Thursday, 17 June 2010

Robots In Disguise!!

Continuing the “getting to know me” theme, I’ve decided to do this weeks post on my history with the Transformers. While my love of Transformers doesn’t go back as far as some of my other interests, after the rather large Muppet blog last week, I figured something a little less in depth was required for this week. Again, I am going to try and throw in a few facts and pieces of, what I think, interesting information to pad around the story of Transformers and me.

The origins of the Transformers are quite different to most other cartoons with accompanying merchandise. Normally speaking, a new cartoon will be made and, if successful, will be followed by lines of toys or action figures. The Transformers were quite the opposite where the toys existed first, although mostly unknown, and the cartoon was used as a specific marketing tool to sell them; hence when new toys were developed they were added to the cartoon and as we will find out later on, when toys are discontinued, they get killed off from the cartoon. For this to make sense and the origins understood, we have to go back in time and to Japan.

In 1974 Takara, a Japanese toy manufacturer released a series of toys that could transform from one thing to another. These were called Micromen and some of the initial toys included a blue cassette player called Recorder Robot and three cassettes which would both fit inside him and transform themselves between a cassette and either a robot, jaguar or bird. Eventually, after several versions, this line was renamed to Microchange and by that time there were also figures that changed from robot form to other things such as a series of small cars, including a little yellow beetle, and a series of guns.

In 1980 Takara released a second line of toys called Diaclone, the storyline behind the toys being that they were the protectors of earth from the evil Warader Empire. These toys were all the same size as the lagest of the Microchange toys and included a large truck called Convoy, some dinosaurs, and a series of cars such as a fire engine, ambulance, a Porsche 935 Turbo, a Lancia Stratos and a Ligier F1. The toys representing the evil Warader Empire in the story looked like insects.

In 1983 a Hasbro product developer discovered these lines of toys at the Tokyo Toy Fair and it was decided to take the toys from all the various lines Takara had created and merge them into a single brand and storyline for worldwide release. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when the US regulators removed the restrictions on the placement of promotional content in children’s television, and the rest is history; Hasbro created the Transformers, a line of toys which would be marketed through both an animated cartoon and a comic book produced by Marvel (yet another instance of where my loves as a child have folded into my current love of Disney). This origin explains why, especially with the Decepticons, there is such a range of alternate modes that don’t always fit together cohesively. The wide range of already made cars, and later dinosaurs, all became the Autobots; while the remainders, which included the guns (although only the Walther P38 was kept), the tape player and cassettes, the insects, and a series of jets and construction vehicles, became the Decepticons. The somewhat unusual mix of different alternate modes was explained in the first episode where, after crashing on earth, the Ark’s computer, Teletraan-1, repaired the Transformers to change into compatible things that it found on earth.

On the toy front, the change to a single brand with defined characters created some very strange anomalies in some of the early releases as, before they produced more, Takara just repackaged the already produced toy stock. This meant that there were a few different versions of some toys as production was changed in order to be either standardised or to match the characters on screen look. As the original Takara toys were not specific characters, they could produce them in various colours; and thus at the start there were some red Sunstreakers, various Bumblebees and even blue Optimus Primes. This also explains why on many of the early models, you had to put the Autobot or Decepticon logo sticker on the character yourself, because they were produced without them.

In 1984 the Transformers hit the airwaves and I was watching and hooked from the beginning. The show was aired at the weekends in full episode form and also serialised throughout the week in a 5 – 10 min slot at something like 7am on TV-AM (morning television news and entertainment show back then). At the age of 8, my day always started with my morning few minutes of Transformer action.

On a side note, Takara were not the only people producing toys that could transform in Japan; Popy, better known as Bandai, also had a line of their own which debuted in 1982. After seeing Hasbro move in on the Takara products, Tonka did the same with this line and thus 1984 not only brought us the Transformers, we also got the Gobots. It was the equivalent of iPhone Vs Driod for a generation of 8 year olds 25 years ago and thankfully I backed the winning team as the Gobots didn’t last very long.

For the next couple of years, Transformers were my main “thing”; whether it was a birthday or Christmas, Transformers were what I wanted. I wasn’t spoilt as a child toy wise, so my collection wasn’t huge, but I had a pretty good selection. I had the video tapes which contained three or four episodes and my mum subscribed me to the weekly comic which had the always great “Grim Gram” page (after he took over from Soundwave as the comic’s Agony Aunt). The first Transformer I got was Sunstreaker; it was bought for me as a present and wouldn’t have been my first choice as he was a minor role in the cartoon, but I didn’t care. Like most of the kids at school I had several of the smaller Autobot cars, the most popular being Bumblebee; mostly because they were so much cheaper and thus easier to get the parents to buy us. I also had Thrust pretty early on; and when the Dinobots came out I had Grimlock; who was by far my favourite to transform back and forth and show off to the older generation who stared on with fascination and then fiddled with themselves for 10 minutes before declaring that they couldn’t work out how to transform the thing. A couple of my major occasion presents over the period were the complete Aerialbots box set which combined to form Superion and the huge Metroplex city figure.

