Netflix recently put all of the original Transformers TV series online and being endlessly fascinated with the corporate signposts of my childhood, I had to dive in and see if any of it held up.
I have to admit the earliest episodes left me a bit cold. With age, I find most of the Decepticon voices incredibly grating. The writing also some flaws. Make no mistake, it’s better than “He-Man,” but it still lacks a certain sophistication. I think I expect the level of care seen in the 1986 animated Transformers the Movie. Individual episodes of the series prior to its release are mostly a haze, but I retain much more of what came with the film and the season that followed. For one thing, I genuinely like Rodimus Prime.
It was a bold decision to kill Optimus Prime and replace him with a punk kid voiced by Judd Nelson (in the movie), but it’s one of the things that makes the film so fondly remembered. It took a chance and replaced the principle Autobot cast with a group designed to transform into into futuristic helicopters, cars, and RV Campers.
Yeah, there was a cynical motivation to sell new toys, but I find I have a better memory of Ultra Magnus, Springer, Arcee, Blurr and Kup than I do Jazz, Ironhide, or um … there was one called Trailblazer, right? Or was it Muckraker?
While the Decepticons had a pretty strong stable of characters from the onset, the Autobots not called Prime tended to be ciphers; their chief character trait being their vehicle mode. The movie cast — rounded out with the pre-existing Grimlock and Perceptor — all seemed to have stronger personalities. Magnus was the good lieutenant. Springer and Arcee were the good looking couple that hung out with the misfits and never invited contempt. Kup was the crusty vet, always ready with a story. Even Perceptor’s brainy schtick played better off this group.
Oh, and there was Wheelie.
This core group is the primary advantage that Optimus’s death gave the show. The action was now spread across several strong characters instead of one-note robots waiting for their leader to make a decision. Also, in Rodimus Prime, we have a more accessible main character. Optimus Prime was the paragon; an unattainable plateau of leadership. His successor, though capable with aid from the Autobot Matrix, expressed doubts in the role. In him, you saw a young character thrust into a job he never sought, but making due. I’d dare say he was a more human and rounded character. One interesting trait I recall about him: inappropriate sarcasm.
In some episodes, the show played with the dichotomy of Rodimus being a relatively young robot with access to 9 Million+ years of wisdom, passed down from the previous Autobot leaders. The first storyline following the film, “The Five Faces of Death”, sees everyone still adjusting to the new Prime. Magnus tries to shepherd him into the Optimus sort of speechifying and command presence. Springer occasionally rags on him for being a dumb kid. As for Rodimus himself, he openly wonders if he can ever be as good as his predecessor.
Unfortunately, this new dynamic was short-lived as Optimus returned at the season’s conclusion. Rodimus reverted to his earlier form as Hot Rod and pretty much disappeared into the background with the double-agent and the lesser Dinobots. It was around this time that I walked away from Transformers. The story became less viable and other interests replaced the plastic replicas. I remember having a lot of Transformers, but only he remains.
I wonder if there is some significance to that.