May 22, 2015

Shadowcon Reviews: Deus Ex Machina

Mom, imagine getting this kind of massage!

Shadowcon Reviews: Transformers Prime Season 1, episode 10, “Deus Ex Machina”

This episode… If someone were to capture what made Prime weak in the first season, I’d have to assume they’d turn to this episode first and foremost. This episode might as well be called “Minor Incompetence” because it seems like everyone in this story is really unsure of what’s actually going on and how to properly behave. This also focuses on Bulkhead and Miko, but it doesn’t give us any insight into either character, focusing on them for plot reasons and little else. This serves as a Bulkhead/Miko story, and while I like Miko a lot, that mostly comes from Season Three and some of the later episodes in Season Two, so this one, coming in the very early days of Season One, really grates on me as her character’s more annoying traits are made apparent especially in the beginning. Nicole Dubac, the woman who wrote this episode was really off her game this week, because she normally delivers some pretty solid scripts- she actually did Wednesday’s “Out of His Head”, so she does good stuff, or at least entertaining material. But this is just kind of sad. I really have to wonder if this didn’t get an un-credited rewrite after she drafted it, because a lot of this doesn’t feel like her script. It feels more like bits and pieces of a good script jumbled up with dead air. Let’s jump in and see if we can’t find out why that is.

The episode starts off with Miko in detention. And this is an extremely short teaser, but manages to herald the incompetence plague that sweeps across this episode as Bulkhead drives up to the school. Why? It’s not to pick Miko up, because he asks if detention ended early as she hops in the passenger’s seat, and it isn’t as if he didn’t know she had detention, obviously, so why is he here now when he knows all this stuff? Plus he nags her about a history report she has to do, and I don’t think being a giant robot blasting loud music is going to help in that endeavor. This is a really odd teaser, to be honest. After the credits, Bulkhead again encourages Miko to not ditch school, remarking that she shouldn’t be using him as her “getaway car”… which again begs the question of why you drove up there, but anyway. He encourages her also to actually do her history report so that she can get into college:

“We want the best for you, and that means making sure you go to school, not jail.”

Bulkhead tells Miko essentially that he wants her to be something more than what he was before he became an Autobot. He worked in construction, see, and he wants Miko to become someone of intelligence and have a stable career, saying that she should become a medic like Ratchet. Yeah, ‘cause given what we saw last episode with Ratchet’s inability to run a proper checkup and diagnostic on Bumblebee, that argument really floats. Plus, this also implies that the construction people and labor people aren’t as smart or important as the doctors and lawyers we have around, which… hell, that’s pretty accurate in terms of the societal mindset, so never mind. Miko’s uninspired by this speech, saying she wants to be like Bulkhead, and what better way to encourage children to learn and grow than to shoot down their passions and dreams, right?

Ratchet picks up an Energon pulse:

“In the nation called Greece. An ancient city, quite historic, I believe.”

Well, yeah… I mean, it is historically important and there are ancient ruins, (and by the way, thanks for using “nation” and “city” interchangeably there, that’s a nice touch), but… I don’t know, it’s like they wanted to specifically show how smart Ratchet was after Bulkhead’s little speech, so they gave him some really not-smart lines. Anyway, Bulkhead and Miko are off to check out this Energon pulse in this nation-city.

Meanwhile, Starscream has summoned Knockout, making his first appearance on the show! That’s pretty cool, and Daran Norris does steal many scenes here, and he’s really a delight to have in the cast. Starscream comments on the oddity of Knockout’s vehicle form since he turns into a car, which is weird considering that the Vehicons have also turned into cars (and quite awesome ones at that), so, what, are the Vehicons not actual transformers? Knockout is here to work on repairing Megatron, the crew having voted that he be repaired instead of killed off. Megatron looks pretty beat up here, lacking the giant tube going into his chest like we saw last episode, and even Knockout isn’t sure that he can repair this much damage without the help of his assistant, Breakdown, who’s currently on the trail of some Energon.

Bulkhead and Miko arrive at the site of the Energon, with Bulkhead intending to make this as much an educational experience for Miko as possible. What’s odd to me though is that Bulkhead is in robot mode this whole time, it’s daylight, and they find out that human excavation teams have already locked down the site. Again, it’s not a big deal, especially since it looks like the excavation site itself is bereft of humans for now, but it just smacks of the incompetence on display this episode. I really don’t get it. Bulkhead also spots a fresco of Poseidon holding an apparently Cybertronian artifact. Breakdown shows up at this very site (I know, shocking, right?), and Bulkhead reveals that the two of them have a history. And enjoy speculating about what that history might be, because that’s literally all we get from this episode. This fight lasts for a good couple seconds, with Bulkhead crashing into the painting, and then Breakdown taking off. So, what happened to your fresh Energon trail? Aren’t you going to fight for it? No? …Okay, then.

