Rob's Pile of Transformers: Manic Ramblings

Manic Ramblings and Delirious Ranting
re: Recapping Beast Machines
12/25/00

Okay, I said I'd do this like a million years ago. Well, actually, I never said I'd do it at all. I just said I wasn't doing it that particular day. :]

But anyway.

I think I've kind of digested the series enough to think about it as a whole. At various times during the last few months, I've posited innumerable ways in which Beast Machines was flawed. I've figured out the ONE SINGLE THING that brought the series down -- I did this several times, in fact. :] I'll try and recollect some of this, and also take a look at the whole story arc and how it was presented to you, the viewer, and me, the reviewer.

First I'll warn you: there are SPOILERS ahead, for the ENTIRE SERIES. That includes ALL of Season 2.

SPOILERS, Thundercracker!

But the fans against us!

SPOILERS I say!

I've got a lot of negative things to say, but I don't want to give the impression I'm strongly against the series. I enjoyed it overall, and think it had a lot of good qualities -- even if I didn't like a lot of the directions it took, and even if I feel it generally fell short of what it could have been. Let's start with the good.

Most notably, the dialogue continued the same high standards set by Beast Wars -- the show doesn't talk down to its viewers, even if it does hammer them with repeat exposition at some points. Lines are frequently witty and spiced with pop culture references, most of which worked pretty well.

Other good points: The show had a long and involved plot that both demanded and assumed the viewer's committed attention -- this was no "magic reset button" show, where the status quo was restored at the end of Act III; nor did it pander to the short attention span of the stereotypical American viewer. It showed some sophisticated character development at many points -- Cheetor's evolution and his conflicts with Optimus, Silverbolt's regrowth into himself, Rattrap's struggles with self-doubt. Several portions layered plan on top of plan, especially the bits at the end of Season One, in a way that nearly recaptured the best of BW's multifacetted schemes. It continued the story of Beast Wars without being a fanboyish sequel. The animation was frequently beautiful (despite what many people refer to as "shortcuts" or "low quality".) It had some truly gripping episodes, such as "In Darkest Knight", "Spark of Darkness", "Fires of the Past", and "Prometheus Unbound", that easily rank among the finest TF episodes ever made; the first 4 eps of Season One are a non-stop, action-packed thrill ride. And for better or worse, it truly stretched the bounds of what is meant by "Transformers".

Okay. That's the good in a nutshell. Now, on to what you've been waiting for. >:]

Beast Machines, on some indefinable level, lacked a certain *soul* that Beast Wars had. I can't put my finger on any one reason for this; I think it's a combination of factors. For one thing, the show took itself *very* seriously. That's not inherently a bad thing; in fact, it was what the story structure called for, really. The setting and the situation were grim. Yet, BW was just about as grim sometimes... yet it still found time to be a pleasure to watch, found ways to make you smile even as Our Heroes fought for their very existance. I was *sad* when BW ended... it was like an era coming to a close. When BM ended, it was just, "well, okay, the story's over."

Another way of putting it: Beast Machines just isn't as FUN as G1 or Beast Wars. Both of those shows mixed in the fun with the serious in various ways. It didn't always work... but even at its most plot-gripping points (like the season cliffhangers), Beast Wars was always *fun* to watch. It often had a richness to the way the characters interacted that simply made it a pleasurable show to experience. Beast Machines also had rich character interactions, but they seem more canned, somehow -- "The purpose of this scene is for Silverbolt to demonstrate his patronizing attitude towards Cheetor".

That's not to say BM didn't make me laugh -- it did, numerous times. In fact, a lot of BM's humor went over much better than did that of Beast Wars (think Botanica and Rattrap's arguments in "Spark of Darkness", vs. Tazmanian Megatron from "Feral Scream".) Most of it was dialogue-based, meaning it didn't break the fourth wall as BW so often did. And the few sight gags that were included went over fairly well.

But somehow, BM lacked a certain overall magic that BW and G1 both had. Maybe it just tried too hard to be cool.

Another major failing of the series had to do with the plot structure. Strangely, BM suffered from having two or three continuous plots woven throughout its run. Part of the problem is that this lead to repeated exposition. I for one got very sick of Primal randomly philosophizing about the need for balance and harmony, and for the need for techno-organic stuff to overrun the planet, and the need to find/get/defend those Sparks. All these plot points are finite problems with a concrete solution: free the sparks, reformat the planet. Since the whole series is built around them, you *know* they won't be resolved till the very end of the series -- and in the meantime, the problems have to be kept in limbo. This particularly manifested itself in the form of the Spark quest, as week after week, one thing after the next kept Our Heroes from finding the Sparks.

