The G1 Cartoon - Cynical Cash-in or Something More? - an essay.

Discussion in 'Transformers General Discussion' started by Ryan F, Nov 15, 2011.

  1. Ryan F

    Ryan F Transform and Roll Out! TFW2005 Supporter

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    The G1 Cartoon: Cynical Cash-in or Something More?

    The early 80s saw the popularisation of children’s cartoons that were either based upon or spawned a range of toys. From Transformers to Thundercats to Care Bears, it became unusual to spot a range of toys or action figures that didn’t have a relationship to a TV show or movie franchise.

    Some of these shows were accused of being nothing more than glorified toy commercials, an argument not without some justification – even today the same criticisms are levelled at the Michael Bay Transformers movies.

    So were the G1 cartoons really just a shameless plug for a bunch of action figures, or did they have any artistic merit? And how is it that certain 80s toy cartoons (notably Transformers and Thundercats) remain popular today, whereas other shows such as Centurions are less popular?

    Looking at the 80s toy/cartoon revolution as a whole, a couple of things stand out – many, if not all of these cartoons were slaves to current fashions in a way that Transformers was not.

    For a start, in Transformers there was no ‘cute little funny character’, at least until Wheelie came along in the movie. It seems an obvious point to make in hindsight, but it’s amazing looking back that the closest Spike got to having a lovable, huggable friend was Bumblebee, who was really just a standard Autobot.

    For those who weren’t around at the time, virtually every kid’s show had a ‘cutesy’ character, from Orko in ‘Masters of the Universe’ to Snarf in ‘Thundercats’. As such, it’s amazing how Transformers went by without one for so long.

    The reason for this was the huge popularity of Star Wars, and the immensely kid-friendly duo of R2-D2 and C-3PO. The success of these characters was so massive, that it was hard to find a show that didn’t have a droid substitute on the character roster. Twiki in ‘Buck Rogers’, Muffet in ‘Battlestar Galactica’, K9 in ‘Doctor Who’, Scooter in ‘Go-Bots’, T-Bob in ‘MASK’, 7-Zark-7 in ‘Battle of the Planets’... the list is as long as your arm – I’m sure readers who were around in the 80s themselves could add a few more to this list.

    And cutesy robots weren’t Star Wars’ only legacy. Prince Adam and Teela were pretty much carbon-copies of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. Thundercats had a ghostly father-figure character called Jaga, who fulfilled exactly the same plot function as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars franchise. Both Lion-O and He-Man had magical swords.

    Of course, in Transformers: The Movie, all this changed – a cute robot companion was introduced, Hot Rod took on the Luke Skywalker mantle, and Unicron was just a giant Death Star. Megatron even got to wield a light-sabre!

    But it remains a fact that, for its first two seasons, the Transformers G1 cartoon largely eschewed the looming influence of Star Wars.

    So, how does this ignoring of Star Wars make G1 seasons 1 and 2 somehow better than the rest? Well, firstly it shows that the writers and producers were eager to come up with their own ideas, rather than brazenly crib from whatever else was big at the time.

    And even if the lack of Star Wars references are just ‘different’ rather than ‘better’... at the very least it makes the show seem a whole lot less dated in retrospect than the other shows do today. Show a kid a random G1 episode from the first two seasons, and I’d be surprised if he or she could figure out the year it was made. True, there’s the occasional piece of 80s kitsch that shines through – Bumblebee at the video arcades, Tracks having adventures with street-punks, the light-sabre-esque duel at Sherman Dam etc. But these moments are fleeting, and never upstage the rest of the story. Whereas the crew of MASK wear jumpsuits that can only be described as 1980s, and with Jem & The Holograms being even worse slaves to contemporary fashion, Spike in contrast is nearly always seen to wear his oil-rigger uniform, completing the sense of timelessness that the early G1 stories tended to have.

    Another point in G1’s credit (again sadly sacrificed in the third season) was the brilliant relationship between the show’s two most important characters – no, not Optimus Prime and Spike, but rather Megatron and Starscream.

