December 28, 2012

Shadowcon Overviews- Transformers Prime Season 2






Shadowcon presents
An opinionated look at Season Two of
Transformers Prime

Great setup; poor follow-through. This can best sum up the second season of Transformers Prime in a nutshell. This is going to be a joint review with my cousin Danny again (this time I’m kind of forcing him into this position), and no, he’s not going to take up five pages talking about a battle that was referenced in an offhand comment. Also, my opinion on the season has changed since I showed it to Danny, because as it turns out, watching it as it airs gives you a different experience than if you marathon through the whole thing in a night and don’t get up until 1:00 PM the next day! So I’m going to be backtracking on some of my opinions that were spouted in a bout of fury in some of my other reviews; this isn’t retconning them, it’s just making those opinions a little more refined.

When we last saw our heroes in my last Transformers Overview, we covered Season One of this show, which left us with Optimus losing his memory and joining the Decepticons as the historical archivist Orion Pax (I covered this maxi-arc over the summer), and this sets up the main overarching arc of this entire season: the Iacon Database. The Iacon Database is pretty much the writers’ way of throwing in thousands of plot devices that our heroes have to look for every episode. Sound familiar? Yes, Transformers Armada, Energon, and Cybertron all did the same thing, only this time, the relics are actual devices with diversity, and not brainless little robots that plug onto your butt and give you the ability to grow a bazooka out of your spine. The relics are the main reason the show’s overall arc is weak; because we’ve seen all of this before, and coming after the Unicron arc from Season One, this feels like a step backward in storytelling than a step forward. I’ll hand it over to Danny so that he can give you his assessment of the season as a whole.

All right, well I feel I should warn you first that, unlike Luke, I am in no way, shape, or form an expert on Transformers. I haven’t actually even seen all of Prime, but like Luke mentioned, we marathoned quite a bit of it. As a whole, I think that the show maintained a fantastic handle on the animation, which is far better than anything that I had expected, but that sometimes the plot seemed to be letting the animation take over too much. Ultimately, unlike the first season, there did not seem to be a big twist to the season, or a new take on something that made everything that had come before more meaningful. Instead, we got a use for everything, sure, but this fell more into the “looks cool” category than the series attempting to redefine itself. Still, I thought several of the episodes were quite enjoyable, and the show was always fun and entertaining.

Characters

Character development and interaction has always been Prime’s biggest strength; its what made the first season so profound and likable. Season Two places its characters in less enthralling scenarios and positions. Optimus and the rest of his people can be pretty much interchanged with one another during the relic hunt missions, and the humans don’t feature quite as often, which you would think a good thing, but instead, it leaves the show feeling, well, dehumanized; it lacks a soul. Arcee has one episode devoted to her specifically, Bulkhead is injured and then recovers after only a few episodes (more on that below), and Bumblebee has a great little story arc at the beginning of the season following the “Orion Pax” arc, but this never sticks with him through the rest of the season. Ratchet is shoved even more into the communications desk job role, and Optimus has one or two really good lines, but never really evolves past what was established in Season One (see my “Orion Pax, Part 3” review for more on Optimus’ character for that specific story arc; there he actually developed).

The new addition to the Autobot ranks is Smokescreen, who is kind of a neat character. He’s rash without being arrogant, he’s the idolizer of Optimus Prime, but doesn’t make you want to punch him in the face (mostly), and he’s a competent soldier. I think the fact that he is good at what he does is what makes up for all of the negative qualities in him found in other characters like Armada Hot Shot, whom I despise, that and the fact that those qualities aren’t shoved down our throats with this character. He’s rash without stealing the spotlight, and I’m glad that they recognized his youthful persona and nervous trigger-finger in-universe, too.

Okay, so as a whole I felt that some of the characters got some good development, but that others sort of got the short shrift. To begin with, Arcee, who I will admit got less screen time, continues to show a lot of nuance, even in tiny moments, and her flashback episode was quite enjoyable. I wish that more use of nuance had been used in Optimus’ storyline. The writers had, I assume, been setting up for the choice that he makes at the end of the season, but I really think that we should have gotten more about him as a character, rather than as an enigma. A mysterious leader guy is a neat idea, but at some point we really need to know him as a person. The Orion Pax arc did this a little bit, but it would have been nice to see some of the effects that this had on him as a character throughout the rest of the season, maybe even helping to lead into that choice that I’m sure Luke will talk about a lot. As a whole though, I think that the Autobots did acceptably in their character arcs, giving what we needed, but not breaking new ground. That is, except for Bulkhead.

