November 30, 2013

Shadowcon Reviews- Tunnel Vision


Shadowcon Reviews: Transformers Prime season 2 episode 12: “Tunnel Vision”

Welcome back to Prime. I’ve been pretty busy with school, college preparations, lots of thesis reading, and a whole slew of personal stuff that interferes with, y’know, doing things that matter… like overanalyzing a kid’s TV show. I mentioned last time in “Flying Mind” that I’d be looking at all four T-arc episodes, plus “Hurt” and “Out of the Past”, the two follow up episodes to those before “New Recruit”, which kicks off the second half of Season Two. Four episodes to set up a plot structure that will be used from here until the end of the season (pretty much) plus retreaded again in Season Three, is a tad disappointing, and I think the primary reason that this whole relic hunt arc doesn’t work is because the show focuses so much on plot that we don’t get to know our characters any more than we already do.


To me, what makes good television (or really any medium of story-telling good), is if the story is good. Let me be clear here: the story is different from plot. A story is character-based, or should be if it is to be good. Story is the journey of the character (the hero’s journey is a story formula, for example). The reason I say this is that I want to clarify the difference between Prime having a bad plot and having a bad story. In Season Two, a large portion of the show is all about plot with very little story actually going on. As Chuck Sonnenburg said in his Star Trek IntoDarkness first impressions video review, “there’s a lot of activity… but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of movement”. That is exactly how I feel about this arc as a whole. There’s a lot of action and a lot of great looking stuff happening onscreen, but the heart of the show, the flavor of it, just seems to be missing from this. And that said, even the plot is mundane at best. A chase for a bunch of plot-devices is not sufficient to carry the better half of a 26-episode season. Most say that Prime’s second season feels very long and tedious and this is the reason why: the writers had so much to do in this season yet didn’t seem to realize that they were only going about doing that in only one way. I think also, that Season Two is best viewed in small doses. Like Buffy Season Six, the mundane and bad episodes are clumped so tightly together in the middle that it can seem like an endless sea of bad, when in reality it’s only a relatively small chunk of episodes.

“Tunnel Vision”, “Triangulation”, “Triage”, and “Toxicity” (see the T theme going on?) all have the same basic premise: the Autobots must locate a relic in each episode before the Decepticons do, and all of these episodes are going on at the same time in-universe. Now, that premise is one that we have seen many times over. I made mention in my Season Two Overview that I did with my cousin that I’ve seen this done three times in Transformers… and that was within one continuity over the course of three shows! Safe to say I’m kinda sick of it! Prime is normally so good at taking familiar things from the Transformers universes and putting a different spin or angle on them: this is why the “One Shall Rise/Orion Pax” arc worked so well for me because it was something that we had seen done before, but the way that the writers were able to go about crafting the premise of that arc to serve the characters… that is what made that arc special (also all the badass action). But with Season Two, this is not the case. We have a familiar plot that takes us through the motions of what we expect, and doesn’t do anything to “wow” us. Character development is pushed to the backburner for most of the second half, and especially in “Tunnel Vision” and “Triage” (despite the latter appearing to be a character episode), and plot takes center stage. Now, this is not to say that every episode of a show has to be a character episode; there are cases where a thick soupy plot is ripe for episodes solely devoted to it’s development, but these episodes success comes not from how good they are as episodes in and of themselves, but from how their presence overall impacts the arc of the show, and more importantly, the arc and development of the characters. From the looks of this, though, the relic hunt did not do this very well. With the arrival of Smokescreen, the writers could have done something different, maybe wrapped up the relic hunt with Smokescreen’s arrival and then maybe steer the show back in the direction that was establish in “Crossfire” and “Flying Mind”: of having infighting in the Decepticons and the Autobots’ more gradual decline into darkness take center stage instead of being a subconscious hopeful thing like it was in “Legacy”. However, this is not what happened, and instead we wound up with a mundane action ride with an admittedly awesome bang ending… but nothing really besides that.

Alright, enough speeches about this overall thing. Let’s jump into “Tunnel Vision”, arguably the weakest of the four parts. We begin with Optimus ordering Team Prime to be broken up into teams. Over on the Nemesis, Megatron does the same, and here we start to see the first seams of the show. Knock Out makes mention of Breakdown, but that’s it. It’s a bullet-point at best, and it never comes up again. Not that Breakdown had much character to begin with (sorry, Baldwin), but I’m just saying that it’s a little strange that Knockout has chosen now of all times to bring him up again. Bullet-points masked as character moments are this arc’s Achilles’ heel. Knock Out also gets an Insecticon guard to help out. Great, this should go well.

