Sunday, 7 April 2019

Is Generation 1 Stifling The TransFormers Brand?

Just another little opinion piece, since I'm currently both struggling to work on any actual toy posts (the most recent Femme-Bot Friday having been completed about a month ago and scheduled to go live when it did), and a little grumpy due to being unwell. This is something that has been on my mind for quite a while, and which I've touched on obliquely in my complaints about the toys from Siege, the first chapter of the new War for Cybertron trilogy. Specifically:
Is the current laser focus on releasing new and improved versions of toys based on Generation 1 characters ultimately detrimental to the TransFormers brand?
It's a tricky question because, unlike a lot of toy brands, TransFormers has become more than one continuity. I've said many a time that TransFormers, as a brand, is about change - not just the change from robot to vehicle, but the evolution from unlicensed representations of real-world vehicles to the sci-fi aesthetic of HeadMasters, TargetMaster, Pretenders, etc. all of which made up what became retrospectively known as Generation 1. The evolution from Generation 1 to Generation 2, and then on to Beast Wars; Beast Wars to TransMetals, and then on to Beast Machines; the evolution from there to Robots in Disguise/Car Robots, to Armada/Micron Legend, to Energon/Superlink, to Cybertron/Galaxy Force. Then you've got the diversification of the brand, though the partly simultaneous development of Classics/Generations, Animated and the live action movies which, variously, led to TransFormers Prime, a new 'Robots in Disguise', the Cyberverse line, the Prime Wars trilogy, and Studio Series. Along the way, Masterpiece, Binaltech and Alternity took G1 down different paths and, while the latter two died out, Masterpiece has evolved as a brand in its own right with constantly changing degrees of toy/animation accuracy in its G1 series, as well as expanding to include - so far - Beast Wars and the live action movies.

Plus, few toy brands have been quite the cultural phenomenon that was TransFormers. By and large, toylines used to be fairly disposeable and generational - you'd grow up with something very different to what your parents had played with, and your kids would play with something else again. Sure, there have always been Collectors, and nostalgia might occasionally lead people to seek out as adults what they'd played with as children, but that was seen as the preserve of a particular kind of wierdo, while more 'normal' people would reserve their disposeable income for more practical things. I think, in many ways, the 80s was a kind of Golden Age of Toys, with a glut of brands, an abundance of lurid print advertising, and the advent of kids TV shows and comics that were literally toy commercials. The majority of contemporaries - including MASK, Masters of the Universe, Bravestarr, Centurions, Starcom, Dino-Riders, Thundercats, Sectaurs, Visionaries - faded into obscurity. Some have been rebooted (several times, in the case of Thundercats and Masters of the Universe) but their core concept lacked the longevity - or the potential for longevity - of TransFormers.

In terms of longevity alone, Barbie had its 60th Anniversary in March 2019, but that's a toyline targeted at a very specific demographic, centred around a single character with a handful of friends and myriad accessories, in which the eponymous character has evolved with the times in terms of both fashion (the range of outfits available with the dolls) and the type of person Barbie actually represents (in terms of social standing and a range of job roles), along with numerous crossovers and collaborations, from real-world artists and fashion designers, to the likes of Disney.

GI Joe is probably the closest traditional "boys' toy" comparison to TransFormers, and has many connections to it, not least the comic book crossovers and the fact that the long-running Collectors' Clubs were run by the same company. But where GI Joe tended to extend its roster of characters or provide alternative costumes and equipment for its core cast to fit new missions and campaigns rather than completely redesign the look and function of its figures (it tried, certainly, but the standard 3 3/4" figures and their associated vehicles have remained its most enduring style), TransFormers has brought in new generations of fans by literally transforming the brand... and I think that is where the current trend of rebooting Generation 1 is doing the brand, Hasbro, the longstanding fans and the new initiates a great disservice.

