The first part of the Transformers pilot was, if nothing else, a cautionary tale about what happens when a sentient robot civilization fails to develop a long-range energy policy. The Autobots and Decepticons nearly fought each other to extinction because they wasted their resources – and all that saved them was a crash-landing on Earth, a four million years-long cooling-off period and a revitalizing computer voiced by Casey Kasem.
And even after all that, things aren’t really that great. For all their power and military prowess, all the Decepticons have managed to do is steal a small bit of oil from a few confused guys on an offshore rig. The Autobots are floating in an ocean that is ON FIRE and the sad thing is, their fiery marine existence is actually a better standard of living than what they had on their home planet of Cybertron. Something’s got to give, and seeing as how the large and heavily marketed Transformers toy line isn’t going to sell itself without heavy TV presence, it just may give right here in part two. Let’s find out.
Actually, what gives first in this episode is a robot called Huffer, the Autobots’ resident whiner. As we saw with the backbiting Decepticon Starscream in part one, some of the Transformers have quirks and flaws in their personalities that are liabilities to their chosen sides. Huffer is a loud pessimist. If Huffer worked in your office, he’d be the guy who always has too much to do but always seems to have time to complain about his workload. Huffer would hate monthly department meetings while moaning endlessly about how no one ever tells him what’s going on in the department. Huffer wouldn’t be able to get you that spreadsheet on Monday, because the network is running too slow, and when he brought that up to IT “a million times” they told him about some kind of “upgrade” nonsense, and, really, who has time for that? And after about 40 minutes of this you find an excuse to leave the office and you realize why no one invites Huffer out for drinks after work on Fridays.
Anyway, Huffer says there are two things he really hates – “fire and water” – so it’s fortunate that his scrappy colleague Brawn is around to pull him out of the oil rig wreckage. Meanwhile, Autobots Wheeljack and Trailbreaker put out the oil fire, and Jazz turns his fist into a grappling hook, which he uses to pull Autobot leader Optimus Prime and several humans to safety. Said humans, Spark Plug and his son Spike, offer to furnish the Autobots with all manner of Earth knowledge so they can stop Megatron and the Decepticons from carrying out any further industrial sabotage. “Maybe you can help us,” Optimus Prime says, charitably.
Humans can be the worst parts of shows like the Transformers, and there will be some really annoying ones in this series, but our lead humans are actually OK. Spark Plug is the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with – maybe not the most brilliant tactician ever, as he proved when he tried to defeat Megatron by throwing wrenches at him, but a decent, hardworking, loyal guy who would size up Decepticons as “bums” and would stand against them for that reason alone.
Spike, meanwhile, is a bit of a dreamer – while Spark Plug takes in the appearance of giant weaponized robots at war with each other without so much as a “well I’ll be damned,” Spike is sufficiently moved to write about it in his diary! “I don’t really know if they’re from the past or the future,” he says of the Autobots, “but they can think, and have real feelings. I can’t believe this is happening to me!” He peppers the Autobots with questions about how they transform into cars, and why – “for disguise,” explains the genial Trailbreaker. “Plus, it beats walking.” He also goes for an off-road adventure ride with Hound, who transforms into a Jeep and has the power to project holograms.
The only thing Spike does wrong is pick up a random boom box on the ground and bring it to Autobot HQ; it happens to be Soundwave, the Decepticons’ sneaky head of surveillance. He and the feral jaguar-bot Ravage hack into the Autobots’ computer, Teletraan-1, which apparently knows everything about Earth already. Fortunately Spike makes up for letting down his entire planet by spotting the intruders and sounding the alarm; the Autobots manage to snare Ravage in some kind of electro-net. Later, they will send Ravage to be fostered by a local family that already has 20-25 robot jaguars, much more than they can handle, and the Decepticon isn’t seen again until the authorities shut the place down after a tip from a neighbor.
Ok, not really. But Ravage’s boss, Soundwave, does make it back to the Decepticons’ base and informs big boss Megatron about a place called the Sherman Dam, which has the potential to create 1,750,000 kilowatts of energy. Even that isn’t enough for Megatron: “we are going to create a tidal wave, one that will send enough power surging through that dam to make all the energon cubes we need. We attack the dam at sunrise!”
And this they do, with Soundwave instructing his piledriving subordinate, Rumble, to “activate Operation Tidal Wave.” Soundwave is not the branding genius of the Decepticons, if you hadn’t noticed. Frankly, Megatron is not the brilliant tactician he considers himself to be, either, judging by the fact that he attacks the dam he plans to run energy through. The Decepticons do get a few energon cubes out of the deal, but their shenanigans and the extra-heavy water flow cause the dam to break up, just as the Autobots arrive to stop them. How inept must the Autobots have been on Cybertron to have nearly lost the war to these clowns, one wonders.