Even that might not have been so bad, if it had been entirely legitimate things keeping them from achieving this goal. But sometimes -- as in "Fallout" and the time period before "Prometheus Unbound" -- they simply didn't look for the Sparks because they randomly decided to do something else. This came across as a completely random floundering, as if the Maximals' priorities were being organized by a random number generator. "We've got to find those sparks!" "The orchard is our only hope for the future!" "No, wait, we've got to find those sparks!" "No, wait! The orchard!" "Sparks!" "Orchard!" "Sparks!" "Orchard!" "Tastes great!" "That's gross, Megatron."

The main plots got old; yet every side-plot felt like a random diversion from these seemingly important goals. The entire biological plotline, when first introduced, seemed incredibly absurd, arbitrary, and random, in light of Our Heroes' desperate plight. It seemed utterly incomprehensible that any sane being would bother with *plants* when the very existance of the Transformer race was at stake. And once the bio-plot became established as a primary plot point, it was given a randomized but generally far-too-high priority for the Maximal team. There was almost no concievable way that this would actually *help* the Maximals in achieving the goals that actually mattered -- freeing the planet from Megs.

Indeed, a major problem with the plot execution was that the Maximals' priorities were terribly skewed. Destroying Megatron should have been a top priority and a standing order at ALL times, no matter the situation: you see him, you shoot him. Megatron is the lynchpin, the crux of the whole matter, the one, single, and highly vunerable enemy -- the ultimate head of the snake. Destroy him, and all the other problems are solved. How many times did Primal *argue* with Megatron instead of chopping his head off? How many times did the Maximals have clear shots at him? The show could have greatly increased its credibility by simply never allowing the Maximals to come anywhere close to Megatron (imagine a series finale in which the Maxies finally fight their way into Megs' control chamber for the first time ever! It'd also be a great chance to have the individual Maximals fall in battle, instead of them being defeated more-or-less off-screen, as happened in "Endgame" part 2. Imagine having the whole group battle their way into the chamber, only to fall one by one, with only Primal making it into the chamber alive!)

If you ignore the Megatron problem, it's almost inconcievable that Primal would think of *anything* beyond locating and freeing the missing Sparks, aside from the basic necessities of survival and self-defence. The team starts out with *four* members, against legions of foes. FOUR. The very first thing any sane commander would think about is bolstering the ranks. Second, infiltrating power plants, factories, etc, and blowing them the fuck up. Time enough to play with flowers AFTER the maniacal despot has been defeated.

Beast Machines should have been more militaristic. All the balance focus hocus pocus seemed *very* out of place. It goes against the general spirit of Transformers and especially against the basic plot and setting of the whole BM series. And most of it was total mumbo-jumbo nonsense in the first place. "Find your still point"?? "What begins in simplicity must grow in simplicity"? "Tame the beast within"? I couldn't decide whether to laugh or to groan at BM's psuedo-philosophical nuggets. This is one time when I have to agree with those who say "It's a kids show!!", which means it's not the place to be doling out bogus mantras that don't really seem to mean anything. Even if it means something, what good is it supposed to do you? The Maximals were all competent warriors *before* all of this. They didn't need such bizarro crud to fight effectively.

Pressing on: BM had a number of other problems beyond all these, as well. The most unpopular ones are unexplained major plot points, the recycled Spark sub-plot, and mischaracterization of the former Beast Wars cast.

I'll start with one point that encompasses all three: Rhinox's death. Maybe I didn't mention this before, but the way in which Rhinox was killed sucked, blew, and was generally horrid, terrible, contrived, unworthy, poorly written, unnecessary, stupid, annoying, insulting, crappy, dismissive, shitty, corporate, and all other manner of foul and uncouth adjectives. Rhinox, the character from Beast Wars, simply WOULD NOT choose to side with Megatron. Under any circumstances. Period! I can back this up by pointing to about 50 or so Beast Wars episodes that indisputably demonstrate that Rhinox values life, is gentle, caring, concerned for and very close to his friends, revels in nature, and is generally one hundred percent opposite from what he was shown to be in Beast Machines.

Yet we're expected to believe that he *did* elect to adopt Megatron's plans, and voluntarily became this cold, evil hatemonger who cared nothing for his one-time comrades or the Transformer race at large. Not that Megatron altered his personality, which is what happened in the Predacon Rhinox episode "Dark Designs", but that he simply observed Megatron's techno-death-hell Cybertron and decided he liked the idea, and simultaneously didn't like his old friends any more. And then, metaphorically at least, he dies because of this decision.

RHINOX WOULD NOT HAVE MADE THAT GODDAMN DECISION!!!!

