It was the mid-1980s. During this point in time, we were still at a Cold War with the then-Soviet Union, the video game industry suffered a tremendous crash, aerobics and sunglasses were 'must-have' fashions, and of course, the animation industry was in a slump. Likely due to loss of Walt Disney in the mid-late 1960s, the limited new direction of animation (and the fact that a lot of cartoons from the 1970s weren't that great), the 1980s didn't have too many 'creator-driven' cartoons. That's not to say there weren't any good cartoons; that's anything but the truth. Two common themed-cartoons during this era were 'kid' versions of older cartoon characters (Jim Henson's Muppet Babies, The Flintstone Kids, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo) and cartoons based on a popular toy (G.I. Joe, My Pet Monster, My Little Pony). One show from this decade that I remember from my young years and still hold close (and I'm sure that many of you guys do too) is a toy-based cartoon that we all know as...
Based of a toyline made by Hasbro, it was a show created for American audiences (with many of its characters originating from many different Japanese toy continuties), "Transformers: Generation 1" (the fan-coined term for the 1980s series) was made on part of Hasbro's marketing agreement with Marvel and Sunbow in the same manner as done previously with "G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero". It was done as part of a three-pronged marketing approach: a toyline, a comic book series and an animated TV show. I myself don't have too many of the original toyline, and I never followed the comic book series, but the cartoon will always be remembered as part of my early morning ritual.
The series itself, while I am sure needs no introduction, is a cartoon about two warring factions of giant, transforming alien robots from a distant planet called Cybertron. The heroic, peace-loving Autobots who wished for peaceful co-existance, and the evil, treacherous Decepticons whose goal is to conquer.
They had a millions of years-long feud about the ultimate fate of their home planet. In the bid to gain an advantage over the opposing side, the Autobots would try to find a new source of Energon, but their bid was ultimately foiled by the Decepticons' following them into space. Four million years later, their battle for supremacy would continue...
...on our fair 1980s-era planet Earth.
My alligence was always with the Autobots; the diverse cast of likable protagonists who only desired peace (and unlike most other action series, on this show the heroes wound up getting more development) helped provide my foundation of moral value that I like to search for in a TV show.
The Autobots' commander--Optimus Prime--was always the bot. And what hasn't been said about him that isn't already glowing? He's wise, collected, brave and charismatic. His strong sense of justice, righteousness and motto, "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings" helped make him a hero in many childrens' eyes. He was voiced the great Peter Cullen (who based his voice on that of movie star John Wayne), and was always caring and compassionate, like a fictional father figure. He's constantly challenged the Transformers' writers to create a definitive version of his character.
The other Autobots loyal to him are awesome in their own right. My favorites included the 'good cop' Prowl, the gruff-yet-lovable Ironhide, the mad scientist inventor Wheeljack, the Earth-culture loving Jazz, the conspiracy head Cliffjumper, the Autobot medic Ratchet, the short-yet-macho Brawn and the new-bot-on-the-block Bumblebee. The other Autobots (Trailbreaker, Hound, Sunstreaker, Sideswipe, Bluestreak, Windcharger, Huffer, Gears and Mirage) were lesser favorites, but they had their moments. Aided in their bid to protect Earth was the 14-year old Spike Witwicky and his father Sparkplug. Heroes loyal to Optimus and ending up getting a lot of great moments throughout the show, the Autobots primary reason for existance seemed to be find evil and stamp it out, but the generally warm reaction towards them means the side of virtue has the upper hand here.
In a series heavily-oriented on action, usually the villains tend to get more development, and can have a tendency to steal the spotlight from the heroes. If you took the idea behind Cobra Commander and Destro (two of the main villains on Transformers' sister series G.I. Joe) and had them do a role reversal, you'd have the idea behind Megatron and Starscream. The series' primary villains, they were always at odds with each other in a power struggle for control over the Decepticons. As far as character development went, the fact Starscream had a voice given by Chris Latta (also Cobra Commander, the 'star' of G.I. Joe) meant he was easily the most amiable villain in the show. Cruel, ruthless, and at the same time somewhat humorous, he was lots of fun. Megatron, the 'straight character' to Starscream's 'funny character', is cocky and megalomaniacal, and thinks big in ways to destroy the Autobots and conquer the universe.
However, beyond characters such as Soundwave and his spy network, the other Decepticons never got anywhere near as much development. Less attention was ever given to them, so as a result, the rest of the villains never seemed that interesting.
Characters like Shrapnel, Kickback and Bombshell (the Insecticons), basically were a rogue squad of Decepticons due to their falling out of Megatron's favor, and the Constructicons (Scavenger, Mixmaster, Long Haul, Hook, Bonecrusher and Scrapper) were created to be loyal to Megatron, but that was really about it. Other characters like Reflector, who was ultimately useless to the point of disappearing, and Shockwave, who stayed on Cybertron and was endlessly loyal to Megatron, never did too many interesting activities and just got kicked around a lot.
