My History with Transformers Part 1 – Beast Wars

(originally posted July 18th 2014)

With the latest of Michael Bay’s live-action ‘Transformers’ films out, making undeserved millions of dollars, I found myself turning towards the shows that made me fall in love with the franchise in the first place. So, rather than waste my time talking about why the Bay films suck, I’m going to spend it on the material that deserves to be talked about – three of them to be exact, and we’re gonna kick off with the very first ‘Transformers’ show I ever watched: ‘Beast Wars.’

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Back when I was maybe eight or nine years old, I sometimes watched kids’ shows on Channel 5 on Saturday mornings, and on one such morning, I stumbled across an episode of ‘Beast Wars.’ It wasn’t the first one, but it had animals that turned into robots (technically, robots that turned into animals, but I didn’t know) and that was enough to win me over.

Ironically, I would discover many years later the outcry from old ‘Transformer’ fans concerning the decision to have the characters have animal forms instead of vehicles, but as the show went on, it seems those fans were soon won over. Why? Well, let’s start with the plot.

‘Beast Wars’ takes place many years after the original ‘Transformers’ cartoon, where the war between the Autobots and Decepticons (guess who the bad guys were) has long since ended with the former side victorious, and how Cybertron, their home planet, belongs to their respective descendants: the Maximals and the Predacons.

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A small group of Predacons, however, led by one named Megatron, steal an artefact and flee into space. A nearby Maximal ship containing an exploration group are asked to intercept and capture. The result leads to both ships crashing on an unknown planet in an unknown time era, and to make matters worse, the planet is filled with Energon, the fuel source for Transformers – so much so that the radiation will cause them to shut down. In order to walk freely outside of their ships, both sides take on beast forms, and thus the Beast Wars begin.

It starts out basic enough, with the villainous Megatron hoping to collect enough Energon with which to start an even bigger war, and potentially conquer the galaxy, but things soon escalate with all of time itself on the line. I’m gonna keep my mouth shut on the rest, as I don’t wish to spoil it.

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What makes a show like ‘Beast Wars’ so great is its ability to appeal to two different audiences: little kids that might not have much experience with the franchise and older fans who grew up with the original cartoon, or even older fans who are just as new as the young ones

As a kid, I loved the action, the explosions, the comedy and the fact our main characters were animals. I know they weren’t and I can’t really explain why, but something about that appealed to me (maybe it was the fact that you could see a gorilla beating up a T-Rex). I think it might’ve been one of my first experiences with the sci-fi genre, so I was unfamiliar with this kind of environment. And while I don’t think I ever completely followed what was going on story-wise, I understood the basics needed to enjoy it: the robots in one ship were the good guys, the robots in the other ship were the bad guys, bad guys want to rule the galaxy, the good guys need to stop them.

But while a child could enjoy this story at its most basic, an adult could enjoy it on a whole different level, because this story was surprisingly complex for a show designed to sell toys. There were conspiracies all over the place, many of the Predacons planned to betray their leader, a mysterious alien race, the identity of the planet itself and the moral quandaries of one of the Predacons who defected to the Maximals.

That’s another thing. One of the main points of ‘Transformers’ is ultimately to sell merchandise; mainly toys. They could easily cough out a hastily made piece of garbage with little to no effort and probably still make money. But no. Everybody who worked on ‘Beast Wars’ (and the other shows I’ll get to at a later date) wanted to make the best possible show, with quality writing, and that’s most apparent with the fantastic cast of characters.

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Due to animation costs, the cast had to be relatively small, at least compared to the first cartoon. This led to a greater focus on the characters themselves, each with distinct and lovable personalities and, in some cases, surprisingly good development. On the Maximal side alone, you had Optimus Primal struggling to maintain leadership in a war, the young Cheetor trying to prove himself, the sarcastic and cowardly Rattrap demonstrating acts of bravery, the quiet Rhinox trying to keep everyone alive and get them home and the honourable Dinobot who’s Predacon ideals led to many internal clashes. And that’s only in the first several episodes of Season 1. Not every character was amazing, though, with a few being rather boring in my eyes, which is probably what led to them being killed off. Oh yeah, people die in this show. A lot.

One thing I love is watching cartoons primarily aimed at young audiences and finding myself laughing at an adult joke (Rattrap at one point talks about the Cybertronian equivalent of a strip club) or being mildly terrified or shocked at a dark moment. ‘Beast Wars’ at points didn’t pull its punches, and though these deaths were most likely due to wanting to introduce new characters to sell toys of, they were done with a great deal of maturity (well, most of them were… well, one of them).

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I think the one thing that probably doesn’t hold up as well today is the animation. It’s by no means terrible and I have no problems watching it – in fact, it can be really good at times, but you can definitely tell it was done in the 90’s, with occasionally stiff movements, the almost barren environments and PS1-like explosions. It was revolutionary for its time though, and some even think it’s better than ‘Transformer’ shows that aired in the mid-2010s.

Even when the show wound up having to stop rather prematurely for the sequel series, ‘Beast Machines,’ it still managed to end, in my opinion, pretty damn well, with an incredibly entertaining and satisfying finale (which ironically was ruined by ‘Beast Machines’ which many believe to be inferior to the original, myself included).

‘Beast Wars’ is still loved by many today and some consider it to be the standard when comparing new shows. I consider myself lucky that this was the first ‘Transformers’ cartoon I ever saw, and it’s this show that would eventually lead me to gaining a bit more of an interest into the lore. But while this wasn’t the first great ‘Transformers,’ it definitely would not be the last.

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