Today’s guest post comes from my buddy and fellow Transfan Onslaught Six. I knew he was a fan of one of the “less popular” Transformers series, and I figured his take on Beast Machines would be an awesome read.
Take it away, guest poster Onslaught Six!
I: Beast Wars; How Did We Get There?
In 1995, the Transformers toyline was in the pits. The “Generation Two” subline (launched several years earlier, and the very reason we refer to the classic series as “Generation One”) was flailing on toy shelves. Transformers needed something to shake it back up and once again bring it to the forefront of the boy’s toys marketplace.
Enter: Hasbro’s recently acquired Kenner division. Kenner was best known as the original progenitors of the Small Action Figure with the original Star Wars toyline. They did numerous licensed toylines including Real Ghostbusters, Batman TAS and Jurassic Park. These guys knew their shit. So Hasbro dumped Transformers onto the Kenner division. “We don’t know what to do anymore. You guys figure something out.”
Beast Wars was born. Kenner retooled the toyline to entirely focus on Cybertronian characters turning into furry mammals, oversized insectoids, and goddamned dinosaurs. The iconic warring factions, the Autobots and Decepticons, were completely retooled into the heroic Maximals and evil Predacons (no relation to the 1986 subgroup). The packaging headlined the Beast Wars logo instead of Transformers–I know that I personally was not aware of a connection when I first started to pick up the toys. Also, I was 7.
Originally, the series was a direct continuation of the existing Transformers mythos. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for an entire year’s worth of toys to be brand new characters. Unlike today, it was very rare for a character to get multiple toys–Optimus Prime only had seven domestic toys in the span of a decade, and Bumblebee only had four. The Maximals were led by Optimus Primal and the Predacons were led by Megatron, both implied in minicomics and packaging bios to be the original leaders from G1.
Now, Beast Wars took off. Some of that was surely the bold new direction of the toys–they weren’t just entirely new characters and designs, but they were also vastly more articulated and detailed than some of the originals. G1 toys are best described as “bricks with arms” while many Beast Wars toys had fully articulated arms, legs, hips, neck joints, and plenty of personality to them.
But if you ask any Transformers fan to talk about Beast Wars, and the first thing they’re going to bring up is the cartoon by Mainframe Entertainment. Well, “cartoon” may be stretching it. It was a computer-generated animated series, which at the time was groundbreaking and impressive. Beast Wars initially turned off a lot of GEEWUNer “my childhood is the best” types, but a lot of the hatred died down as these people gave the show a shot and saw that it was actually pretty decent. By the middle of the first season, it went from “actually pretty decent” to “actually really awesome.”
The show’s writers elected to take a different approach than Kenner. Rather than have their Beast Wars be a direct continuation of the eternal Transformers war, theirs actually took place 300 years “after the war,” and that was about as much as we ever got on the subject. Optimus Primal was a low-ranking captain of a science & research vessel and Megatron was a petty criminal with delusions of grandeur that included taking his name from the Cybertronian equivalent of Hitler. Megatron had stolen an experimental “Transwarp ship” which allowed him to travel through space and time very quickly; Primal and his crew happened to be the closest ship and were ordered to track him down, chasing him through the Transwarp portal that stranded them on an unknown planet that was eventually revealed to be planet Earth, where their sleeping ancestors lay dormant in the Autobot starship The Ark, waiting to be awakened in our 1984.
Beast Wars eventually came to be hailed as great. For a while, you couldn’t discuss Transformers if you weren’t going to discuss Beast Wars. The people who thought it disrespected the original show’s continuity were quickly shut up when the second season’s finale showed Beast Wars Megatron attempt to assassinate a comatose G1 Optimus Prime. The show rewrote Transformers canon in ways that we’re still feeling today–although it doesn’t come up much anymore, it originally introduced the concept of a “spark” as both a “heart” and tangible “soul” of a Transformer. For over a decade afterwards, concepts and terminology that it established became hardcoded into Transformers jargon–CR Chambers, stasis lock, protoforms, The AllSpark, Transwarp, and tons of other little things were all established in this show. Hasbro’s “toy continuity” of the original packaging bios was tossed aside in favour of toy bios that reflected events on the show.
Everybody remembers Beast Wars. Almost everyone loved Beast Wars. It became a phenomenon. It only made sense that, in 1999, when the series was coming to a close, Hasbro and Mainframe would want to do a sequel.
If anybody remembers the sequel, they don’t talk about it much. If they do, they never talk about it positively. For the better part of the 2000s, the phrase “Beast Machines sucks ass,” was pretty commonplace. Some people said it was as much of a betrayal to Beast Wars as Beast Wars was to G1. For a while, it was claimed it was the worst Transformers cartoon ever.