After summarizing Megatron’s plan of dispatching multiple units at the same time to each set of relic locations, Optimus orders that Bumblebee and Arcee go to New York and look for the first relic. Jack muses that in order to maintain cover in Manhattan, being that it’s densely populated, the Autobots need human assistance. Now, Agent Fowler is pretty messed up, what with almost being killed by Knockout… oh, no I’m sorry. That’s what Jack had to deal with. Fowler only got electrocuted and fell a short way. Now, granted, that’s traumatic… if he weren’t supposed to be the liaison for a bunch of robots that can transform their arms into guns and kill shit! And remember back in “Darkness Rising, Part 3”, when he was captured and tortured by Starscream? That was traumatic because that was the first time he’d seen what the Decepticons were capable of, and he’s supposed to have grown as a character over time since then. This is Season Two, so why is he now getting all brain dead over an electrocution and fall? Anyway, Fowler’s out of the question, so Jack volunteers to be their “face man”. Miko raises the point that she grew up in a major city, so she’ll know her way around New York. Okay. Fine, that makes sense. Sending Jack, who has the most field experience of the three outside of actual military training, and Miko, who is familiar with city life, that’s understandable. So, they’re off.

It’s here where we really start to see the flaw in the chosen location of conflict. Since Prime is ridiculously expensive to make, character models aren’t going to just pop up out of nowhere. So, we end up with a Manhattan that is… well, it looks like a deserted Manhattan. The ambient traffic noises help a little bit, but the glaring absence of people or cars roaming around just puts the whole situation down. Also, the tension is completely drained after seeing this. Because we don’t see Manhattan for the bustling city that it is… like, all the time, we don’t feel that anyone is in any danger from the Decepticon threat.

Jack’s impressed at… well, being one of the only two humans here right now. Actually, he’s marveling at all the skyscrapers. Miko mocks him, of course, but this time carries with her a sting that frankly I’m surprised was not picked up on:

“Of course, it’s no Cybertron.”

Miko, allow me to clarify for you the severity of what you’ve just said. You are mocking a teenager who traveled to another planet, survived, and then handed Robo-Jesus a flashdrive while almost getting killed by a warlord bent on total dominion over everything, and you’re implying that Earth is so much more impressive than Cybertron, what with it not being dead and all, in front of an emotionally-damaged robot with blades for arms and a mute psychopathic machine of death who had his organs harvested. The levels you’ll stoop to to get a rise out of the audience astound me, Miko, truly.

So, Jack, Arcee, Bumblebee, and Miss Sensitive over here, all head down into the subways… which are also completely absent of any human life and trains. Now, sure, we later find out that this particular section of subway is under construction, but still, animating trains coming and going shouldn’t be that difficult. Bumblebee nearly gets electrocuted by stepping on the third rail of the track (it carries electricity to power the subway trains), and to try to avoid it again, he… well, just hops around like and idiot pretending to be stealthy, risking him not seeing where he’s stepping again. And it’s a wonder he never made it to warrior in the show proper.

I also like that for all of Optimus’ concerns about being spotted and Jack’s insistence that they take humans as cover, Arcee and Bumblebee are both just casually walking around in robot mode. And it’s not that Miko’s construction quip is an excuse; construction means people too! So, why bring the humans along at all if this is what you guys were going to be doing? Ah, but it turns out that there is in fact humans down here, doing construction. I’m sorry, there’s a human down here doing construction. Miko and Jack stumble across Vogel, a construction worker, and the two hastily come up with a cover story while Bumblebee and Arcee stay back.

Vogel’s clearly a little nutty in the head, so while he does give Jack and Miko a lift on his sweeper train, the two kids get kind wigged out by him. The two make their escape (I particularly like Jack tip-toeing away as Vogel preaches that there are aliens lurking down here).

Meanwhile, Arcee and Bumblebee pick up a locater beacon, meaning that the ‘Cons have unearthed the relic. So, what were you doing with that tracking tool before, Arcee? I mean, if you can only find the relic by it’s beacon, and the beacon can only be detected when not buried, then how were you going to find it before the Decepticons did? Also, how did Knock Out find it? I guess Decepticon science is even better than logic, and that’s saying a lot given that the chief scientist of the Decepticons is Shockwave. The two Autobots stumble upon Knock Out’s mining site, but the Insecticon guard gets the drop on them. This battle is pretty good, and from here on out the episode does start to pick up the pace. Thankfully, the Insecticon is back to being a credible threat, instead of the all-too-easily-destructible cannon fodder of “Armada” that it was, and Bumblebee and Arcee are clearly outmatched here. Lots of great camera work here, too. The tight spaces mean that the way that everyone moves around is riveting to watch.

Arcee goes for the relic, leaving Bumblebee to fend for himself against a threat that almost took out Megatron. Look at his expression! He just has so much loathing right now. Arcee does battle with Knock Out, who is quite creepy this episode:

“You have lovely features. Perfect for a painful little procedure I call the ‘Nip and tuck’!”

Yeah, you’re bedside manner could use some… cleansing. Bumblebee gets taken out, and Arcee’s electrocuted with Knock Out’s staff weapon… man, there’s a lot of electricity this episode. Jack and Miko come to a literal fork in the tracks, leading to possibly the only character-driven conversation this whole episode. Miko chooses to go right, and Jack demands to know what has gotten into her behavior. Miko’s mockery is dialed up to eleven here:

“‘I’m Jack. Optimus picked me to go to Cybertron so I must know everything’.”

“Okay, Miko. Seriously, if that’s what’s bugging you, why didn’t you say something before?”

“I’ve been holding it in.”

“Since when do you hold anything in?”