Even more constant villainous characters like Skywarp and Thundercracker never saw too much development. It's a small failing...well, because the bad guys here don't give us much reason to sympathize with...
...but that turns out to be a good thing; because our allegiences lie more with the heroic Autobots, we take their side and seeing them win makes us feel great.
The first season of the show (1984-1985) introduced us to the characters that we grew to love. This season had a strong sense of consistency (well, in terms of plot...animation errors still pop up in the darnedest places); if something happened to Megatron in one episode, then of course the Decepticons will be in disarray until the next can put the pieces back into place. Beyond the aforementioned characters, we saw the introduction of the Dinobots Grimlock, Slag and Sludge, and later, Snarl and Swoop, and the Constructicons, the first 'gestalt' set of Transformer characters (in short, the combiners, who merge to form a giant robot named Devastator) and Skyfire (Jetfire, to be technical). My favorite episodes in this season included the three-part series premiere "More Than Meets the Eye", "Divide and Conquer", the three (but I guess you can say four, since "Countdown to Extinction" is in its direct continuity) "The Ultimate Doom" and "Heavy Metal War".
The second season of the show (1985-1986) kept the ball rolling, but a few things were different this time around. For one thing, the plots are now restricted to one episode only; something that would seem drastic would be back to normal next episode. We saw more characters introduced in this season (without a strong reason for aiding, other than to introduce a new set of toys), including Grapple, Hoist, Smokescreen, Tracks, Inferno, Red Alert, Beachcomber, Cosmos, Seaspray, Warpath, Blaster and Perceptor, along with combiner teams like the Aerialbots and the Protectobots who came to help the Autobots, while the Decepticons saw triple changers Blitzwing and Astrotrain, the Conehead Jets Thrust, Dirge and Ramjet, and the gestalt teams such as the Stunticons and the Combaticons. I still liked this season a lot, my favorites included "Attack of the Autobots", "The Immobilizer", "Day of the Machines", "A Prime Problem", "The Insecticon Syndrome", "Megatron's Master Plan", "A Decepticon Raider in King Arthur's Court", "Make Tracks", "Auto-Bop", "The Key to Vector Sigma", "Starscream's Brigade" and "Masquerade". Of course, there were some weak episodes, like "Atlantis, Arise!", "The God Gambit", "Child's Play", "Kremzeek!", "The Girl Who Loved Powerglide" and many fan's pick for the series worst episode, "B.O.T.".
And of course, then came...
Transformers: the Movie (1986)!
Made through a deal by Hasbro, Marvel and Sunbow, Transformers: the Movie was released as the link between Seasons 2 and 3. Set 20 years later than the second season, any and all Transfans knew this was going to be epic. Starring the voices of Eric Idle (Wreck-Gar), Judd Nelson (Hot Rod), Leonard Nimoy (Galvatron), Robert Stack (Ultra Magnus), Lionel Stander (Kup), Susan Blu (Arcee), John Moschitta Jr. (Blurr)...
...and in the final major film role for the War of the Worlds narrator Orson Welles, he did the voice of the film's new villain, a terrifying planet eater named Unicron.
It was an extremely gutsy move for Hasbro. Remember, they were braving an animation industry slump, no support from Disney, critical disdain, and the fact they were coming fresh off the failure of the fairly limited in appeal movie about My Little Pony (c'mon Hasbro. You think little boys are going to want to see a movie about that toyline, theatrically?), but what topped 'em all was something no one was expecting...
Compared to the series, we see the movie's theme is much darker and the Decepticons are much more brutal, having much loved characters like Brawn, Prowl, Ratchet and Ironhide all die within the first couple of minutes (haven't they sustained worse injuries and lived?). But it doesn't end there.
Some time later, we see Windcharger and Wheeljack both bit the dust as well.
In addition, the movie's storyboards planned to kill off Mirage, Red Alert, Smokescreen and Trailbreaker (and as we learn later, Huffer dies on top of that). Lord, they killed a lot of characters here.
Other characters, like Sunstreaker, Hound, Grapple and Bluestreak, seemed like they disappeared after the movie. However, nothing could prepare the kids for...
...the death of Optimus Prime.
Yes, before kids would leave theatres due to disgust over the terrible taste in the Garbage Pail Kids movie, Optimus dies saving Autobot City from a Decepticon invasion. This sequence caused many children to run crying from the multiplex, devastated over the loss of their hero. Clearly Hasbro ignored any and all animation history in the decision to kill these characters; even an animated character can prove to pull a lot of emotional weight. Remember how the audiences reacted to Snow White's death sequence or how Bambi lost his mother?
In any case, Optimus passes the Autobot Matrix of Leadership to Ultra Magnus (ok, in truth it chose Hot Rod). And now, this new troop of Autobots, together with Spike's son Daniel, must have the show must go on without our heroic leader.
But on the way back to Cybertron, Starscream has some 'dead weight' (injured Decepticons, including the Insecticons, Skywarp, Thundercracker and yes, Megatron) ejected from Astrotrain and the still functional Decepticons fight over who their new leader should be.
