Sunbow Productions (September 17, 1984 – December 28, 1984), Shout! Factory (June 16, 2009), 3 discs, 360 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Dolby Digital Mono, Not Rated, Retail: $29.99
Transformers divided into Autobots and Decepticons battle for the planet Cybertron but wake up millions of years later on the planet Earth. There, the Decepticons vow to deplete the planet of its energy in order to return to Cybertron and win the war. The Autobots align with the humans to prevent the Decepticons from destroying the planet and humans in the process.
The Sweatbox Review:
It is difficult to write about Transformers without mentioning the updated live-action franchise. The movie has been dominant over the past two weeks here in North America and it is likely to be a mega-hit by the time it runs its course out in theaters. Of course, there will be the inevitable third film and then speculations will run wild for four years or so after that regarding the production of a fourth film. However, this being an animation website, we must go acknowledge the fact that Transformers has been around, in one way or another, for at least 30 years. First there were toys in Japan, which were later introduced into the United States (and the rest of the world) via a comic book and an animated series. Then, there came the animated film and the multitude of comic books and animated series spinoffs that have followed (Beast Wars, Beast Machines, Robots in Disguise, etc…). But what is the original appeal? Some would argue that it is all about the toys and the interactivity of the toy line that allowed kids to make decisions on what their robot was going to be (a car or a robot?). In my opinion, that is only one aspect of the appeal, and the fact that the toys existed well before they became a phenomenon tells me otherwise.
It all comes down to the storylines. I will admit to watching the series when I was younger. I even owned some of the toys. When the show came out, I was still very young, but like everyone else, I was sucked into the world of the Transformers and the story of their battle for Earth. Premiering in 1984, the syndicated Sunbow Productions series was intentionally created in order to sell the Hasbro toys. After the FCC repealed their ban on animated shows created to sell toys, Hasbro went into overdrive with shows featuring G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, and Transformers. It all worked. By watching the show, a kid was able to transfer the stories to their own playroom where they could reenact scenes from the show or make up new ones. The Transformers, like G.I. Joe before it, was based on the premise behind a promotional Marvel comic book series of the same name that was released simultaneously with the show. The comic book had been commissioned by Hasbro to ramp up demand for the toys before they entered the marketplace. The basic premise involved two groups of robots (or Transformers), Autobots (led by Omega Prime) and Decepticons (led by Megatron), from the planet Cybertron who have been fighting an energy-related civil war. After a climactic chase sequence, they crash land on the planet Earth and are revived in 1984 and resume their battle. This time, the Decepticons plan to deplete the Earth’s energy, harness it, return to Cybertron, and conquer the Autobots on Cybertron. The Autobots then decide to become protectors of Earth in order to prevent the planet from descending into a similar dystopia as Cybertron. In short, it was a classic good versus evil story that felt like it mattered since the survival of our planet was a stake.
The Transformers premiered in September 1984 with a three-part miniseries (animated by Japanese studio Toei Animation) called More Than Meets the Eye. In the opening shots of the series, we see the Autobots and Decepticons fighting on Cybertron for the last few energy sources available. Generally speaking, one can distinguish between the two groups because the Autobots can transform into cars while the Decepticons can transform into jets. Eventually, the Decepticons, led by Megatron, decide to run away from Cybertron but are followed in hot pursuit by Omega Prime and the Autobots. Their ships crash land in prehistoric Earth and they are all knocked unconscious. Millions of years later in 1984, the ship computer “wakes up” and begins to fix the robots so that they can transform into Earth-looking vehicles and machines. First, the Decepticons wake up and begin to explore the new planet, and later the Autobots wake up and discover that time has passed and they must stop the Decepticons from destroying the new world. Their pursuit leads them to an oil rig in the middle of the ocean where the Autobots save a boy named Spike and his father Sparkplug (ignore the fact that apparently young teenagers can work on oil rigs) from an attack by the Decepticons. The humans then line up with the Autobots to prevent further plundering of the Earth by Megatron and his gang. Of course, by the end of the miniseries, the Autobots seemingly destroy the Decepticons, but they return for the first episode of the official season.
