February 23, 2014

Shadowcon Reviews- Masters and Students

Shadowcon Reviews: Transformers Prime season 1 episode 6: “Masters and Students”

Taking a break from huge epics this time, because I’m kinda burnt out on that sort of thing. I figured I’d take a look at a standalone episode. Like “Scrapheap” and “Convoy” after this, “Master and Students” is a typical Prime episode, and coming off of the “Darkness Rising” arc, it feels like a catch-your-breath type of episode, relying more on comedy and action instead of character focus like the five-part epic did. That doesn’t mean this is a bad episode… but let’s jump in and see how it fairs against other episodes from the show.

After a quick visual recap of what happened with Megatron and the Space Bridge explosion, we see Starscream just basking in the absence of Megatron, relishing the footage of his former commander being killed- really sets a nice tone for the Decepticon troops, huh? Starscream’s just so loveable! In keeping with being really evil, Starscream addresses the troops in the most theatrical way possible: he deploys the newest member of the Decepticon army, his huge HD TV, Jumbotron! Because nothing paints you as the superior to a crazed lunatic hell bent on raising an army of undead to take over the world than to broadcast yourself in full HD so that the people under you have no choice but to stare at your face! I do love how it seems that Starscream isn’t even trying to hide his glee at the prospect of now being in command. Though this begs the question of how he was respected when Megatron was gone for three years; remember, Megatron only returned for like two days before being killed. I wonder if this is how Starscream addressed the troops all the time for like every mission or idea he wanted to run by them, and they’re all thinking, “aw shit, now that the big guy’s dead for real, we have to now put up with this dude’s pontificating with huge shots of his face in our faces for the rest of our lives!”

One of the troopers does muster up the courage to ask how they plan to conquer Earth now when the Autobots are still here. They couldn’t do it under Megatron’s command, and the best that Starscream did while the big guy was away was stockpile Energon and stay hidden, so being that they now have a coward in command does beg the question of how they’re supposed to do anything proactive. Starscream doesn’t take this very well:

“What use are troops who can’t rise to the task of inflicting unspeakable destruction in my name?!”

Well, no offense man, but you didn’t think to do this while you were in charge for three years before this? I mean, yeah, Megatron’s plans were ambitious, but it was sort of a brief interlude compared to your tenure as commander. I know Starscream was only in command as Megatron’s second for that time before he returned, but Starscream was effectively their leader, so I don’t really know why he is now concerned that the troops won’t fall in line. Maybe Megatron gave his huge army a boost in courage or something, I don’t know. Anyway, Starscream muses that there are those who will follow their leader’s whims whatever they may be, and he plans to resurrect one to show the troops that he is perfectly capable of leadership.

After the credits, we cut to the Autobot base with Ratchet and Optimus celebrating and lamenting Megatron’s passing. Ratchet’s all gung-ho about it, saying that it’s great that the dude whom Optimus saw as a great warrior and mentor is dead, meaning that his reign of terror which Optimus was partially responsible for kindling can now end… yeah, way to rub salt in the wound there, Ratchet. Optimus laments that a part of him was hoping to change Megatron’s mind and make him see the error of his ways… character stuff, which is fine, but it doesn’t carry with it the punch that I think this could have conveyed. Something about how Peter Cullen delivers his lines in this scene just makes you think that Cullen is going through the motions. Optimus does wise up and realize that while Megatron may be gone, his legacy and ambition still remain in those who followed him, and Starscream is both ambitious and very unpredictable.

Jack, Miko, and Raf are all working on their school projects, and from the looks of things, they’ve only just started. It’s no surprise then that the projects are due tomorrow… yeah, I tried pulling that one once. It was for extra credit in science class to make up for failing a test that I didn’t study for, and it was Sunday night, I was about a third of the way done with this project that was due the next day. I managed to get it all done, and upon just glancing at it, my teacher gave me an A+! This is obviously the exception to the rule, though. You don’t start a project the day before it’s due; you’re not gonna do well, especially if you’re trying to build a motorcycle like Jack is.

I like Jack and Arcee’s banter too.

“Maybe it needs one of these doohickeys…”

“You’re a motorcycle, Arcee. Shouldn’t you be able to build a motorcycle engine?”

“You’re a human, Jack. Can you build me a small intestine?”

