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HEXdidn't...: A Brief Autobiography in Terms of TransFormers Toys

(updated 20/10/2019)
I first started collecting TransFormers toys when they first appeared on UK shelves back in 1984 - they were something new and very exciting, considering I'd grown up with Dinky/Matchbox/Tonka cars, Lego, Action Man, Star Wars and Masters of the Universe. Before TransFormers, most of my toy purchases were quite random and didn't really constitute 'collecting' (OK, I had a fair few MotU figures, and even the Castle Greyskull playset, but the largest collection - Star Wars - wasn't exactly extensive and, in any case, my mother now considers all those toys to be hers!). I used to dip into toylines but get bored fairly quickly. Nothing captured my attention or imagination the way TransFormers did. I was one of the lucky few to get Optimus Prime for Christmas in 1985, when he was released in the UK in pitifully small numbers, causing (I'm told) the kind of nasty scenes in toy shops you hear about all too frequently with 'fad' toys these days. I almost didn't as, a couple of weeks before Christmas, I told my mother I wanted Grimlock instead (because, at the time, Grimlock was cooler than Optimus Prime in the Marvel comics) and she was understandably rather upset at my caprice. Looking back, it seems weird that I genuinely wanted Grimlock because, these days, I think the Dinobots were ridiculous (and still are, thanks to Age of Extinction/The Last Knight).

When the TransFormers animated movie happened, I wasn't exactly blown away... The TV series had been good, but the characters looked nothing like the toys - I have always favoured the more toy-accurate UK comics from 1985 - and, while I found the movie exciting for the time (I watched it at least twice in the cinema), I was pretty nonplussed when it killed off Optimus Prime and set up Rodimus Prime as the new leader - TransFormers, as a brand, is all about change, after all.

I collected TransFormers toys - and read the Marvel comic - for about four or five years and then stopped, more or less, because I'd got to high school and felt it was time to "put away childish things" (though I never literally put them away, let alone dispose of them). I felt that the toys that came out of the animated movie and those that came after were becoming steadily more disappointing, so I didn't think I was missing much. Conveniently, it meant I missed what I, personally, now consider to be the low point of what is now called 'Generation 1': Micromasters and Action Masters.

The toyline faded from my consciousness entirely for more than ten years until, one fateful day (in the run-up to Christmas, if I remember correctly) I was out shopping with my best friend in a Harrow department store, and I discovered Beast Wars in the toys section. After I'd stopped laughing at the concept of robots transforming into animals, I picked up Optimus Primal and Megatron, just for old time's sake. I honestly thought that would be the last of it...

Some years later, though, I saw the three 'Car Brothers' from Car Robots/Robots in Disguise in the window of Computer Exchange, basically opposite that same department store. I didn't think much of them at the time, but a trip to Forbidden Planet (in its old, murky, crowded location on New Oxford Street) introduced me to some of the larger toys in the line. I left clutching Ultra Magnus, Megatron and - against the good advice of my best friend - also Galvatron, soon after picking up Optimus Prime in Woolworths.

It wasn't until the 20th Anniversary of the toyline, in 2004, that I started properly collecting again. My job left me with a fair bit of disposable income and a web search provoked solely by curiosity turned up news of the impending release of MP01 Convoy. After that, I found BT01 Smokescreen in Forbidden Planet (by this time in its swanky new digs on Shaftesbury Avenue) and was thoroughly bitten by the bug all over again. I started buying Takara's TransFormers Collection reissues, the Toys'R'Us exclusive Commemorative Series, old Armada toys, Energon toys (and some imported Superlink), then imported Galaxy Force toys as well. After re-discovering the Beast Wars TV series online, I saw the toys in a whole new light and started searching for them, grabbing not only the original TV series characters, but some of the more esoteric toys from the Japan-only extensions to the line. By the time Classics arrived in 2006, I was well and truly hooked again, and updated versions of G1 characters with superior articulation were just what I wanted.

A friend enabled my rekindled addiction by buying me my first year's subscription to the TransFormers Collectors' Club as a Christmas present in 2006, and I renewed every year till they shut down at the end of 2016, despite the loss of their forums early on in my membership and some of their extremely weird choices in terms of their exclusives. Their 'Figure Subscription Service', which operates independently of their annual exclusives, started out well, but year 2 was of barely any interest, year 3 was of none at all, and, while year 4 seemed to be a no-brainer because it build a combiner, the final year featured only one figure I wanted.

