Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Transformers: War for Cybertron - Siege

The planet Cybertron is wracked by war between its sentient, robotic inhabitants. The Decepticons, a former indentured underclass fighting a guerrilla war against the noble class, the Autobots, have won their struggle, but have become a militaristic, authoritarian force under the command of the dictatorial Megatron. The Autobots have been reduced to a few resistance cells fighting for "freedom," but perhaps not having fully taken on board the problems that led to the war. Caught in between are a whole ton of neutrals, civilians trying to survive by trading with both sides, or medics treating anyone in need of help regardless of allegiance. When Megatron declares his intent to weaponise one of Cybertron's greatest treasures to wipe out the Autobots, he forces his enemies into a last-ditch, desperate battle for survival and causes some of his allies to question their own loyalties.

Transformers started life as a kid's toyline, comic book and cartoon series in 1984. Since then it has experienced lulls of obscurity and, since 2007, the highs of being a world-famous mega-franchise, albeit one resting on the shoulders of some pretty shoddy live-action movies (and the surprisingly great Bumblebee spin-off film). This new TV series from Netflix marks arguably the highest-profile Transformers project since the movie series began and clearly one that's going to get a ton of new viewers, so it's interesting to see how the production studio has approached it.

The answer is that they've taken a lot of influence and input from the 1980s comics, particularly Simon Furman's UK (and later US) Marvel run which introduced a lot of detailed, moral complexity to the franchise. Fans of Furman's epic Target: 2006 storyline will be well-catered here, particularly in the depiction of life on war-torn Cybertron, with neutral "Cybertronians" trying to survive in the crossfire of the two warring sides. Fan-favourite character Impactor even shows up from that storyline. There's also a lot of influence from Furman's later War Within storyline for Dreamwave and the superb War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron video games of a decade ago.

All of that said, Netflix's War for Cybertron is a wholly original story that does not require any familiarity with the existing franchise. It's also the first TV series in the franchise which seems to be aimed at a more adult audience. Given the sheer size of the thirty and forty-something Transformers fanbase (the kind of fans willing to drop £500 on a Unicron toy and £200 on the Jetfire toy for this show), it's surprising it's taken this long. That's not to say that kids won't also enjoy the show, but the more morally murky reasons for the war and the large number of talking heads scenes may make them tap out.

War for Cybertron is a trilogy of seasons - subtitled Siege, Earthrise and Kingdom - which will retell the classic Transformers narrative as a limited series spanning the three distinct eras of the original Transformers storyline (Cybertron, Earth and Beast Wars). As such it's a good way of getting across the "complete" Transformers experience in a very short timeframe; the entire saga is only supposed to span 18 25-minute episodes (barely a third the length of the original cartoon's second season alone). This first season of six episodes shows the strengths of this idea, as you can watch the whole thing in barely more time than it takes to watch a Michael Bay movie and get a pretty good and mostly complete experience. However, some problems do turn up.

One of these is that the pacing feels rather off. The last three episodes have so much going on that they trip over themselves by throwing in ideas and not really explaining them. Soundwave's clone Soundblaster seems ripe for greater exploration, but it's nothing more than a cameo from a fairly obscure character from the mythos (and extremely confusing for more casual fans, who were wondering if he was supposed to be the far better-known Blaster), and the stuff with the Guardians is cool but a little confusing: why does Omega Supreme decide to join forces with Prime? He has pretty much zero explanation or exploration of his storyline or character. The first three episodes, by contrast, have a much more relaxed, talky pace with it taking a long time for the plot to get going. It feels like some of the later story points would have made more sense if they'd been set up further in advance rather than getting tons of shots of characters arguing with one another over minor plot points.

Still, the characters are a lot better defined this time around. Some characters have pretty different characterisation to their more familiar incarnations, with Bumblebee as a hard-bitten loner mercenary being particularly tough to swallow (as well as raising questions about why Outback, who has exactly Bumblebee's personality in this show, was not used for that role instead), but Ratchet as a healer who helps everyone brought to him in need of help, regardless of allegiance, being a particularly solid change. A less confident Optimus Prime, unwilling to explain his decisions and more brittle in the face of adversity before finding his courage, is another change, although not without precedent. Fans of the franchise will also know that Jetfire and Impactor are not destined to remain Decepticons forever, but the reasons for them changing sides are extremely well set-up and provide some solid drama.

Some fans will also have their arguments over which characters appear and which don't, particularly as some prominent G1 characters are missing altogether (Jazz, Sunstreaker, Trailbreaker), some are present but having almost nothing to do (Ironhide, Hound) and some show up only to die almost immediately. Siege also does a solid job of bringing in the female Transformers early and giving them prominent roles - particularly Alita - but this plays into one of the show's more irksome elements. Having set itself up as a story newcomers can enjoy, it then leaves out a ton of backstory revolving around Prime, Megatron, Ultra Magnus, Alita and Alpha Trion but then refers to it consistently. It feels like there should really be a prequel season exploring these elements to remove the need to talk about it vaguely in the show, particularly as the show's biggest innovation to the franchise - that the Autobots may have caused the war and the Decepticons were justified in their rebellion - is left a bit flat without it (since Megatron is already in full-on dictator mode when the show begins).

Still, if the Siege season of War for Cybertron (****) has some pacing and premise issues, they are mostly overcome by the excellent animation, strong characterisation and deeper look at some of the underlying premise behind the entire franchise. The show is available to stream on Netflix now, with two more seasons to follow.

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