Well, with the painting destroyed, Bulkhead’s a bit glum, but luckily (in one of the only moves of common sense around here), Miko took a picture of it with her phone, and back at base, Optimus does confirm that this is indeed an Energon Harvester, something that is capable of absorbing and harnessing large quantities of Energon no matter where it might be. Sounds handy. Too bad that this device is somehow ancient and you guys can’t just replicate it today, huh? What’s weirder still is that this device was of Autobot design, which I actually do like, because it gives the impression that the Autobots were so desperate for Energon that they didn’t really care anymore about how they got it, so they just built this thing to get Energon from anywhere. The ancients were really morally messed up; you’ve got the Spark Extractor, this Energon Harvester… It might explain why they don’t use this in the modern day, and it’s an interesting moral and ethical dilemma, certainly more interesting than the episode we’re watching, I’ll tell ya!

Jack points out the obvious, that the Harvester could be used by the Decepticons to harness Energon from other Cybertronians, which is why I always found it odd that they had Energon as not only their food, but also their blood, ammo, and energy source. Raf finds out that the actual Energon Harvester sphere is still around, and it’s in a museum in the US no less, so that’s handy. Optimus tries to contact Agent Fowler, but to no avail, getting only his answering machine. I wonder if Ernie Hudson wasn’t available for most of this episode so they just ran with that and had him record this instead. He probably read the script and realized how lazy everyone was acting. Anyway, with that plan no longer available, the Autobots decide to do this whole “robbing a museum” thing themselves, using the kids to sneak into the museum. Again, teaching children early on that stealing can be a good thing… and again I remind you that this is the same episode that also enforces that only upper middle class jobs are good jobs, dammit, so stay in school or else! I love that Optimus Prime of all people is the one to condone this type of behavior, siding with Miko on using the kids to get in, much to the protests of both Jack and Bulkhead. Man, if this is a “message/teach your kids something” show, this is probably one of the weirdest ones I’ve seen as it’s very conflicting and unsure of what it wants to advocate.

Well, let the heist begin! As a heist, this is pretty mundane. The kids don’t even get to use those ropes and hang from them in the air like you see in the movies! I’ve always wanted to try that! They’re instead stuck on scissor lift which is loud (so it’s more likely to attract security) and clunky to move around, a bit unwieldy for a stealth mission. Though I suppose if you’re stealing a giant sphere, you kinda have to make sacrifices. Miko covers up one camera with her phone, taking a picture of what the camera sees and then setting it on top of the video camera with the phone screen folded over the actual camera. Good thing her phone’s a flip phone! Of course, that’s only one camera… I have to assume there’s more than one in that rather large area of the museum, right? Can’t the others see them? I guess not, as they happily begin their heist.

Breakdown and Knockout show up, having located the Harvester too, and this forces Optimus to transform into robot mode so as to protect the kids (and the museum). Incidentally, there’s not so much as a single security guard patrolling the perimeter, and yet I find it ironic that now of all the times this episode is when the Autobots decide to maintain their cover in vehicle mode, whereas a few scenes ago, Bulkhead was walking around in broad daylight, at risk of being seen by the construction people. Anyway, their cover’s now blown, and Optimus stops one of Breakdown’s missiles before it can do serious damage to the museum, but gets put down in turn by Knockout with his electric staff, one of the show’s only handheld weapons this season, actually. Bumblebee and Arcee come to Optimus’ aid, but it seems the script’s feverish attempts to be clever but resulting in idiocy have finally made these two drunk, because they trip over each other in vehicle mode trying to attack… yeah, that’s barely an exaggeration. No, it’s Bulkhead who manages to finally go on the offensive, attacking Breakdown, but also getting pummeled and thrown into the museum proper, setting of the alarms.