I can’t argue with that! The conversation veers into how Miko is jealous of Jack. Jack counters by saying that she is a valued member of the team, and that she does contribute. Again, like most character-development conversations go, this one is pretty good in that we can understand both characters’ arguments. Miko feels useless next to Jack, and Jack is miffed that Miko is so abrasive towards him. Neither of them are in the wrong. Well, what better way to develop this relationship further… by not developing it at all? Vogel comes back, interrupting the nice character moment, and Miko tells him the truth about the whole relic thing. I do like that he just out-and-out believes that rather than Jack’s “lost dog” story.

Knock Out finally retrieves the relic, preparing to conduct what he calls an “on-site experiment” on Bumblebee to find out what the relic does. Competence at it’s best. Vogel and the kids stop this by just ramming Knock Out full force with their train. Damn. Arcee and Bumblebee recover, continuing the battle with the Insecticon. Bumblebee pursues Knock Out, who still has the relic, while Arcee takes on the Insecticon alone. Guess she cares about getting even with her partner. Meanwhile, Vogel and the kids find that apparently ramming a robot the size of a car probably wasn’t the best thing for their ride, because the breaks have been shot, and what’s worse is that the particular track that they’re on isn’t finished yet. Well, looks like they’re screwed.

Arcee shows up, in robot mode of course, because that’s the best way to maintain a low profile. Of course, with the battle, I guess it doesn’t matter. Anyway, she makes contact with Jack and co. and Vogel tells her that there’s a switch track up ahead. Vogel’s in shock and awe when Arcee transforms into her motorcycle mode to get ahead of the train, and it’s a pretty cool feeling. We of course know Arcee by now, but to witness someone else see a Cybertronian for the first time does hit the audience with a sense of pride and giddiness. It’s an effective moment. Unfortunately, Arcee also brought with her the Insecticon with whom she was fighting, so that kinda sucks. Arcee manages to reroute the train. I like that when she breaks off the pull rod, she just says screw it and just uses her body strength to do it herself. Good. Now to worry about that Insecticon that no one can kill except for an ex-gladiator-turned-warlord. After a bit of back and forth fighting, Arcee manages to kill it with the third rail electricity Jack had mentioned earlier. Sure, it was obvious foreshadowing, but I liked how this ties back to an earlier point in the episode at all. Certainly gives my brain something to do between all the boredom here.

Knock Out and Bumblebee continue their chase, eventually ending in Bumblebee getting the relic. Apparently, plot convenience is a bit of a bitch to Knock Out, because the sweeper train comes around, and while Bumblebee is in the way, the train passes right through him since he is now wearing the relic. The train then just runs Knock Out over again, this time to the point where the train is able to stop thanks to Knock Out being in the way. Bumblebee reveals that the relic is in fact a phase-shifter. That’s how he was able to survive that. Y’know, I’m curious what would have happened had that relic not been the phase-shifter. Like, what if that had been something else? Bumblebee would have been pretty hurt! This is competence at it's worst. Knock Out’s pretty pissed about his paint being scratched, and runs away.

Vogel doesn’t get brought on board as another human companion, because that would make sense. No, instead he’s just given a briefing by Fowler over the phone without Optimus Prime’s knowledge and then left to his own devices. I can’t imagine how Arcee managed to wriggle out of this one.

Optimus: “So, you didn’t maintain cover?”

Arcee: “Uh huh.”

“You exposed yourselves to human witnesses?”

A human witness.”

“You then left said human witness without any cover story, contact information, guardianship, or mental reintegration into their own lives?”

“Yeah. I figured, y’know, since all of us are paired off with someone.”

“What?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, I’m with Jack, ‘Bee’s with Raf, Bulk’s with Miko, you and Fowler get along fine, and Ratchet and June make a good team. Plus we can’t afford an extra becoming a regular.”

“I don’t know. Between this and you blowing up a car when I said ‘apply minimal force’, you’re walking a fine line between likeable character and stupid.”

“Well, I didn’t lose one of the relics to Starscream.”

“… Okay. Point for you.”

Post episode follow-up: Final score for “Tunnel Vision” is 4/10. While the action helps this episode stay above water for a little while, the beginning is slow, riddled with little character inconsistencies, and does nothing to develop the characters. With as much dialogue as there is in the first act, there is surprisingly little character movement forward. Jack and Miko’s conversation during the track split is the only thing resembling a character moment between the two, and Vogel interrupts it.

Vogel isn’t much of a character besides being in awe over the Transformers, which is fine, but it might have been better had that actually meant something to him. It’s made out to be comic relief, and while that does work, I think in terms of character, this could have been a more meaningful story. Have his development be similar to June’s if you want. You’d not really need to change much in the way of characterization. Also, I think leaving Vogel like this just doesn’t seem to roll with what the Autobots’ normal policy is about human contact. They bring in the people they encounter. Even Jack’s mom got a tour of the base, met Optimus, etc. Vogel just gets a phone call.

The fight scenes are of course top notch, but the performances by Arcee and ‘Bee almost seem lazy this episode. I don’t know. It’s definitely not Prime’s best outing, and a poor start to this arc. Next time, the T-Arc continues with a far more promising installment.

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