Bulkhead showed more character in his episode spotlight than Ratchet, Bumblebee, and Optimus did in the entire season, at least that of it that I saw. He has always sort of been the muscle of the team, which in most stories would mean that he gets somewhat ignored come character time. But in this case he got a truly powerful story of what it means to be the character who pushes harder than anyone else ever could. Seeing him fall down so many times, and get back up so many times, seeing him struggle with loosing his strength, that was all exactly what we needed from him. This was of course followed up by the best episode of Season Two, if you ask me, which paired up Miko (Bulkhead’s human partner), and Wheeljack (Bulkhead’s ‘bot partner). Again, like in Arcee’s episode, we see nuance, with one character showing a great deal of character development and the other refusing to develop at all, and both arcs being shown subtly and fantastically. Honestly, the work done on those character alone, I feel, more than makes up for the by-the-numbers work done on the others.

Finally, Smokescreen. He did not resonate with me as much as he might have, but that is more a me problem than a fault on the writers’ part. I was really glad to see Arcee really tear into him about his attitude. At first he felt a little too good, like the writers were worried that he wouldn’t be liked so they overcompensated. However, watching a more experienced soldier showing him not just the mistakes that he made but how to fix them turned his arc into more of a coming of age story, one which hopefully will be completed in Season Three.


So we have two contrasting opinions on the Autobots, which is neat to see (we usually agree on most things, you see). The Decepticons are where I really felt the show stayed true to form with its characters and drama. Megatron is a lost soul, attempting to keep his people in line while the Autobots gain new and more fearsome powers every day. This could be why he becomes increasingly more desperate as the series goes on, eventually becoming so ridiculous that he cuts off his own arm and replaces it with that of a Prime so that he may wield the Forge of Solus Prime and forge the DARK STAR SABER with it! Knock Out is played for comic relief, often leading to some pretty good scenes. This season introduced us to the Insecticons, who I discussed last time, and also gave us new character Dreadwing.

Dreadwing is a really neat character; he’s cunning and loyal, but also knows a true warrior when he sees one. That’s why he didn’t kill Optimus when he had the chance; Optimus had proven himself to be a worthy adversary. His continued questioning of the Decepticon cause is also really neat, but like many threads of this season, it barely goes anywhere, and really only pays off by allowing Dreadwing to give the Autobots the Forge as a kind of rebellious move against Megatron after Starscream is let back into the Decepticon ranks.

Ah, yes. Starscream. Cold, calculating, cunning, maniacal Starscream. This one is an interesting case for me, because on the one hand, I loved what they did with him for the majority of the season: he’s rogue for most of it, and they really try to explore that territory to the best of their ability. On the other, this got old really quickly. I liked that he basically had to scavenge for spare parts and Energon and such, offering up some laughs while still able to be personable and, at times, pitiable. However, the problem with a character like this is that he has to rejoin his faction at some point, and the way he does this here is not handled very well. This really should be saved for another review altogether, but suffice it to say Starscream should have plead “guilty with an explanation”, not “I’m guilty… so?” Megatron allows him back into his ranks and he then becomes a groveling coward again, stripped of his cunning and guile and replaced with a Starscream that is almost too loyal to Megatron. Lastly, the death toll to the Decepticon forces was large, but didn’t feel natural: Breakdown and Dreadwing especially felt like their deaths were put in simply for shock value. Breakdown’s was used for great setup for Silas, but when that episode came around, the payoff was completely not worth it. I’ll be getting more into this when I discuss the weaknesses of the show, as this is chief among them.