I never had an original Optimus Pime or Megatron :(

After the first, and best, two seasons of the cartoon came The Transformers: The Movie in 1986. This was a pretty big deal back then, with characters voiced by Orson Wells (recorded mere days before his death), Leonard Nimoy, Judd Nelson and Eric Idle. Whereas nowadays its quite common for a successful cartoon franchise to produce multiple feature length movies, if not for cinema, then for direct to TV or DVD, in the mid 80’s Transformers, Care Bears and My Little Pony were amongst the first children’s cartoons to be elevated from a TV series to the big screen. For anyone local reading this, I saw it in the huge Screen 1 of the Waltham Cross Odeon; before it became a bingo hall.

Many of the toys I had were from the movie. I had Hot Rod and Rodimus Prime, Galvatron, Wheelie, Wreck-Gar and Springer. However, while the movie was the pinnacle of my love for Transformers, it was also the beginning of the end of my love affair with them as a child. The movie took place 20 years after the end of season 2, in 2005, which gave the writers a lot of room to introduce many new characters who had never been seen before; roughly translated to introducing all the new toys that Hasbro were just releasing. At the same time, the movie also had the job of killing off all the characters that Hasbro were taking out of production; thus at the end of the movie the ongoing cast would reflect the toy lines for 1986/87. In the first act of the film alone we saw the deaths of Brawn, Prowl, Ratchet and Ironhide; in the aftermath we also saw the dead bodies of Wheeljack, Windcharger, Mirage, Tailbreaker, Smokescream, Red Alert and Huffer. And a little later we had the death of Optimus Prime and several of the Deceptions reformatted into new characters including Skywarp, Thundercracker, the Insecticons and Megatron (who later, as Galvatron, disintegrated Starscream).

I honestly don’t remember if I cried during the death of Optimus Prime, I probably did. Back then I would forward the cassette soundtrack through song 3 which was the music from his death scene and pretty much tells the story of Prime dying; and if I’m being honest, when listening to it on either CD or electronic format now, I still do skip that track. Optimus Prime WAS the Transformers, he was the figurehead, the hero, and as much as we all had our favourites other than Prime, his death was a major event for a generation of 10 year old boys.

And it proved to be too much. By the end of the movie, the only true classic “A list” Autobots still alive were Jazz, Bumblebee and the Dinobots; pretty much all the others were gone to be replaced by the new heroes (including the first female Transformer – die Arcee!! DIE!!); and it was too far. As fans we always enjoyed a new transformer being built or coming to earth from Cyberton (and of course the release of a new toy), but to have everyone we loved wiped out and expected to just take this new cast into our hearts as a replacement in an instant; it wasn’t going to happen. It would be like the entire cast of Friends all dying in a car crash and then the next episode starting with another group of six and expecting everyone to keep watching. If it had been just Prime that had been killed, or everyone but Prime, things may have been different; but the suits in charge of marketing the toys wanted all the old toys out and all the new toys in and that’s what happened; all our favourites apart from a lucky few; gone.

While I loved the film (and still do), when series three of the cartoon started later that year with this new cast, I wasn’t that bothered. As much as the cartoon had been about good Vs evil, Autobot Vs Decepticon, it had really revolved around Optimus Prime Vs Megatron; and while the movie had their greatest and final battle; once they were gone, we had lost a HUGE chunk of what made the series so great. To make matters even worse, half of the series was given to a Korean studio named AKOM to animate (who have since gone on to animate the Simpsons) and the drawing/animation quality was terrible compared to the first two seasons and the very artistic movie.

While the executives soon realised their mistake (the letter campaigns by parents and media reports about upset children probably gave them a hint) and Optimus Prime was brought back to life in the final two episodes of the third season, it was too late and from an English standpoint, the show was cancelled at the end of a three episode series four which introduced one final line of toys called the Headmasters. I had already stopped watching by this point; I didn’t even know Prime had been brought back until I saw these episodes over 15 years later. As my love and interest faded I would see all these new Transformer toys hitting the shops called Headmasters, Targetmasters, Pretenders and more; but I didn’t care about any of them. In fact, in 1987 there were almost 200 Transformer toys available but I thought they looked cheap and plasticy; and without the interest in the cartoon, I had no interest in the toy. Oddly, as it turns out, I was a bigger fan of the marketing material than the product it was advertising.