ONLY if he was once again altered by Megatron would he change his outlook so radically -- and I mean altered fundamentally and completely, the way he was in "Dark Designs", which would mean he's no longer the same character (which in fact was the case.) Rhinox hints at this when he's making plans against Megs and Primal: "Since Megatron abducted my Spark and changed me..." This statement, the fact of Tankor/Rhinox's personality, and his insistence to the Maximals that he be called Tankor (forget which ep this was in, but it did happen) say that Megs did indeed alter Rhinox. Yet Rhinox is still punished for his actions. Not Tankor/Rhinox, but Rhinox himself, as if they were one and the same. Sure, they share the same lifeforce -- but the personality that we see through the second half of Season One is NOT the same personality that we know from Beast Wars. It's someone else. The Rhinox we know from BW isn't really shown till "Fallout", when he appears long enough to say that he's dead now.

It's a terribly insulting death for one of the BW/M era's oldest characters, and probably my personal favorite of the group that survived the Beast Wars. There was a certain poetic circularity in having all four of the Axalon's original crew survive to the very end of the series; BM immediately destroyed that. One wonders why Rhinox couldn't have been simply lumped in with the other survivors. Insufficient modeling time for a new toy? Okay, I can buy that, but really... don't KILL the guy, or at least don't do it like that. Sheesh.

That brings me to my next point: the recycled Sparks.

I still feel like having the new guys be the old guys smacks of fanboyism (even if that wasn't the motivation.) I guess it may have been a way for Skir to keep the unaccounted-for characters handy, in case Hasbro wanted to re-incarnate them as new toys, but really, they coulda been tossed into the Spark pond for that, too.

As it was, the three generals became only "temporary" characters, all to be killed off when their original incarnations returned or died. And that kind of spoiled them for the fans who might have liked them in their own right, while simultaneously spoiling the older characters for THEIR fans. From a tech perspective, it's never made clear just what was done to the recycled characters. Were they aware of what they were doing, or in control of it? The canon contradicts itself on these points.

Rhinox's total flip-flop isn't the only plot point which isn't covered adequately -- Beast Machines failed to explain the reasoning behind some of the series' basic premises:

  • WHY and HOW did Megatron manage to take over Cybertron? As I've said before, a few throw-away lines would be adequate to explain both of these. "It was easy enough to summon a passing ship for help... a ship which I then helped *myself* to." "I returned to a planet of Predacons made soft by years of Maximal domination. They would never listen to the true path, the path of conquest... so they were destroyed by it instead."

  • Likewise, WHY is it necessary to have this techno-organic balance that everybody's so keen on? Is it supposed to be retribution for the organic life of a bazillion years ago being wiped out? We don't even KNOW what killed them! Maybe they were dead a million years before the TFs even showed up! Maybe evolution just got the better of them! And how would such a thing be retribution, anyway? And why is it so important to have balance of what stuff is made of? Is it important that we have a balance in our cars between polycarbon fibers and metals? I don't see the BM situation as much different.

  • What was the significance, origin, and nature of the green goo? The stuff is the most magical plot device to wander across the screen since the Transmetal Driver, and like the driver, it's never given a word of explanation.

    Yet another problem with the series is that all the episodes tend to blur together, one into the next. There's two reasons for this: homogenious backdrops, and homogenious casting.

    Think about BW for a second. Is there any chance that someone would confuse "Proving Grounds", with its deep moonlit forests, with "Transmutate" and its dry, harsh desert setting? Of course not. They're totally visually distinct from one another, as are many other BW episodes. The show even varied by season, with the desert look frequently seen in Season 2, and the volcano interiors distinguishing Season 3. Now look at BM. What episodes stand out visually from the others? The final seconds of "The Weak Component" and "In Darkest Night", with the sunrises, and the end of the last episode. That's it! Every single other episode is entirely marked by blue-black Cybertronian surfaces shots, darkened tunnels or rooms, and brown dirt caves. Yaaaaawwn!

    Likewise, BW would often focus an episode on a small group of characters, sometimes only half the cast or less. Basically, if there was nothing for a character to do, they didn't show up. Again, nobody would confuse "Proving Grounds" and its almost-exclusive focus on Blackarachnia and Dinobot 2 for the Silverbolt vs. Rampage conflict of "Transmutate". BM, on the other hand, has virtually every single character in every single episode, and most often they acted as a group -- fleeing, fighting, and hanging out together. Only one or two eps really stand out as being "about" a particular character -- "The Weak Component", "In Darkest Knight", and maybe "Forbidden Fruit". That's why Cheetor spouted so many useless and obvious lines in BM Season 2... there wasn't anything else for him to be doing. And it meant that whatever character conflict was around consisted entirely of vocal arguments, rather than someone like Blackarachnia leaving base against orders while two or three other Maximals are out on patrol and some others are at base.

    Then there's some less fundamental but more immediate problems. Camerawork and editting, for one. The series tried very hard at certain points to be KEWL!!!!, and frequently fell on its face. Anime lines, fast-cut camera editting, XTR33M closeups, and quick shots and rapid zooms were all employed to spectacularly mediocre effect.

    Finally, this show had Nightscream. Need I go on?

