May 27, 2015

Shadowcon Reviews: Stronger, Faster

Shadowcon Reviews: Transformers Prime Season 1, episode 22, “Stronger, Faster”

When I mapped out which episodes I was going to do for this month, the objective was to focus on pairs of episodes that explored characters that were otherwise rather weak. Bumblebee, for example, is usually the most expendable Autobot with the least developed personality. But “Sick Mind” and “Out of His Head” attempted to explore his character, and in so doing, also developed his rivalry with Megatron a little bit that would wind up being crucial at the end of the show. I did not, however, plan on all of these episodes with the exception of “Deus Ex Machina” being about the Autobots losing their minds in one form or another. That actually hit me as I was watching this one, that every episode focused on an Autobot at his most vulnerable or in a weakened state. So I guess you could call the another theme of the month “mind-screw”, because that’s pretty much what happens to all the ‘bots this time around. And now, it’s Ratchet’s turn. I’ve been giving Ratchet some crap over the course of the month, but that’s in spite of Jeffery Comb’s acting ability that really needs no introduction. The man knows how to make serious characters, who might be wooden in other hands, come to life. Here, he gets to test and play with that significantly, and that’s great to see. Also, many of Ratchet’s actions and his reasoning behind them will become clear with this episode, which is good- Ratchet being a bit of a tool was another theme of this month that I swear was not intentional.

Let’s get down to it. Ratchet is testing out the Synthetic Energon formula that Bulkhead got dumped into his head last episode. He’s being fairly smart about it too, especially considering that his behavior over this month has been kind of all over the place. But here, he’s confining his testing of the formula to machines only… um, that’s not alive machines, for clarification, and he lets Raf watch. And it seems the team really needs this to work, as Ratchet explains that over the course of this season, they’ve been exhausting their own Energon supplies. I like that this is being acknowledged, especially now. While it might feel like it’s coming out of nowhere- and hey, that is kind of true given that this is the problem of the weak- I do like the montage of how much better the Decepticons are at this whole war thing than the Autobots that plays over Ratchet’s little monologue here. If ever the ‘Cons needed an add campaign video, this is it right here!

With that exposition out of the way, some new Energon has been detected, and Optimus readies his team to go out and secure it. Ratchet says that they need to be careful this time and not get injured, because if they do, he might not have the resources to patch them up. Ratchet laments that he wishes he could do more to help the team; seeing them all depart like that really sets … and I guess Raf disappeared, because the next thing you know, Ratchet is injecting himself with the Synthetic Energon formula, despite declaring that this will need further trials before it can be tested on Autobots. Still, here his behavior, while certainly reckless, can be understood. This first dose knocks him out, ending the teaser.

This is obviously a drug/steroid-message episode, something that most older children’s cartoons have- episodes that are also notoriously slandered by the very networks sometimes- and as far as message shows go, this one’s a marked improvement over “Deus Ex Machina” and “T.M.I.”. While this is definitely a simplified example of what steroids do, it’s probably a good thing that children aren’t learning about how your career in the NFL can be brought down by simple blood and pee- don’t wanna crush those young dreams of theirs! Anyway, as far as drug episodes go, this one’s not bad, and having it focus on the doctor of the cast means that you get the added layer of legalization in there- I’m not coming down on either side of that issue, or on drugs in general, really, I’m just pointing out a potential subtext to this.

“Stronger, Faster” was written by Mairghread Scott, who would go on to be a prominent writer for IDW, penning the entirety of their Windblade book and generally fixing a lot of the gender issues that Simon Furman introduced when he wrote the Spotlight issue for Arcee, so that’s good. Scott’s a very character- and dialogue-focused writer, which is why most of her scripts are some of the stronger for this show; she gave us “Hurt” and “Chain of Command”, and her work here is of equal caliber.

In action-oriented land, the Autobots are chasing Knockout and Breakdown, with the latter hauling one single cube of Energon, which illustrates how desperate the situation is. Knockout doesn’t want to GroundBridge out without giving the Autobots an excuse to burn as much fuel as possible, so that’s why they’re doing this instead of being sensible.