    In creating these characters, the show’s writers deserve huge respect, as do voice artists Frank Welker and Chris Latta for bringing these characters to life. Watching the shows back, the ‘bickering married couple’ relationship between these two is one of the stand-out features of the show.

    Every episode, Megatron would come up with a new scheme, only for it to be foiled by the Autobots. But unlike Beast Man, S-S-Slithe et al. Starscream was more than just a brainless henchman – he was more than a match for Megatron.

    And at times the relationship between these two got more than a little post-modern – in places these characters joked at each other about how their latest scheme was probably doomed to failure. For example, when Megatron proclaims in ‘Heavy Metal War’ that he will have the “power to rule the Autobots forever!!!”, Starscream responds with “Forgive me, but I believe your boast sounds vaguely familiar!”

    The point is that, where other shows have a main villain who is always foiled every week, it’s business as usual. But in Transformers they made a joke of it, in a sly wink to the audience that yes, it’s a bit ridiculous, but that they also know that it’s ridiculous. Transformers is hardly ever po-faced or too serious about itself, and the episodes which do take themselves a bit too seriously, or have obvious moral messages, usually rank amongst the show’s worst.

    True, there were other cartoons that were self-knowing and prone to little winks at the audience (Dangermouse and The Visionaries being the best examples off the top of my head), but these came later. Transformers was a fun show because the writers were obviously having fun, too: Starcream’s response to Megatron’s cry of “Show no mercy!” in the episode ‘The Golden Lagoon’?

    “Do we ever?!”

    Another point to mention (especially in comparison to ‘Thundercats’) is that Transformers had a massive voice cast, including a number of brilliant actors in their own right. Aside from the aforementioned Welker and Latta, we also had such luminaries as Scatman Crothers (‘The Shining’, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’), Neil Ross (‘Gremlins 2’, ‘Back to the Future 2’), and Clive Revill (the only actor to have appeared in both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises) to name just a few.

    This meant that each actor only played a few characters, allowing the actors to develop distinctive personalities for each robot. And even then, the talents of the voice artists were so excellent that it was difficult to tell when any duplication occurred (for example Starscream/Sparkplug, Grimlock/Skyfire or Beachcomber/Seaspray). And having such a distinctive and diverse array of characters was a godsend – average toys such as Warpath and Bumblebee flew off the shelves, arguably as a direct result of their excellent portrayal in the TV show.

    Another point to note is that Transformers quickly eschewed a simple formula. In the early part of the first season, most episodes mainly concerned the Decepticons’ latest plans to plunder Energon, which were inevitably foiled by the Autobots. Even though the writers played around with the scenario and background slightly (rubies in Burma, ancient energies in Peru, green crystals at the North Pole, power from Sherman Dam etc.), it was still the same old schtick every week, with just the odd notable exception such as the excellent ‘Divide and Conquer’.

    But from about ‘Heavy Metal War’ onwards, all that changes – the situations and storylines become much more diverse. ‘Carnage in C-Minor’ and ‘Call of the Primitives’ are so startlingly different, they almost appear to be a different show. Compare the moodiness of ‘Dark Awakening’ to the comedy of ‘Grimlock’s New Brain’.

    Post Season One, the Transformers cartoon could tackle any type of story, of any style, in any location. This gave the show a wonderful variety, as viewers never knew what to expect in any given week. But whereas Transformers was able to paint a broad canvas, other shows stuck rigidly to a standard template – whereas the Thundercats were stranded on Third Earth, MASK were always called out of their day-jobs at inconvenient moments, and Masters of the Universe would always preach moral messages, Transformers was able to buck that particular trend.

    Let me just point out that I’m not here to denigrate or criticise any of these other shows I’ve mentioned. Indeed, Transformers itself could be absolutely terrible at times. But the point I’m making is that the G1 Transformers cartoon chose a different route to success than many of its peers, a route which – arguably – helps to stand it in good stead even today as a source of fond memories and brisk DVD sales!
     
  2. Bass X0

    Bass X0 King of Muay Thai

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    It was the eighties. Cartoons were made of everything marketable back then.

