So lately, I’ve been swamped with a whole bunch of school stuff. But what’s kept me going through all that, beyond the reward of a job well done, is finishing in my downtime the first season of Transformers Prime and starting on the second. I’ve talked about this series before, I know, but lately I’ve come to realize just how GOOD it actually is.
I mean, if the fact that the show has had 11 Daytime Emmy nods (and four wins) doesn’t tip you off to its quality then let me say that this is quality television, not just for kids; heck, it’s one of the best dramas around right now (IMHO obviously; keep in mind I haven’t watched Game of Thrones yet). But first, a little explanation on my part.
I’ve been a Transformers fan since I was 8 years old. Yes, I’ve seen the movies (first two but not the third). However, as great as the film franchise has been for keeping the Transformers name alive in the public consciousness and almost certainly made this show happen, I do not like them. They are bad; the first film is boring and has basically no robots for most of the time, the second one is more goofy fun and more robot fighting but it’s still pretty dumb and I don’t know about the third.
But because I still consider myself a fan, I have friends and strangers who assume that I love every aspect of the franchise, including the movies. Well, let me say that’s not true. I like what the movies have done as far as impact goes, but I do not like THEM. That may sound harsh, but that’s how I feel.
With that in mind, I was surprised when I watchedthe first episode of Prime and found myself really invested. The plot begins as these things usually do; the Autobots and Decepticons have been hiding out on Earth–specifically, in and near the town of Jasper, Nevada after fleeing there from their decimated homeworld of Cybertron. But when Arcee (the only girl robot up there, voiced by Sumalee Montano) sees her partner Cliffjumper (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. No, really.) kidnapped and accidentally alerts teenagers Jack Darby (Josh Keaton) and Miko Nakadai (Tania Gunadi) and 12-year old Rafael “Raf” Esquivel (Andy Pessoa) to her species’ existence, she’s forced to take them to the rest of the team: leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), tough guy Bulkhead (Kevin Michael Richardson), medic Ratchet (Jeffrey Combs aka the guy from Re-Animator) and scout Bumblebee, who speaks in beeps because that’s what the movies did.
The Decepticons are pretty nasty too; second-in-command Starscream (Steven Blum) kills Cliffjumper about 5 minutes into thee first episode, the mute Soundwave is terrifying because he seems to be everywhere, and Megatron (Frank Welker) is just straight up ruthless. Most episodes of the first season are stand alone adventures, but there’s a LARGE overlaying story that becomes more prevalent in the second season.
Credits-wise, the show was conceived and is executive produced by the screenwriting team of Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman who wrote the first two movies and have also made millions of dollars by writing a whole bunch of other stuff and also the show Fringe, along with big-time animation producers Jeff Kline and Duane Capizzi. All four serve as showrunners over a small writing staff that basically is a hive mind, telling a show that has a single story in mind and pretty much never diverges from it.
What’s remarkable about this show is how ambitious it is. The series began with a 5-part mini-series instead of a pilot and had a seven part story arc stretching across the end of the first season and into the beginning of the second, which has since been edited and released as its own movie. That’s ballsy of any show to do that, let alone a show that’s rated TV-Y and targeted towards kids.
But the thing is, this show has a broader appeal. If you were hooked by the movies, this show’s for you, but it will make you feel smarter afterwards. It feels like the production staff knows that they don’t want to make a time-waster for kids but a truly grand sci-fi show. And honestly, they’re succeeding. The dark places this show can go to are always surprising, the characters, even the kids who are meant to be surrogates for the show’s young viewers, are unbelievably well-developed (the depths that the treacherous Starscream goes to make me think of a Shakespereian villain) and the stories are always gripping.
Of course, the animation and voice acting do their parts to help that along. The animation, produced by Polygon Pictures, is a little limited looking, admittedly; facial expression isn’t all that great and the overall feel of the backgrounds are a bit static. But it makes up for it with detailed movement and pretty bravura action sequences. The voice acting is GREAT: I could devote an entire post to it alone, it’s that good. Blum–who’s been in everything from Digimon to The Legend of Korra (he was Amon)–shows why he’s a voice acting legend: his Starscream is menacing, threatening and captivating. The rest of the cast is all fine too: Montano is the tough female role model Transformers loving girls have NEVER gotten until now, the actors playing the kids actually make them interesting and Ernie Hudson (yes, Winston Zedmore himself) is fun as the Autobot’s government liaison Special Agent Fowler.
But the real stars are of course Cullen and Welker, who voiced Prime and Megatron in the original series (although the latter was voiced by Hugo Weaving in the films). If anything, the age of the two actors now compared to the ’80s has made them understand these icons more. Cullen embues Optimus with wisdom, experience, confidence and a sheer commitment to peace after seeing a lifetime of war. He makes you realize just why the Autobots would follow him anywhere (my pastor friend Josh at Spiritual Musclehead has a great post explaining this). Welker–who, by the way, is the most successful actor alive due to the sheer amount of stuff he’s been in–is desperate, evil and malicious as Megatron. If nothing else, watch this show to hear some GREAT voice acting.
The more episodes I watch of this show, the more I feel that this is what Orci & Kurtzman wanted the movies to be like, but couldn’t make happen, because of having to work with Michael Bay. What they’ve done here is created a smart, compelling show to teach kids what good storytelling and good science fiction can be. The second season wraps up next week–and yes, this airs on digital cable, unfortunately for a lot of people– but comes out on DVD around Thanksgiving, so feel free to pick either of the boxsets up. Or, if you like, the five-episode miniseries is available as its own DVD. Check this out; you won’t regret it.
Now roll out!