Friday, 30 October 2015

TransFormers: Prime Wheeljack

Introduced in Generation 1, Wheeljack, in one form or another, has been popping up in various continuities of TransFormers since the Unicron Trilogy but, aside from the familiar head, it's never been quite the same character that G1 gave us. In fact, on several occasions, he's not even had the right name, let alone the right character. In the Unicron Trilogy, 'Wheeljack' looked suspiciously like Sideswipe, and had sided with the Decepticons. The character that looked like Wheeljack was named 'Downshift' and started out as a blatant homage to the G1 character in both paintjob and overall styling, later becoming a 1970s-style green and black muscle car whose head and feet were the only features that closely resembled the G1 character. None of them were the 'clumsy professor' of Generation 1, though.

Then along came TransFormers Prime, with a character who looked very much like the character of old in robot mode, and with vehicle mode which was a clear homage to original... But is it the Wheeljack we actually wanted?

Vehicle Mode:
Some folks have opined that this vehicle mode is inspired by the contemporary takes on the Lancia Stratos from 2005 and 2011 but, if so, it's rather exaggerated and far more angular than either. It's an extremely compact car, almost achieving Penny Racer/Choro-Q proportions from the side despite its very low profile. Ultimately, though, it looks sleek and sporty, every bit the equal to G1 Wheeljack's 1977 Stratos. I particularly like the minimal spoiler which barely protrudes over the rear of the car, yet suits it perfectly, and the way the grey paint of the rear window shades carries on beneath it, emerging in a point just below, is rather cute.

As has been becoming quite common in recent years, Wheeljack has molded rear view mirrors, but they are left bare of paint. One interesting difference between the toy and the CGI from the TV show is in the positioning of his wing mirrors. The toy has them in what would be considered the logical place (next to the wraparound windscreen) were it not for the comparatively bulky rear end, whereas they're mounted on his fenders, above his front wheels, in the TV show. The change is understandable once you get him into robot mode.

Molded predominantly in white plastic, the paint job is a curious mix of G1 homage and random blobs of colour. The red/green designs on the bonnet and roof are clear yet subtle homages to the Alitalia sponsorship on the car which inspired G1 Wheeljack's stickers, while the sides... rather look as though someone forgot to finish the paintwork. Weirdly, it's perfectly accurate to the CGI from the TV show, but Wheeljack was shown so rarely in vehicle mode that it never really registered. On the toy, the presence of red paint seems to imply the need for green paint or an absence of sponsorship decals. What's really cool about this model is that, unlike much of the rest of the TF Prime toyline, Wheeljack's tail lights and hubcaps got a nice coat of paint - two different colours for the former and a good solid layer of silver for the latter.

What's less cool is that the front and rear of his vehicle mode have unsightly gaps in them. At the front, two great chunks have been chopped out of the bumper to accommodate his transformation. As a compromise, this enables a feature whereby his swords can become elephant-like tusks protruding from the front, rather than just having them stowed on the underside of vehicle mode. Naturally this looks ridiculous, so I'm not sure why such a feature was included - if it was intentional at all, considering the pegs that his swords plug into may only be coincidentally the same size, since they clip his lower legs together in robot mode. The hole at the rear is right in the middle and somewhat understandable given the way he transforms. Still, with that section of the vehicle ending up on his back, they could surely have added some kind of flap to cover the space between his shoulders.

As well as the tabs at the front, Wheeljack's vehicle mode features a 5mm ports right above each of the rear wheels. Since his only stock weapons are the two swords, I'm not sure what purpose these ports are supposed to serve, but they don't ruin the appearance of the car.
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Robot Mode:
G1 Wheeljack's toy was quite divisive due to its curiously monkey-armed proportions, so it's nice to see the TF Prime version carries on its homage to that degree... Though perhaps a little too far, considering the proportions of the character in the TV show are more 'bruiser' than 'primate'. All told, the designers have done a remarkable job of translating the CGI into a transformable plastic model. Particularly impressive is the way such a compact car folds out so that the roof is on his chest while the back end clips firmly into his belt at the back

There's not much more colour to robot mode - elements of black and grey break up the white, and the few touches of red and green remain from vehicle mode. Oddly, where he's supposed to have grey panels on both the insides and outsides of his thighs, they're only painted on the inside. This would seem counterintuitive at the best of times, but since his thighs aren't visible even in vehicle mode it just looks like a production error. On the torso, there's a gorgeous coat of glossy black paint representing vehicle mode's windscreen which, for no obvious reason, remains attached to Wheejack's forearms. Given the liberties already taken with the model, I'm pretty sure it would have looked OK if it had stayed attached to the roof but, aside from looking a bit odd, there's no real problem with the windscreen panels being on his arms.

