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The Fine Print
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Right now Optimus Prime's team is defending Earth from the evils of Megatron and his henchmen. (On TV, at least.) The furious struggle between these living, shapeshifting robots involves Autobots, Team Bullet Train, Spychangers, the Build Team, Predacons, and Decepticons. Their battle spans the globe and will decide the very fate of the human race, and yet it's only a small part of the massive saga of the Transformers.
Currently airing on Fox Kids, Transformers: Robots in Disguise is big, varied, and popular... but it's only the tip of the iceberg. TF:RiD began in late 2001, offering Americans a translated version Transformers: Car Robots (which was seen in Japan in the year 2000). That's only two years. The Transformers have been around for 18! What's more, their story spans well over 4 MILLION years!
1984-1987: Classic Transformers
Transformers: Robots in Disguise, cool as it may be, is really just a modernized rehash of the original Transformers TV series, which was aired in 1984. Co-created by Hasbro, Marvel Comics, and Japanese toy giant Takara, Transformers introduced the heroic Autobots and evil Decepticons to the world and became an instant success. The phenomenon swept the world and has been going strong ever since.
The story of The Transformers begins 4 million years ago on the far-off planet of Cybertron, a mechanical planet inhabited by living robots who can transform into vehicles and machines. After a millennia of civil war, Cybertron had run out of power. Optimus Prime, leader of the heroic Autobots, leads an elite team on a deep-space quest for new energy resources, but Megatron and his evil Decepticons attack the mission. The Cybertronian space ship--the Ark--crashes on prehistoric Earth, and the Transformers aboard lie in a comatose state of Stasis for 4 million years.
In 1984, a volcanic eruption awakens the Transformers, who take on the forms of Earthly vehicles and machines in order to blend in. (Optimus Prime can transform into an eighteen-wheeler truck, Megatron can become a pistol, etc.) Their war begins anew, with the life-loving Autobots protecting humanity from the Decepticons. Their battles soon bring the planet Cybertron back into the situation, and the Transformers' war escalates to intergalactic scale.
While the TV series was airing daily, Marvel comics published a monthly Transformers comic book series. Although it started out in almost precisely the same way as the TV show, it quickly took the story in an entirely different direction. Fans remain split on which take on The Transformers is the better one. (Decide for yourself--Titan books is currently reprinting these stories in trade paperback format.)
By 1986, the Transformers' story was the most popular thing since money. At the height of their popularity, Transformers: The Movie was released (and has since been re-released by Rhino Home Video on VHS and DVD). Taking place in the year 2005, the movie featured incredibly detailed animation, celebrity voices (including Orson Welles and Leonard Nimoy), and unheard-of levels of violence, and it introduced a slew of new characters. Optimus Prime was killed and replaced by the flashier (and less popular) Rodimus Prime, and Megatron was reincarnated as Galvatron. Most impressive of all, however, was the planet-sized, planet-transforming, planet-EATING menace known as Unicron.
After the defeat of Unicron (the end of The Movie), The Transformers TV series continued for another season, with its new stories taking place in the futuristic 21st-century setting established by the movie. Though the toy line was now utilizing entirely new, made-for-Transformers designs (rather than reconceptions of old toys), its liveliness and ratings were dropping. The last gasp of the TV series was an awful three-parter called "The Rebirth"...which proved to be anything but.
1988-1995: The Dark Ages
Despite the cancellation of the TV shown the Transformers toy line continued on until 1990, but by then Hasbro was brutally whipping a very dead horse. In 1991 the Transformers comic was cancelled and the toys had utterly disappeared from American store shelves.
Just when everyone thought the Transformers were finished, Hasbro took a hint from Star Trek: The Next Generation and introduced Transformers Generation 2. At first, a few old toys were repackaged and re-released, but by 1993 all-new toys and a new Marvel comic were on sale. Since a new TV show was never made, the comic (which continued directly from the first comic series) offered the only official storyline for G2. It lasted only 12 issues but is still much loved by fans.
The Transformers' revived success was modest, however, and by 1995 things were looking grim. But change was in the air...
1996-2000: The Beast Era
When Hasbro shuffled the ailing Transformers to its subsidiary Kenner, Cybertron's shape-changing robots ditched their vehicular alter egos for ferocious new beast modes. At first everyone scoffed at these new Beast Wars Transformers, but thanks to the creation of the 100-percent computer-generated Beast Wars TV show, the idea became a huge success. Suddenly, the Transformers were back on top.
Beast Wars was written by people who knew and loved the original Transformers, and its background seems to draw from both the original TV series and the G2 comic book...which makes for quite a continuity conundrum! Beast Wars follows a team of Maximals (the descendants of the Autobots) and Predacons (descendants of the Decepticons) who come from the Cybertron of the far-flung future. How far is unclear; it's supposed to be 300 years after "The Great War," but it's never said when the war ended. It might be 2300 A.D., or it might be ten-zillion-plus-300 A.D.
Luckily it doesn't matter, since the Maximals (led by Optimus Primal, a descendant of Optimus Prime) and Megatron (no relation) leads them to prehistoric Earth. There, they fight over energy resources, the future, and the stasis-locked Transformers of the original TV series! With no vehicles around to imitate, the new Cybertronians take on the forms of the local wildlife, making for a very different kind of adventure.
Beast Wars was the best Transformers series ever made. Its intelligence, maturity, lethality, and visual punch were unprecedented. Unfortunately, its spin-offs and sequels were not so great. In Japan, two traditional cel-animation series (Beast Wars Second and Beast Wars Neo) were made; they took place in the blurry "300-plus" future and were aimed at a very young audience. In America, Beast Machines served as a direct sequel to Beast Wars. Though it sported better CGI, its writing was less inspired and it effectively marked the death of the beast era as a whole.
2000-2002: To Infinity and Back Again
With the beast gimmick having run its course, Hasbro and Takara (who still share control of Transformers) decided to get back to basics. Transformers: Car Robots aired in Japan in 2000, "rebooting" the continuity in a new universe with new characters. Fire Convoy (yet another Optimus-ranked hero) led his Cybertron dimensional patrol against Gigatron and his metal beast army in defense of planet Earth, striking a very familiar chord with TF fans.
When Car Robots was brought to America in 2001 as Robots in Disguise, Hasbro opted to go even further than Takara with the whole relaunch concept; they decided to turn the Fire Convoy character into Optimus Prime himself! Similarly, Gigatron became Megatron, and the entire issue of Transformers continuity became even more hairy. Not that it matters; RiD has been very successful, ensuring that modern vehicle-Transformers continue to be the focus of the line.
Even now, in 2002, the next Transformers project is underway. Shrouded in mystery, Transformers Armada is the subject of furious fan speculation. Rumors abound that the series will be fully CG, like Beast Wars... that it'll star Optimus Prime, Megatron, Starscream, and other favorites... that it occurs between the original Transformers and the Beast Wars era... that it will somehow unify all the disparate Transformers continuities into a cohesive whole!
We'll see soon enough. But whatever form Armada takes, keep in mind that it will be the fifth Transformers show to date (in America; in Japan, it'll be the eighth). This makes Transformers the undisputed record-holder in the annals of American cartoon history. What's more, when ToyFare magazine polled its readers, Transformers won as the "greatest toy line of all time." And the current crop of Transformers toys is the best ever.
It seems that the Transformers have no equals. They're unbeatable in several fields, and they never go away. As the fan-favorite G2 comic author Simon Furman said, through the voice of the legendary Optimus Prime:
"It never ends."
See the full article in Animerica Vol. 10, No. 2!