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!