May 27, 2014

Shadowcon Reviews- Darkmount, NV

        Shadowcon Reviews: Transformers Prime season 3 episode 1: “Darkmount, NV”

Nicholas Meyer once said that “art thrives on limitations”, and I’ve always been a fan of that phrase because of how true it is. It’s the entire reason Jaws was so effective, it’s what gave several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation their charm and intriguing stories without relying on a high budget… hell, the best example from Trek would have to be Wrath of Kahn, which had about half the budget the first film had and so had to rely solely on its storyline and characters to carry it through… and it did so phenomenally.

While Prime’s third season did not suffer any financial crises (so far as I am aware), the attitude towards it from the fans was one of criticism and skepticism, and the network decided to push for selling toys instead of letting the writers tell their own story, so the writers now had to contend with both making the studio happy, and bringing back the charm that made the first season so good. Not at all easy to do, and what makes the third season so impressive to me is that they did it not only successfully, but they also were very humble about it. This meant that the writers for this third season were really trying to utilize every limit that they were given to tell the best story they could, and while Season Three is not as good as Season One, it’s the care and the acknowledgement of limitations and not shying away from that that makes this the most impressive season in terms of behind-the-scenes history for me.

 Also, contentions may rise as to why I’m not putting the emblazoned BEAST HUNTERS label at the end of the Prime portion of my title up there or in the header. Well, I’ve never been one to enjoy the BEAST HUNTERS tagline. This is not a new show; this is Transformers Prime’s third season, and putting the title as “Transformers Prime: Beast Hunters season 3 episode 1” might give the impression to uninitiated Transformers people who read my site that this might be a different show. And hell, it even confused some of the interviewers who talked with some of the staff and voice actors on the show, so there that is.

So, let’s get started on this season’s opener, which kicks off with the Decepticons scouring the wreckage of the destroyed Autobot base trying to find the bodies of the dead. They find Wheeljack alive but barely functional, and as Megatron demands that his men unearth the corpses of the other Autobots, we pan over to Optimus’ arm, and then lower into the rubble to find his mangled and decrepit body. Things are not looking good! As the Decepticons bring Megatron the Forge of Solus Prime and the stasis pod that Airachnid is in, Smokescreen sneaks back and gets Optimus out of the wreckage. I’m really curious now if anyone actually can actually die from a huge explosion in this show, because as we see here, Optimus is alive, and as we’ll see in a later episode, Airachnid is perfectly fine, and the Forge is also fine… so, did the blast only destroy the physical base? And this really deflates the situation’s grimness. Instead of not knowing if Optimus survived or not, throughout this episode and the two to follow, we’re given copious scenes between he and Smokescreen that just reinforce the fact that things really aren’t as bad as the writers want us to think.

Megatron discusses with Starscream about how best to get rid of the Autobots, having now deduced that they must have escaped prior to the base’s destruction. Starscream suggests increasing global surveillance and sending out “search and destroy teams to every sector of this planet.” And I’d say this were a smart move, but these are the Vehicon drones that we’ve seen get killed off by even the most implausible tactics ever, so even if you guys do manage to find anyone, chances are that all you’ll receive for your troubles are a few more dead drones to stick in the morgue. Hell, they’re not even sending out the silver ones introduced last episode, so we know that this is not yet serious! Even when a military strike against Darkmount begins and Starscream suggests deploying his armada, Megatron assures him that that won’t be necessary, because they have this new set piece, might as well use it for something! So, he fires one of his gigantic fusion cannons atop the tower at the military convoy.