The remainder of the season follows the Autobots as they try to outrun the Decepticons at every turn as they attack the Earth’s energy resources. The Decepticons frequently attack hydroelectric dams and other power plants to steal energy, but eventually they are thwarted by the Autobots. Often the Decepticons find new alternative energy sources (from the Earth’s core, mystical crystals, or new technology) that provide a little more variety to the storylines. The fourth episode, Transport to Oblivion, introduces the concept of the space bridge between Earth and Cybertron which the Decepticons create to transport energy cubes to their home planet. In Roll For It, we are introduced to kid scientist Chip Chase who becomes a regular throughout the season as he helps the Autobots. Being a show about a toy line, nearly every episode introduces us to new robotic characters. S.O.S. Dinobots introduces the powerful Dinobots who are created by the Autobots to help them in battle. These also feature prominently in the episode War of the Dinobots. Fire in the Sky introduces the character of Skyfire, a Decepticon scientist who was frozen in the North Pole long before the Cybertron wars. Eventually, he aligns with the Autobots providing much needed airpower. The Insecticons, ancient Decepticons that evolved on Earth, are introduced in A Plague of Insecticons when they team up against the Autobots. Finally, Heavy Metal War introduces the Constructicons, battle robots created by the Decepticons that can join to form the giant Devastator. This last episode, featuring an all-out battle between Omega Prime and Megatron is one of the highlights of the set.
I am probably not alone in thinking that after More than Meets the Eye, the best stories from this first season comes from The Ultimate Doom storyline. Written by George Arthur Bloom, Ultimate Doom was a three-part story that further developed the mythology of the show and its connections with Cybertron. In the first episode, Brainwash, the Decepticons kidnap Sparkplug and use him in an experiment designed to brainwash and enslave humans on Earth using a hypno-chip device. Megatron plans to use humans to harness more energy for him while he brings Cybertron closer to the Earth’s orbit using the space bridge. The gravitational pull of Cybertron ultimately brings Earth’s fragile ecosystem into disarray and the Autobots fight to prevent full-out destruction of their host planet while at the same time considering the destruction of their home planet. One of the best sequences in the series is when Spike gets to travel to Cybertron to save his captive father. While the animation was limited in terms of character range, one can see what the writers were striving to capture with some of the more emotional scenes of the show. Ultimately, this is an action show and there is plenty of action in this storyline which does not only involve the Autobots preventing the Decepticons from destroying a particular power plant. In fact, while the story begins with an attack on a solar power array, it only serves as a decoy for the Decepticons’ evil plan.
Throughout its first season, the show explored basic battle themes of loyalty to one’s group, the pursuit of power, the advent of technology, and the world energy crisis. Looking back, I was blissfully unaware at how the show seemed to make a statement about the energy crises that shocked the world throughout the 70s, but that is all I see now. However, unlike other movies and shows that tackled the subject at the time, there is plenty of hope in The Transformers. Working together with mankind, and particularly with the kids Spike and Chip, the Autobots are able to prevent the dominance of the Decepticons at every turn. There is a lot of loyalty at play in the show. The Autobots are loyal to their leader, Omega Prime, while alternatively not all Decepticons are loyal to their leader Megatron. Many episodes spotlight the tension between Megatron and Starscream, perhaps one of the most colorful characters in the Decepticon group. The Autobots are also loyal to their case of protecting Earth from the Decepticons who, in turn, are bent on returning to Cybertron to complete the war. The loyalty is most at display when the Autobots create the Dinobots, who at first question the leadership of Omega Prime, but eventually come around to him. Contrast this to the Insecticons who end up abandoning the Decepticons towards the end of the first season and you get the general idea. Overall, the themes are nicely explored, albeit repeatedly.
The episodes found on this set are arranged as follows:
More Than Meets the Eye, Part 1
More Than Meets the Eye, Part 2
More Than Meets the Eye, Part 3
Transport to Oblivion
Roll For It
Divide and Conquer
Fire in the Sky
Fire on the Mountain
War of the Dinobots
The Ultimate Doom, Part 1: Brainwash
The Ultimate Doom, Part 2: Search
The Ultimate Doom, Part 3: Revival
Countdown to Extinction
A Plague of Insecticons
Heavy Metal War
Is This Thing Loaded?
This three disc set comes with several bonus features that should please fans of the original show. In addition to a cool magnet featuring the symbol of the Autobots, fans are also treated to an entire third disc of bonus features. The highlight of the special features is a brand new documentary called Triplechanger: From Toy To Comic To Screen: The Origin of The Transformers (19:53). In this featurette, the creators of the show talk about the marketing concept behind The Transformers and why they chose to create the storylines. The documentary features interviews with some of the people who worked for Hasbro at the time and some of the writers from the original Transformers comic books. They talk about the toys originally brought from Japan, the release strategy used in the US market, and the idea behind the series. While providing a good overview of the origins of the show, I hope that future sets also provide more insight into the development of the actual shows and episodes as it became a success. A four disc set has already been announced for the first part of the second season, so I am hoping to get some more behind-the-scenes look in future volumes.