    There were good and bad episodes of Transformers in each of the four seasons. Some told a great story, others had a completely dumb and ridiculous premise.
     
  3. doomboy536

    doomboy536 Universe Onslaught fanboy

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    The cartoon obviously got something right, as it made a far bigger impact on the collective memories of our cultures than the comics.
     
  4. Lithuriel

    Lithuriel Member

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    I agree with you on this point. I tried getting into the original marvel comics. They just didn't seem to give off the same vibe.
     
  5. 1984forever

    1984forever Banned

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    The voice acting of Chris Latta is the best ever in a cartoon, hands down. Props to High Moon for attempting to do Starscream's voice, even though they failed miserably at it. So until they find another person on this planet of now 7 billion that can impersonate Chris Latta's voice... I'll say that Starscream died with Chris Latta.
     
  6. igniz1984

    igniz1984 Well-Known Member

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    I think the closest we will get to a latta starscream voice is DR.SMOOV. He does an excellent impersonation in his videos.
     
  7. Autovolt 127

    Autovolt 127 Get In The Titan, Prime!

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    Doug Parker (BW Terrorsaur) he also doubled as Starscream in Possession also close to Latta. They would have gotten Latta if he hadn't died a few years before. However i don't think Screamer died with Latta. Recently Charlie Adler, Tom Kenny and Steven Blum all brought different renditions to the charecter and made them interesting each portrayal. I know Latta sets the tone but he's not the only Air Commander Starscream.



    G1 was probably one of the best and most entertaining 80's toy commericals. It's a shame i'm not a 80's child otherwise i would have said G1 was my childhood and crap. (I was born in 1994)
     
  8. NathanS

    NathanS Well-Known Member

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    As a fan of animation, that comes across as amongst the faintest praise possible. There's a reason why the eighties are seen as part of the animation's dark age.
     
  9. Feralstorm

    Feralstorm I ship Nick & Judy TFW2005 Supporter

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    I hadn't thought about it too strongly 'til now, but it's true Transformers (and G.I. Joe even moreso) didn't dip into the "cute kid-appeal sidekick" territory nearly as deeply as many of its contemporaries (at least as stated until the third season with Daniel, Wheelie, - even Grimlock)

    Maybe it's not just nostalgia that makes G1 more tolerable to me than some other 80's shows. :) 
     
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2011
  10. PlanckEpoch

    PlanckEpoch Just a regular old plumbus

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    I like these essays. I think the strength of GI Joe and Transformers stem from the strength of the toys as a whole. GI Joe continually innovated in action figures, and Transformers set the stage for transforming toys in America. Since the first Transformers there had been competitors but they've never really achieved the same success as the Transformers brand.

    I think stuff like Transformers and GI Joe were simply a case of being in the right place at the right time. It also helped that there was healthy comic book support for both properties also. GI Joe and Transformers also had help in that the series writing was overseen by Marvel as well as Sun Bow! I cannot stress enough Marvel's contribution to how Transformers and GI Joe are now. They are responsible for the characters we know and love today.
     
  11. bellpeppers

    bellpeppers A Meat Popsicle

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    G1 was a half hour long commercial with a deliberate effort toward artistic merit.

    Done.
     
  12. 1984forever

    1984forever Banned

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    I just watched "shockwave's burden" by Dr. Smoov. Hilarious. And he does sound just like Starscream when he's not Screaming.
     
  13. Superquad7

    Superquad7 We're only human. Super Mod

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    This is another nice read! I think you hit some really key points.

    I can answer the initial questions, "So were the G1 cartoons really just a shameless plug for a bunch of action figures, or did they have any artistic merit? And how is it that certain 80s toy cartoons (notably Transformers and Thundercats) remain popular today, whereas other shows such as Centurions are less popular?":

    Yes (and I praise the usage of the word "merit" there, as the question is not whether or not it is art or not, as that's absurd; the question [which you pose well] is it's merit or intent to have it); and
    it was a successful plug!