Well, with the one security guard on duty finally realizing that there’s something going on (as if the giant stomping robots didn’t give that away- and Bulkhead even ran across the roof!), the kids have to get out of there. Miko gets caught by the guard, although I can’t really blame her, because this contrivance is so glaringly obvious when you realize that Jack and Raf both were on the lift vehicle they brought with Miko running… and running ahead of them no less. She couldn’t have gotten back onto the lift and have Ratchet open a bridge right there? Ugh. Soundwave manages to steal the Harvester, so now the Autobots are down a human, plus their cargo, and they’ve managed to destroy property. That’s great. Bulkhead wants to go in after Miko, but Optimus again steps on his toes, though this time I can at least see why he’s doing so: Miko’s in custody, sure, but at least she’s not in the hands of the Decepticons.

Miko’s getting a bit antsy in the security guard’s office. The guard informs her that the police are on their way… and once again we’ll have to imagine that scene, as the police never show up, I’m not joking. Miko fibs that she was doing research for her damn history report but lost track of time, prompting the security guard to ask her what her report is about. Ooh, wrong move there, buddy!

We then get an absolutely gorgeous montage of Arcee and Bumblebee Groundbridging to some amazing looking locations- really, these are some of the best shots in the show- searching for Starscream and Energon, with Optimus narrating what they’re doing. He informs Bulkhead that he’ll remain at the base with Ratchet. Bulkhead’s eager to go back and rescue Miko, but Optimus insists that he call Agent Fowler instead. Fowler’s still not answering- I love Bulkhead’s frustrated “Fowler’s lounging around some poolside cabana!” comment- and in his frustration, Bulkhead breaks one of Ratchet’s tools. Jack wants to know how they’re going to help Miko if Fowler’s unavailable, and Ratchet tells him that he’s been working on a replica Energon Harvester to replace the actual one in the museum. Okay, so you’re saying that you only now started working on this? Why didn’t you complete that, take that with you when you went to steal it, and then come back? Did anyone actually plan anything this episode or are we all just kinda winging it here? Jack actually is the most competent amongst the group:

“We’re already trespassers and thieves. Why not add forgery to the list?”

And remember, this is an episode focused on the good guys!

Bulkhead deduces that Starscream will use the Energon Harvester on the site that he and Miko scouted at the beginning of the episode (y’know, the one in the city that’s also a nation), reasoning that Starscream will take as easy a rout as possible… again, presenting us with a good metaphor for the laziness of this script. At the site, Starscream is all set to use the Harvester to collect the Energon- thankfully it’s nighttime now, so at least humans not being around is plausible. Knockout gets a bit cocky with Starscream, boasting that he and Breakdown got the sphere to Starscream- although if you really wanna get technical there, Knockout, it was Soundwave who delivered it- and this prompts Starscream to use the sphere on a poor Vehicon, sucking out all his Energon, for no other reason than to scare Knockout and Breakdown. Way to show that new leadership approach there, ‘Scream.

Bulkhead arrives on the scene, trying to be sneaky. Amusingly, his big lumbering running footsteps and drops from on high don’t draw any attention, but he steps on some glass and suddenly everyone’s aware of him. Sure, why not.

A fight ensues, and I’m sure it’s supposed to be dramatic, but really, after the previous two anemic battles, this one’s no real improvement. Bulkhead manages to evade Knockout and Breakdown, turning on Starscream who uses the Harvester on Bulkhead. Bulkhead manages to climb to his feet despite having his blood being sucked out of him, giving a good punch to Starscream before crushing the Harvester and lobbing it into the air where it explodes. Damn! Y’know, I knew Bulkhead was tough, but that’s pretty impressive. The other Autobots arrive, Starscream retreats, and in the coda, Agent Fowler finally shows up to rescue Miko, who has managed to pretty much bore the guard to sleep with all these ancient history facts, and the script ends where it began, with a show of incompetence as Miko uses the word “factoid” to mean “fact”.

Post episode follow-up: This is the first real weak story that I’ve covered, and I’m kinda regretting now not better pacing myself on all the good episodes. From here on out, we have a few good ones mixed in with otherwise bland pickings. This episode in particular suffers from a script that tries to be clever but instead shoots itself in the foot, manages to neither flesh out nor give insight into either Bulkhead or Miko’s character, and takes itself as a message show without being sure of what it wants to teach kids: is stealing bad; is stealing good if it’s for the greater good; being in school is good only if you want to be an upper middle class person; and so on. This has very little focus, a poor grasp on its characters, and a lack of excitement that left me bored for a good portion of it. The animation is the only thing that manages to prop this up at all, because they really delivered some awesome lighting and those background scenes in the tiny montage sequence were just gorgeous! Still, in the end, “Deus Ex Machina” gets a score of 3/10.

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