Well, no, obviously not. But you’re not a motorcycle, Arcee. You’re an alien robot who transforms into a motorcycle. You’d think you would know the specs of what you’re vehicle mode is. Hell, I know you know the specs because whenever a Transformer scans something in this universe, their eyes are shown to be absorbing the schematics of their vehicle mode, if only to better replicate it for visuals alone, y’know, the whole “robots in disguise” thing, right? Well, Ratchet backs Arcee up, saying that they shouldn’t expect the Autobots to understand the human world… that they’ve been living on for three years. Did everyone on the writing team just forget about “Darkness Rising, Part 1”, because everyone is acting like they were just introduced to Earth and Megatron and all of that five episodes ago. We were introduced to them five episodes ago; they’ve been here for three years, and you’d think that after three years’ worth of time to study Earth, learn about it’s culture from whatever resources Fowler gave them, and with probable access to telemetry from NASA or something like that, the Autobots might have picked up on a few things. Anyway, Optimus encourages his team to get acquainted with cultures that they’re already acquainted with, but Ratchet counters by saying that the humans should learn more about Cybertron.

Well, luckily, Starscream’s on hand to brief the audience on Cybertron history (he’s not briefing the humans; it was just how they cut that). He and Soundwave are atop some mountain scanning the area for the signals of the sleeper agents hidden away on Earth. I like how Starscream basically calls out Megatron’s faulty plan just like I did in my Season Three Overview:

“Such folly that late in life, Megatron searched distant space for warriors rather than here, beneath his feet.”

And given that Megatron just forgot about his Predacon unit station here until two years after this, I think it’s safe to say that Megatron has really bad memory loss. I guess he is old. Also, Earth at this point isn’t really known to be rich in anything but Energon and a fallen Cybertronian warrior, but I like that with this episode’s start we find that Cybertronian people and artifacts just collected upon the Earth like dust balls! I mean, we’ve got undead warriors, three crashed ships, an alive-but-asleep warrior, and three hidden artifacts… and that’s only in Season One! I know that Earth was a major battlefront during the Great War, but damn!

Raf and Bumblebee work on his project with Bumblebee speaking in bleep-bloop about how he’s hoping to one day become a warrior, a character arc that runs through the entirety of the show but is so minor that not even the episodes focusing on Bumblebee bring it up that much. Optimus tells Raf that while Bumblebee may be a badass, he’s also a little bit trigger-happy and brash to be labeled a true warrior. Ratchet announces that the Decepticons are moving Energon around, and while Optimus does decide to investigate, he orders the other Autobots besides Ratchet to stay behind and help the humans with their projects.

“Ratchet, I will require aid.”

“Science fair is a big part of their grade… Perhaps I’m better suited to remain behind and… advise.”

“Very well.”

I love Optimus’ resigned and annoyed tone. The last time he brought Ratchet into battle with him, he came back and had to mend Ratchet’s broken arm. With that and now this scene, I get the feeling that maybe Optimus just wants the doc to die, or maybe he wants to spend some alone time with him… sure would make the Optimus/Ratchet shippers happy if the latter were the case, I’m sure. So, with Ratchet staying behind, Optimus elects Bumblebee to come along with him.

Starscream and Soundwave unbury the sleeping Skyquake, and he is an impressive fellow! This was the first model on the show to not be a part of the original line-up, and I really like his design. While I prefer this design in the Dreadwing color scheme, Skyquake does have his own charm in his paintjob. Actually, to me, this guy looks more like an Autobot than anything else: he’s got a green base body, and even in under armor is a light grey like Opitmus’, and while his eyes are red, he has more of a peaceful and bulky outline and helmet than a menacing stature and glare or smile plastered onto him. An interesting choice for a Decepticon design, and I think the Dreadwing model improved on many of the more “soft” design elements for this model, and given his darker scheme, it made Dreadwing more evil looking.

Anyway, back to the plot.

“Awaken, warrior! Rise, and serve your new master!”

“Skyquake serves only one master.”

“Excellent. Your loyalty and devotion will set a fine example for the troops. No need to be timid, Skyquake. You may bow.”

“You fail to grasp my meaning. I am here on a mission, assigned to me by my one master, Megatron!”

Ouch! Watch out, ‘Scream, I think you may have just unlocked a Soundwave that talks sass back at you instead of remaining silent! I do love the irony in this, though: Starscream uncovers a kick-ass warrior in the hopes of getting someone under his thumb, and in the end he’s sussed out the one dude who’s loyalties are to Megatron alone! Damn. This is just not Starscream’s day, is it?

