Synopsis: For countless millennia, a war has been waged among a race of robotic lifeforms and their separate factions, the Autobots and Decepticons. The battle between the two sides led to the destruction of their home world Cybertron, and leaving them scattered throughout the cosmos. Eventualy the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime and his team made their way to Earth, but so has the leader of the Deceptions, Megatron along with his own forces. Now together with three human allies, the Autobots continue their battle against the Decepticons on Earth, and seeking a way to eventually restore their lost homeworld
So I wouldn’t exactly count myself among the biggest fans of the Transformers franchise, but I’ve generally enjoyed the incarnations of it I’ve seen. Of course having seen some of the 80’s series, the Unicron anime trilogy, Transformers Animated and *sigh* the Bayformers movies there’s only so much of the same story you can really take without hoping they can put enough of a new spin on things to make it fresh. As such when this series first came out, I wasn’t too interested in checking this out despite the level of praise it was getting since I was kind of burned out on the franchise by that point. Though now it’s been a couple of years and I’ve managed to avoid enough new Transformers stuff to be able to give this one a fairer shake. So does it actually do enough to really stand out from the other various incarnations of the story? Well the answer is both yes and no.
As I assume anyone reading this is over the age of 8 and at least has a basic idea of how the Transformers franchise works, I’ll spare going over the direct narrative details and jump straight to discussing the version of the plot in question. The fact that the basic premise of the franchise is an ongoing war is something that it’s never gotten much millage out of outside of anything directly taking place on Cybertron but this series manages to work it quite well. There’s a bigger emphasis on how much the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons has turned into a never-ending conflict and one that’s been costly for both sides as they spend just as much time fighting over resources (specifically their “lifeblood” Energon that allows them to function) as they do trying to wipe each other out.
What’s particularly of note though, is that compared to other versions, the Autobots here kind of feel like actual war veterans, having each suffered through some form of loss, and carrying some kind of baggage. Most notably with this show’s version of Arcee suffering through PTSD in regardless to losing people close to her, and it plays a pretty big role in regards to her character arc and how she treats others. It helps to create some interesting paralells between them and their human companions, Jack, Miko and Raph who all kind of help to build off their respective robot counterparts, Arcee, Bulkhead and Bumblebee as they work through each other’s flaws. It works it better in regards to Jack and Arcee than the others since they don’t develop quite as much but it’s one of the stronger uses of the dynamic I’ve seen from the franchise.
Even the Deceptions here are a bit more complex than usual here. Megatron is still well…Megatron but this particularly incarnation feels a bit less generic evil overlord, and gets to be a lot more pragmatic. Starscream on the other hand, is a much less effective schemer than in previous versions but in exchange gets a whole character arc devoted to whether he should just accept his fate as Megatron’s lackey. As always there’s usually quite a bit of civil war going on within their ranks and it manages to keep things interesting as Megatron has to spend just as much time keeping his subordinates in check as he does worrying about the Autobots. Something of which he actually manages to become savvy to, the further the show goes along.
It’s also very notable that compared to the other versions, this one is perhaps the most effective at making the Cybertronians feel more like living creatures and less like well…robots in regards to vunerability. When they “bleed” Energon, it really looks like their actually bleeding and when some of the characters die, the show can get pretty brutal how violent said deaths are. In fact it’s probably one of the most effective uses of robot gore I’ve seen in animation since Samurai Jack, and in a lot of ways it’s even stronger in this show since it’s less a means to get around censorship and more of way to hammer in the severity of what’s happening.
As such, the biggest flaw of this version ultimately comes down to that it’s still generally the same story. It manages to maintain a tight Gargoyles style sense of continuity in regards to the storyline and similar writing to match as it gets pretty deep into Transformers mythos as the show goes along, but the sense of scale never changes too much from beginning to end. It’s not too crippling but for a 65 episode show it can feel a bit draggy and all the more so when it’s still occasionally subject to the usual action show cliches in regards to silliness. Also while this version does do more to make Optimus Prime a bit more interesting than in other continuities, his standardized heroic traits still come off as kind of boring and his development is kind of lacking compared to the other Autobots. Thankfully though, the tighter narrative is ultimately what proves to be it’s saving grace as even the slowest episodes usually end up tying into the larger story at play and it does manage to have a complete ending with a movie epilogue to wrap things up (well aside from the weirdly ambiguous fate of one of the villains but it’s not a major hangup) which is something I can certainly appreciate give how much actual endings are a rarity when it comes to action shows from the west.
The show is animated by Japanese 3DCG veteran studio Polygon Pictures who’s best known for stuff like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Tron: Uprising and if you want to get into anime examples, Knights of Sidonia. 3DCG still isn’t something people have a lot of tolerance for, but at this point Polygon’s more or less figured out how to best work the craft and it shows. Some of the fight scenes can look absolutely stunning and the show can make good use of cinematography from time to time to really capture the feel of some of the more horrific scenes in the series. The limited scale of the series’s narrative also puts a limit on how diverse some of the backgrounds can be but as the show explores more of Cybertron and Earth, the visuals manage to take a bit of a step up. As far as the character designs go though, the human characters look pretty basic for 3DCG standards, but the Transformer designs on the other hand are a bit more varied than they’ve been in some of the other incarnations and look appropriately cool. The CG’s not the greatest thing, but it never puts too much of a strain on the show’s capabilities and when it gets to go all out, it can lead to some nice results.
So how much would I recommend Prime as a whole? Well if you’re as burned out on the franchise as I used to be then I imagine this series probably won’t do too much to change your mind since it’s differences generally don’t lie in the basic story. But if you’re interested in checking out a somewhat darker and grounded spin on said story, then this one may be right up your alley. It’s not the biggest transformation the franchise has ever pulled, but it’s one that helped to remind me part of what drew people to it in the first place.
Available for streaming on Netflix