over the look of the robots in the original live action movie, and the extreme reactions elicited by just about every new TransFormers continuity as product shots appear on the web.

So when TransFormers Prime completely reimagined Soundwave as a virtually silent 'Big Brother' to the Decepticon ranks, not even fully trusted by Megatron, and transforming into - of all things - a military drone aircraft, not dissimilar to General Atomics' MQ-9 Reaper, the reaction was generally quite positive, or accepting at the very least, because his portrayal in the series was very well thought out, and suited the darker tone of the show perfectly.

But how does one go about turning a spindly drone into a transforming robot toy, even if that robot is just as spindly as his alternate mode?

Vehicle Mode:
I was surprised by how compact and tidy Soundwave's drone mode was the moment images of the toy surfaced online. In fact, in a lot of ways, this model was responsible for first getting me interested in TransFormers Prime toys. Like just about every TransFormers aircraft, Soundwave looks a bit rough from the underside but, from every other angle, he looks quite amazing. Sure, there are areas where he's a bit bulkier than he should be - particularly under the wings - but he carries that extra bulk well, and it's subtle enough that it really isn't that noticeable unless you're looking for it.

One of the most impressive features, small though it may be, is that he even has a landing wheel that deploys from the nose of the craft. Even today, even a fixed wheel shape like this isn't a standard feature of every TransFormers aircraft, so it's good to see that kind of feature on one so small.

The colourscheme is very subdued - virtually everything is molded in a vaguely metallic, very grey sky blue (does that even make sense as a description of the colour?!), but with some parts - notably the tail fins and a strip around the body of the craft just behind the wings - molded in black. The tail fins and wing tips are also molded in a softer, rubbery plastic, no doubt for reasons of health and safety. Paintwork is minimal, black paint marking the wing's flaps, then odd details are picked out in electric pink. If that makes the model sound rather plain, it really isn't. The minimal paintwork is ideal for this model, and the metallic look to the plastic makes it look just right.

There are a fair few seams and broken panels where there possibly shouldn't be, but the overall coherence of the aircraft isn't harmed too greatly. The rear of the drone carries the brunt of this, with lots of detail that's actually there to service robot mode rather than this mode, and a huge gap running right through from one side to the other, revealing some of the toy's internal structure, due to Soundwave's clever transformation.

While Soundwave comes with no extra weapons, he does have a socket on the top of his fuselage, just behind the wings, which can accommodate the peg on the bottom of Laserbeak... or any 5mm pegged weapon, for that matter.
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Robot Mode:
Initially, I had my doubts about this version of Soundwave - he looked too skinny and spindly and fragile - but, having seen him in action in the TV show, his slight build is deceptive and, while he rarely engages in combat, I don't recall him ever losing when he does. The trouble with such a small, slender vehicle as Soundwave's alternate mode is that the lack of mass makes it difficult to create a believable robot, but the designers of this toy have done a phenomenal job... Though it probably helped that Soundwave's robot mode is so stylised, with arms longer than his body height, and basically made out of thin panels.

Robot mode doesn't bring much by way of additional colour but, in all honesty, it's not as if he needs masses of colour to look good. Curiously, the most extensive paint applications are on the insides of his shoulders and forearms, where they're all but invisible in both robot and vehicle modes. Seems like a huge waste of paint budget that might otherwise have gone towards a few more 'glowing pink' elements. There's far more detail to robot mode, not least because of his drone, Laserbeak, nestled in his chest and just looking like part of the collection of overlapping panels that make up his torso. It blends in remarkably well given the way it mounts, as an entirely separate piece, into an irregular set of indentations in the main robot's chest. With Laserbeak removed from his chest, he does look a bit incomplete - it leaves several gaping holes and exposes the spring-loaded catch that causes Soundwave's head to flip out during transformation.

Soundwave's weird, spindly hands come with 5mm sockets through the palms, enabling him to hold Laserbeak, or just about any other TF Prime toy's weapon. Unfortunately, he didn't come packaged with any additional armament or accessories. A couple of tentacle attachments, or one of the Iacon relic weapons (particularly the sonic one from the episode where he goes toe-to-toe with Wheeljack) would have made an excellent addition. I guess the latter weren't a story element at the time the toy was created... or that they just didn't want to include any potential spoilers with the toy, while the former might have looked weird packaged separately. It's also rather sad than Soundwave had no other minions, either in the TV show or packaged with the toy... but at least he got a new one for his Beast Hunters retool...

The feature most detrimental to the look of the robot is the fact that the drone mode's bisected nose folds up behind his calves. I'm sure there was nothing else to do with it, considering the design of the legs and feet, and the very bottom section of the nose does act as his heels, but the remainder does constitute a rather unsightly lump that breaks up an otherwise almost flawless representation of the Decepticons' communications officer and spymaster in 5" plastic form.

The head sculpt appears to be a very stylised representation of the Decepticon insignia (much like G1 Soundwave, in fact) but it's very simple and, like the CGI from the TV show, devoid of any facial detail. The paint job is surprisingly complex considering how sparse the applications are over the rest of the body. The entire back of his head is, rather unnecessarily, coated in silver paint, the visor has a dark, translucent paint over the silver, then his middle two 'horns' are painted silver, with a patch of purple between them. All of the horns are molded in soft, rubbery plastic but, given how thin they are and how likely it is they'd suffer minor damage simply from transforming his head back into the backpack, that was probably a smart move.
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Laserbeak:
If G1 Laserbeak was simplistic, this thing barely constitutes a transforming robot - once it's unplugged from Soundwave's chest, it just needs its larger wings rotated into position. Due to having a large peg protruding from its underside, it can't really sit around on its own, but it can perch very nicely on Soundwave's hands.

Being so small, there's not a lot to Laserbeak... but it's not as if the diminutive drone actually did much (in terms of moving various bits of its body) in the TV show. Nevertheless, I'm kind of glad the designers bothered to include this feature, but I do rather wish more use had been made of it.
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Soundwave's transformation is actually surprisingly simple, yet the fact that it has been done at all is a kind of genius. The TV show's CGI took all kinds of liberties, but the toyline generally did an admirable job of realising them in plastic, and Soundwave is easily one of the best simply because there's virtually no vehicle shell that isn't used in robot mode - it's basically just the fins on his back and the nose folded up the back of his legs. The way the wings turn into arms is virtually effortless, yet very effective, and the slight stoop he gains in robot mode is a subtle but important step.

Given the weird design of this character, and particularly the digitigrade legs, Soundwave ends up surprisingly mobile, though perhaps not so well-balanced. The legs themselves have a decent range, though the upper knee doesn't move a great deal, and the spur behind the lower knee tends to clash with the opposite leg. The feet don't offer great stability so, despite technically hunching forward, he tends to remain quite back-heavy unless his stoop is exaggerated. The weird jointing of the arms is very effective, though, so they can be positioned easily without any panel clash. My main gripe is with the head which, despite being mounted on a ball joint, has very little effective movement - it can barely turn, and only really moves up or down on its spring-loaded transformation joint.

While Soundwave may be comparatively small, even for a contemporary Deluxe, in hand, he feels like good value for money. The transformation is just right, both modes look excellent and it really is amazing how well this matches the CGI from the TV show. A few variations of this have been released but, so far, I've only got the Beast Hunters version and this one. I'm tempted by the TransFormers Go! repaint of the BH version, for its G1-like colourscheme, and the recently revealed TFCC/GI Joe Club crossover, 'Old Snake with Advanced Stealth B.A.T. Duo' looks all kinds of awesome as well... So it's probably lucky there's no way to troop-build with TF Prime Soundwaves, or I'd almost certainly end up doing just that.

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