Optimus shows up in the most nonchalant way possible: he literally just walks up to the duo and starts chatting with them… it’s a really nice bit of subtle animation and voice acting. Optimus implores Starscream to stray from Megatron’s path and turn to peace instead of being evil. The troops would probably love that: now Starscream could use the huge TV thing on the ship to announce the kind of cupcakes they’re making this week! But sadly, not even cupcakes or the prospect of being liked by everyone can turn Starscream over to the side of good, so he flees. Optimus then urges Skyquake to come over to the Autobots, saying that “this is a new era on another world”, and that he could really use him in helping him end the Autobot/Decepticon conflict. Skyquake declines Optimus’ offer, and so the fighting begins.

It’s a pretty awesome fight; it’s no Optimus vs. Megatron fight, but it’s still pretty cool. Starscream regroups with Soundwave atop another mountain to watch the action unfold below, reasoning that if he lets Skyquake finish off Optimus, then the rest of the troops will fall into line behind… Starscream. This really just shows how ineffective a leader Starscream is. At least with Megatron there was a sense of not only fear when he entered a room, but mastery of the situation as well. Megatron had that edge to him that command, the feeling that no matter how complicated the situation, no matter the people involved, Megatron could always figure out who he was dealing with. With Starscream, he talks big, but his schemes are so half-baked. He wants people to respect him, but he’s doing very little to earn that respect. He’s so much of a coward that he can’t instill fear into the troops like Megatron could, and he doesn’t seem to be aware of what’s going on around him to be much of an intellectual threat either.

This is not a complaint about the episode don’t misunderstand. The episode seems very aware of this, and really this is why I like this version of Starscream a lot more than other version of himself. This one is displayed as a coward outright, and while he may be scheming, his schemes aren’t very well thought out, and I like how the show acknowledges this. I think it’s odd then that Starscream maintained control over the ‘Cons for three years at all. Or maybe that his staying hidden was the only thing he could do when faced with the prospect of leading an army; Starscream doesn’t really know how to command yet, so his only recourse is to just hide and hope his job doesn’t become any more difficult than it already is.

Anyway, the fighting below continues, turning into a firefight. Like most fights on the show, this one is pretty good. Lots of wide shots are used so that we can clearly see what’s happening, which is great. Coming off of the live action film franchise at this time, this was a welcome change to the shaky cam and close-quarters combat of the movies. Skyquake’s is also the first (and I believe only) Prime model to not have any in-built weapons on his person, instead going for a minigun. You should get one of those, Optimus. I’m sure you’d love it! Bumblebee interferes, disobeying Optimus’ previous orders to hold his position, and while he is good, as Optimus said to Raf before, Bumblebee still has a lot to learn… apparently obeying orders is one of them.

Optimus notices that Skyquake hasn’t yet attained a vehicle mode… which is odd considering all the vehicle kibble on his back there. I know models are expensive, but still. And what about his Cybertronian vehicle mode? Megatron has one of those, so why doesn’t Skyquake? Optismus and Bumblebee retreat, leaving Skyquake to bluster about.

We interrupt the action and cut back to base purely to show that Ratchet has completely taken over the kids’ projects. He’s now building Cybertronian versions of what they’ve been assigned to build. This also gives us my favorite frame of Ratchet out of the whole series. Look at this!

While I do like the crazy they’ve slapped onto Ratchet this episode, the comedy and indeed Ratchet’s whole attitude this episode are a little off for me. Ratchet’s antics really halt the momentum of the story and the B plot feels much more like a C plot in the face of how much activity is going on in the A plot this episode. I appreciate how this Ratchet stuff is kept to a strategic minimum, however; the episode knows when to rein this in, which is good.

Starscream and Soundwave lose sight of the fight, and Soundwave informs Starscream that he’s picked up a second Decepticon signal, and it’s at the site of their blown up Space Bridge. Starscream doesn’t want to believe that Megatron could have survived this, and he voices outrage over the possibility that Megatron has. I love how transparent his attempt to cover up his rage is here too, like he’s just hoping against hope that Soundwave is wrong, but he knows that Soundwave is never wrong. That faint possibility that Megatron might be alive is enough to set Starscream on edge. That’s how much power Megatron has over Starscream. And how appropriate, really, that after all this time in control of the Decepticons, it is only now that Starscream begins to worry about his position of leadership. With Megatron alive and off in deep space, Starscream probably had the reassurance that Megatron was alive to keep his troops in line. But here, Megatron’s death is acting more like a devil who taunts Starscream’s antics and schemes. Starscream goes off to supposedly retrieve Megatron, but Soundwave is no fool and dispatches Laserbeak to follow him.