And as far as chases go, this one’s one of the stronger ones on this show, with the Decepticons calling in air support for added drama. This also takes place during the night, and I love how the Prime models look at night; there’s something about the way the lighting works with that that just make them look absolutely gorgeous. This is also riveting to watch; the score and the swift camera movements really make me feel engaged in the scene. It’s very nicely directed. The ‘Cons shoot down some rocks to block the Autobot’s pursuit of them, but Arcee pulls a Legolas on us and pulls ahead, transforms, and then just hops on the debris as its balling, leaping over the giant rock pile and continuing her pursuit, transforming back into vehicle mode.

Optimus orders her to fall back, saying that she’s outnumbered, but she comes back with… well, with the slap in the face that they’re always outnumbered; they’re gonna have to start being bolder about this kind of shit lest they end up losing the war. It’s an exchange that will have greater importance later. Optimus orders that Ratchet prepare an emergency GroundBridge for Arcee instead, but Arcee’s not having that either. Still, even she cannot outlast eleven pairs of missiles, and she eventually gets surrounded. With backup unavailable thanks to the giant pile of rocks, Ratchet decides that he must go into the field and offer his aid.

The GroundBridge has been seen so far to be pretty routine in where it deploys its occupants; the most exciting use of it up until now had been probably in “Convoy” when they bridged onto a moving train. But here, it pops up out in the sky, with Ratchet just dropping down and causing no end of mayhem. Given that Ratchet’s voiced by Combs and we have Scott writing this, well, the GroundBridge this episode is used for theatrics in the most class way possible! In fact, we wouldn’t see the Bridge used liked this- up in the sky- until twenty-seven episodes later! Well, Ratchet’s here now and is doped up on some pretty amazing shit, because he proceeds to lay down the mother of all beat-downs on these poor Vehicons, executing some slick moves and being pretty macabre ruthless. Optimus and the others finally manage to get over the giant pile of rocks, and that’s enough for Knockout and Breakdown to call a retreat.

Back at base, everyone wants to know what’s going on with Ratchet, and he spills about giving himself a shot of “Synth En” (patent pending). Optimus is wary, but Arcee’s all for it:

“Optimus, you didn’t see Ratchet out there. He was in overdrive. We should all try this stuff!”

I can’t really add anything to that. That line has always made me smile, even now after having watched this multiple times, I still chuckle at it. Can you imagine if kids just stopped the episode right here?! Optimus’ is in fact the only voice of reason here, with everyone else wanting to get high… is this what high school parties are like nowadays? I don’t actually know because I spent my high school career sitting in front of a computer screen writing out reviews of Transformers episodes.

Um… anyway. So, now we get probably the most infamous scene in the whole show- well, one that isn’t connected to Armada, anyway. It starts out with Ratchet sparring with Bulkhead, besting him thanks to his hopped up Energon fix. Bumblebee and Arcee round the corner to check on the commotion, and we get this:

Ratchet: “You have competition, Bulk. I’m a bit stronger than I used to be. Also a bit faster! [To Bumblebee] Think you can take me, muscle car?”

Bumblebee: “[No way!]”

Ratchet: “Wimp. [To Arcee] *Click click* How’s it hummin’?”

Arcee: “Did he just…”

Bulkhead: “Stronger, faster, studlier.”

Again, I really can’t add anything to that. I’m greatful that this hitting on Arcee was confined to when the men on the show were high, otherwise this could’ve gotten into some extremely uncomfortable and sexist territory. Because hey, having an episode about drugs and addiction, we’re all for that, but teaching young children, about half of whom are boys, to not harass women, that’s crossing the line there, buddy! Just stay in your not-quite-liberal-enough-to-piss-anyone-off corner and we’ll all be happy, okay?

Anyway, Ratchet muses that he has to be at the top of his game, despite Optimus’ earlier thoughts that they only have one doctor and that they better keep him out of harm’s way. The Autobots detect another vain of Energon, and while Optimus is all set to proceed like business as usual, Bulkhead is adamant that they wait for Ratchet, their “secret weapon”.

“This mission is unlikely to require medical expertise-“

“But you never know if it may require additional firepower. Bumblebee can handle GroundBridge duty.”

