Sunday 16 October 2011

Series REVIEW: Transformers: Prime season one

After the frankly superb Transformers: Animated, I was sceptical to see what the next iteration of the Transformers franchise would bring, especially since it was likely to have some sort of movie flavour to it (while I don't particularly oppose the live-action Transformers movies, I'd rather they keep apart from the series'). But despite being developed by first two movie screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Transformers: Prime isn't quite as movie-influenced as one might expect it to be.

Before I look at the story and characters of Prime, it's worth mentioning that this show really is a visual treat - I've not seen any CGI TV series like it before. The humans don't suffer from the "uncanny valley" factor of looking too realistic, but the metal finishes of the robots look amazing and the backdrops (both Earthly and alien) look superb. Even if the writing doesn't sell this show to you, it's worth the watch just for how damn good it looks.

Immediately from the 5-part opener 'Darkness Rising' it was clear that this show was going to be daring. Killing off long-time fan favourite and original Autobot Cliffjumper in the first 5 minutes was always going to be a move that upset fans somewhere (but let's be honest, Transformers fans ALWAYS manage to be upset about SOMETHING) but it was a key event that set up so much for the future of the series. We were shown how much of a threat the Decepticons can be, we were introduced to dark energon, it was integral to Arcee's character development etc.

The Autobots are a lot more varied character-wise than the Decepticons so I'll start by analysing them, starting with none other than Optimus Prime. What can I say? Prime is Prime. He's the wise and great leader of the Autobots he's always been, but at the same time I couldn't help find him a little dull. But then again, its very true that no-one can voice Optimus quite like Peter Cullen can and he sounds just as fantastic as he did back in 1985. Ratchet (while being voiced brilliantly by Jeffrey Combs) is a great character, but in many ways feels like a watered-down version of his far more interesting Animated counterpart. The same can be said for Bulkhead. Its no surprise that its Bumblebee that's most like his movie counterpart, in terms of both looks, voice (or lack of) and character. The R2-D2 style beeping can get a little irritating at times, and while I can't say I cared for the character that much (in fact, if anything he seemed like most back-seat Autobot surprisingly) but he certainly had his fair share of excellent moments - the episodes "Sick Mind" and "Out of His Head" can attest to that.

But as far as Autobots go, the real triumph is without a doubt Arcee. Gone is the pink, stereotypically feminine Arcee that's been around since 1986, and in her place is something entirely new. Not only did this Arcee prove to be just as competent fighter (if not better) than her male team-mates, she also had an incredibly fleshed out backstory. Future generations of Transformers should take note, THIS is how femmebots should be handled.

On the whole, the Decepticons were a lot better. Its great to see Frank Welker back as the voice of Megatron, but his new twist on the iconic Megatron voice is darker and more sinister than ever (which complemented the more movie-esque design of the character nicely). Despite spending a significant portion of the series out of action, when Megatron came back into the frame his presence was certainly felt. Cold, calculating and merciless - this Megatron was everything the G1 version of the character wasn't. Another triumph in terms of writing was Starscream, who despite not being quite as great as his animated counterpart in my opinion was definitely a contender for one of Prime's best characters. This iteration of Starscream was a lot less vocal about his desire for power, instead manipulating events to eventually rise to to power in Megatron's absence. And in fairness, he wasn't a particularly terrible leader either. When Megatron finally returned and Starscream's leadership crumbled around him, he shined more than ever. Despite a disappointing absence for quite a while at the end of the series, I look forward to the return of the character in the future.

Soundwave was very different to the Soundwave's that have come before him, but at the same still very much Soundwave. Silent but deadly, this version of the character was far more "in the shadows" than previous versions, acting out only when he truly needed to (and this was completely worth it for his fight with Airachnid in the final episode). Newcomers Knockout, Breakdown and Airachnid were all excellent additions to the Decepticon cast, bringing along a Decepticon doctor (something the faction have never really had properly before) and good foils to Bulkhead and Arcee respectively.

The human protagonists are a lot more mixed. Jack is the standard human protagonist - likeable but not very interesting. Raf is younger, but a lot less believable as a character due to his Deus Ex Machina levels of hacking skills. And finally, Miko is just annoying. Loud and obnoxious, Miko constantly endangers the lives of everyone around her, which would be so bad except everytime it happens, she fails to learn any sort of lesson and it just happens again a few weeks later. Her character development is practically nil.

Transformers: Prime also introduced some human antagonists into the fray, M.E.C.H., but unlike the human adversaries seen in Transformers Animated, these were genuinely a threat. Truth be told I can't say I was completely sold on M.E.C.H. in the course of the series - their episodes were among the more forgettable ones and the only thing particularly interesting me was that their leader Silas was voiced by Clancy Brown (and looked a lot like the DCAU Lex Luthor too). Still, they did present themselves as a credible threat and if this series was only meant to establish this, then they should have quite a bit going for them in future episodes.

But despite a few duds and a lack of interest from me in the middle-to-tail-end of the series, the final four or so episodes REALLY managed to pull me back in. Suddenly plot threads such as Megatron's obsession with dark energon come to a head, and we see the 'Darkness Rising' that has been prophesied since the very beginning - the chaos bringer himself, Unicron. And this Unicron is very different to any that have come before him, another bold move on the writers' part. While I don't think the generic ancient-Transformer look worked for him very well (especially when he looks like he has a pinecone for an arm), the new origin meant a lot more could be done with him. While a planet sized Transformer is quite the spectacle, it does make interactions with the main characters severely limited. By making Unicron the core of planet Earth itself, not only is this Unicron just as threatening and powerful as his predecessors but he is a lot more versatile too. The 3-part finale began weaving in various origins from various sources into one epic story, and the series was left with a cliffhanger like no series has ever done before. 'One Shall Rise' really sucked me back into the show.

While personally I felt Prime lacked some of the charm and heart that Animated had, Prime is an excellent series that looks to serve the franchise well for many years to come. The CGI is superb, the characters are excellent and despite a few duds the story telling on the whole is very good. After the conclusion to this season, I'm eagerly awaiting season two.

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