As if things aren’t bad enough, Fowler has to show up because he’s intercepted a communiqué about investigating unknown technological activity, and of course if there’s unknown tech running around, that’s obviously Fowler’s business. It couldn’t be some domestic terrorist organization with crazy science tech, could it? I like how Fowler just says to strike the report from the record too; what if this thing turns out not to be Transformers?

Well, it doesn’t matter, because after a few blows between Skyquake, Bumblebee, and Optimus (man, remember when Decepticons who weren’t Megatron and Shockwave could fight three guys and still not die?), Fowler arrives at the battle, and despite Optimus’ timely warning to fall back, Fowler doesn’t for whatever reason (this episode is just all about people disobeying Optimus’ orders, it seems), and this allows Skyquake to scan his vehicle form at long last. He tries taking out Optimus and ‘Bee, but Fowler does have chops, and manages to turn Skyquake away from the two Autobots for the moment, even out-maneuvering Skyquake’s heat-seeking missiles.

We cut over to Starscream for a really creepy scene between he and the body of Megatron (surprise, he is in fact there). Starscream finds him and gets… well, really touchy-feely with his former boss. It’s pretty weird, but then I suppose eons of being Megatron’s whipping boy has probably made Starscream a little demented when it comes to how he feels about pain.

And Megatron is really not doing well here. His body’s all cracked and bashed and there’s a huge gaping hole in his chest!

“Everyone believes you are deceased. Who am I to disappoint them… master?!”

It’s revealed that Dark Energon is the only thing keeping Megatron alive, so Starscream, in an uncharacteristically brutal display of not giving a shit, just yanks the shard out from Megatron’s body! Damn. I think he should have boasted about this more so than killing Cliffjumper, because this is far more villainous and I love it! Unfortunately for Starscream, it seems that Laserbeak catches up to him, so Starscream feebly tries to cover up his actions, saying that he’s found Megatron barely alive and that they must transport him to sickbay immediately. Why he didn’t just say Megatron was dead, I don’t know. It’s not like Megatron could have survived without the Dark Energon in him, so he should be dead now that Starscream has it. Maybe it takes a little while for his systems to realize that he’s dead, who knows.

Back in Canyon Screwed, Optimus and Bumblebee continue running from Skyquake… man, this battle is taking a really long time; between this, fighting zombies for two episodes, and in “Scrapheap” nearly dying from frostbit, it’s no surprise that Optimus just said screw it when Wheeljack showed up and had him fight off all the Decepticons by himself. Optimus deserves a break! Well, it seems that he’s out of the fight after Skyquake lands a lucky shot, so Bumblebee takes off in his own display of brazen battle tactics!

Bumblebee essentially says fuck it and just leaps onto the back of Skyquake’s jet mode and starts punching the plane, ripping pieces off, and causing all sorts of havoc; he’s probably venting from not even being given any damn subtitles so that we could understand him. Fowler rescues ‘Bee from plummeting to his death, while Skyquake dies by crash-landing. I think Skyquake is also the only Prime transformer to die by vehicular accident, and this one really messed him up! He’s shown lying there in mid-transformation! Yeah, that’s not coming out of the woodwork there, buddy. I like that in this universe, the Transformers can be killed by what would normally total their vehicle modes in real life. It adds an extra dimension to the fact that these are more real versions of the Transformers than we’re used to seeing.

The Autobots return to base, and the kids shortly thereafter. Ratchet is eager to know how his projects were received, and as expected they were not received very well. Over on the Decepticons’ side of things, Starscream has in fact brought Megatron back and hooked him up to life support. All those tubes running in and out of Megatron’s body make him look really demonic; it’s awesome!

Post episode follow-up: Final score for “Masters and Students” is 5/10. An average episode that really is more about the fun-factor than anything else. There are some brief thematic establishments about legacy and leadership, but they don’t follow through on these very well. Optimus’ comment about how Skyquake could have been redeemed had he strayed from Megatron’s path is lost on the audience in its resonance because the legacy thing wasn’t established as being a part of Skyquake’s character, but of Starscream. And Starscream kinda… y’know left by this point, so I don’t really know why they set up the theme this way. The Ratchet subplot doesn’t really do it for me (other than that funny shot I mentioned); the humor is clearly targeted at little kids, which is fine. The show knew this and knew when to pull its punches with this plot, but it really drew the action and momentum of the episode to grinding halts when it was brought up. Overall, coming off of the heels of the “Darkness Rising” arc, this is a nice breather episode and sets the bar for what would constitute as an average episode for this show.

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