Transformers Speedrun: S1E1, More Than Meets The Eye (Part 1)

Megatron vs. Optimus Prime

In 2010 I conquered the internet with a world-changing ball of awesomeness that was my liveblog of every episode of “The A-Team.” I thrilled audiences with my descriptions of Hannibal Smith, Face, B.A. Baracus and “Howlin’ Mad” Murdock, not to mention A-list guest stars like John Saxon, Joe Namath and the lady who played Jerry’s mom on “Seinfeld.” I aimed to outdo Julie Powell and her Julia Child project, and, aside from popularity, financial gain and critical acclaim I’ve been successful on every count.

It was a landmark achievement – but now it’s time to go beyond even the A-Team. I will now liveblog the original Transformers cartoon series in full.

Why Transformers? Mostly because my oldest son and I have been watching the reruns together. We bond over the foibles of each Transformer – Megatron’s delusional schemes and hair-trigger temper, Starscream’s petty jealousy, Ironhide’s inexplicable Southern accent – and think through some of the less plausible elements of each plot, like where the heck Optimus Prime’s back half goes when he transforms from tractor trailer to robot.

And, while the shows are sometimes implausible beyond belief, even astoundingly insane, they’re also really entertaining. For a show that is little more than a half-hour long toy commercial, the writers took a lot of time crafting a back story for each individual robot, not to mention all those voices: most of the great cartoon voice actors of the last few decades are here. The fact that Megatron, the evil leader of the treacherous Decepticons, is voiced by Frank Welker, who also voices Curious George, is, to me, one of the great achievements of our civilization.

Finally, it is important to reclaim the Transformers franchise from a force more diabolical than Megatron and all the other Decepticons put together: Michael Bay. On the big screen, Bay’s Transformers have shown us what happens when we allow movies to reach peak Big, maximum Loud and record levels of Stupid, and it’s not good. Actual species of alien robots may come to this planet and sap all our energy reserves, simply to prevent more of these movies from being made. We all need to return to the time when Transformers were fun and entertaining, not merely CGI constructions that interrupted bros while they tried to ogle Megan Fox.

Given these high stakes, let’s get to work. We might just save the human race while we’re at it.

The Autobot and Decepticon logos fly around
Valiant logos locked in eternal combat

The American run of the Transformers begins with a three-part pilot, and a line in the theme song that’s just flat-out wrong:

Transformers/more than meets the eye

Autobots wage their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons

Two sets of shape-shifting robots fighting a war; sounds like the Transformers we remember, right? Except that a narrator comes on next and sets the record straight: “Many millions of years ago, on the planet Cybertron, life existed,” he says. “but not life as we know it today. Intelligent robots that could think and feel inhabited the cities. They were called Autobots and Decepticons. But the brutal Decepticons were driven by a single goal: total domination. They set out to destroy the peace-loving Autobots, and a war between the forces of good and evil raged across Cybertron.”

In other words, this is not the peace-loving Autobots’ battle; they’re reluctant fighters, and their goal isn’t really to destroy the Decepticons as much as it is to force them to stop fighting. Is this a technical distinction that’s not really worth pointing out in live-blogging a thirty year old cartoon? Probably, but I am nothing if not thorough.

Deceptions fire at Autobots. Big surprise.
Pew pew pew

The Cybertron war, by the way, has drained the planet’s vast energy reserves, leaving the Autobots “on the verge of extinction” and fighting “valiantly to survive.” The first such valiant robot we meet is Wheeljack, who on Earth will become the Autobot equivalent of Doc Brown in the “Back to the Future” movies. On Cybertron, though, he and his compatriot Bumblebee are doing the dangerous but important work of finding energy and bringing it back to their home base.

There’s trouble, though: “a Decepticon welcoming committee.” The three bad guys transform into futuristic-looking aircraft and chase the Autobots, who themselves have turned into space cars. Bumblebee’s rear axle gets a little fried, so he climbs aboard Wheeljack, who advises, in his scratchy, “Car Talk”-like voice, “Hang on to your crankshaft, I’m shifting into overdrive!” They make it home, but only just – and the energy conductors they’ve snagged will hardly be enough to keep the Autobots running for long.

Megatron gives Shockwave authority over Cybertron
I’ll just be right here, Megatron, until you need me again…. do you need me now, by chance?

“This side of Cyberton is drier than the inside of a driveshaft,” laments the otherwise bubbly Jazz (who, in one of the most awesome elements of the entire series, is voiced by Scatman Crothers). The leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, decides to send some of his forces off-planet to find a new source of energy, but Prime’s plan is overheard by Decepticon spymaster Soundwave and his robotic surveillance bird, Laserbeak, and their leader, Megatron, decides his robots should follow the Autobots and take whatever they find. He leaves the purple cyclops robot Shockwave behind to tend to their weakened planet. The obsequious Shockwave is thrilled. “Cybertron shall remain as you leave it,” he tells Megatron.

