If you've read any of my reviews on anything related to the Transformers franchise, you'll know, as an 80's baby, that I've grown up with the series since the original "Generation One" (G1) cartoon series. Later series, while they've had their devout followers (including the horribly animated Beast Wars), have been rather unappealing to me, but the fact that the original voices for Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and Megatron (Frank Welker) from the very first cartoon series return for 2010's Transformers Prime series has always been of interest to me. However, with the focus shifting from these robots to the humans in the live action Michael Bay-directed movies, and a glimpse at the pilot for Prime in 2010 revealing another seemingly human-centric show, I'd decided not to follow the series as it progressed. That was my mistake.
I'd hoped to check out the first season of Prime all at once when it hit DVD and Blu-Ray, but we never received a review copy, so it hadn't been a priority to track down the episodes via another medium. This year, we were sent Season Two on Blu-Ray and I was able to dig up the Season One episodes on Netflix. What I discovered was a very well-written, well-developed story that involved a very small group of Autobots being stranded on Earth with the goal of defending our planet from the evil Megatron while also trying to find a way back home. In the series' 5-part pilot, they accidentally are discovered by three kids -- Raphael, Miko and Jack -- and decide to protect them. The Autobot team even reluctantly decide to allow the children to help with some missions, since sometimes their humanity and size (or even technological know-how in Raph's case) can be useful to the Transformers. While part of me finds some of their storylines (and personal traits... Ahem, Miko) a little cheesy, a revisit to nearly any episode from the original series would reveal just how impossibly cheesy Sam Witwicky was in the 80s cartoon (and cornily written, I might add). Nearly each 80s episode stood on its own (apart from the occasional multi-episode series or the return of "guest" characters), while Transformers Prime works as a serial, continuing its story from episode to episode. This is something that only escalates with Season Two. Several episodes are multi-episode storylines, but once we get to the climax of Season Two, it begins to feel structured like the acclaimed show LOST; episodes end abruptly with cliffhangers and no "To Be Continued..." with the next episode beginning with a "Previously on Transformers Prime" announcement. That isn't a complaint, however, as a show like this being given such serious treatment actually works mightily in its favor. Season Two also starts to focus more on the Autobots/Decepticons and considerably less on the humans, which actually turns out to be far more interesting for original fans like myself. While the human stories often have their merit (I do like the relationship between Jack and his Autobot counterpart, the motorcycle Arcee), the limited Autobot cast allows the series to develop each character individually and make you care about them from storyline to storyline. It's something that didn't really develop much with such a large cast in the original, G1 series.
The other big change from the original series to Prime is that characters can and do die. In The Transformers 80's series, characters were often wounded, but no one really met any kind of demise until the animated feature film that killed off most of the cast, including Optimus Prime and Megatron (and introduced the now-iconic phrase the Prime has delivered on more than one occasion, "One shall stand; one shall fall." However, in Season One of Transformers Prime, Cliffjumper gets executed in the series pilot, which ups the stakes considerably. Knowing that characters can die at any point in time creates a serious sense of tension. So when a character looks to be mortally wounded, there's a fair chance they won't come back from it (unless it's a principle cast member, but that's still up in the air). The ruthlessness of the Decepticons is on par with the dark, violent nature displayed in the feature films. Megatron in the G1 series was certainly evil and violent, but in Prime, he's a lot less forgiving and a lot more likely to blow a hole through one of his own men than ever before. It makes him more of a loose cannon and more of a menacing villain. Optimus Prime is as noble as ever, but he may be ever so slightly too stiff and stoic. They don't make him one of the main cast who have a human buddy, keeping him the sword and cannon to face Megatron head-on when necessary, and the voice of reason when the Autobots need guidance. Meanwhile, Bumblebee is completely transported from the live action movies to this series, missing voice box and all. The vocal sounds he makes are kind of corny at times - sounding more like a video game than anything (and maybe a little like R2D2), but he's certainly one of the show's most endearing characters. Ratchet is portrayed as kind of grumpy and stubborn, but it works for his character, making him more like Bones from the original Star Trek. And of the human characters, I get a kick out of hearing Ernie Hudson's voice coming from Agent Fowler, the government liaison assigned to the Autobots (Hudson played the live action version of Winston in the 1984 film Ghostbusters, while Frank Welker who voices Megatron here also voiced Ray in the 1986 cartoon series version of The Real Ghostbusters. Yup, I'm a nerd like that). The only complete re-characterization of any of the characters that really bothers me is Wheeljack. Wheeljack was a science officer of sorts in the G1 series, and here Wheeljack is some kind of lone wolf, Samurai warrior who used to be a "Wrecker" with Bulkhead. He's a likable enough character, but from his exaggerated voice to Bulkhead calling him "Jackie" for short (*cringe*) to the completely different personality, it just irks me that they took that much liberty with his character. I think it would have made more sense to reintroduce a familiar character who had a similar enough personality to that (Uh... Ironhide, anyone? Prowl?). I would have loved to see Wheeljack be much more like that character. Otherwise, I find some of the other liberties the creators took more acceptable, including how they've changed Starscream. But even 'scream's personality is totally in line with his original incarnation, albeit more ruthless, like Megatron.