Megatron is then summoned by Unicron, who bargains with him to destroy the Matrix. He then becomes...
Together with Cyclonus (identity never specified) and his army of Sweeps (salvaged from the other Decepticons), Galvatron returns to Cybertron and...
...He kills Starscream!! Seizing control back, Galvatron and the Sweeps now have the Decepticons follow him, under Unicron.
Oy. That was painful. At this time, in the ultimate 'charge of the light brigade', the G1 series was now past a turning point from which it would never be the same. The new hero roster included the new successor Hot Rod, old timer Kup, powerful Ultra Magnus, female Autobot Arcee, triple changer Springer, fast-talking Blurr and the much-reviled Wheelie.
Unicron continues to threaten Galvatron, the new batch of heroes have a series of misadventures, make some new allies, Galvatron blows up Ultra Magnus and steals the Matrix, the heroes reunite, befriend Wreck-Gar, fix Magnus and prepare to take the final fight to Unicron, who's finally had it with Galvatron's pitiful attempts to scare him with the Matrix and starts to lay waste to Cybertron. From inside Unicron, Hot Rod grapples with Galvatron, until he takes back the Matrix and becomes the new Autobot champion...
Taking this moment to 'light their darkest hour', Rodimus takes control of the Autobots and Unicron is demolished.
The Autobots now have taken back Cybertron!
'Til all are one!
It was all for naught, though. At the box-office, the movie failed to a degree that Howard the Duck (released the same year) looked like a smash. This meant "G.I. Joe: the Movie" went straight-to-video and other toy-based movies (such as movies about "Jem and the Holograms" and "InHumanoids") were cancelled.
Okay. I'll take this moment to say I've had a love/hate affair with the movie. It enjoys a positive reception nowadays; I like the issue of triumph of good over evil, the self-searching to become better, and the hard-rock soundtrack that would become great driving music once I acquired my license in the late '90s. But was it necessary to kill off so many characters we loved so much? Now, I'm not saying it's a bad move, but under normal circumstances, it would be a sign that this should be the series finale. Hell, the Autobots won. Megatron got an upgrade and he still had his ass handed to him, the Decepticons lost control of Cybertron, and a character of pure evil got what he had coming. How can they top that? And now, Cybertron is in Autobot hands. They completed their mission. That should be the end. Now, I understand that this show was made for a different purpose than most series, but imagine if you are watching the Simpsons, and you see Bart beat Jimbo Jones, and now he leads the bully gang. Or Homer finally beat Mr. Burns and now he runs the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. There's just no further reason to care anymore.
And now you know why Duke 'goes into a coma' despite the fact he had a snake go right through his heart in "G.I. Joe: the Movie".
In any case, after all that, the show continued. Season 3 (1986-1987) took place after the movie. Now, remember all the character deaths that occured in the movie? Well, not each and everyone from the oldest line died--Bumblebee, Cliffjumper and Jazz are all confirmed to have survived. However, due to Scatman Crothers' death shortly after the movie was completed and the offense that Casey Kasem took from the Arabic stereotypes in the episode Thief in the Night, Jazz was reduced to making cameo appearances and Cliffjumper was now completely gone. That left Bumblebee as the only hold-over from the series premiere. Did I mention he evenutally gets rebuilt to become Goldbug? In addition, the Season 2 Autobots, with the exception of the gestalts, were fazed out. The show now had a sci-fi element, now no longer restricted to Earth, which was a change of pace, but at the same time, it seemed much darker and not nearly as much fun. In this season, the Autobots were now fighting primarily the Quintessons, with the Decepticons as more of a nuisance than a threat.
Some good episodes were produced, such as "The Killing Jar", "Ghost in the Machine" and "Dark Awakening", but ultimately, the wildly inconsisent animation (for episodes that look very nice, there are some episodes that are 22-minute long goofs such as "Carnage in C-Minor") and the newer characters failed to sit well with the viewers; they wanted to see Optimus Prime's return.
And he did, late in the third season.
By Season 4 (1987), toy sales were in decline, and Hasbro's attention drifted. Only three episodes, the three-part "The Rebirth" were made (damn a lot of new characters were in this episode). It ended with a new age of prosperity brought to Cybertron, but the Decepticons vowed their malevolent schemes would continue...
...just not on US soil. The show ended then and there here in the US, but the Japanese got four new continuities: Headmasters, Super-God Force, Victory and Zone. I never saw these episodes, so I can't comment on them. And I also remember a 'fifth season' where a crude computer-animated Optimus tells a human boy named Tommy Kennedy about his brave exploits. Of course, within the series' final year was a new line of "Action Masters", who, oxymoronically, are "Transformers that don't transform".
In any case, the Transformer characters clearly left an impact on youth culture; what with all the different continuities that would continue through the 1990s and 2000s, and will be remembered as a cult classic in the forseeable future, Transformers has definitely left its mark in the imaginations of children and children-at-heart. All that's left to say is "Autobots, transform and roll out!"
Many thanks to: http://tenchionline.com/ragey/Cartoons/RandomActionHour-Main.htm