Then the first live-action movie happened and, while I think it was terrible, it brought a wonderful new aesthetic and increased levels of complexity to the toys, for which I was - and remain - thankful. Each new movie basically ret-conned the last, to the point where none of it made any sense and, after inflicting Age of Extinction upon myself and my best mate, I decided to give The Last Knight a miss entirely. Truly, I was glad when the Writers' Room was disbanded and Paramount called time on the Michael Bay era - allowing the director to work on better things, and the studio to reinvent the brand.

Thankfully, the 2018 solo Bumblebee movie, directed by Travis Knight and starring the amazing Hailee Steinfeld, turned out to be far closer to what I (and other fans) wanted out of a TransFormers live action movie... just a shame it had to reinvigorate Hasbro's Bumblebee Merchandising Machine right along with the movie franchise...

I liked TransFormers Animated a lot more than I expected to, but preferred the darker, more grounded TransFormers Prime, and my favourite series is still the much-maligned Beast Machines, largely thanks to the powerhouse performances of Garry Chalk ('my' Optimus Prime/Primal) and David Kaye. I mostly dislike the new cel-shaded CGI series 'Robots in Disguise' due to its weird mutant Decepticons though that hasn't stopped me picking up a few of the toys here and there... and have even dipped my toe into the Cyberverse line, despite it being more kiddy-oriented and, to be honest, a bit crap... so it's basically business as usual for me, as that's what happened Armada, Energon, TF Animated, and Titans Return...

...Speaking of, as a TransFormers fan who pretty much hated the HeadMaster gimmick back in the 80s - admittedly more because of the hopelessly oversimplified, Mini Autobot-level transformations - I've found the Titan Master gimmick far more agreeable, and look forward to whatever comes next. But do I regret buying the Platinum re-release of G1 Trypticon, when the Titans Return version looks so good? I honestly don't, because the G1 version has a battery-operated walking function which is cooler even than the ability to swallow Titan Masters and a fully-articulated Titan Master Full Tilt.

I attended a couple of AutoAssemblies while that was running, and have been going to TFNation since it started in 2016, but never managed to drag myself across the pond for its big brother, BotCon (though I came close in 2015, visiting Chicago a month or two later). Thing is, I am an utterly unsociable person, so 'community' events like that are somewhat wasted on me. They're a great opportunity to buy more toys, and playing 'YouTuber Bingo' can be fun, but I'll rarely get into much conversation while I'm there... Generally, I get my fix of plastic crack from shows like the MCM London Comic Con, buying online or, on the rare occasion I visit bricks-and-mortar toy shops, my local branches of The Entertainer and Smyths. Someday, I hope to visit Japan (but I'll probably need a bigger suitcase for the return journey).

Now, more than 30 years later, TransFormers toys are back on my Christmas list... I have a mild-ish form of Seeker OCD and, apparently, a fixation on motorbike Femme-Bots (21 and counting). I have great respect for the third party manufacturers of transforming robot models, proudly display their products alongside 'official' TransFormers toys, and it seems that Hasbro have started taking notes (particularly from Titans Return onward).

When I say that I firmly believe that transforming robots are enough of a gimmick in and of themselves, I mean that the idea of a cool-looking robot that can turn into a convincing plane (and by 'convincing', I don't necessarily mean 'realistic', just something better than a plane with a folded up robot as its undercarriage), car, truck, tank, spacecraft... even animal... is enough. All I want/need out of TransFormers is a robot that looks like a robot that disguises itself as something else... and for that something else to not look like a folded-up robot.

Don't get me wrong, though. Some of the gimmicks have been cool. Lights and sounds have their place (and, preferably, the full package rather than the frequently crippled speech effects we get in Europe). Separate weapons, rather than the integrated kind, can be a nice bonus (but work best when they can be stowed in the alternate mode). Gestalts and HeadMasters can be awesome (when they don't look like they were made by Fisher Price).

