As a child of the 1980s, Transformers were a very big deal indeed to me, up to the age of, say, 10, 11 or so. Kinda drifted then, until what can only be described as a mild mid-life crisis got me collecting plastic toys again, in my late 30s. So for the past few years I've been enjoying the best mainline toys Transformers has ever seen (I wrote about one of them, in 2020), catching up with the actually fantastic IDW comics, and accepting that Bumblebee is a far superior movie to the 1986 animated affair.
I've also been watching Netflix's original anime series Transformers: War for Cybertron, based on the body-morphing robots from the planet Cybertron. First in this toyline-accompanying trilogy came 2019's Siege and then, just last week, Earthrise debuted on the streaming platform. (The final part, Kingdom, is yet to receive a release date, but will likely arrive in late 2021.) Inevitably, my sons and I were watching on day one - but, sadly, the series left all three of us disappointed, albeit for different reasons.
Transformers cartoons based specifically on the characters from the mid-'80s, aimed at least partially at adults, have been poor for a while now (the bright, boisterous and very kids-orientated Cyberverse gets a pass). Machinima's web-exclusive Prime Wars Trilogy, running from 2016 to 2018, was a wretched experience where three consecutive toylines loosely inspired on-screen events that saw fan-favourite Starscream become a magical, massive combiner and then (inevitably) die, and Hot Rod become an even-more-annoying evil version of himself, with the fans-accused Prime-killer possessed by the spirit of the monster planet/actual god Unicron. It was bad, top to bottom, start to finish, bad.
Still with me? Okay. The release of Siege last year, produced by Rooster Teeth, went some way to correcting the wrongs of Prime Wars, offering a neat and tidy reset for all that'd happened in that series and putting the rival Autobots and Decepticons back at square one, on a barren Cybertron ravaged by countless centuries of conflict. Come its end, Autobot leader Optimus Prime could only keep the magical MacGuffin of the AllSpark out of the hands of his opposite number, the lusciously-lipped Megatron, by mightily yeeting it into a Space Bridge - a portal to some unknown place, in a wholly different neighbourhood of the galaxy. Cliffhanger set, roll credits.
Earthrise follows directly from that climax - with Prime and his crew in search of said artefact, pursued (eventually) by the bad 'bots, once they've handled all of their bad business on the badly-busted-up surface of the bad-shape Cybertron. And then, the plot of Earthrise goes and drowns itself in a slurry of self-referencing sideways glances and fully blown easter eggs the size of interstellar battleships, taking five of its six episodes to reach the destination implied by its title, and forgetting to include much in the way of coherent, compelling storyline for fear of, I guess, not giving old-school fans all of those callbacks.
But there are only so many echoes of the past that any new twist on a veteran franchise can take - and with Transformers celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2019, and the 35th anniversary of its debut movie this year (oh boy, do those new toys look good), while some respect for precedent can be appreciated, this much smacks of laziness. Consider, too, that the dialogue of Earthrise is delivered in an incredibly stunted style - any drama in the script is undermined completely by the horribly half-paced direction of the performances - and what you're left with is roughly an hour's worth of original action stretched, painfully, across six 25-minute episodes.
And look, I'm an unashamed nerd for this stuff. I love the old animated series, and the '86 movie. I know plenty of it's bad, and I don't care. But by the end of the fifth episode of Earthrise, I was ready to throw in my robo-towel. It was just nudge after wink after beat-you-over-the-head-with-another-reference, until I'd lost track of why I was meant to care about Optimus and Megatron having a spark to spark.
But that's me. Perhaps, perhaps, you'll get a kick out of seeing characters introduced to the series through the '86 movie collide with those who never made it into the original show (but have some great toys, in both the past and the present); or be thrilled by the combination of IDW-inspired destinations overlapping with Headmasters-associated locations, even if the inhabitants you expect to spot turn out to be absent. (If you're hanging on for a Hive, prepare to be disappointed.)
Maybe, just maybe, you'll love how this Galvatron appears to be both that one, and that other one, in a single body; and yet, he's very much still controlled/tortured from afar by his creator from '86, the aforementioned Unicron. (Whose appearance in the trailers for Earthrise is surely a spoiler that could have been held back? He's kind of a big deal, after all.) As for the Galvatron before Galvatron, which is to say Megatron (unless we're in a timeline where that's not the case... still keeping up, here?), he finds that he can generate a red mist of pure hate and project it at his enemies. Sounds ridiculous, and it is - but it's a throwback to the two-part episode The Return of Optimus Prime from 1987, so while it makes no sense, who cares? It's fans-pleasing nonsense, just go with it.
And that's, I guess, the thing I can't quite do with Earthrise: just go with it. My kids were disappointed with how slow the series was, how short on action it felt, and how it did so little with big new characters like the Quintessons - the Transformers' creators, in many franchise origin stories. I was disappointed with the overwhelming reliance on Transformers media of old to carry a brand-new story (albeit one that clearly runs parallel, in a big way, to the 1984 cartoon's opening episodes) from one planet of significance to another.
Naming no names, the way in which one massively charismatic presence from the post-'86 movie era is wasted as a stupid lunk is, actually, sort of insulting; and the late-series twist from a focus on one trinket of note to another, one that's more familiar to '80s fans, really comes over as the scriptwriters running out of ways to extend their meagre story to fill the commissioned slots.
The limited switching back to skirmishes still playing out on Cybertron represent the show's freshest moments, and feature its standout character in Elita-1, a female Autobot who had extremely limited screen time in the 1980s. The stay-at-home Shockwave also impresses as the show's most truly treacherous villain, outshining Megatron with his mono-eyed wickedness. But even the scenes starring these two are marred by sluggish voice-overs and combat that's more like toys being smashed into each other than the life-or-death efforts of sentient machines.
However, there's hope. Kingdom's toyline collision of Beast Wars characters (dinosaurs, gorillas, massive spiders) with G1 counterparts (cars, planes, cassette players) promises something genuinely new for this multifaceted franchise. And if the show makes good on all the potential for something wildly unprecedented, with minimal nods to the Beast Wars cartoon and IDW's successful merging of the two ostensibly opposed aesthetics, then Netflix's War for Cybertron trilogy will go out with a bang. I'm keeping my fingers and claws crossed for a little Energon, and a lot of luck.
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