That’s right, the worst Transformers cartoon ever. In a world where Armada, Energon, Animated and Prime exist, I can’t just sit by and let that slide. I call bullshit.
II: Beast Machines
It’s hard to see why this show became so hated without going into a full episode-by-episode breakdown, without making a bunch of lists and graphs and saying “They said this thing here but as established by this episode on Beast Wars…” So I’m going to try and not do that. I’m going to paint in some broad strokes and see if that gets the point across. There’s also a lot of spoilery stuff that I could mention, so I’m going to try and avoid that, because honestly–if you’ve never seen the show, you owe yourself to check it out.
Beast Wars ended with the victorious Maximals having slaughtered all the Predacons except Megatron*, who they strapped to the back of their escape shuttle as they flew back to Cybertron. I honestly don’t remember how this was supposed to work–maybe they had installed the Transwarp machinery from Megatron’s original stolen ship. Whatever. The point is, they’re going home, character arcs are resolved, everyone who isn’t going home is dead and everyone is happy! The End. If there was never a sequel, this would be a great send-off. Everything is neatly wrapped in a package with a pretty bow on it. Lots of shows, especially children’s cartoons, tend to get cut off in the final season and they have to quickly wrap everything up, so Beast Wars is kind of unique in that you can watch the entire series and feel pretty good about the ending.
*Okay, Waspinator is still alive and ruling as King of the Protohumans. If you haven’t watched Beast Wars, you don’t understand a word of this sentence.
So Beast Machines opens up with Optimus Primal (in his original body, instead of the upgraded form he had at the end of Beast Wars) being chased by some tank robots on what looks an awful lot like Cybertron. Anybody who watched Beast Wars will instantly wonder what the hell is going on.
Eventually it’s revealed that the surviving Maximals–Optimus Primal, Cheetor, Rattrap and Blackarachnia–have amnesia and don’t remember how they got to Cybertron, barely remember each other, and don’t know why they’re being chased by robot drone armies. They also can’t transform from their Beast modes. Oh, and Megatron is ruling the planet.
It’s a great setup. As is revealed later on, Megatron somehow escaped from the back of the ship mid-way through the time portal and arrived on Cybertron way earlier than the Maximals. (How much earlier is never explained.) With a new lease on life and a lust for revenge, Megatron takes over the entire planet and converts all of its citizens to lifeless, soulless drones, designed to do his bidding. (How he managed to do this is never explained.) When the Maximals arrived on the planet, they started to be hunted, and were affected by a planet-wide virus that somehow turned them back to their original beast forms. (Almost all of the remaining Maximals had become upgraded over the course of the show, to sell newer toys of them.)
The Maximals end up in the core of Cybertron, speaking to a giant white void known only as The Oracle, perceived by Optimus Primal to be a direct link to The AllSpark and possibly Primus, who reformats all of the Maximals into new, weirder-looking bodies and gives them the ability to transform again–only this time, it’s more like “morphing” and they have to “concentrate” and almost meditate into doing it. Meanwhile, Megatron’s got a planetwide army of tank, jet and motorcycle drones called Vehicons, led by three Generals, Tankor, Jetstorm and Thrust, who seem to have retained their sentience and independence.
So, Beast Machines. Furries against jets and tanks. Maybe somebody at Hasbro took the “TRUKK NOT MUNKY” thing too seriously.
Detractors of the show will say a lot of things. They’ll say that characters from Beast Wars act “out of character” compared to how they acted in BW. They’ll say that some things aren’t explained well enough for them. They’ll say that the character designs look stupid. They’ll say that a certain amount of every episode is literally just “Maximals running away from Vehicons.” They’ll say it’s confusing and hard to follow. I’m going to refute all of these points.
III: Why It’s Good
The entire show is stylized magnificently. Beast Wars came out in 1996, the same year as Toy Story, on a pretty small budget. (BW’s cast size never got above a dozen characters at a time, because the character models were so expensive to create and render, and it was difficult to render many characters at one time on-screen.) That said, it attempted to look fairly realistic, and as such, seems primitive and dated in 2014. (Hell, it seemed primitive and dated in 2004.) It takes a while to get used to.
Conversely, Beast Machines still looks fantastic. The stylized art keeps things from looking weird or outdated; it looks miles ahead of other CGI TF shows like Cybertron or even Prime. The Maximals are strange looking and alien, but they’re all distinct and have designs that play off their characters. Blackarachnia is a spindly spider lady, Cheetor is a slender adult (opposed to his excited teenager personality in BW), Optimus Primal is a huge hulking gorilla sage bastard. Megatron is plugged into the entire planet like he’s Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic. The Vehicons are all angular and smooth, perfect machines built for destruction. The action is frenetic and highly stylized, with fights happening in dark city streets and in alleyways.
