Thursday, 8 August 2013

TransFormers: Prime - An Overview

Thanks to the wonders of the interwebs, I've been able to watch all three seasons of TransFormers: Prime before the UK DVD releases complete even season one. For a glorified toy commercial, it's one of the best TV series I've seen in a long while, and I'm not limiting that sweeping statement to kids television. It's a finely crafted piece of fiction... and, all things considered, if it's a failure as an advertisement, that's all down to Hasbro and the toyline, not the creative team working on the show.

Events of the TV series are discussed herein

If you take Generation 1 as a template for 'TV show as toy commercial', the model works like this:
  • Start with a set of core characters, explore them
  • Add new characters, show how cool they are
  • Continue to add new characters, showing how cool they are, until the end of the toyline
This is actually a sensible business model, as you can schedule storylines and character introductions to coincide with new releases in the toyline. Broadly speaking, this is what they did back in the mid-80s, and a similar system has been used with every toyline since, that had an accompanying TV series... Up until Prime, which only used it to a very limited degree. It started with a small character roster, and stayed with a small character roster all the way to the end. It introduced only a couple of new characters per season, and their appearance in the show bore no relation to the toy release schedule.

The whole 'Beast Hunters' angle was, in my opinion, utterly wasted. It came about (according to an interview by Benson Yee, with Clint Chapman from Hasbro Studios' TF: Prime production team, published in TFCC newsletter #48) because "as soon as we started talking about bringing beasts into the line and into the show, everyone just went crazy about the idea. And so literally it was one day we had the idea and the next day we got a script and a product line!"

Any, you know what? It shows.

TransFormers: Prime, despite its cartoonish aesthetic (not to mention its uncanny ability to find wide open, flat locations even in places like Scotland) was fairly realistic. One could look at the giant alien robots and believe they had mass, and that they could, indeed, disguise themselves as terrestrial vehicles. There was no place in the TV series or the toyline for beasts. If Hasbro really wanted beasts, it should have earmarked some of its Generations toys for a specific line and created a new continuity for its accompanying fiction. I really loved Beast Wars and even Beast Machines (while the merging of mechanical and biological life still seems outlandish and unnecessary, the fiction was cleverly developed and Garry Chalk's performance as an Optimus Primal struggling to maintain the loyalty of his crew while decending into zealotism was nothing short of phenominal, and he will forever be 'my Optimus Prime'), so a continuation of that story, set on a newly-reawakened, techno-organic Cybertron, would be worth a look.

But shoving a robotic dragon into the existing Prime continuity just didn't work, and the toyline is just plain daft. Case in point: Bumblebee. For the whole run of the Beast Hunters storyline, the only difference in the character model in the series is that he becomes the equivalent of the toy called 'Shadow Strike Bumblebee'... and yet Hasbro saw fit to remold the toy, adding spikes, new weaponry, spikes, 'marbled' plastic, spikes and a samurai-style helmet. Without changing the look of the character in the show, there is no point in making a new toy. If anything, Hasbro should have saved money and just delayed the release of the Shadow Strike repaint till season three of TF: Prime.

Meanwhile, where's the blue and yellow repaint of Smokescreen's toy?

And what was the point of Thundertron, since he doesn't appear in the TV series at all?

And why did Ultra Magnus appear in the TV series as a reworking of Optimus Prime, rather than the unique model of the original TF: Prime toy?

But what of the Predacons? All these outlandish robotic creatures - some inspired by creatures from our ancient mythology - have been released as garishly-coloured toys. Most of them have simplistic transformations (largely a case of 'standing up'). Some of them are quite imaginative, and most if not all are getting at least one repaint, but it's taken the attention of kitbashers to make any of them look good.

But the real problem is that they all get killed off one episode after it's revealed that Shockwave has bred them and just needs an energy source to bring them back to life.

Seriously, Predaking is the only Predacon who ever sees any action... the rest are reduced to plot device cybermatter in a massive explosion.

So... remind me, Hasbro, why should anyone care about these toys?

OK, I get from a story point of view that it made perfect sense to kill them all off, thus sending Predaking into a murderous rage, and making him an even more effective weapon against the Autobots until he learns that Megatron sanctioned the destruction of his kind to prevent any possibility of Predacon uprising in the future. That really is a brilliant twist... But it suggests that the creative team behind the TV show didn't see any way to fit beasts into the show. That said, I could still be proven wrong: the feature length 'finale' is called 'Predacons Rising' and Roberto Orci seems to have confirmed that the next TV series will be set within the TF: Prime continuity, just a bit more kiddy-friendly.

The problem with this approach is that, with character bios being so terribly pared-down these days (even in the US, versus the G1 tech specs, but particularly in Europe), some people will rely on the fiction to gain an insight into the characters, and determine whether or not they should shell out for their small, plastic avatar. OK, some people just have the "ooh, shiny!" approach to their collection, and will just buy anything new... and, since we've been virtually starved of TF: Prime toys that are not Bumblebee, I guess lots of people will be buying the beasts. As I've previously stated, I have no particular fondness for any associated fiction (BW/BM don't count - I watched them long after the toylines finished!)... but when new characters are so jarringly incongruous (and shelf-space devouring, thanks to their wings and tails and things) as the Predacons, they're an easy pass... as are redundant spiky remolds of existing characters. OK, I'll be buying Beast Hunters Arcee when she turns up... but that's because I particularly like the model and the character. I might have been tempted to pick up one version of Predaking - since he's been released in almost every size class - if any of them adequately reflected his appearance in the TV series. He's a bloody great dragon, and one of the most dynamic models in the show - from the tip of his constantly-moving tail to his split lower jaw, virtually nothing about him is ever static... and yet all the toys have virtually rigid necks and tails, the wings barely fold away, and the robot articulation is terrible. Where are all the ball joints? (Answer: they're on Shapeways!)