I will say that the military strike against Megatron is very effective at getting across that the Decepticons are now firmly in control, as the Darkmount fusion cannon just lays waste to the military strike team and turn Jasper into a desolate wasteland! It’s pretty grim! The various panoramic shots of the destroyed city carry weight, because this is the home of the humans that we’ve gotten to know a little bit throughout these last two years with these characters, and indeed this paints an eerily similar picture to how Cybertron looked back in “Orion Pax, Part 2” when Arcee took Jack there and he saw how much devastation was done to that planet. Megatron then calls up Agent Fowler and tells him that the Decepticons just want peace with humanity by essentially holding four big guns to our head! Not exactly the most nerve-settling speech, and Fowler knows this all too well. Not sure how the firepower of a cannon is going to extend from Jasper Nevada all the way to DC; I mean, not only would that look ridiculous, but the amount of time, energy, and resources Megatron would need to get that plan in motion and executed without the beam y’know, somehow dissipating or whatever before hitting the target would mean he has enough power to track down the Autobots anyway. Aw hell, it’s cartoon logic, but come on! Imagine this giant green beam extending from Nevada across roughly nine whole sates before reaching its target! Megatron hangs up and confirms almost immediately that he’s just trying to play Fowler and the humans, saying that Earth is their planet. I think it would have been more interesting had Megatron actually wanted peace, or at least wanted to conquer Earth for his people rather than just because he’s evil. The subtext is there, but I think it could have been stronger throughout the episode and especially throughout the first arc as a whole.

Agent Fowler meanwhile is not having a good day, made all the more stressful with the arrival of June, who is now asking him for more medical supplies.

“I’m doing the best I can, Nurse Darby. Been a little busy juggling a bunch of nuke-happy generals who don’t seem to care if they blow Nevada sky-high, and a Decepticon warlord who wants to make nice now that the Autobots are in the scrapyard!”

Yeah, things are pretty grim over here, too. I like Ernie Hudson’s performance here. He really captures just how much the situation is affecting everyone; it’s good voice acting. He assures June that the Autobots have to still be out there, because if there’s one thing that he doesn’t know, it’s that everyone GroundBridged out of the base prior to it exploding. So shouldn’t he think that everyone is dead? Imagine how much more dire it would have made everything; it would have made sense given their role last episode, and it would have made the Autobots’ eventual return all the sweeter. As it is, the tenseness of the situation still carries enough weight for us to care, but we only care in a superficial sense.

And to make that moment just evaporate completely, we then cut to Bumblebee and Raf narrowly avoiding detection by a lone purple Vehicon drone. Let’s put aside for the moment the obvious and say that this wasn’t the Vehicon’s incompetence or the fact that he knows he’ll be offed sooner or later, and think about how ‘Bee and Raf could have succeeded in this. Well, they could have masked the signal all the Autobots (and presumably Decepticons) give off so as not to be detected, they could have hidden in one spot and only moved under cover of night, or they could have just not done anything about the signal problem and move in the daytime. Well, as you might be able to deduce, they do the latter of the three, moving in the daytime and without even bothering to mask their energy signature. This is why the Vehicons are stupid, because we see here that just a paint swap on Bumblebee is enough to fool the Vehicon altogether. Now, I’m no pilot, but I think visual confirmation is something that comes last after you’ve scanned everything with your sensors and all that, so what the hell? Anyway, the Vehicon flies off and ‘Bee transforms… because he’s undercover, so why wouldn’t he? Actually this is all just to show off his new badass color scheme, and for Raf to ask what their plan is. It turns out that they are heading back to Jasper (along with everyone else as we’ll soon find out, which must be a coincidence because they had no regroup plan prior to leaving the base) and they’re also trying to find a way to contact everyone else without the Decepticons knowing about it.

We then cut to Bulkhead and Miko, neither of whom have changed their paintjobs, and who are also moving in broad daylight. Miko asks where they’re going… ugh, and unlike Bumblebee, Bulkhead has a sensible answer:

“We’re following standard Wrecker protocol… an emergency plan we followed during the war, in case any Wrecker got stranded or separated from the unit. We’d always rendezvous at the exact same set of coordinates. If Jackie’s still alive, he’ll be there.”

So yeah, this is a sensible plan. Presumably no one else knows about this “Wrecker protocol” thing, because it’s not like any of the other ‘Bots are following it, but at least Bulkhead has a plan, unlike Bumblebee back there who’s just heading strait into a huge disaster zone for no reason.