But it doesn’t just look great. It’s the first TF series that, from the outset, has one story to tell. Most TF series, especially up to that point, are working on an episode-to-episode plotline. Even the character arcs in Beast Wars were mostly isolated to a handful of episodes each. Beast Machine’s story is about a violent mechanical dictator obsessed with the eradication of all organic life–especially the techno-organic life of the people who messed up his original plans to change the future. It’s about a misguided youth who’s outgrown his commander. It’s about a leader who, for the entire first half of the show, downright misunderstands the dogma he’s fulfilling. It’s about someone who lost their lover and wants to get them back, at any cost. It’s about a guy who loses his planet, his friends, and his ability to do his job.
Beast Machines covers a lot of ground that Transformers cartoons–or any children’s cartoon, for that matter–usually doesn’t cover. Especially in the early 2000s. If BM were an action movie, it would be The Matrix. Super slick, stylized action, lots of questions and deeper shit underneath. And given that BM only came out in 2000, the year after The Matrix was a huge hit, it’s not exactly a big jump to make the comparison.
Furthermore, BM does something that no other TF show has done well before. It lends itself perfectly to marathoning. The first season is almost more like a five-hour movie than it is 13 episodes of a series. Watching the series in one go, or very large chunks, is preferable to watching isolated episodes weekly, and in the age of Netflix, YouTube and DVD box sets is usually the way you’re going to see the show. Watching the plot slowly unfold over several episodes in a row is great, whereas a lot of people complained about the pacing of the series during its original airings, because they had to wait an entire week to see what the series was going to do next. The early-to-mid-2000s “anime” TF series, RID, Armada, Energon and Cybertron all try to do this, but none of them quite captures it the way BM does. (RID is more episodic and doesn’t have much of an overarching plot, while the other three barely have plot to begin with, and are basically unwatchable drivel.)
The plot twists are also excellent. I don’t want to spoil anything, but in short: Someone turns out to be someone else you weren’t expecting, the Generals are independent for a reason, Megatron rules, Tankor makes a throw for power, and Optimus Primal becomes a bigger screwup than Rodimus Prime, only to redeem himself.
BM holds up super well, and if you’ve never watched it before, you need to, because of everything I just said. It keeps things interesting, it throws some great plot twists at you, and everything is always great.
IV: Why They Say It’s Bad
Beast Machine’s detractors will immediately point out any number of things they hate about it. Some of these, I can understand or even agree with. Others, not so much.
One of the first things people will complain about are the designs of the characters, but as I said above, I think they’re fantastic. They’re very much different from BW’s fare, sure, and they might be a little too extreme for some people’s tastes. They were certainly unique and different for Transformers in 2000, but in 2014? We have the Michael Bay universe where there are dudes who consist of two wheels and a face, a flat guy made up of balls, and Devastator looks like this. I think Cheetor’s legs being long is the least of our worries for this franchise. Besides, nobody ever bitches about the way the Vehicons look. They’re great. They’re big, chunky badasses. Tankor looks like he would wreck your shit on any day of the week. Jetstorm is sleeker than a new Corvette. And I’d hate to be the dude on a Harley who has to race Thrust.
Another thing they’ll complain about is a new character named Nightscream, who turns into a bat and, in robot mode, has…a tuft of hair hanging over his face, like an emo kid in 2005. The less said about him, the better. His voice is pretty annoying. His character is abrasive, and he’s just not a fun character to be around. He doesn’t add much to the Maximals other than numbers. They seem like they initially add him to the team because Rattrap is functionally useless for the first handful of episodes, but then he gets better so Nightscream becomes pointless. And he never gets “better,” although his screen time as the series goes on becomes less and less, and he seems to get less annoying in the second season. So, okay, BM haters, you win this round.
Some people also complain that some elements of the storyline are not very well explained. Rather than bring all those up and try to explain them away with reasoning or anything, I’m just going to say…does it bother you that much? It’s not Beast Wars Season 4, it’s Beast Machines, it’s very clearly a Separate Entity, and compared to the giant plot holes of any single live action TF film (let alone trying to piece together a “continuity” from any of them collectively) the problems with the series are basically niggles.
Megatron inexplicably wants to eradicate any trace of organic life on Cybertron, which includes both the Maximals and himself. (Megatron still transforms into his Transmetal 2 dragon mode from the end of Beast Wars when he gets angry.) He spends as much time in the first season trying to kill the Maximals as he does trying to figure out how to get this scaly shit off of him. And they’re right–they never explain it.