So, Decepticons. I don’t know about you, but I love bad guys. For those of you that read our joint review of The Avengers, know that it was a wise move on Luke’s part not to let me talk about Loki. However, I am also really picky about how my villains are portrayed. I want my baddies to be bad sure, but also relatable and understandable, if not condonable. They can be mysterious and terrifying, that is all good, but especially in longstanding fiction, like this, I want to see some growth. One particular problem for me was Megatron. I felt like he never really stopped being just the Big Bad, never became humanized, even though this season really should have been the one to do it. Considering that Optimus makes a somewhat questionable choice at the end of this season, it would have been interesting to play the idea of whether Megatron is as bad for Cybertron as we have always believed. Coming off of the Orion Pax arc, which revealed that Optimus used to have a great respect for Megatron, who seemed more Spartacus than Hitler to me in that episode at least, it would have been great to get some development on that part. After all, Megatron honestly believes that he is the best thing to come to Cybertron since the sliced bread that they probably don’t have, and would almost certainly view Prime as a traitor to his cause. It isn’t bad to keep him crazy, but as a leader he needs a method to the madness, and once there is a method we should get some audience sympathy. Then again, the writers might have time for this in Season Three, so let’s shelve this one for the nonce.

Of the other Decepticons, we have Starscream, Knockout, and Dreadwing. (And Silas, but he had way too little time to actually make an impression, and comes off more as the guy who kicked Adam Baldwin’s character off the show.) Starscream did some interesting things this season. I liked that he was a wild card, somebody that neither side could really fully understand or prepare for. His reintroduction to the Decepticons was a little awkward, and like many things would have benefitted from a little build. Still, he was always the most interesting villain, and I really enjoyed his little attack on the Autobot base, especially since he manages to get away with it. Knockout mainly gets played for laughs, which is in and of itself fine, but I would actually be intrigued to see what would happen if he were given a bigger role. Not so much a complaint as a query, though, as his writing remained pretty consistent.

Finally, Dreadwing, who was the most interesting idea, but sadly got shunted off too early. I would have liked to see what happened as he struggled with his loss of faith in Megatron, one which was mercifully not connected with any sort of loyalty to Optimus. As the show becomes more and more political, a theme which I am sure Luke will be very excited to talk about more, I thought it was neat to see an Independent character, one unsure of exactly where his allegiance lay. Too bad he got shot in the back right of the bat. My last question is: if the base got destroyed, does that mean that Airachnid is dead, or free?


Animation

Good question, Dan, one that fans are still speculating about, along with whether or not Wheeljack is really dead or not! So our views on both factions are more at odds than I imagined, which is great; contrasting opinions is one of the few areas where we are aloud to express ourselves freely in our modern world. Season Two may have been weak on character, but its animation, particularly its action, was still some of the most electrifying that I’ve seen on a Transformers television show (I’m sure Danny will have much to say on this).

I loved how all of the battles were very kinetic. Even during firefights, there was always movement. Wheeljack’s fights with Soundwave and Hardshell were very tight and rough; lots of camera movement and dolly-zooms here! Arcee proves she’s still able to be as angelic as ever in her fight against Shockwave and her many duels with Airachnid, and how she worked in tandem with the rest of her teammates. Smokescreen and Bumblebee have similar fighting styles, and Optimus wielding his Star Saber is just badass! Megatron proves to be an intimidating swordsman as well, and the Insecticons, when they’re played right, are really tough and powerful. As mentioned above, the characters are pretty good, and they manage to stay true to what the first season put on display. Unfortunately, the character moments are so few and far between, that I didn’t get as much character development as I might have wanted.

To be honest, I don’t watch many animated things. I have seen most of the Pixar films, and thought that The Secret World of Arrietti was a fantastic tour de force, but I don’t have as much of a baseline as Luke does. However, I’m sure that your average cartoon episode doesn’t have anything close to this level of animation. Luke mentioned the action, and there is plenty to love there. The fights look huge, but also believable. My favorite was the scene where Miko is running through the middle of the fight between Wheeljack and the Decepticons. Everything was chaotic and messy, and it put us exactly in Miko’s shoes. Besides the action scenes, little character moments got placed very well, like when Arcee reflects on her deceased partners. The detail on the artwork was fantastic as well. I sort of wish that we saw different designs in what the humans wear sometimes, but I understand why they stick with the same models from episode to episode. As a whole, especially when witnessing gigantic star saber duels and action packed runs through the walls of a spaceship, the show feels like one long summer blockbuster that just keeps delivering more, and is far more entertaining and enjoyable in its creativity and audacity than I would have expected.

So that’s pretty much all the good stuff that Season Two brought us: great action, some neat setups, and some subtle character moments. This is where my love of the series ends, as we now enter just the complete labyrinth of problems with this season. It’s a mess.