    While the creators of the cartoon have continually said over the years that they were simply making a cartoon and they were making many of these shows in a short amount of time, I do think the intent is always to make something of value.

    The show's popularity is tied into the toyline's popularity and vice versa. Both were very successful at the time making the other successful. TRANSFORMERS was an absolute hit when it came out, both as a show and a toyline.
     
  14. Nachtsider

    Nachtsider Banned

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    They didn't give off the same vibe to me, either. But that was because they struck me as being far better. There never passes a day when I do not lament the fact that the G1 cartoon diverged from the comics.

    The only reason for this far bigger impact is because most kids prefer looking at moving pictures than reading printed matter.
     
  15. doucoo

    doucoo U're an idiot Starscream!

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    A couple of points.

    Megatron's lightsaber in the movie was intentional as a person who had worked on star wars and had something to do with the lightsaber was working on the Transformer movie.

    Star Wars was a copy of all things Lucas loved in films and has similarities to some Akira Kurasawa (spelling) films, Hidden Fortress anyone? Don't get me wrong, I love the original star wars trilogy but sword fights, whether they be with with flourescent blades or not, gun fights, good v evil had all been done before. Lucas brought it all together with a new twist and did it very well. Pity he didn't succeed to continue the trend with episodes 1 - 3 (I still keep hoping they were a very bad dream)

    (for the record, Harry Potter is just a copy of things seen before too, just presented differently) Wife hates when I tell her that!

    For me, the fact there was a cartoon where I could see the the characters transform and where they had destinctive personalities helped me love the toys. This is along with the comics like "Autobots Last Stand" that I read over and over and toys that actually transformed like the cartoon (I loved the engineering of it all, not that I knew that at the time!)

    I also never really saw much of the cartoon after G1 Series 1 as a child. Certainly the bickering and witty comments did make me laugh. Love the original G1 episodes. Season 2 was good but I never saw this till I was an adult and perhaps that is the reason that I love series 1 more because I saw it as a child.

    Oh and yes, definitely a toy advert..........how much did I want all the toys!
     
  16. Auto Morph

    Auto Morph Gimmick Bot

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    Starfish, I just want to thank you.

    In a seemingly growing mass of idiots and aggressive, selfish nerdism on these boards lately, you are a breath of intelligent and thought-provoking fresh air. Keep it up :thumbs2: 
     
  17. doomboy536

    doomboy536 Universe Onslaught fanboy

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    You sound like my mum :lol 
     
  18. cagey

    cagey Well-Known Member

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    Orphans and social causes

    Starfish, very nice essay to read, thanks.

    I would like to insert my .02 here, that also orphans were popular portrayals in addition to the [often diminutive] comic-relief type characters like Orko, Twiki and Wheelie. CHiPs, Airwolf, A-Team, etc. all had orphans - Airwolf, my G*d, half of season 2 was like Airwolf was a g.d. charity, saving not only orphans, but picked on Asian kids, the intellectually disabled, grown men in wheelchairs, war veterans, rednecks, Mexicans (in Mexico), Russians sympathetic to capitalism, and Shannen Doherty. JFC, who decided to change that show into a chick flick? I need to start exploring who the head writers were for all those token cause episodes.
     
  19. D-Unit

    D-Unit #1 Heel

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    This. You have an interesting essay, but no matter how you slice it, any cartoon in the 80s was made to sell the toys. Period. (and I LOVE the G1 cartoon, but it is what it is). Trust me, as a child of the 80s whenever a new show came on, the first thing we thought was "When are toys coming out", then I would go harass my parents endlessly. G1 ended up being more than they intended, but it was just a toy commercial. It is what it is.
     
  20. igniz1984

    igniz1984 Well-Known Member

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    To hasbro, g1 was just a toy commericial. To the writers, I believe it was more than that. If you ever watch some of the interviews on the rhinod dvd's with writers David Wise or Larry Strauss, they talk about how they pushed the envelop back then in regards to story telling and character development in a kids cartoon. I think that's what makes the g1 cartoon something more than just a cash in, and made it so memorable.
     

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