Thursday, September 8, 2011

Transforming the Airwaves for Generations: The Life Cycle of the Transformers Franchise

by Christopher Scott

For the past 27 years the battle between Autobots and Decepticons has been chronicled across many forms of media. Cartoons, comic books, and movies have all given us a glimpse of these larger-than-life beings and their quest for peace. I consider myself lucky in many ways to have been a part of this journey for so long, however the road has been rough at times as well. The main problem stemming from such a long tradition is that the universe in which the battles take place have changed dramatically so many times that it is hard to keep track. Today we look back at some of the more popular, and not so popular, versions of our robots in disguise and see where they may be headed in the future.

The franchise started out (as many cartoons do) as a way to get kids to buy toys. Because as interesting as it was to have a semi-truck turn into a robot via a few twists and turns of limbs, it didn’t have that spark that ignites the imagination. Instead, Hasbro (the toy creator) sanctioned some Marvel Comics writers, including Dennis O’Neil, to write a backstory for these toys and give them purpose. This then spawned both a comic series and the cartoon often referred to as Generation 1 (G1). Sunbow Productions and Marvel Productions collaborated on the show that gave birth to Optimus Prime, Megatron, and the original cast of characters. The robots had crash landed on Earth and reignited their war from their previous home planet, Cybertron, that had been destroyed. Many of the basics of the future series and movies were taken from G1.

aired from 1984 through 1987 and immediately hooked the audience of young boys from ages 8 to 15. Hasbro had hit a gold mine of marketing potential with this show. The toys began to fly off of the shelves, along with t-shirts, comics, lunchboxes, and the like. Every kid wanted to be a part of the revolution. I truly don’t think that today there can be any comparison to this phenomenon only because there are so many choices for entertainment now that wouldn’t have been available in 1984. We have four channels devoted solely to cartoons, widely available (cheap) DVDs, and internet so expansive that we can find anything at any time. There was some competition from shows like Thundercats, but it was always assumed that they were only riding on the success of Transformers.

After G1 was completed, there were some Japanese spin-offs and a comic book that continued in its wake. And, of course, the toys continued their production without a break. Just as interest might have started to slow down, we were treated to another jaw-dropping take on the characters. Transformers: Beast Wars began in 1996. The real draw was the use of computer-generated 3D models instead of a two-dimensional cartoon. The story picked up where the original series had left off, with some minor tweaks. The Autobots were now the Maximals and the Decepticons were the Predacons, and in this show the characters transformed into animals instead of vehicles. According to the story, the alternate Earth they landed on had too much Energon (their fuel supply) in the atmosphere so they could not use vehicle forms. All fake science aside, the show was immediately well-received and took off quickly.

Again Hasbro had hit the nail on the head and began raking in the money. This may not have been the first CG-animated cartoon, but it was one of the best, even by today’s standards. It won a Daytime Emmy Award, lots of press attention, and the hearts and minds of children the world over. There were some glitches along the way with bringing it to the rest of the world from its Canadian origins, but these were minor and the show thrived anyway. For three years the series ran, reestablishing the toy line as a dominant force for dwindling the wallets of parents everywhere.

The next iteration of Transformers ran the series into the ground as far as legitimate cartoon series are concerned. Transformers: Robots in Disguise began in April 2000 and was also a computer-generated cartoon. The problem was, with each new season, the name of the show changed, the time the show aired changed, and the network even changed. It was succeeded by Transformers Armada, Energon, and Cybertron. The transformations were more elaborate for each character, and they would have multiple forms and could combine with each other. It just became difficult to follow as a TV show and merely served to keep toys on the shelves.

This brings us to the movie franchise, which launched Transformers into the stratosphere. The enormity of this project is incomprehensible. In fact, as of this writing, the third film hasn’t even been put on DVD and Blu-Ray yet. The movies (though clearly off topic for a blog about television) have cemented this show to have a future for the next 30+ years. And to bring these characters onto the small screen, Hasbro did bring another new cartoon out, called Transformers Prime.

You might have heard about Transformers Prime in another of my editorial pieces. It is a new series that takes a few characters and elements from the movies and puts them into a show for the next generation of children. It airs on a newer network called The Hub, which is also owned by Hasbro. What I like most about this show is that, now that the characters and storyline have been around for quite some time and the movies were an astounding success, it gives families a chance to bond over a show that previously would have catered only to young boys. The show follows its predecessors by also being CG, however I really wish that it was in HD. Besides that, the characters are recognizable and the story is fun to watch. In fact, there are a few episodes (namely “Predatory” and “Partners”) that I was as impressed with as any live-action TV show I have ever watched. New episodes of this cartoon start Saturday so set your DVR and get caught up before it returns to The Hub.
The Transformers will continue to be present in our lives for years to come. As long as it continues to make money I’m sure we will never see a day where Optimus Prime will not be here to save the Earth from the likes of Megatron and his dastardly Decepticons. If you have a favorite robot in disguise post a comment below as to who and why!
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