The third disc also features a rare PSA with Bumblebee called Running Away From Home (0:31) about children who consider running away from home and the importance of dialogue in families. Rounding up the disc are three toy commercials for the original toys released by Hasbro. The three commercials are Optimus Prime and Megatron (1:31), Insecticons and Dinobots (1:31), and G2 Optimus Prime (1:31). There is also a play-all option for the commercials. On a side note, I thought it was interesting that the children featured on the commercials have their faces blurred. My guess is that they were not able or not willing to clear their identities for the DVD release. The DVD-ROM portion of the disc also includes a 57-page, printable PDF script of the episode Transport to Oblivion.
The first two discs, which feature all 16 episodes, are housed in a single slim case. Each disc is on a opposite sides of the slim case. A second slim case contains the special features, which slides into a cardboard box that holds the two cases. The box art features a battle-ready Omega Prime with Megatron firing his weapon behind him. The show is being billed as “The Complete First Season” and features a small design on the bottom right corner that reads “1984-2009: 25 Years”. Each case features a variation of the cover design with Megatron and Omega Prime in battle-ready mode. The disc art featured on these discs are also nicely done with the first disc once again featuring Megatron and Omega Prime, and the second disc featuring Starscream and Jazz. The final disc features the Autobot symbol.
Finally, there are three inserts included in the set containing two ads and a disc guide. There is a nice ad for Hasbro’s Transformers Collector’s Club and the second insert features an ad for the upcoming G.I. Joe release and the Transformers comic book series. The disc guide features detailed episode guides and bonus feature details.
Ink And Paint:
These episodes are supposed to be restored to their original broadcast version state. The quality of the print seems to vary between different episodes, but they are about what one could expect for a show that is 25 years old. After years of syndication and print copies being mangled and edited, the show at least appears to be intact. The print is a bit grainy and contains some dust particles here and there, but it never distracted me from the story. I actually found some of the animation work itself to be distracting. Many of the times, characters are moving their mouths but not talking (or vice-versa), and there is limited movement in their expressions. I think that after months of work on robots that had basically one look and no room for facial expressions, the animators became somewhat lazy when it came to the human characters. It could be the style, but whenever someone seems to express some emotion through their voice, it does not come across in the animation. Case in point, Spike is basically bawling his eyes out in The Ultimate Doom, but his face does not really change, other than with the addition of a few tears.
I do not want to sound like I am complaining here. I am of the school of people who think we are lucky enough to get these episodes on DVD in the first place. Shout! Factory has done a great job of putting this set together, and I think fans will be more pleased with this release than with the previous Rhino releases of the show. The show is seemingly intact with opening titles, episode bumpers, and end credits. Chapter stops are also available in each episode in their appropriate places. A Play-All feature is available on each disc along with the option to play the multi-episode stories seamlessly (no opening and end credits between episodes). The show is being released in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
There is a disclaimer on the set guide that reads the following:
“Transformers DVDs released prior to our 25th Anniversary Edition were missing animation seen in the original broadcast. We did extensive research, found the discrepancies between the original broadcast masters and the restored masters used for the last DVD release, reinserted the correct animation, and color corrected it as best we could to match the shots before and after. But because a one-inch master tape simply can’t hold up to the quality of the restored masters, you may notice occasional shots – or even scenes – in some episodes that seem slightly softer than others. Just take comfort in knowing that laser blasts have been reinserted, backgrounds have been corrected and Starscream is Starscream once again.”
These attempts should at least please fans who were disappointed with the Rhino transfers on episodes like Heavy Metal War.
As far as the audio is concerned, Shout! Factory has remastered the original audio and this release features English Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks. When these episodes were originally released by Rhino Entertainment in 2002, they included new sound effects that did not appear in the original show. Overall, this is a fine track with no problems that I noticed. However, I do not have the originals to compare and check the new tracks. There are no subtitles or additional languages available.
I’ve tried to steer clear of the comparisons between the animated series and the new live-action movies in this review on purpose. However, props are due to Michael Bay and company for at least reviving interest in The Transformers franchise. Without it, it is unlikely we would have been treated with a re-release of the popular show on DVD. However, the show stands on its own and is something different. Sure, this was a cartoon created to sell a product, but can we honesty think of any show today that does not automatically arrive in the market with a licensing agreement? The show is still popular today and there is a nostalgic element for those that grew up watching the original show and playing with the toys in the 1980s. I think this is a testament to the characters created by Hasbro in conjunction with Marvel that are featured on the show. We root for Omega Prime and the Autobots. We identify with Sparkplug and Spike (and maybe even with Chip), who are basically regular people amidst extraordinary circumstances. They are never the sole heroes of the show and instead act as a team alongside the robotic superheroes. Sure, the show has some drawbacks, is by no means perfect, and features some repetitive storylines. However, every once in a while, it strikes with a perfect storyline that resonates with you long after it is over.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?