Well, big talk, Ratchet, considering you have no long-ranged weapons in your arsenal and are now confining a ‘bot who does to the base. That’s pretty jaded. And his antics grow worse as they embark on this mission, rushing headlong into battle despite Bulkhead noting how weak the Energon signal is anyway. The battle’s short, but Ratchet does spot a Decepticon miner running away, and he gives chase. This illustrates how far Ratchet has veered from being a medical officer bent on helping and healing his allies, to just being a bit of a sadist and injuring this guy for intel on where Megatron is. He gets it, sure, but come on, there’s no need to melt the guy’s face off for it! And the way Ratchet seems to enjoy it, with that smile over his face as he gets to work makes me really not want him as my doctor.

Optimus and the others catch up to him before he can kill the guy. Optimus is pretty aghast at what’s going on:

“Ratchet! What are you doing?”

“Getting results.”

“And breaking protocol. That was a Decepticon miner, Servant class, not warrior class.”

“Oh and let me guess, I’m just the medic.”

“Autobots do not inflict harm unless all other options have been exhausted.”

Well… okay, sure, in principle that sounds good, but this is a war after all. Now, obviously I’m by no means condoning violence for violence’s sake, but considering that later this episode, the Autobots will attack several Decepticon miners anyway, the specificity of this seems a bit odd.

But then we get to one of the best conversations for this show, a really interesting debate about how far Optimus is willing to go in this war:

“Is this really the time for another lecture, Optimus. You didn’t happen to just discover Megatron’s current location, did you? Well, I did! And do you happen to know where there’s a stockpile of raw Energon ripe for the taking? I do…. ‘Calm’ is the last thing we need. ‘Calm’ is what lost us Cybertron. The ‘Cons have a warship, an army. All this Energon scouting. Do you think Megatron isn’t gearing up for something big? We’re squandering our resources, chasing after his crumbs, when we need to be hitting him hard and hitting him now, precisely where it hurts.”

Before we continue this scene, I do want to point out two things about this monologue here. First, I’ve always wondered about that “gearing up for something big” comment. We know that next episode is when the whole Unicron thing starts, but if that hadn’t happened, what was Megatron’s plan with all this Energon. This isn’t a criticism of the show; I just liked that line there. And coupled with Ratchet’s plan of just storming the ship, it again brings an eerie light over what happens in “Deadlock”. There, Ratchet has actually helped the ‘Cons with their Omega Lock project, but when I watched Optimus and the others take the Decepticon warship, I had this in the back of my mind. Because what Ratchet is saying here isn’t all that off the mark. He wants to be more proactive, and while Optimus’ argument against this plan is that this would likely be a suicide mission, the reasoning behind Ratchet’s argument is sound. They’re not doing any good fighting the ‘Cons after the fact. And Arcee’s comment from earlier rings true here, that they’re always going to be outnumbered. And I like that that line was not only directed at Optimus, but also at Ratchet, and here we hear his inner thoughts aloud, echoing that sentiment despite his earlier warning to her about being reckless.

Ratchet continues his tirade, bringing this whole thing home, saying that while Optimus may care about human lives enough to not bring the fight to the Decepticons, he apparently doesn’t care enough about their own lives, bringing up Cliffjumper and royally pissing off Arcee. It’s one of the few times that Cliffjumper’s death actually matters in the context of the conversation and doesn’t feel forced. Finally, Ratchet plays his trump card:

“You know your problem, Optimus? For such a big strong ‘bot, you’re soft. You didn’t pound Megatron into scrap when you had the chance! Many chances, in fact!”

This line would, intentionally or no, be the catalyst that sets much of Optimus’ character arc in motion throughout the remainder of this season and through much of the next. Calling him out like this may make Ratchet seem overly aggressive, which is part of the point, but behind that is an all-too-bitter truth. Optimus has been playing softball here, and this line seems to shake him out of that ignorance to make him far more aggressive and proactive, as seen next episode where he just beats seven kinds of shit out of Megatron.

Optimus’ response, that the Synth En has impaired Ratchet’s judgment and that he’s now confined to base, actually confirms much of what Ratchet said and is a sign that Optimus is, perhaps, in denial. For Ratchet, this rant was a chance to let it all out in the open, that even he, Optimus’ best friend and most trusted ally can see how the Autobots are waging a losing battle now. Ratchet’s usually realistic approach to things now borders on cynicism, but I like that its cynicism founded in fact and a reasonable viewpoint; this debate isn’t conjured up from thin air just to have conflict amongst the crew. Like the debates in both “One Shall Rise, Part 2” and “OrionPax, Part 1”, the stuff that Ratchet is going on about has been established lore and his views actually echo a few of the audience’s own around this time.