We have a robot spy bird, a kiss-up cyclops bot and a car that talks like Scatman Crothers. I assume anyone who’s reading has stopped asking why I’m live-blogging this show and has started asking themselves why they didn’t think to do it.

Megatron thinks he’s on the verge of finishing off Optimus Prime for good. “The Autobots would have lost eons ago if I’d been calling the shots!” says the Decepticons’ resident ingrate, Starscream. And thus begins the most entertaining rivalry of the series, in which Megatron schemes to conquer the Autobots while one of his own lieutenants – Starscream is the Decepticon air commander – tries to overthrow him. This time, though, they only spar verbally, as Megatron orders his robots aboard a space cruiser to follow the Autobot transport into space.

Optimus fights Megatron
Enough is enough! I have had it with these monkey-fighting Decepticons on this Monday-to-Friday ship!

And it’s in space where the Decepticons launch an attack, even though the whole point of the trip was to steal the Autobots’ new energy source and they don’t yet know where said energy source is. Nonetheless, there’s an enormous cybernetic fistfight aboard the Autobots’ ship, known as the Ark. Biblical allusions prove this show is MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE, SEE? SEE? Both ships end up tumbling toward the planet Earth; the Decepticon ship sinks beneath the ocean, while the Autobot ship crashes into the side of a volcano.

Optimus is revived
This is what would have actually happened to James Bond on that table in “Goldfinger.”

Then, four million years go by. Seriously. Autobots and Decepticons just lay there in a heap for four million years, until the volcano erupts and activates the Ark’s onboard computer, Teletraan-1 (voiced by Casey Kasem!). “Explore! Explore!” shouts the computer, and it sends a little satellite out to see what there is to see on the new planet. It spots airplanes and cars, so as it revives the Transformers, shouting “Repair! Repair!” it gives them new vehicle modes that should help them blend in with what it thinks are the planet’s native creatures. Oops.

As it turns out, the reviving ray initially only works on Decepticons, but as the evil robots fly off to conquer Earth Starscream decides to “say goodbye” to their fallen foes with a laserblast, which shakes the Ark and knocks Optimus Prime’s body into the reviving ray. Even bigger oops.

“This new planet is rich with sources of energy,” Prime tells his now-awake colleagues, “but the Decepticons must know this too.” He sends the reliable Hound and the impulsive Cliffjumper to find Megatron and his forces. They’re easy to spot; Starscream and Rumble, a mini-robot whose arms can turn into piledrivers, are wrecking a nearby power station so that the energy can be turned into what Soundwave calls energon cubes. Cliffjumper gets so riled up he fires at – and misses – Megatron, which means the Decepticons know the Autobots are alive again.

Humans throwing wrenches at Decepticons.
Lest you thought Megatron was the gold standard of poorly-thought-out schemes, here are some humans throwing wrenches at giant killer robots.

But Megatron’s too busy with his energon scheme to worry about the Autobots; Laserbeak has spotted an offshore oil rig that will provide plenty of raw power. Among the rig workers is Spark Plug, sort of a square-jawed Robert Culp-ish guy, and his son, Spike, and when the Decepticons land, they immediately start attacking them with fists and hand tools. This goes about as well as you’d expect; Megatron routs the humans and take their oil, gleefully and disgustingly shouting “we must suck this planet Earth dry!”

The Autobots, meanwhile, have been preparing for battle, which really just consists of Jazz naming each toy – er, I mean, robot, as he transforms. They fly to the oil rig, which is notable because a) they’d all just transformed into cars and trucks, and b) they don’t have the ability to fly anywhere else in the series; later on the Decepticons will regularly withdraw from battles to the skies, with the flightless Autobots unable to follow.

Autobots floating in the water
“You don’t think we’ve lost a step over the last four million years, do you, Jazz?” “No, of course not, Optimus.”

But whatever. It’s time for Optimus Prime to take on his fiercest foe. “Give it up, Megatron!” he shouts, but Megatron will do nothing of the sort! “The universe is mine!” he replies, and as he and the other Decepticons gather their energon cubes and flee, he fires on the rig, spilling oil everywhere. Then, as the Autobots sink into the water, he fires on the oil. “Something to keep you warm!” he laughs, starting a massive fire. Optimus hears Spike and Spark Plug cry out for help and he decides to save them instead of going after Megatron. Only he’s not sure he can save them! Can the Autobots escape certain doom? If so, can they stop the Decepticons? If so, can anyone explain why so many of these four million year old robots from outer space have New York accents? All will (perhaps) be revealed in part two of our exciting adventure!

As a pilot episode this is more functional than entertaining – there’s a lot of backstory to set up, and while it’s nice to have the show explain just how the heck these robots ended up on Earth, it doesn’t give us a whole lot to latch onto, character-wise. Then again, this is only the first third of the pilot, and now that the table is well set there will be lots of opportunities to get to know each of these robots – and, the creators surely hope – to buy their action figures!

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