Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Transformers Left Me Ill-Prepared To Battle Evil

I'm off to get pancakes at a Cambridge diner called Sunny's that was on the bubble for the restaurant list below. Here's the last installment of the TV Trilogy.

The Transformers was arguably the best cartoon of its day. It had everything. It had giant robots from another planet fighting huge battles over the future of the Earth. It had those robots transforming into cars, jets, spaceships, dinosaurs, insects, stereos and guns. It had an anime style years ahead of its time. It had little robots that could turn into vehicles that assembled into a big robot. It had Casey Kasem doing voice acting. It entertained me, hell, it still does entertain me. And yet, the show completely undermined my ability to do battle with the forces of evil.

Mayhaps I should explain the show for those who haven't seen it in a while. The robots from Cybertron are divided into two camps: the Decepticons, devoted to a platform of world domination through evil, and the Autobots, the forces of good. Their homeworld devastated by a centuries old war, the two groups escape only to crash on Earth. The automated repair system on board finds Earth machines to model the robots' new disguises on, and the war continues with new stakes: the Autobots now must also keep the Decepticons from destroying the Earth to get the energy needed to return home and conquer the universe.

The two main characters are Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots, and Megatron, the leader of the Decepticons. Megatron is a big grey robot that transforms into a gun that fits into the hand of one of his lieutenants. Much has been made of this lack of continuity in size, but the explanation is simple: It was a cartoon. Prime is a big red eighteen wheeler cab with the voice of Charlton Heston doing an impression of John Wayne. When he transforms to become his truck self, all of a sudden a big grey trailer appears behind him. Much has been made of this, too, but the explanation is equally obvious in retrospect: if you watch the way his legs fold back in under himself, the trailer clearly comes directly out of his ass.

Most of the Decepticons are fighter jets, F-15 Eagles I think. The air corps is led by Starscream, the whiny second in command who attempts just about every episode to overthrow Megatron. His main role is to provide a character with no redeeming features. Megatron was always trying to destroy the earth and everyone on it for his powermad dreams of glory, but let's face it: he was cool. Starscream was the official whipping boy. Another key Decepticon was Soundwave, a blue tape recorder that controlled a whole bunch of little cassette tape robots. In about half the episodes, he infiltrates some factory or power plant as a simple tape recorder. This is more impressive when you consider the only form he could move in was a giant 20-foot tall robot.

You'd think the Autobots would be in trouble against a group that transformed primarily into fighter jets and big ass guns, but the Autobots were crafty. For instance, just because they couldn't fly didn't men they couldn't get around as fast as the Decepticons. They drove from Arizona to Africa once. Also, about half of their forces were specialists in repair. Ratchet, a paramedic/ambulance, and Wheeljack, an inventor/some form of car, were usually hanging out in the repair bay to fix the broken Autobots and send them back out to fight some more. Sort of a kinder, gentler version of the Red Chinese military strategy. They were assisted by two humans, Spike and his dad Sparkplug, who apparently had no friends or family since when the Autobots showed up they just started living in the volcano with them. Jazz and the Autobot stereo Blaster had the special ability to immobilize enemies by playing loud, generic 70s rock. Then there were the rank and file non-descript cars. The best cars were the ones voiced by Casey Kasem. And of course there was Bumblebee, who didn't have a special ability, usually didn't carry a gun, and more or less was the Barney Fife of the show.

And yet that's not even half of the cast. When you think about it, the show was the first great informercial. A half hour of introducing new toys, how their transformation worked, why the kid should bug his parents into buying it, and not even at two in the morning. It became a never ending arms race, because when the Decepticons got the Insecticons, the Autobots returned with the Dinobots, which were outdone by the Constructicons who merged into Devastator (now guaranteeing that the kid wouldn't rest until all six little robots were purchased), who had to be countered by the small city known as Optimus Prime, but by then the Decepticons were bankrupted, the Autobot economy was in shambles, and the Berlin Wall fell.

At any rate, remember the time Spike and Bumblebee got captured and the Autobots had to risk everything to get them back? Of course you do; it happened every episode. Bumblebee at least I can understand, he was kind of like the drummer boy in the Revolutionary War- you have him march at the front of the lines, give him a drum or a flute, and hope he draws some fire. But in most every episode when the Autobots would transform and roll out to an apocalyptic battle with the Decepticons, Spike would ask if he could tag along. Prime never quite saw that as a strategic liability for some reason.