Frankly, I think Hasbro completely lost the plot with the War for Cybertron line... In the first chapter, Siege, ostensibly set on Cybertron at the dawn of the war, the toys came pre-painted with battle damage, and some of my concerns about changes to the size classes over the years seemed justified. Most of the toys looked like they were built out of hyperdetailed boxes, and vehicle modes ranged from unimaginative to just plain shit. The line - and the associated comic from IDW - even started out with Optimus Prime already present (rather than Orion Pax or some other pre-leadership identity), and then Hasbro produced two toys of the character in quick succession: one barely different from a terrestrial truck, the other misguidedly based upon the Galaxy Force toy. Worse still, Hasbro's first official attempt at a Tetrajet ended up as a robot folded up into a box, carried underneath a Tetrajet shell that barely features in the transformation process. Was that really the best they could offer in 2019? Probably doesn't even matter, though, because the second chapter, Earthrise, ditches Cybertron and its aesthetic entirely to become basically G1 all over again, like a reboot of Classics bringing with it a handful of characters who weren't done full justice back in 2005/6.

Ultimately, as someone who was introduced to the line by the likes of G1 Cliffjumper, I don't even require horribly convoluted transformations... I just want them to live up to the taglines: Robots In Disguise and More Than Meets The Eye.

...And if there are going to be glorified toy commercials in the form of TV series or movies, it wouldn't hurt for them to represent the toys well, to have decent stories, to be at least internally consistent... and to make some sense. The first movie not to be directed by Michael Bay was certainly a step in the right direction...

In many ways, I think some of the Third Party companies have a better idea of how to make good TransFormers toys than either of the companies who created the brand, and they're not as constrained by budgets or toy safety guidelines as Hasbro or Takara Tomy because they're making adult collectables, frequently based on popular, yet previously underrepresented characters. FansProject seemed to take an early lead with their City Commander accessory set, Warbot, Function-X and, of course, Causality... but they seem to have lost momentum and have since been overtaken by the myriad other companies which have sprung up. While there are obvious downsides to the Third Parties (expense, random scaling and their baffling habit of releasing their own versions of exactly the same characters) they have clearly influenced Hasbro and Takara Tomy and encouraged them to up their game (witness the difference between a G1 gestalt, a Superlink/Energon gestalt, the hideous Power Core Combiners and the generally pretty spiffy Combiner Wars, as well as the curious choice Hasbro/Takara Tomy has made to release Titans Return versions of all the HeadMasters characters thusfar produced by several Third Parties). And even when Hasbro/Takara Tomy get it right, it seems some of the Third Parties are still willing to hit them with some one-upmanship... And not even the Studio Series line - Hasbro's attempts to improve upon their own older work, to get the movie bots just right while still keeping to the pricepoint of a toyline - is immune to Third Party improvements...

On the issue of toy representation, I'm beginning to suspect that part of the problem is in the way Hasbro wants to perceive itself - as "an intellectual properties company that also makes toys". TransFormers, first and foremost, is a toy brand... and yet Hasbro's focus has been on movies and TV series, to the detriment of the toys, since before the first live-action movie. The best thing Hasbro could do for the toy range is develop toys first, and the associated fiction afterward (as it was with G1) yet, increasingly, the big profits (such as the $1bn made by the execrable Age of Extinction) come from the associated fiction... And Hasbro's shareholders only care about the profits.

On a semi-related note, one thing I really miss, since the days of Generation 1, is the proper character bios (including explanations of their weapons) packaged with the toys. Up until a few years ago, in the States, toys were sometimes packaged with something like that level of character detail printed on the box/card, but it always seems neutered - the good guys were always nice, the bad guys were always... pretty bland. Back in G1, the character bio would often influence my decision to buy a toy... and there were Autobots who weren't very nice and Decepticons who didn't really believe in their cause. In Europe these days, we're lucky to get a single sentence of character information along with a single sentence of generic blurb. The Collectors' Club included bio cards with all their figures, but many of those were a whole lot of text with next to no information (such as Elita-1)

One of my biggest bugbears in life, generally, is that so few businesses (or their shareholders, at least) understand that money needs to be funneled into the business so that it can generate money, so their products/services inevitably suffer in the long-term. This seems to have been quite true of Hasbro and the TransFormers brand for quite a while. I was pleased to see that the first waves of both Combiner Wars and Titans Return were improved upon by the later waves because it seemed to be building to something amazing... Power of the Primes turned out fairly disappointing, with only a few highlights, and now the War for Cybertron trilogy is set to be yet another re-do of toys they made over thirty years ago (and yet, where's the TV show? Are they relying 100% on IDW for toy commercials masquerading as fiction?). I'm very definitely not averse to changing my mind about a toyline that starts out looking a bit crap... Hell, I did it with Armada and Energon... But WfC2019/2020 is looking unimaginative, and like a huge wasted opportunity.