As noted before, Transformers Prime has a darker tone, more like the movies, than the original series. Sometimes the kids-centric storylines lighten things up a bit, but even episodes like "Nemesis Prime," which introduces tech that looks like Prime but is evil; and "Out of the Past," which has Arcee relating a story about her past partner, Cliffjumper, to Miko; get heavy in tone and theme. The final multi-episode story arc (actually, it makes up most of Season Two) that finds the Autobots in a race against time as they track down Cybertonian relics before the Decepticons do, is often quite dark and focuses more on the Transformer storylines, pushing out the humans (who even make comments about being left behind a lot). These episodes are considerably more serious, but if the show is directed toward pre-teens and early teenage kids, it may seem pretty dark for such an audience. The climax of the season plays out like watching the end of a movie, with so much coming to a head all at once. It makes for a really powerful finish to the race being run, with high stakes and ambiguous ends being proposed for major characters (yeah, I'm not too thrilled with the Season Two finale being a brutal and kind of depressing cliffhanger... but you can bet I'm eagerly anticipating Season Three now!). The content for the show is definitely more mature than previous shows in the series. There's no real bad language or profanity, but characters frequently say "scrap" as their own substitute profanity (also, a random character, and then Miko, say "abso-freakin'-lutely!" twice in the episode "Tunnel Vision"). Other than that, the content to warrant caution is really just the violence and intensity of some storylines. Characters lose robotic limbs, get shot up, pounded, blasted, sliced up, etc, with dialog also describing violent acts. As I said earlier, characters are vulnerable in this series, so there's more of a chance you'll see energon spilled here than ever before.
Among the 26 new episodes here are two very cleverly-executed "clip shows." The first, episode nine, titled "Grill," features Agent Fowler being debriefed on the events of the episode before it, "Nemesis Prime," and he gives a rundown of the characters in the show as we get to see clips from many episodes in Season One and even the start of Season Two. It's unmistakably a clip show--which are usually pretty dismissible--but it also wonderfully serves as an introduction into the series up until that point. Later on in the season, just two episodes before the end of it, actually, there's another clip show, titled "Patch." In this one, Megatron is hooked into the consciousness of Starscream so he can evaluate the rogue Decepticon's true motives and intentions. As such, we see many, many clips of Starscream's interactions with characters across both seasons. It's quite brilliant, actually, and it works well to inform Megatron of the kind of character Starscream is, while reminding the viewer in a fun and tongue-in-cheek way. It's pretty impressive. While it does hault the action leading up to the final two episodes of the season, it's a great character-developing episode. But it also drives home the fact that this show thrives on continuity. If a character previously died or another did something very stupid or something that should have had more impact than it originally seemed to, it's likely to come up again. The repercussions of Starscream's memories being broadcast to Dreadwing and Knock Out are intriguing, and it's these little nuances and details that just go to show how expertly constructed this show actually is.
I could honestly probably go even more nerdy on you, the reader, and keep talking about this season and the show itself, but I'll spare you. If you're a Transformers fan and can forgive some of the human kid elements, Transformers Prime is really worth the time investment. The show looks fantastic in high definition and would definitely be a great buy on Blu-Ray. This is easily one of the best modern day cartoon series, and I have high expectations for Season Three (although, I'm concerned by some of the rumors flying around online that it'll deviate to more of a Beast Wars kind of show... and be titled Beast Hunters. I'm not sure that'll make sense for the series, either, so hopefully, whatever the direction they choose to go in, it'll live up to the great work done on the series so far). Well crafted for the serious Transformers fan, Transformers Prime: Season Two (and its setup in Season One) is an achievement in animated television.
- John DiBiase (reviewed: 11/25/12)
Blu-Ray Special Features Review
A look back on Season Two (22:37) - The creative team behind the TV show discuss the story arcs, developing the story for the show and their passion for Transformers. Definitely watch this AFTER you've seen all of Season Two. The guys talk very vaguely about the end of the season and what we can expect from Season Three. It should be interesting!
Optimus Prime: Up Close and Personal (28:04) - This is a fantastic interview where the legendary Larry King interviewed Optimus Prime's voice actor, Peter Cullen, at San Diego Comic-Con this summer. King asks Cullen how he got started in voiceover acting, how he got the job as Optimus Prime, and much more (fans even get to ask some questions). It's amazing they included it on this set -- especially for those of us who grew up with Cullen's work and couldn't attend the SDCC.
TRANSFORMERS PRIME: SEASON TWO "Flying Mind"
TRANSFORMERS PRIME: SEASON TWO "New Recruit"
TRANSFORMERS PRIME: SEASON TWO "Alpha Omega"
TRANSFORMERS PRIME: SEASON TWO "Hard Knocks"
** Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's rating.