And that's my problem with the show. Its major premise is that good will triumph over evil. That's okay, but most shows along this line give some reason. Good has the support of the people, or evil keeps telling good of its plans and then lets good escape. The Transformers seemed to assume that good would triumph because evil would just let them win.

After all, how did every episode end? Megatron and his fleet of jets would be standing there and Optimus Prime would show up (with a few sports cars, an RV, a fire truck, and Bumblebee for backup) and say, "Give up Megatron, you've lost." And then Megatron would... leave! Maybe he'd grapple with Prime for a bit, maybe his squadron of F-15s would strafe the flightless Autobots, but then he would call for a retreat. Try that on the playground bully, he'll just kick your ass and throw you in a garbage can. Trust me.

Aside from little things, like neither side remembering to guard their base, or protect their new weapon of unimaginable destruction, there was a bigger issue of neither side wanting to actually kill the other. Again we seem to hit up on the guiding principle of the 1980s: "if we keep building up and threatening to kill each other, we'll both get rich." Come to think about it, I'm not sure they could kill each other. The laser weapons each side used never seemed to do any lasting damage, even when a group of robots would fire point blank at one dude's chest. Nothing. The main use for the weapons seemed to be shooting out cliff walls and burying the enemy in the rubble. Since most of the battles took place in Arizona, that's usually how the fight would end. This is hardly a useful lesson to children, that even armed with laser cannons, the best way to combat evil is by trying to inconvenience it under a rockslide.

Perhaps the main reason the Autobots served as our role models was how stupid the humans on the show acted. When the Decepticons would show up to start the show, people would invariably point up at the sky in "Oh no! Godzilla!" fashion and scurry about like fools. The Decepticons were usually there to steal some power source of infinite power or a weapon of unimaginable destruction, built by some human scientist who "sure hoped the Decepticons didn't get a hand on it." One of the best inventions was a Japanese scientist who wanted to demonstrate the peaceful capabilities of his field with a thirty foot tall robot ninja assassin. The Autobots were on hand lest it fall into the wrong hands, so that meant it took an extra couple minutes for Megatron and company to steal it. Another case of poor judgment on the Autobots' part, they should have destroyed the invention and smack the scientist around a little, just like the FBI, CIA, or FTC would do.

The Transformers came out in the early 1980s, when the country had recently become enamored with the silicon chip. Not enough to waste billions of dollars in black holes of venture capital, but enough to know that the technology was limitless. The cartoon is a product of these times, with schemes on both sides involving sticking computer chips on stuff and then commanding that stuff by remote control. Sometimes another robot, sometimes a human being, once even a fleet of oil tankers; the contact of a silicon chip on the armor/skin/hull was all that was needed. Here is one of the more important lessons they taught us, that no matter how optimistic people got about computers, they would always be used for evil purposes, as we have seen time and time again.

I guess I have to admit is that the show was ahead of its time. If you listen to some of the voice actors, especially Starscream and about half of the Autobots, you realize the animators were promoting the issue of gays in the military decades ahead of the politicians. Even the Autobots' main computer, Teletran I, once alerted the Autobots to a "Code Magenta!" When the Decepticons got a cool space shuttle/locomotive named Astrotrain, the Autobots countered with a Puerto Rican UFO named Cosmos - the first Hispanic space-going robot on television. Granted, he looked a bit Happy Meal Toy-esque, and got into trouble so many times he was the Bumblebee of outer space, but it was a start.

The Transformers was a great show, don't get me wrong. Entertaining, cool battles, and that wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah sound of one of them transforming, it was beautiful. I just wish they had spent a little more time thinking about the young, impressionable kids watching. If they had, maybe, just maybe, I would be better equipped to do battle with evil today.

2 comments:

Kat said...

holy shit. I have to be honest. That was way too many words about transformers to read after sooo many glasses of wine. Or maybe ever.

amera hearts said...

that was the longest post ever! well maybe not ever, but it was def too long for me to read every word!

BUT

thank you so much for explaining transformers to me. i did not know what they were and the movie previews were a bit confusing.