Another problem with the brand is that, increasingly, we have multiple continuities occupying shelf space simultaneously. I suspect that a greater focus on one product line - making it more diverse,  extensive and aimed at a wider age range - would serve Hasbro better than its current scattershot approach of lots of series with comparatively few characters and a variety of silly gimmicks. Two additional toylines at most should be needed, to ensure movies can be covered without their toys having to be awkwardly shoehorned into the main line, while G1 fans can get their fix without restricting the main line to constant, repetitive reboots.

But, hey, I'm a fan, not a business analyst...

And, please, just don't get me started on the fucking TransFormers Botbots line.

FAQ-type stuff:

Favourite (Official) TransFormers toys: G1 Megatron, G1 Trypticon, RotF Leader class Optimus Prime and Starscream, AoE/Gen Evasion Mode Optimus Prime, TLK Leader class Megatron, Studio Series Stinger, Grimlock, Blackout,Thundercracker & Ironhide, MP01 Convoy, MP03 Starscream, Generations Springer and Arcee, Power of the Primes Evolution Optimus Prime and Battletrap, NYCC 2011 First Edition Arcee, TFCC Timelines Airazor

Favourite (KO) TransFormers toys: WeiJiang Deformation Era OP Commander/M01 Commander, Black Mamba Deformation LS-01 Ares Nitrogen

Favourite TransFormers character: Beast Wars Silverbolt, TF Prime Arcee or Airachnid

Favourite Third Party models: FansProject Causality Intimidator (and components), Mastermind Creations Reformatted Azalea (and repaints) and Knight Morpher Screecher, Stormer & Warper (AKA the Airborne Squad), iGear Con Air Raptor Squadron Star-Burst Thunder-Wrath & Sky-Wind, Alien Attack STF-01 Firage, Unique Toys R-01 Peru Kill, Fans Toys FT-24 Rouge, DX9 Kaleidoscope K03 La Hire, ToyCo (Tandy/Radio Shack) Galactic Man

Favourite TransFormers continuities: for story, Beast Machines or Prime. For toys, Classics/Generations or Revenge of the Fallen/Hunt for the Decepticons (though Studio Series is rapidly catching up!)

Least favourite TransFormers toys: Botbots, Movie Leader class Megatron, G1 Pretenders, Action Masters (and, in fact, any non-transforming TransFormers items), TF Prime Airachnid, Masterpiece Road Rage, Cyberverse, gimmicky stuff that serves no real purpose, like Prime Masters.

Least favourite TransFormers character: Optimus Prime from the Bayverse

Least favourite Third Party models: toss up between iGear's Bushwacker and Perfect Effect's Leonidas. The former is just a bit rubbish, the latter is ridiculously fragile.

Collection Count: 800-ish

G1 Rumble/Frenzy Colour Preference: I'm with the toys all the way - the TV series got it wrong, and I'm pretty sure they admitted as much - so RIRFIB

Femme-bots... Why?: Why not? The way I see it, they're all actually genderless and their appearance is as much a reflection of their function and/or choice of vehicle form/disguise as it is anything else. Just because a robot appears, in my eyes, or sounds, to my ears, 'feminine', doesn't make it so... it's still a robot.

Was Hot Rod responsible for Optimus Prime's death in the 1986 Animated movie?: How is this even a question? His actions were well-intentioned, but ill-considered. He overestimated his chances against an injured Megatron and thereby gave him the opportunity to shoot Prime.

