TRANSFORMERS PRIME is, if you count all the American TRANSFORMERS cartoon series — excluding GENERATION 2, which was simply a package of original series episodes that had flashy CG framing sequences added in — and then add all the anime TV shows unique to Japan, the fourteenth TRANSFORMERS animated television series. For the curious, it was preceded by THE TRANSFORMERS (1984-1987), THE HEADMASTERS (1987-1988), SUPER-GOD MASTERFORCE (1988-1989), VICTORY (1989), BEAST WARS (1996-1999), BEAST WARS II (1998-1999), BEAST WARS NEO (1999), BEAST MACHINES (1999-2000), CAR ROBOTS/ROBOTS IN DISGUISE (2000), ARMADA/MICRON LEGEND (2002-2003), ENERGON/SUPERLINK (2004-2005), CYBERTRON/GALAXY FORCE (2005), and ANIMATED (2007-2009). Despite being as big a fan of TRANSFORMERS as I am, I haven’t watched all of these series in their entirety, but I’ve seen at least a few episodes of each and feel confident enough in my knowledge of them to say that, two episodes in, PRIME is not quite on the level of BEAST WARS and ANIMATED, but shows the potential to be mentioned in the same breath with those two pinnacles of TRANSFORMERS animated televised storytelling.
PRIME wins a lot of fanboy points right off the bat by marking the return of Peter Cullen to the role of Optimus Prime on television, and the return of Frank Welker to the role of Megatron in something that isn’t a video game or other marketing tie-in material. Cullen strikes a note between his classic 1980’s portrayal of the character and the booming declarative announcer version he does for the live action movie franchise, while Welker’s Megatron has softened; sometimes it’s eerily close to vintage Megatron, enough to send a tingle down the long-time fan’s spine, while often it sounds more like a less cackling, much darker version of his Galvatron voice from season three of the original TV series. Regardless, it works well, especially in a story like this, which seeds in one of the big elements of that third season and the theatrical effort that preceded it.
Where PRIME won’t win over either BEAST WARS or ANIMATED is in the character department. Optimus Prime is that character in the classic mold, the wise and powerful military commander who leads from the front lines. Arcee, the female motorcycle who bears more than a passing resemblance to the battle armor of angry rocker Priss from BUBBLEGUM CRISIS, serves as Prime’s trusted right hand in this series, despite being a bit of a loose cannon. Bumblebee, who somehow comes off as a Yellow Kid-Appeal Character again despite being a brawny Camaro as in the live action movies, talks in R2-D2-speak that can be understood by both his Autobot allies and Pidge-like nerd-child Raf. On the one hand, it creates a bond between him and the nerd-child. On the other hand, this is terribly annoying. Ratchet is curmudgeonly, but not old like he was in ANIMATED; he’s the team’s catch-all scientist and the designated guy who wants to go back to Cybertron and give up on the puny flesh creatures. Jeffrey Combs’s voice for him hits a sweet spot that makes him seem like a more prickly version of the original series character. He and Arcee are probably the best developed Autobots so far. Bulkhead is fundamentally a less goofy and friendly version of the character of the same name from ANIMATED; strip out the development Bulkhead had regarding his knack for understanding space bridges, replace that with a few years of military experience to harden him, and that seems to be the new Bulkhead.
And finally there’s Cliffjumper, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who dies within the first six minutes of the first episode, at the hands of a very creepy Starscream. A shame, because he had a very interesting and unique design. I guess if he was a boring-looking guy, though, it would have been too obvious that he was gonna be offed (see Morph in the 1990’s X-MEN cartoon, or for that matter any of the non-toy TRANSFORMERS characters who were slaughtered throughout the original Marvel Comics run).
The thing I find interesting about the opening of this show is that it seems to start in mid-stream; the Autobot-Decepticon war has already been renewed on Earth, some years ago. Optimus Prime and his Autobots drove the Decepticons from Earth, but are still in hiding in case of their return. Optimus Prime does give the new human characters the full explanation of the Autobot-Decepticon war in the second episode, for the slow kids in the back of the class, but for the entire first episode they figure you know the drill: cars turn into good-guy robots wearing red badges, fight bad-guy robots with purple badges. I assume the thinking is that if you’ve seen one or both of the live action movies (a pretty fair assumption), or played the recent video game (which has kind-of/sort-of been positioned as the backstory for this series, if you squint at it), you’re good to go. It seems weird to me that the Autobot-Decepticon war is still a complete secret to the general populous, but at least without having seen how the first major conflict on Earth went down it’s easier to ignore the hand-waving, unlike the way REVENGE OF THE FALLEN tried to hand-wave away the events of the first TRANSFORMERS movie.