Hound dives into the water to take out Rumble and stop the tidal wave; Bumblebee, from whom we haven’t heard much since the beginning of part 1, joins forces with the grizzled Ironhide, who declares “we’re gonna create a new river!” They use lasers to cut a new channel for the rushing water, which saves the three people who live nearby. These folks somehow haven’t caught on to the robot battle raging around them, so when they see Ironhide in his red truck form, they shout, “thanks, neighbors!”
Time for round two of Prime vs. Megatron, and it takes place inside the power plant. In the early days of the series Prime’s voice actor, Peter Cullen, is giving the Autobot leader a tinge of John Wayne in his voice. “You destroy everything you touch, Megatron!” he shouts. “Because everything I touch is food for my hunger!” Megatron replies. So Megatron is just hangry? “My hunger for power!” he adds, which makes a lot more sense. They duel, Prime with a hand turned into an energy axe; Megatron with a light-based medieval mace. They are also fighting with words; Prime even delves into ageism: “you’re old, Megatron!” he shouts at one point. “Yesterday’s model, ready for the scrap heap!” But it’s Prime who gets the worst of the exchange; when Spike gets himself into trouble with one of the Decepticons, Prime turns to help, only for Megatron to wallop him. Optimus ends up floating down that new river Ironhide and Bumblebee cut. “Who’s the scrap metal now, Prime?” Megatron shouts as he and the Decepticons fly away.
The Autobots regroup and face the fact that they’re not doing that well. “We’re not fighters like they are, Prime!” Huffer notes. Prime says, ok, but “we cannot ignore the danger; we must conquer it.” They will have to do this quickly, as the Decepticons only need just a bit more energy to make their way back to Cybertron. Megatron plans to steal both Earth’s supply of rocket fuel and its most potent energy source, something called “the ruby crystals of Burma.” “Assemble the strike force!” he shouts. All of the Decepticons are standing right there, so it’s left to Soundwave to acknowledge the obvious: “strike force assembled.” Well played, Soundwave, well played.
Fortunately, Spark Plug, Spike and Trailbreaker have been listening in on Megatron’s fiendish plan. “I like being a spy a lot better than working the oil rigs,” says Spark Plug – does that mean Optimus Prime is paying him? The well-assembled Decepticon strike force spots the heroes and attacks, though two more Autobot cars, Sunstreaker and Sideswipe, join the fray and repel the airstrike – mostly. “Hey! That’s a new paint job,” yells the vain Sunstreaker, who clearly cares more about the Decepticons scratching his chassis than murdering his friends. Between Huffer’s whining and Sunstreaker’s pettiness, I’m starting to wonder how the Autobots have lasted this long against Megatron.
Prime and the others spot the Decepticons in the ruby mine. “Let’s blast their tail rudders outta there!” bellows Ironhide, but as is often the case, Prime’s approach is more subtle: he wants Spark Plug and Bumblebee to sneak into the mine and set a bomb Wheeljack’s built to bury and/or blow up Megatron’s forces. “This one’s for Cybertron and Earth!” Spark Plug cheers as they speed off.
They plant the bomb, but on the way out they bump into two Decepticon planes, Thundercracker and Skywarp, who knock out Spark Plug and decide to make Bumblebee a prisoner for Megatron’s amusement. “Maybe we ought to wrap him up and put a little bow on him!” says Thundercracker, who should probably have been named Bad Joke-cracker.
Realizing Spark Plug and Bumblebee should have come back out by now, a worried Optimus sends his own little surveillance component, Roller, in to find out what happened… just as the Autobots’ bomb goes off. The Decepticons are buried in rubble, but Spark Plug, Bumblebee and Roller are all apparently caught up in the blaze, and the force of the blast sends Optimus rolling off the side of a cliff. “Prime!” shouts Jazz in his amazing Scatman Crothers voice, as their plan goes all to hell.
The pilot seems intended to show how the Autobots grew from cybernetic peaceniks into a robot fighting force, and if so, this middle episode is the one that shows the growing pains. They’re pretty mediocre, really; decent at search-and-rescue, maybe, but aside from Ironhide and maybe Brawn, they have neither the stomach nor the skill to stop the Decepticons. Even Prime isn’t quite on top of the situation yet: Megatron has his number each time they fight, and as the episode ends he’s managed to knock himself down the side of a mountain.
But, of course, this is act two of a three-act story – and if the villain is ahead now, surely it’s to set the stage for his comeuppance in act three! Whatever comes next, I know this much: Huffer is going to complain about it. The good guys may win in the end but some of them will have to grouse about how hard it was.