Megatron meanwhile sits atop his Iron Throne and orders Knock Out to go back to Cybertron and pick up all the relics and stuff left behind in the chaos.

“While hunting Autobots remains paramount, we must not squander the opportunity to recover any Iacon relics left behind in the chaos. For all we know, Optimus Prime is out there somewhere planning to do the same.”

Well, let’s check in on our big red and blue ‘bot and… oh yeah, he’s pretty much all gunmetal grey now. Man, Optimus is looking like complete crap now! This scene between these two is meant to explain how Smokescreen got back to the base after having been transported away from it prior to detonation. This whole explanation just doesn’t make sense, and if you want to read a better synopsis of both what he says and why it doesn’t work, check out the TFWiki article on this episode. It’s a continuity glare as bad as a sunlit computer screen, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it probably should. It serves the purposes of the plot and characters, so I’m okay with it. And really, this scene is good in other ways. After the convoluted and contrived explanation, we get a very nice back-and-forth between Smokescreen and Optimus, the former still clinging on to the idea that Optimus can somehow be saved from all of this, and the latter just giving up hope completely. It establishes the theme of the first arc: the idea of hope, of blind desperation, of sheer and utter defeat and coming back from that… except we have seen everyone alive already (we’ll soon see Jack and Arcee), so this whole thing is made far less impactful. It still works, and fortunately later episodes would carry this theme far better than this one, but imagine how much stronger this could have been had we not seen Optimus or Smokescreen at all in this first episode. Have the ‘bots cling on to that one sliver of hope that Optimus might be alive, and have that be the driving force behind everything they do. Instead we have this, which isn’t bad, but like the moral dilemma from last episode (though this is less squandered than that potential was), the pieces were all there to create a much better piece than what was given to us.

However, the ending to this episode is very good, as we finally catch up with Jack and Arcee! Jack’s worried sick about his mom, and Arcee is a little trigger-sensitive right now, as she’s so paranoid that she almost shoots down a civilian chopper. Jack gives in to temptation and texts his mom, and right away the ‘Cons are on them literally within seconds! Damn, that’s great response time, far better than the police in the real world… and these are the bad robots! This leads into a riveting chase/fight scene between the ‘Cons, Arcee, and Jack, with Soundwave videotaping the whole thing for posterity and to give Megatron a live feed.

The ‘Cons go after Jack… apparently not picking up Arcee’s signal right away, and the chase begins. I do like that the humans are hard to kill in-universe. I imagine that we’re kind of like bugs to the Transformers; small, but to kill us you need to have blanket damage, not precision. Arcee comes to Jack’s rescue and the two rig a gas station to explode once the ‘Cons arrive. This works, and the two scamper off. Megatron is pretty frustrated about this whole affair, and as Knock Out returns to Darkmount saying that he’s found someone to bring back, Megatron is pleasantly surprised by the return of Shockwave to the ranks.

Post episode follow-up: Final score for “Darkmount, NV” is 6/10: slightly above average for Prime, but there are a lot of things that drag this episode down. Specifically, the pace, the lack of tension, and especially the slowness of this really make the whole thing suffer. Season Two’s “Orion Pax, Part 1” was slow-going too, but that had conflict, it had character interplay, story setup, follow-through from previous stuff, etc. This episode has this backdrop of gloom that is quickly spoiled by the reveal that everyone is okay, including Optimus. I would’ve much rather been kept in the dark as to what Optimus’ condition was for the entirety of the episode and instead focused more on either the other three Autobots out there (because only Arcee and Jack managed to get more than two minutes of screen time out of the three Autobot/human pairings this episode), or spend more time with Megatron and how he sees Optimus’ decision as a confirmation of everything he’s believed. The stuff with Agent Fowler is nice, and for all my griping that we saw Optimus and Smokescreen from the beginning, the damage to Optimus’ body was impressive, and the art department clearly had a fun time just beating the shit out of him! Next time, we see the return of Shockwave come into focus, Wheeljack gets to actually do something, and Arcee and Jack meet the most hard-ass person ever!

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