To put that assertion into context, I started collecting back in 1984 and initially skipped on the subsequent reboots of the line (with the exception of BW Optimus Primal and Megatron, which I bought almost ironically in my early 20s), returning to the fold in 2004 when I discovered the 20th Anniversary toys like MP01 and the Binaltech line. Takara's Galaxy Force (aka Cybertron) was the reboot that first caught my attention and, while I was initially skeptical of the preceding lines, I eventually built up a collection representing a slice of all of them, back as far as Beast Wars. Having developed an appreciation of the concept of 'transformation' within the TransFormers brand, I have enjoyed toys from just about every other line since, as well has adding to my collection of G1 toys by way of Takara's TransFormers Collection and Encore lines, as well as Hasbro's Commemorative Series and Platinum Edition re-releases. I consider myself to be 'a TransFormers fan', but am not wedded to any particular continuity or aesthetic. G1 is probably still my favourite line, but I loathe the TV show, and my preference is for the Robots in Disguise to look like robots... in disguise, which is why my my preferred aesthetic is probably some sort of middle-ground between Classics and the live action movies. Pretty much the only aspect of the franchise I cannot appreciate in any way is the huge range of TransFormers branded, licensed tat that has been appearing since the early days, but which has burgeoned in recent years. I mean, seriously, look at this and just try to tell me it hasn't got out of hand.

There are several generations of TransFormers fans now for whom Generation 1 is utterly irrelevant. Those who discovered the franchise with Beast Wars might be rightly concerned that their initiation hasn't been revisited beyond a small handful of toys under the 30th Anniversary portion of the Generations line or the surprisingly CGI-accurate - and amazingly expensive - entries in the Masterpiece line.

Those whose first experience of TransFormers was the 2001 Robots in Disguise line, or Armada, have been catered to with a meagre few offerings in Generations, while Energon has been largely overlooked and Cybertron has only recently received a homage in the form of a terrible repurposing of War for Cybertron: Siege Ultra Magnus as Leader class 'Galaxy Upgrade Optimus Prime' - a figure made up almost entirely of faked parts as accessories to the base figure - while Ultra Magnus was a confusing mixture of a vehicle mode homage to the RiD version and a robot mode homage to G1, where both the Masterpiece and Combiner Wars versions did away with the 'white Optimus Prime' figure at the core of the G1 toy.

Some fans may have first encountered the Classics line back in 2006 onwards, despite the lack of directly associated fiction and, on the flipside, there are those who first encountered the IDW comics (many of whom, I'm sure, have been sorely disappointed by the paucity of toys from their preferred continuity, most of which have actually come from Third Party companies rather than Hasbro or Takara Tomy).

There are even fans who first discovered TransFormers as a result of the 2007 Michael Bay movie, and newer fans who have come to the franchise via the Bumblebee solo movie a few months ago. These, of course, are now being catered to by the Studio Series, but those who joined in the period from the mid-90s to early 2000s - most of whom will now be in the position of having some disposeable income of their own - must surely be getting frustrated by the lack of 'new and improved' versions of favourite toys from their early encounters with the brand.

But here's the thing: aside from a few notable deviations and sidelines, TransFormers has now been an ongoing series of Generation 1 reboots since 2006. That's thirteen years - fifteen, by the time the War for Cybertron cycle ends - of Optimus Prime and Megatron looking pretty much as they did in the G1 TV show, with only cosmetic differences to their alternate modes and a range of tweaks to the articulation of their robot modes. Some of these newer fans may well be utterly flummoxed, nonplussed or outright disinterested by Hasbro's reissuing of 30-year-old toys like G1 Hot Rod and the umpteenth reissue of G1 Optimus Prime, with or without one of his many trailers, not least because they look so primitive by today's standards.

Aaron Archer was a guest at TFNation 2018, and was asked what he'd be doing with the toyline now if he was still holding the reins... but the best he could come up with was rebooting Beast Wars. Takara Tomy themselves seem content to water down the Masterpiece line with 'anime accurate' versions of their existing figures with minimalist paint jobs designed to mimic the lazy animation models ever more closely, yet there are rays of hope. Alongside their prototype of a 'new' Star Convoy - a half-hearted remold of Power of the Primes Evolution Optimus Prime that represents a fraction of what the original toy was in robot mode, and nothing of it in vehicle mode - they showed a stylised, streamlined and super-articulated prototype of a new Armada Optimus Prime, with signs that its trailer - and thereby its supermode, if not also its base mode - will also appear.

