Friday, November 23, 2007

remembering Beast Wars

By "Beast Wars" I mean the 1996-1999 CGI Transformers series, in which sentient robots transformed into animal forms (as the series continued, it incorporated various vehicle-inspired forms too). I know Beast Wars much better than the original cartoon series, which the summer Transformers movie was based on. After seeing that movie, I was compelled to peruse my Beast Wars DVDs and view some selected episodes. Here's why Beast Wars is still so good:
  • Memorable characters. I'm inclined to think this is common to all Transformers series. Admittedly, those looking for subtlety and balanced characterization should perhaps keep looking. Those who want to be entertained by a rich variety of strongly-defined personalities (so strongly-defined that it borders on overexaggeration) should be satisfied. Of course, defining characters, especially the minor ones, in broad, easily-grasped strokes is the norm for TV shows. Beast Wars had some great ones, and it seems unfair to only list seven: Optimus Primal the just leader, Megatron (different robot, same name) the megalomaniacal manipulator, Tarantalus the insane genius, Black Arachnia the slippery schemer, Rattrap the wisecracking infiltrator, Waspinator the bullied underling, Dinobot the conscientious warrior. The cast of the show changed incredibly often, yet each addition and subtraction made an impact, particularly in the second season.
  • Malevolent aliens. This element of the show is not as corny as it sounds; it acts more as a bubbling undercurrent of anxiety or a convenient plot driver/game-changer than a central focus. An advanced race of alien beings has an intense preexisting interest in the planet of the series' setting, and to them the crash-landed embattled transformers are an intolerable disruption. Yet the sophisticated alien race always acts indirectly through the use of proxy devices of incredible power (only at the very end do they send a single representative). The episodes that actually do revolve around the aliens' actions all have two-word titles starting with the letters "O" and "V". These episodes make up no more than a handful, but include the two episodes which make up the exhilarating cliffhanger finale of the first season.
  • Advanced but limited robots. Some fictional stories strive to be plausible by trying to match, or at least not massacre, the unwritten rules of reality: excessive coincidences can't happen, people can't act without motivation, human heroes and villains can't be entirely good or entirely bad. Other fictional stories are set in a fictional reality with a fictional set of rules, but the story must still be "plausible" to those rules. The Beast Wars "reality" has its own set. Although a transformer can be endlessly repaired from devastating injuries, its true mystical core, known as a spark, must not be lost, else it ceases to be the same animate object. Too much exposure to too much "energon" in its surroundings will cause it to overload and malfunction, but transforming to a beast form nullifies the effect. A transformer in suspended animation as a "protoform" is vulnerable to reprogramming even to the extent of changing allegiances. Transwarp technology operates through space and time. However, the attention to internal consistency is tempered by...
  • A sense of fun. Beast Wars was filled with humor. Robots that can take a beating are ideal for slapstick gags (arguably, the show takes this freedom too far on a few occasions). A few of the characters have bizarre and unique eccentricities, such as speech patterns or personality quirks, which are mined for amusement. For instance, one transformer has been damaged into confusing his consciousness with his ant form, so one of his titles for Megatron is "queen". The transformers' dialog is peppered with high- and lowbrow jokes, mostly at each others' expense. Between Rattrap, Dinobot, Megatron, and Black Arachnia, sarcasm isn't in short supply. When one transformer claims time spent in a secretive relationship with an enemy to be "scout patrol", Rattrap comments, "Find any new positions?"
  • Battles galore. As befits a show whose title contains "wars", almost every episode contains one or more conflicts. The most common type is shootouts, naturally, but the wily transformers on either side employ diverse strategies and tactics to try to gain a decisive advantage: hand-to-hand combat, communication jamming, viruses/"venom", ambushes, stalking, feints, double-crosses, gadgets made by Tarantalus, etc. Surprisingly, Megatron stages a fake "defeat" of his forces in one episode (so a spaceworthy craft will be forged by combining everyone's equipment), and calls a truce that lasts for a few episodes (so he can refocus his attention to the imminent threat from the aliens). It's probably unnecessary to note that these battles are bloodless, even in the minority of battles that happen while in beast form, however beheading and dismembering (and denting) are common results of warfare. In fact, if Waspinator wasn't so often assigned to collect up the pieces for later repair, he would have very few functioning comrades.
  • Connections to the original series. Foremost, that the transformers of this series are descendants of the original transformers, whose battles in the original series are collectively called the Great War. Autobots preceded the basically-decent maximals. Decepticons preceded the basically-aggressive predacons. Intriguingly, during the Beast Wars the maximals and predacons are officially at peace, although the maximals apparently exert greater control than the predacons. Megatron is a rogue who was openly pursuing resources for war, before the maximal research vessel was diverted from its mission to chase Megatron to the planet, ultimately causing each spacecraft to crash. To state more of the connections between Beast Wars and the original series would spoil too much, because over time the writers increasingly intertwined the two series.
  • Vintage CGI. You may think that a CGI TV series that started in 1996 wouldn't be as visually impressive now. You're right. Fortunately, the people who worked on the show were all-too-familiar with the limitations, which means they generally did what they could do well. They avoided (or perhaps cut in editing?) what they couldn't. Apart from a few often-used locations, the "sets" are minimal. The planet has life-forms that aren't usually seen, sometimes giving the impression that the transformers are the only objects in the world that move around. On the other hand, the "shots" are creative and effective in composition, angle, zoom, etc., conveying mood and expressing information such that viewers are neither confused nor bored. The transformers, thanks partly to astute body movements and voice acting, are more emotive than one might guess (really, their faces shouldn't be able to move as much as they do--this is an easy little detail to forget about). Each season's CGI noticeably improved on the previous'. Just as Toy Story (1995) benefited by rendering toys instead of people, Beast Wars rendered robots. Nevertheless, the unconvincing fur and hair textures on the beast forms are best ignored.
  • Not Beast Machines. This is an excellent reason to cover after CGI quality. Beast Machines was the series that followed Beast Wars. It was pretty, angst-y, stark, and altogether dazzling in design. It had a built-in audience of Beast Wars fans...who stopped watching. Beast Machines was just a drag. The comparison to Beast Wars was night and day, even in the literal sense of being much blacker. Beast Machines had the unintentional side effect of illustrating how special Beast Wars was.

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