The Relics

Alright, so as far as the relics go, I will admit that a giant list of MacGuffins is not the most imaginative way of getting the plot going. Sadly, this would probably not even be something to complain about if the previous season hadn’t pulled out something as unexpected as the bad guy being Earth/Unicron. But here is where things get a little messy. After all, I am somewhat of a geek (surprise) and several of my favorite stories are centered around MacGuffins. An example that readily springs to mind is The Lord of the Rings, which boils down to intense character drama set around a quest to chuck a piece of evil jewelry in a magical pit of fire. Yet, I love Tolkien’s trilogy, and feel no shame in saying so. I think the difference here, however, is that the One Ring feels like a well-explained part of the world that Tolkien sets up, whereas these relics don’t seem to progress beyond their video game checklist potential. Each of them could, in most places, be interchanged with any other. They served solely to give the characters something to fight over, as well as letting the animation team throw everything and anything against a wall and show that it can all stick, and stick hard.

As far as a plot device, they were weak, but I don’t think that that is inexcusable. Ultimately, I think that if they had been used more sparingly, it might have worked. If they wanted to do an Iacon Database, they could have used that as a chance to explore the history of the Primes and some more of the war with Cybertron, before breaking out the Star Saber and the Omega Keys at the end. They could have played more with the politics of the game, maybe even explored what it means for Optimus to be reminded of the fact that he is but one in a long line of messianic war lords of destruction, and then the big sword and the healing keys would have been more meaningful. The treasure hunt format was not a real draw to the show, and seemed more like a quick way of getting to the action. I don’t think that it killed the show in any way, but it certainly didn’t do it any favors.


I completely agree with Danny’s assessment on this, though I’d like to take it a step further and say that I’ve already seen all of this done before, and in three other Transformers shows no less! Armada, Energon, and Cybertron all did this, and to see this resurface six years later is not a welcoming sight. If anything, it serves to remind us of those shows, and who wants to be reminded of that? I certainly don’t! The relics and their abilities themselves weren’t really bad (I loved when the Autobots were going into their vaults and taking them out, with the majestic music in the background; it served to remind us that they did fight for these), but the way their discovery was handled was horrible. I’m not kidding about this: Soundwave decodes another entry from the Iacon Database, and then it shifts over to the Autobots’ base and there’s Optimus announcing that he’s decoded the same thing! That’s lazy writing and something that I did not expect from a show of this caliber. Some of the relics were neat; the Star Saber, the Forge of Solus Prime, and the Spark Extractor were all used pretty well, but most were forgettable and just served to pad out the season with a bunch of exposition that we didn’t want or need in the first place.

The Omega Keys and Lock are the real targets of my wrath. These items were pulled straight from the Cybertron cartoon, again drudging up really bad memories for me, but also having to go on the relic hunt again after we’d already done this before in a structured arc (dubbed the “T Arc”, because every episode in that arc began with the letter “t”). Now, we have to do it again, only its weaker because we’ve seen it before, and it comes so late in the season that we don’t even get those good character moments we got with the “T Arc” episodes; we just get hunt and action, and that’s it. This was a bad step for the show, and led to a solution loaded with potential that was almost completely squandered. Ugh. Anyway, I’ll turn it over back to Danny, so that he can give you a more rounded view of the season’s structure before I come back and rant at you for a page!

Structure, Potential, and things that just overall don’t work well

Alright, so my part here will probably pale in comparison to Luke’s, for a number of reasons. First, I have not actually seen all of Season Two (or Season One for that matter), and in addition to that I tended to see what I did see in large (sometimes huge) chunks, rather than in the smaller doses that most people had. So, as far as I can tell, the season started very strongly with the Orion Pax arc, did some stuff with Mech and the Insecticons, moved into a massive treasure hunt, and then finished out with a return to Cybertron. So, overall, it was a little chaotic and messy. I think that part of the problem was that the show was trying to squeeze too many ideas into one season, and thus wasn’t taking any of them anywhere too special.