And so that was the end of my childhood with the Transformers; by 1988 I had given all of my toys away to a family friend who was younger and, as far as I was concerned at the time, I would never think of them again.

Yeah right.

Something about Optimus Prime and the Autobot logo stuck with me and when the G1 Transformers (Generation 1), as they became known, hit that acceptable point where they became “retro”, t-shirts started popping up here and there and I would pick them up. In fact, whenever I saw anything that was related to the era prior to the end of the movie, I was interested. I would love reading reprints of the old comic books or the newer comics using the G1 universe that had such amazing art work. I also got the toy history/pricing books by J E Alvarez which I highly recommend and used a lot while writing this piece for information or memory jogging.

I was vaguely aware of what had been going on with Transformers throughout the years after I stopped being actively interested in them. I saw the ghastly looking G2 toys in stores which were just crazy colour versions of many of the original toys and an Optimus Prime that, to me, was almost blasphemy as it wasn’t a flat front truck. I saw a few episodes of Beast Wars here and there but didn’t know what was going on; and later on I saw a few episodes of Transformers Robots in Disguise.

In 2000 the movie was released on DVD and I really enjoyed seeing it again for the first time in many years. Like the Muppets discussed last week, things that I had dropped as I moved into my teens were suddenly enjoyable again as I moved into my 20’s. Then between 2002 and 2004 all the G1 cartoons were released on DVD and I really enjoyed watching the first two seasons again; remembering quite a lot of them. This was also the first time I saw much of series three and the short series four that I never had as a child. The Japanese series of the cartoon which followed series four, and never translated into English, were also made available on DVD; these were the series which featured the Headmasters, Targetmasters and Pretenders characters. I also, thanks to ebay, got my hands on the Canadian VHS release of the movie which was classed as a “Directors Cut”; it contained 2 extra words that the original release had cut out.

Over the years since its original DVD release, the movie has been re-released several more times by different distributors as the rights have moved back and forth, and I bought all of them culminating in the very nice 20th Anniversary DVD set; it’s one of the things I will often put on if laying in bed not able to sleep. The 20th Anniversary of the movie in 2006 had its other perks too, most notably the UK release of the Takara Masterpiece Optimus Prime figure which sits on my desk at work and is truly a work of art in its intricacy and perfect design; I just recently got the Masterpiece Grimlock too and it is just as beautiful . Also, on the 20th anniversary of the original UK release, a cinema in Leicester Square played the animated movie for one night only and seeing it again on the big screen (surrounded by an entire audience of geeky guys in their 30s; although one guy did bring his girlfriend) gave me goosebumps.

The release of the live action movies has led to an increase in both retro G1 stuff and general Transformers merchandise which has been great for the fan in me. FCUK released a line of tshirts as did HMV and, in general, the availability of logo clothing has risen exponentially; a lot of which has found its way into my wardrobe. I bought four or five new transformer tops, pj pants and a baseball cap on our last holiday to the USA alone. Toy wise, I got the movie version of Optimus Prime and my son got some of the others. For a brief moment I was very worried that I had become an adult as I would be damned if I could transform his Bumblebee; but, to my relief, he couldn’t either. Turns out that a lot of the newer toys are just overly fiddly and don’t fit together very well.

I saw both the movies in the cinema, and each of them has their good and bad points; I don’t think this is the time for me to rant about them because I’ve already broken my “something a little less in depth” line from the start of this piece. There are things I didn’t like, most notably Skidz and Mudflap; but overall I am glad they have been made, and I’m glad that they, generally speaking, are made in the G1 universe. When Optimus Prime rolled onto the screen for the first time and transformed to robot mode, I had a tear in my eye. He wasn’t exactly the same look wise, but with Peter Cullen as the voice and the way in which he was portrayed, he was everything Optimus Prime should be; my hero was back.

I’m going to finish this post with a piece of advice. In the very first episode of the Transformers, Optimus Prime declares to the other Autobots that they need to launch a spaceship, Laserbeak records the whole thing, reports back to Megatron, the Decepticons attack and everything goes pear shaped. At the beginning of the movie Optimus Prime declares to the other Autobots that they need to launch a shuttle, Laserbeak records the whole thing, reports back to Megatron, the Decepticons attack and everything goes pear shaped. So; should you every need to launch a spaceship, make sure Laserbeak isn’t hiding in the shadows recording it all; it’s not that difficult.

Speak soon :)

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