Ultimately, I like the TV series. It's internal consistency was pretty reliable, with things learned and items acquired in earlier episodes being referred to and used in later shows. Characters actually learned and grew. It had very few characters, but they were well-developed. I still don't like Bumblebee as a brawler (especially when his role is always described as 'Scout'), and I will never be convinced of Starscream as an ambitious, scheming coward, or Wheeljack as a lone swordsman, or Ratchet's inability to repair or replace a voicebox... but I liked everyone else.

And yes, I even liked Miko. Seriously - she was the personification of a teenager's sense of immortality, and certainly proved herself when she got her hands on the Apex Armour. Sure, some of her character traits were a little exaggerated and grating, but she was the perfect foil for Jack's more tentative, considered approach.

There was a point where I got worried that Smokescreen was going to become the new Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime... but the character seems to have steered himself away from that for the time being. In a lot of ways, he's more of a Cheetor-analogue: desperate to prove himself, reckless and overconfident.

Arcee's arc, from losing partners and wanting to remain aloof, to forming a powerful bond with Jack, to conquering her fear of Airachnid, was all very well handled, and Sumalee Montano's performance is one of the consistent highlights of the series. It's unusual enough for a female character to be so prominent in a 'boys toyline', but for her to be one of the strongest and most complex characters is almost unheard of. I also loved Arcee's response to Bumblebee's change of look near the start of season 3: "At least you had something to work with. If I reversed my colours... I'd be pink." Nice nod to G1 and the NYCC exclusive.

Knock Out comes across as more of a sociopath than a lot of the fan art/fiction might suggest (especially where his relationship with Breakdown is concerned), not least in the way he casually switches sides right at the end. He doesn't actually care about any of his compatriots, even Breakdown, beyond his expertise with a rotary buffer. It's almost as if he was a Decepticon by default rather than because he subscribed to their ideology - the Autobots would have frowned on some of his methods, while Megatron permits him to work as he likes, because it suits his needs. Daran Norris did an excellent job of portraying the narcissistic, almost aristocratic 'medic'... he came across like one of the 'high-priced friends' mentioned in G1 Mirage's tech specs... and he didn't even need to give Knock Out an English accent.

Soundwave was particularly daring. Whereas Bumblebee was only technically mute, Soundwave rarely uttered a single line, and most of that was replaying recordings of other people. His silence was only referred to in passing (mention of a 'vow of silence' that was never explored or explained), but it made for an especially chilling character. It was obvious that he was constantly observing and recording his compatriots, let alone the enemy, and even Megatron voiced some concern about this. He also preferred to avoid physical conflict, accessing space bridges to 'relocate' his opponents rather than engaging them directly... but the one time he did fight - against Airachnid - he easily parried her every attack.

Before Beast Hunters, the toyline was pretty good... It's becoming increasingly obvious that Hasbro is cutting costs. The toys are still fairly complex, but there are clear short-cuts in the construction, while plastic quality and paint budgets have taken a serious nose-dive. Hasbro's decision to include separate, LED-lit, spring-action weapons with the Voyager Class figures has met with some derision, the continued shrinking of the toys has led to many people questioning their value-for-money. Some of the upcoming Deluxe Class toys debuted at BotCon and the SDCC are upscaled Legends Class toys, a trick which had previously been the preserve of the knock-off merchants. Perhaps some of the older toys, in particular those from the live action movies, were overly complex... but surely this is taking things too far in the opposite direction, particularly if no improvements are made to articulation in the larger versions?

One of the biggest problems with which the toyline has had to contend, as previously discussed, is its distribution. The contents of each wave have been ill-considered, and the scheduling of each wave has been dubious at best. Another significant problem is the small cast of characters: even with repaints, there haven't been many individual character toys until the beasts started coming out. Compare and contrast to the movie lines, which was expanded with whole new molds - some even Voyager Class - and multiple repaints in homage to Generation 1. With Prime, the Voyagers have been almost exclusively show characters (up until Ultra Magnus, Thundertron and the Beast Hunters remolds) with only a couple of unique Deluxes and very few more in the Cyberverse size. Not since Human Alliance has a toyline been so woefully underpopulated.

It's tempting to wonder what would happen if Hasbro tried to follow Takara Tomy's model of releasing Arms Microns or weapon packs separately... so, rather than having to buy yet another Goddamned Bumblebee, you could pick up the Beast Hunters bow weapon (though its analogue was actually wielded by Smokescreen, and then only very briefly, in the TV show), or the Forge of Solus Prime, or the Star Sabre/Dark Star Sabre. Instead, that sort of thinking (not to mention giving some of the 'bots their proper default weapon) has been left to the third parties.

I just hope Hasbro learns something from TF: Prime and the debacle that is the so-called 'Thrilling 30'...

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