Optimus Primal gets pretty fanatical about what The Oracle tells him, and he pretty much turns into a believer right away. Some people will argue that Primal was more of a cynic and wouldn’t turn to (basically) religion so quickly, but I’m going to argue that if you actually heard and saw the voice of God, you’d probably turn around pretty quick too.
The biggest complaint about the show fixates on an early episode called The Weak Component. This is only episode 6 of the first season’s 13 episodes, and the series’ 26 episodes overall. If you ask a Beast Machines hater to name specific episodes they hated, they’ll mention The Weak Component, and…not much else. What is it about this episode that pisses everyone off?
As I said earlier, in this series, the Maximals have to “learn” how to transform, by meditating, concentrating, or other methods. This is, in itself, not a bad idea, especially for the radical new ways the Maximals transform. (It’s implied that their earlier transformations were automatically triggered; the equivalent of pushing a button to execute a complex sequence of movements.) Everyone else (even the new guy, Nightscream) picks it up basically over the course of an episode, except for Rattrap. If you’ve never seen Beast Wars, Rattrap is the cynical bastard who doesn’t believe in any of this mystical crap and favours a good gun with a big clip of ammo. (None of the Maximals in Beast Machines had guns; they all had “energy attacks” or something like that. This was at the behest of story editor Bob Skir. This was also a huge deal for some people; personally it never bothered me.) So for several episodes, we get Rattrap openly complaining about not being able to transform, and basically being kind of useless on the combat front. When he finally learns how to transform at the beginning of The Weak Component, he is dismayed to learn that his robot mode does not have any guns. He also doesn’t have any legs, instead he has giant wheels. Yeah–Rattrap’s robot mode is essentially a giant wheelchair.
So Rattrap’s pissed. And nobody seems to give a shit.
So Rattrap goes up to Megatron’s front door and says, “The Maximals suck. You have guns. Give me guns.” Megatron, conveniently, needs to shut down his base of operations for the night to repair some damage done by the Maximals that morning. Megs and Rattrap work out a deal: Rattrap gets a spiffy mech suit with guns (and legs), and all he has to do is guard Megatron while he’s incapacitated. The Maximals are already tired from the day’s activities and don’t have any sabotage planned; they surely won’t recognize he’s gone, right? So Rattrap agrees.
The wrench comes when the Maximals show up to rescue Rattrap, because they think he’s in trouble and they’re worried about him. Aww. This puts Rattrap in a shitty position, and he ends up shooting on the Maximals before Primal talks him down. The morning comes and Megatron offers to let Rattrap keep the mech armour because he didn’t turn around and blast him in the face; Rattrap tells him to stuff himself because he’s better than that and doesn’t need it.
So what’s the big deal? People say Rattrap would never turn to the enemy like that, and never fire on his allies. But you have to take into account the kind of guy Rattrap is. In one BW episode, he says he feels naked without a gun. Throughout the series, he’s the crewmember who is most excited, and most concerned with, getting back home. That’s all he wants. So imagine his feelings when he finally gets there and finds out the Maximals’ greatest enemy is running the show, and the Cybertron he knew is dead–possibly forever–and also, he has to re-learn how to transform, and when he does, he’s a paraplegic with no guns. And everybody else seems fine with this. He feels betrayed. He feels useless. He wants his old home and his old usefulness back. And by the end of the episode, he learns that he didn’t need all of that, and that he’s still Rattrap underneath it. And then, for the entire rest of the series, he’s just the same old regular guy he always was. Hell, by the end of the series, he gets to mack it with a sexy plant lady Transformer. (Wait, what? Yeah I dunno either.) If this is the biggest complaint people have with the series, then they’re reaching.
Beast Machines is far from the worst TF series. It’s never boring, it looks fantastic, it has an actual point and a story arc (even if you don’t agree with its viewpoint), and its biggest flaw is, arguably, pushing some characters into situations where they might act strangely because that’s what the story is trying to do. I don’t mind that. I think it’s a good thing. I don’t mind if every minor change isn’t explicitly detailed. (I liked All Hail Megatron. I’m starting to see a pattern form.) I mean, the very few problems with Beast Machines aren’t even that big
If it were a sequel to any other TF show it would be hailed as superb, but because Beast Wars was such a success, the fans of that show can’t even begin to imagine anything else altering their fiction. They, for some reason, cannot accept anything even remotely diverging from their Holy Canon.
It’s worse than the GEEWUNners over here. Maybe this is why the IDW Beast Wars comics were a weird mishmash of “This is taking place concurrently with BW but the characters are all in a time displacement field so they can’t interact with the original BW characters. But also, they show up in panels here and there so we can say it has the original BW cast.” Maybe I’ll do a whole article on that next.
Thanks again to Onslaught Six for another great guest post! I love this kinda thing, so get in touch with me if you have an idea for a post too!