A tighter focus on one element of the Transformer’s universe would probably have allowed for more room for growth, both in plot and character. As a whole, the season felt like the writer’s were just trying to jam stuff in wherever it fit. Again, I have not seen either season in its entirety, so I don’t have much of a baseline for this show, but I much prefer when a show either follows a specific arc (Buffy, Angel, The West Wing) or sticks to stand alone plots with arcs handed to characters instead (White Collar, Leverage, Merlin). This season, to me, seemed a little unsure of itself, and feels tonally more like a premier than a returning hit.

*I understand that every show I just listed played around with how they structured their seasons, and that all six have long-running plot and character arcs. Just, in general, that is how I think of them, and I think that all six work as fun and intelligent shows.


The stuff Danny pointed out actually leads very well into my views of the season’s overall structure, which I will say is riddled with discrepancies and ideas that just don’t go anywhere. Part of this is because the producers had planned out three seasons of Prime, and then they found that they were burning through all of their ideas in this season. That’s why it felt so rushed; it was because the writers put three years’ worth of plot into one season. It was like they said “let’s put all of our ideas into one big ZIP file and then release it onto the unsuspecting audience!” Does this excuse the season’s rather wonky balance? I don’t think so! Lots of shows have to deal with running out of ideas, and if you’re smart, your show will know how to compensate. This did not compensate very well, and as such, it sped up and slowed down very irregularly. Because of their three years’ worth of story, this season had a complete lack of focus. There were some great ideas running around in this season; two poignant lines of dialogue stand out as being ripe with thematic possibilities. Optimus’ line in “Legacy” is one of the most loaded lines in the whole season: “We must never lose sight of the fact that upon this Earth, we are titans, and such power must be used wisely.” This line is great because it addresses the fact that the Transformers are far more powerful than we could ever hope to be, and the fact that Optimus says this as he holds the Star Saber, which itself makes him a titan among his own kind, really drives this line home. Unfortunately, this never gets called upon as a theme again, and this could have been a great way to get the series back on track, maybe give it some ethical dilemma. But no; instead, we have to go back for searching for those damned Omega Keys!

The second piece of dialogue comes in “Regeneration”, again spoken by Optimus: “If Megatron revives Cybertron, he will no doubt use it to his political advantage.” This again is loaded with potential. Here we have the possibility of Megatron restoring Cybertron, and the Autobots now forced into a position that portrays them as the villains, some of which might not be far from the truth, especially in light of the season finale. Megatron could make himself out to be Cybertron’s savior, and make the Autobots out to be war criminals. All of this would technically be true; Megatron has saved the planet, and the Autobots were against him in war. So now we have this great moral dilemma of the Autobots, especially Optimus, having to question whether or not what they’ve done has been good or right or any of that. I also love that this could have been used perfectly to foreshadow what actually happened had they expanded upon this a little more.

In the season finale, Optimus destroys the Omega Lock, thereby destroying the Autobots’ only chance at restoring their planet. A brief conversation ensues involving Ratchet basically pointing out the beginnings of the moral dilemma, but then the whole thing is dropped in favor of more action. Had this been taken to its conclusion, Ratchet would have said something to the effect of “Optimus has destroyed our home, look at how morally gray this character is, we need to move against him”… Oh wait, y’know who did say that? Megatron! Except this was said as a motivational speech for his Decepticons when it should have been one of Optimus’ own who questioned him.

The whole thing is just full of disappointment, and its not even that this season was bad, it was just so ripe with potential, and the fact that the writers put in pieces of dialogue and scenes that could have lead up to something really special. Instead we get these hints of great ideas and elements of a great theme for the show, and then its all snatched away in favor of action and comedy, rather than what these scenes and dialogue imply, which is a deep character and morality study. This is also a pity, because the current Transformers comic book is doing the very thing that this show should have done: its placing the Autobots in the difficult position of having to answer for their crimes and such, and we get this very real and fascinating story about how the Autobots are going to handle their legacy, and deciding whether or not they were even in the right to begin with!

That’s why I’m so disappointed with this season of Prime: it had great potential, and the seeds for the themes that I was talking about were indeed here in the show, but it had such weak follow up that it just ended up being this action-packed piece with very little of the elements of the show that drew me to it in the first season. But, there’s still Season Three, and I’m holding out hope, though far less of it than I was for this season.