The action of the first two episodes is triggered by the sudden reappearance of the Decepticons; from there, it breaks into a few major threads. Arcee wants revenge on the Decepticons for the death of Cliffjumper. Burger-slinging teenage loser Jack Darby stumbles across Arcee parked outside the burger drive-thru he works at and is dragged into the conflict when she’s spotted by a team of Eradicon drones; this starts a chain reaction that also reveals the Autobot-Decepticon war to nerdling Rafael Esquivel and Japanese exchange student Miko Nakadai, all of whom wind up spending a fair chunk of the second episode hanging around the Autobot base — shades of ARMADA, right down to the two boys/one girl mix and the fact that one kid is Hispanic, though not hilariously stereotypically so in this case.
Easily the most interesting thread from a TRANSFORMERS fan’s perspective, though, is the return of Megatron. We are told he has returned from travels in deep space after three long years. He has returned with the blood of Unicron — Dark Energon, with which he plans to fuel a new army to destroy the Autobots. A shard of it is driven into the corpse of Cliffjumper, turning him into an unstoppable zombie. Megatron’s mad ambition and Starscream’s resignation at having to deal with this lunatic ruling over him feels like how the Galvatron-Cyclonus relationship could have worked if Cyclonus didn’t have a weird man-crush on his commander; it’s that relationship with the Megatron and Starscream personalities in play instead, and I wonder how it’s going to develop, especially now that Megatron has decided to drive a piece of the stuff into his spark.
There are a couple of things I didn’t like so much about PRIME. I do like the animation and art style, and the action sequences were pretty cool, but I didn’t like how empty the world felt. I understand that the Autobots are out in the middle of nowhere, in order to keep out of the public eye, but Jack’s hometown doesn’t seem to have anyone in it. It’s deserted. Likewise, the “ground bridge,” the Autobot’s teleportation gate that can send them anywhere in the world, seems like a bit of a cheat, especially the way it’s handled in the second episode; they lock onto Cliffjumper’s revived signal and warp straight into the Decepticon Energon mine (and how are they mining Energon on Earth? Is it naturally occurring here the same way it was in BEAST WARS? I guess so!). Reminds me too much of the way everyone seemed to be able to teleport wherever in ARMADA.
The music is also underwhelming; much in the same way that season 3 of the original series borrowed bits from Vince DiCola’s score from the 1986 TRANSFORMERS THE MOVIE, this series seems to lift certain bits from Steve Jablonsky’s scores from TRANSFORMERS and REVENGE OF THE FALLEN; I swear I heard his Autobot theme in there a couple of times. The problem is, it doesn’t tonally match the material; it’s a TV animated series, and it needs TV animated series music, something less grave and solemn and something with more energy, zip, and drive.
PRIME’s five-part premiere airs on The Hub one episode per day all week long; part three airs on Wednesday, and I’m curious where it’s going to go from there. Dark Energon being the “blood of Unicron” has me intrigued and curious if the series will dare to go there after ARMADA/ENERGON/CYBERTRON drove the Chaos-Bringer into the ground. The relationships between the three humans and their three Autobot counterparts have been set up, and I’m wondering how that’s all going to play out — and yes, there is a part of me that’s curious how exactly they plan on playing Jack and Arcee’s relationship. (You give a teenage boy a motorcycle that is also a girl, and any weird places that might go are INHERENT TO THE CONCEPT ITSELF.) I also wonder what will come of Miko and Bulkhead; both are fairly blank slates at this point. Are they trying to recapture the fun and energy of Sari and Bulkhead from ANIMATED? Or do they have another trick up their sleeves? I’m also wondering if we’ll meet any other Transformers during the five-part premiere. There are nine named Transformers in the first two episodes: Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Bulkhead, Arcee, Cliffjumper, Ratchet, Megatron, Starscream, and Soundwave. (Soundwave doesn’t have a voice of his own so far; he simply played back an intercepted communication to Starscream.) Now, both BEAST WARS and ANIMATED got by with very small casts (though BEAST WARS at least maintained semi-equal camps), but this feels like it wants to be bigger than that. Its answer seems to be to provide plenty of cannon fodder Decepticon grunts, in the form of the very cool-looking Eradicons. (There was also a cool drill thing in the Energon mine; I was watching a fuzzy YouTube copy, so I couldn’t tell if it was an entity unto itself or if it was piloted by an Eradicon.) But fights with cannon fodder drones don’t have any real stakes. You can’t trade insulting quips with drones. You can’t build personal grudges with drones. You just can’t have as much fun with drones — they exist simply to pad the enemy’s numbers, be slaughtered, and to make the good guys look effective. Vehicon drones made sense in BEAST MACHINES — both from the perspective of what Megatron was doing in BEAST MACHINES and as the nameless, faceless manifestation of authority that kept the heroes on the run. There’s not as much metaphorical depth to having drones here. They’re just cartoon bad guy robots, NINJA TURTLES Foot Soldiers, in PRIME.
They’re really going to have to up their game to reach BEAST WARS and ANIMATED level here, but it is possible. Even if they don’t, though, this will certainly go down as one of the better TRANSFORMERS cartoons, if only because the average is very low indeed.