Out of universe, this scene is handled very well. Direction-wise, I love how the camera subtly shifts from a wide angle to more of an intimate one as the argument starts to heat up, finally ending on a closeup shot of Optimus’ face. Shaunt Nigoghossian, who also gave us “One Shall Rise, Part 2”, directed this episode and the tension that he’s able to convey with that scene is mirrored here. And of course, Jeffery Combs knocks it out of the park with his empathetic speech, making what would otherwise be harsh accusations be somewhat more like hard truths that he too is starting to realize as he’s saying them. There’s a lot of emotion packed into this, and it was a great scene.

With Ratchet’s judgment deemed impaired, Optimus order that he return to base, but upon opening the GroundBridge, Ratchet walks through, and then promptly reemerges, taking out Bulkhead before speeding off. They don’t follow, because hey, it’s not like one of them is a speedster motorcycle, right? It could be that their Energon reserves are depleted and they didn’t want to chase down one of their friends when they could reserve it for another battle with the ‘Cons, but it would’ve been nice to get even a token line in there about that. Instead, they reconvene at base, and because of all that Synth En in his system, they can’t locate Ratchet’s signal.

They’ll have to hurry it up though, because Ratchet’s at the Decepticon’s latest mining operation, taking out Breakdown, an impressive feet no doubt. Megatron learns from Knockout that the Autobots have a new warrior in play. Ratchet arrives, only to be mocked by Megatron for his troubles:

That is your fearsome new adversary? He’s Optimus Prime’s medic!”

Ratchet takes this all in stride, delivering a rather frightening one-liner:

“Oh no, Megatron. I am your doctor of doom!”

And then he gets really ballsy and just punches Megatron in the face! Damn! Well, Megatron’s not gonna take this sitting down, so he catches the next punch and then upon hearing Knockout’s theory that it’s probably chemical enhancement that’s making Ratchet more “spirited”, Megatron punches a huge hole in Ratchet’s chest there, letting all the Synth En spill out.

“There’s your laboratory sample, doctor. Find out. If a chemical enhancement can do this to Prime’s lapdog, imagine what it could do for our troops”

Yeah, might make them actually able to fight and shoot worth a damn.

With the Synth En out of his system, Ratchet’s signal comes back online, and the other Autobots rush to save him. We get yet another rare view of the GroundBridge, as we follow everyone through it this time; I think the only other time we do that is in “Operation Bumblebee”, so this is a treat! This is also a lovely one-take, with Arcee driving through, transforming, and then having the camera pan around her and the rest of the ‘bots to see the action unfolding. It’s quite dramatic!

Knockout’s finished taking his sample of Ratchet’s Synth En blood, and gives probably one of the most realistic lines of the whole show:

“Doctor to doctor, I must say, your contribution to the Decepticon cause is very much appreciated. I’ll be sure to boast of your accomplishment when you’re gone.”

And so many underappreciated and plagiarized scientists sympathized with Ratchet right then.

Well, we’ve seen with Megatron that having a hole in your chest only makes you only mildly dead, so Ratchet’s able to fight Knockout, get the sample jar back, and promptly smash the canister, destroying the Synth En. He passes out, the Autobots rescue him, and back at base, Optimus informs him that while his actions were pretty shit, they did get some much needed Energon out of the whole thing, so that’s good. But a drop of the formula remains on the broken glass back in the mining operation, and Knockout’s there to collect.

Post episode follow-up: Final score for “Stronger, Faster” is 7/10. While it is a bit formulaic- there’s only so much originality in a drug message episode, after all- what it brings to the table is solid stuff. The action is awesome, seeing Ratchet do his fighting thing in the beginning act was riveting, and even before that the chase was just awesome. Scott and Nigoghossian handle the episode with practiced hands and Jeffrey Combs finally gets to do more than be sarcastic back at base. The middle act is really where this shines; that monologue that Ratchet goes on is very nicely written, natural sounding and delivered brilliantly. There’s a good amount of tension in this episode with none of it feeling macabre or depressing to me. Overall, this is certainly a solid episode, and a memorable one too, with Combs being able to stretch his legs a bit here.

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