But these are the exception to the rule. The mainline toys - Cyberverse and the execrable 'Authetics' included - are, with remarkably few exceptions, based around Generation 1 both in terms of their essential looks and their cast lists. With War for Cybertron - theoretically given free rein to produce designs which were entirely new, but which could conceivably evolve into Generation 1 - Hasbro have launched something that barely qualifies as pre-G1, but would function adequately as post-TransFormers: The Movie G1.

I wouldn't even describe this approach as 'playing it safe' because there are now so many fans from post-G1 continuities, and this approach essentially seems to be saying that the G1 aesthetic is the only valid TransFormers aesthetic anyone should care about, when there's so much more already existing within the brand and - unless I'm being overly optimistic - so much more new to create and discover. Much as I hate BotBots as a concept, I'm forced to concede that it's the first - if not the only - shred of originality the franchise has shown since Armada.

I agree wholeheartedly with Aaron Archer when he expressed the opinion that we've reached saturation point with the current crop of vehicle-based TransFormers. Ultimately, I think that:
  • Everyone is entitled to their own preferred continuity, whether it's the line that first introduced them to TransFormers toys or something they discovered later. G1 is not the be-all and end-all, the G1 cartoon is not the only aesthetic, and I'd imagine that it's of limited interest to those who were introduced to the TransFormers brand via a later continuity.
  • Following directly on from that sentiment, Generations should do a better job of living up to the plural of continuities implicit in its name, rather than focussing on the 'first and foremost', and re-doing the same characters over and over again every few years.
  • Taking GI Joe as an example of a similar action figure franchise, rebooting the same thing over and over again will likely end in a similar fashion - with the brand going into hibernation.
  • Hasbro have been, frankly, late to the game with a lot of their G1 reboots. Combiner Wars and Titans Return happened long after Third Parties developed superior versions of much the same range of characters, and there are already several Third Party versions of Omega Supreme and G1 TV show Jetfire... why should anyone be expected to fork out for the simpler, less well decorated Hasbro versions, aside from the fact that they'll be cheaper?
  • If Hasbro then want to have a pre-G1 Cybertronian toyline, it should aim to make it unique, and should probably have commenced with a proper pre-war chapter rather than a 'dawn of the war' chapter in which one of the gimmicks is battle damage paintwork applications.
  • Any continuation of G1, such as may be deemed necessary in future, should take the Binaltech/Alternity approach of putting the old favourite characters into newer, contemporary vehicle modes (not necessarily licensed, just believable and character-appropriate), and be pitched as following on from the existing G1 story, whether or not that takes into account the events of the animated movie.
  • Following on from that, Cybertron has always been depicted as a planet bustling with sentient robotic life, yet the toylines recycle the same characters over and over again, so a continuation of G1 should also be an extension of G1, introducing characters we've never encountered before.
  • Revisiting past glories is all well and good, but time and effort should be put into developing the next new continuity - both story and toyline - to show that the brand will continue to evolve and innovate. Hell, I'd even be happy if they were to revisit the concept of TransTech.
All that said, War for Cybertron: Siege has had a largely positive reaction from the fan community at large, on a technical level if not an aesthetic level, and there only seems to be a few of us feeling G1 fatigue. Even so, I'd expect somewhat diminishing returns from reboot after reboot, and bringing back larger figures like Omega Supreme and Jetfire will only keep people interested for so long.

TransFormers will have to grow beyond G1 again eventually because it can't repeat forever, and - much as I might like to see a new take on Beast Wars, RiD/Car Robots, or Armada - I'd like to think it'll do so with something wholly new rather than just rebooting a different existing continuity.

I'd like to think this is the last I'll have to say on this subject, at least until War for Cybertron draws to a close (and with the exception of any actual WFC2019 toys I end up buying and writing about), but I welcome any feedback and contrary opinions on this topic. Do any of you reading this feel that G1 is so much the bedrock of the brand that it can only continue if Hasbro revert to and focus on the fundamentals? Is it all just a game of protecting their trademarks and intellectual properties, and therefore more important than innovating? Should we be happy with a guaranteed core cast of familiar characters who always look broadly the same, or should we expect the cast list to develop and grow? Am I even right in thinking that G1 is irrelevant to some section of the fanbase? And, of those who came to discover TransFormers after G1 had passed, how interested are you in all the nouveau-G1 as opposed to either original G1 or a reboot of whichever toyline made you a fan?

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