Given that, like all the other TFPrime Autobots, Wheeljack has blasters that transform out of his wrists and frequently used explosives in the TV show, the fact that the toy's only weapons are his swords is quite daft. They're nicely molded, for what they are, and the inclusion of the tiny glyphs at the base of the blade shows a certain amount of pride in the design. They also each have a good coating of silver paint over the entire blade but, ultimately, they're not as interesting as blasters and explosives, nor were they brought out in battle as often. Then again, precious few of the accessories made sense in the TF Prime toyline. The swords fit firmly in his hands and, when not in use, slot loosely into his backpack, just outside his 'wings'

The head sculpt is a real downer for me - battle masks didn't often come into play in the TV series (it's not even clear if all the Autobots even had them) and, while it's a (boring) tradition for Optimus Prime toys to have his battle mask in place, the fact that none of the others do makes it all the more bizarre that Wheeljack does. Sure, it's a great big G1 cartoon homage (the G1 toy had a visor rather than a mouthplate - another fine example of the cartoon doing it wrong) and nothing screams 'Wheeljack' like a ridged mouthplate, apparently, but the homage wasn't necessary. The fact that the wrinkles around his (light piped) eyes have been sculpted in make the mask look like a huge cop-out on an otherwise brilliant and accurate head. It's one of those heads that tends to look very flat in photographs, but the 'ears' sweep back as well as out and up, and his central crest juts forward beyond the extent of his chin like a hammer stuck on his forehead.
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Transformation is tidy and efficient throughout, with the legs being downright ingenious in all their twisting and reconfiguring. The head deployment is also pretty well designed, with an internal section rising up to fill out the area of chest vacated by Wheeljack's 'wings' and conveniently restoring the patches of green paint. What's quite odd is that the lower part of that panel features a lot of molded detail which is only visible during transformation - it's covered over by the real windscreen in vehicle mode and the fake one in robot mode. The arms are cleverly designed to compact down into vehicle mode, with the forearms rotating 180° to bring up the windscreen and stow the hands, which then tuck in neatly near the head.

In common with the rest of the TF Prime line, Wheeljack's articulation is excellent. From ankles which are ball jointed at the sides rather than the tops to the clever barrel-and-ball combination joints in his shoulders, he has an amazing range of movement, hindered only slightly by the bulk on his shoulders and hips. The ball joint servicing his head is plugged into the base of the neck and connects to the back of the head, giving him a fairly natural - albeit hunchbacked - look and ensuring that the protruding bits don't clash too much with the armour around his collar. It's actually pretty difficult to pose him in a way that doesn't look completely awesome. If I had any complaint, it's that his wrists are restricted by the car panels on the outsides of his forearms, and that the tilting joint - additional to a ball joint sunk into the wrist - tilts inward, for transformation only, so he can't point his swords forward. That's a very minor complaint, though, given how flexible he is everywhere else.

Given his infrequent appearances in the show, this figure seems to have had a lot of attention lavished upon it. The paintjob may be a little lacking, but Wheeljack has probably one of the most fun transformations offered by the entire TF Prime toyline, so it's a real shame that there were only a couple of lacklustre repurposings of this mold from Hasbro - the Dark Energon homage to G1 Action Master Slicer, the bizarre neon repaint (with new head) as non-TV show, non-Stunticon Dead End and, of course, the Beast Hunters remold. Takara Tomy's Arms Micron line took inspiration from another Stunticon and created a decent Wildrider but, other than that, this mold's only unique use so far was the Collectors' Club's 2014 Subscription Service attempt at an IDW-style Chromedome. This is one mold which, applied to the right character and given the right paint job, I can easily see myself buying repeatedly.

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