Collecting Method (MISB/MOSC vs Open): Open and in cabinets all the way... Packaging of virtually all mainstream releases is even thrown away. Occasional exceptions are Japanese packaging (Galaxy Force, Binaltech, Superlink, eHobby, 30th Anniversary/Legends, etc.) but a good chunk of that has now been ditched so save space. All that remains is Third Party packaging, Exclusive packaging (though not always), Masterpiece packaging and anything sufficiently interesting. Personally, I just don't get the MISB/MOSC (and especially the AFA graded-and-sealed) mindset because those collectors aren't really enjoying their collection, they're enjoying the idea of it. Some of my stuff has to go back in the box as I currently have limited display space, but that tends to be things like BotCon sets and boxed TFCC exclusives... but I have now also put my Binaltech collection away to make some space for Prime Wars and something else will soon have to be put away to make more space for Studio Series.

Collecting habits: Protesting repeatedly that I'm not going to buy something until, all of a sudden, and usually on a whim, I buy it. Seeker OCD. Black repaint junkie. Femme-bot fanatic. Dispiser of the Dinobots. Part-time exclusive hunter. Occasional, underachieving customiser.

Strangest TransFormers collecting experience: bought a G1 Doubledealer on eBay because I needed the two PowerMasters and the blue mounting plate for a custom Alternator Soundwave (and didn't want to mess up my own), and it arrived with a 'certificate of authenticity' for having been part of the seller's collection. Is that really a thing?

Most expensive collecting fail: a toss-up between the time I bought Binaltech BT-17 Black Convoy, even though I already had Alternators Nemesis Prime, only to find it had a glue spillage inside, which prevents proper transformation of the bonnet (and for which I did get a partial refund) and the time, many years ago, that I thought I was ordering an actual G1 Reflector on eBay, and ended up with a terrible knock-off... which taught me that all-important lesson of buying on eBay, "caveat emptor". I'll also throw in Perfect Effect's Leonidas, which was a massive disappointment.

Other interests: Cooking, sketching, pixel art and game design, writing, reading, watching anime, playing (mostly retro) videogames, astronomy (sort of)

Favourite writers: Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Terry Pratchett (RIP, the man who got me interested in reading), Natsume Soseki, Stephen Donaldson, Neil Gaiman, Anne Bishop, Maurice LeBlanc (even if his version of Sherlock Holmes was a bit of a dick, and his Watson probably the one who likes jam), Christopher Priest, Michael Talbot, Richard Morgan

Favourite (non-TransFormers) TV shows: Doctor Who (apart from the David Tennant era), Being Human (UK - series 1-3 only, 5 at a push), The Fades, Twin Peaks, Chuck, The X-Files, Agents of SHIELD, Castle, Sleepy Hollow, Penny Dreadful, The Flash, Supergirl, Arrow, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Better Call Saul, Fringe, Ash vs. The Evil Dead, Altered Carbon, Disenchanted, Lucifer, Mindhunter, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, First Dates (in all its schadenfreude-tastic variations), White Rabbit Project, Catfish

Favourite (non-TransFormers) movies: Alien series, Star Wars series (except the prequels), Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, Just about everything Marvel have done recently, Wonder Woman, Cabin in the Woods, Dog Soldiers, Dredd, The Fall, Grosse Pointe Blank, Out Of Sight, Sunset Boulevard, Brief Encounter, The Usual Suspects, Kiki's Delivery Service, Lady in the Water, Sucker Punch, Unbreakable, Paprika, The Thing (1982), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Shape of Water, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, Condorman

Favourite anime series: Ergo Proxy, Eden of the East, Panty & Stocking, Chevalier D'Eon, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Paranoia Agent, Macross Zero (though possibly only because of the - at the time - jaw-dropping transformation sequence in the first episode)

Favourite videogames: Policenauts, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Xenoblade Chronicles, Elite/Oolite, Akumajo Dracula X ~Gekka no Yasoukyoku~ (Sega Saturn version)

Favourite bands/music: Nine Inch Nails, How to Destroy Angels, Queens of the Stone Age, Jane's Addiction, Fields of the Nephilim, Mediaeval Baebes, Queen Adreena

Favourite podcasts: Myths & Legends, Lore, Girl In Space, My Favourite Murder, LeVar Burton Reads, The Smartest Man in the World, The Unseen Hour, It Could Happen Here, Stuff They Don't Want You To Know, Inside Of You with Michael Rosenbaum, Criminal

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