Speculations and Final Thoughts

Alright, so speculations on Season Three. Well, if I am correct in this first thing, Luke will be very happy because I am pretty sure that we will be examining the political fallout of Optimus’ choice. To begin with, Earth is now the primary candidate for the New Cybertron, and could be the one and only hope of the Cybertronians, now that Cybertron itself seems to be dead. Megatron probably has the advantage in that his plan, to colonize Earth, is what is best for the Cybertronians. You have almost an H.P. Lovecraft theme going, where humans would probably barely register as more than bugs to the Decepticons, making any consideration for their lives somewhat moot. A quick glance at history (and some recent headlines, though in the interest of keeping this fun I won’t get into that) shows that the strong are very good at coming up with excuses for taking what they want from the weak. Factoring in that the Cybertronians could have had everything that they wanted had the leading champion of human rights not blown up the magical restoration lock of rejuvenation will probably only invoke more apathy towards human’s plight. Now, how will this be countered? I can only imagine that, after a somewhat human-lite season, the kids will be taking a bigger role in reaffirming the necessity of protecting humans. They will probably also play a role in determining whatever peace occurs between humanity and the Transformers, though I’m banking on Agent Fowler handling more of that side. Another factor of this is that, at least to my mind, there is now no way whatsoever that the presence of alien life can be kept from the general public. We may actually get some of that titan stuff that Luke was referring to. All in all, I predict interesting ideas being launched, though how the follow through will be handled is anyone’s guess.

As for characters themselves, I would imagine that Ratchet will have to make a choice as to whether he will follow Prime or take off on his own, now that he has had a serious disagreement with Optimus. I expect that Arcee will take offense to some of what has happened, but that as a soldier she will still follow Optimus, come whatever infernal plane the Autobots refer to in order to avoid swearing or high water. Ratchet, as a doctor, will have a different view of dooming the world. It will also be interesting because of the Autobots, he has the least connection to humans. I sincerely hope that we play a bit with whether Megatron or Optimus is the hero, and I expect that Smokescreen will continue to grow up, under the tutelage of Arcee. As for the Decepticons, I’m not so sure. I would like to think that Knockout and Starscream will stretch themselves a bit, exploring just what their new status as the saviors of their race means, but I have a sinking suspicion that they will be delegated to Megatron’s lackeys. Ultimately, I really hope that they take this time to explore the differences, and startling similarities, between both sides of this war, and come to a satisfactory conclusion to the event that doesn’t involve one side annihilating the other. As a whole, knowing that Season Three will be the final season leaves certain things as a given. The plot threads must be tied, starting with the Autobots’ new status as robots on the run. Hopefully, the plot will manage to be fresh and original, and deal with the consequences of the characters’ actions in Season Two. Oh, and that rumor that Nathan Fillion was going to voice somebody, yeah, why not make that happen.


So, I’m hopeful for Season Three. I’m hoping that we do get to see some of that political intrigue in the coming season, and I’m hoping that we can have a satisfactory ending, instead of an ending like Animated or Beast Machines or G1 or Armada or Energon or Cybertron or… you get the idea: Transformers TV shows have not had great endings. I’m hoping that this one will be different, and that we can get some good character resolution and a sign off that is satisfactory, if not down right fantastic. I’m also hoping that the writers have a more focused plan for the third season, and don’t just cram a bunch of years’ worth of plot into however many episodes there are going to be (Jeffery Combs who voices Ratchet said that this season would be shorter than the previous two).

Final Score for Transformers Prime Season Two is 5/10- Some great elements to be sure, but the overall execution and dynamic of the season was just lost on me. I liked the action as always, and the character moments were great when they happened, but unlike Season One, this season just didn’t have enough character arcs to keep me coming back for more every week. Hopefully they won’t fumble the ball in the next season.

Final Score for the show that we have been talking about all this time, and if you didn’t know what it was then, telling you know won’t make much of a difference is 6/10, or just a little bit more than average (I’m a rather mocking fellow, if you didn’t notice). I guess it’s a little funny that I gave it a higher score than Luke, but I’m rating it more as something that I watched some of over Christmas vacation, in which case I thought it was above average. I would probably have ranked it differently if, like Luke, I had watched it regularly. So, thank you, Luke, for letting me review this with you, and I hope that I kept my responses to a more reasonable length this time.

You’re welcome, Dan. And I hope you all stayed awake through that! Here’s to another great year, and hope that the third season is better than this one.

No comments:

Post a Comment