    Okay, I will. I understand he has his fans, but really, he's a character type that kids' shows should have evolved past by now. Most often he's called stuff like the "kewl character", but I call it the 1980s Mistake Character. You know the type -- Wheelie. Scooter. Scrappy Doo. The ones that the kids are supposed to "relate" to somehow, but instead end up hating and finding obnoxious.

    That said, BM *did* do some nice stuff with him. The kid's got angst, but it's at least partially justified. Some of his interactions with Noble were decent, especially at the end of "Prometheus". Still, his constant snippish attitude and attempts to be cool were really painful most of the time.

    And whoever thought up The Hair should be strung up, disemboweled, and have their entrails shown to them before they die.

    Finally, I want to address again two things that I see as popular misconceptions.

    Number One: so far, nobody has managed to point out to me a single thing from Beast Machines that flat-out contradicts anything from G1. Nobody. There's some reasonable arguments for things that could be *interpretted* as contradictions... but why would you interpret things that way when it's just as easy and supportable to interpret them in a way that *doesn't* create such a contradiction?

    People point to Primal's line about "the coming of the first Transformers to Cybertron", but that's just Primal's line, fer cryin' out loud. What does HE know? He wasn't around then. We're viewers; we're omnicient. We know better than the characters, and know when to dismiss what they're saying as simply THEM being mis-informed. Sparks? Never mentioned in G1, but hardly disproved, either. It's quite easy to retcon them as another version of the "laser core" mentioned a couple of times in G1. Organic Cybertron? Who's to say that the "lowest level of Cybertron" that we saw in G1's "Dweller in the Depths" was the end of the planet itself? It could easily be where metal artificial Cybertron meets an inner, natural, rocky core... with who knows what below it. Furthermore, it's reasonable to assume there's more than one way into Cybertron (in fact, "The Key to Vector Sigma" and "Dweller in the Depths" pretty much confirm this) and therefore the presence of other crazy stuff like we saw in BM is hardly unlikely. The KtVS as computer code? Well, "computer code" could be anything. It could be a pattern for how the key's ray works. It could be a code for activating VS itself. Or, gosh, it could just be a design pattern for the physical key itself, allowing the key to be replicated -- which just happens to be exactly what we saw happen. The appearance of the Plasma Energy Chamber? Uh... okay. We saw the front of it in "The Rebirth", and the back of it in "End of the Line". :] The Oracle? Vector Sigma was apparently inside or related to the Oracle somehow... one may easily surmise that the Oracle is a later construct or different extension of VS that we didn't see back then. Just because we didn't see it in G1 doesn't mean it didn't exist back then, nor that it couldn't have been created afterwards.

    Number Two: Mischaracterization of old characters. Most of the BW cast is, IMO, in character in Beast Machines, or else gives a good reason for their change. Primal, who in some respects got a whole new personality, may easily be assumed to have been mind-altered by his melding with the Oracle in "The Reformatting". Now whether you think this is a GOOD thing or not is something else entirely; I'm not too fond of it myself. But it's not as though he was changed without reason.

    Rattrap? He was his Rattrapy self throughout the entire series, thank you very much. Rattrap's "cowardice", such as it is, was demonstrated in the very first episode of "Beast Wars", and continued right up until "Nemesis" Part 2. He's ALWAYS been a whiner, a complainer, and a frequently reluctant warrior -- those who disagree would do well to re-watch "Beast Wars" Part One. Yes, he's supposed to be resourceful and adaptable -- and he does indeed adapt rapidly in BM. But he hits some walls when he can't transform, and then even more when it turns out he's got no weapons and no legs, and so we see him delve into new territory we've never witnessed before. That's not mischaracterization; it's character development, and it's what drives a good story. And in the end, the old Rattrap *does* prevail. He learns, he adapts, he copes, and he triumphs.

    Megatron? Okay, you got me there. As I said before, his big attitude switch is never explained. Rhinox? One can say his Spark was tampered with by Megs (he does say "Megatron abducted my Spark and changed me"). Silverbolt? We saw the reasons for his change; I personally found his new characterization interesting, if a bit on the snooty side at times. Blackarachnia? I guess we can assume that this is what Maximal programming did to her; I mean, we really didn't get that much characterization of her in BW after her shell program was removed. Anyway, plenty of the old BA shown through during most of the series. Cheetor? His continued evolution is completely consistent with what he went through in Beast Wars.

    So, that's it. The series as a whole. BM still stands up as a reasonably good show. The dialogue is consistently strong -- witty and original. The plot themes at least try to be serious. The show maintains an eerie atmosphere, has some seriously good caracter development at times, and takes old characters in new directions. If I had to assign a letter grade, I'd say C+/B-. Coulda been better.... coulda been a whole lot worse. And keep in mind, coming after Beast Wars, it had some HUGE shoes to fill.

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