Rob's Pile of Transformers: Manic Ramblings

Manic Ramblings and Delirious Ranting
re: "Proving Grounds"
(writer: Arthur Sellers)

It's Valentine's Day! How fitting for today's episode.

My initial reaction to "Proving Grounds" was an unqualified "WOW!!" My second reaction was the disappointing realization that the plot hinges on something of a good guy/bad guy cliche. But on the heels of that, it hit me: the episode took that cliche and did some really great things with it.

Prepare to activate SPOILER space!

Preparing to activate spoiler space!

Activate spoiler space!

Activating spoiler space!

What are you preparing? You're always preparing! Just go!

Y'know, these titles really _are_ misleading. Many folks expected one of the old characters to die or something in "Changing of the Guard"; now everyone thought that "Proving Grounds" would be about Cheetor, and instead it was about Blackarachnia. Makes me wonder if "Crossing the Rubicon" will be about someone besides BA, as most people currently seem to suspect...

The episode begins with computer-grid images of Blackarachia's claws, spider legs, and various other components, ending with her face, which wonders "Is my inside as georgeous as my outside?" We pull back to see that Blackarachnia is in some sort of scanner tub and the Maximals are examining her from every angle.

"I seen better circuits than yours on a maintenence bot," Rattrap replies -- for which he promptly gets a spider claw around the neck. "One more remark like that and it'll be rat on a stick for lunch." "Now those are what I call lines," Cheetor observes. "Uh. Someone get him a kitty treat before he drools all over your computer," BA sighs, till Rhinox orders them to knock it off. He points to a glowing red pulse on the screen, which is the shell program which keeps Blackarachnia as a Predacon. His dismissal of her prompts her to wonder: "Don't you trust me?" "Huh. About as far as an anvil can jump," Rattrap says, for which he gets the claw around the neck again. "'Course I mean that in the best possible way," he chokes out. When Cheetor tries to explain that Ratty was only kidding, he gets a face full of BA's gun. "Back off!" she declares. "I'm tired of tests and secrets, and hanging around this depressing dump. And I'm _sick_ of your stupid crush," she adds with venom.

Optimus orders her to stand down, which she does -- but not without reservation. "I thought I'd proved myself to you Maximals by now. Guess I was wrong." As BA stalks off, Optimus orders Silverbolt to return from patrol. He and Rhinox discuss the possibility of removing her Predacon shell program and reactivating her Maximal programming. "It's tricky... and dangerous," Rhinox declares. "It could dump her core and leave her a blank." "And if we do nothing?" "She'll be a Predacon forever." "That may be too big a chance to take right now. Let's find her." "So that's how it is," a lurking BA notes. "Nobody's unzipping this girl's core." In beast mode, she heads out into the wilderness... as a lurking Dinobot 2 follows.

In a deep, ancient looking wood, BA ponders her distorted reflection in a pond, then considers her future. She suddenly snares a butterfly out of the air, holding it between the tips of her claws. "Let's talk about futures -- yours, and mine. Mine's gotten complicated. Silverbolt is every bad girl's dream. But his Maximal pals would rather slag me than let me be what I am. So I guess this gig's over... like _your_ future," she concludes. But before she can do the butterfly in, a snarling and clanking announces the arrival of Dinoborg -- just the thing to blow off steam, BA figures, letting the butterfly go.

As Dinobot flees through the forest, BA follows above in the treetops. Dinobot stalks into the open, laughs mockingly... then charges away again. "I'm beginning to like you, skull face," BA remarks. "Let's play." BA snares Dinobutt by the tail with a web line, and pulls him upside down. "Thought you'd last a little longer than that," she remarks, racking her machine guns. "How boring." But Dinobot slashes free. "You waste my time with your Maximal tricks. Go back to your web, coward." Dinobot stalks off. "Uh. Calling me a coward is one thing. But NOBODY calls me a Maximal!" BA launches into pursuit.

Meanwhile, Rattrap is playing computer games -- a Street Fighter-style confrontation between a rather poorly-animated Transmetal Megatron and a pre-Beast Wars Optimus Primal. Unfortunately, Silverbolt kills the game to search for Blackarachnia, who is moving toward Pred ground. Rattrap thinks the reason why is obvious -- "A Pred... is a Pred" -- but Silverbolt wants a chance to bring her back. "She is my responsibility. She would not betray us." "And I hate cheese," Rattrap says. "You trusted the old Dinobot..." ventures Silverbolt. "And regretted it. More than once." But despite his reservation, Rattrap agrees to give 'Bolt a megacycle to find BA before notifying Optimus.

Dinobot consults his computer, and learns that BA will soon cross into the jamming zone. He pulls out and activates a device that looks like a techno-movie projector. "Now we play... for real!" After commercials, Blackarachnia drops to the ground amid giant trees with tangled roots. "Mood... setting... all I need now is my dance partner," she notes, loading her weapon. Dinobot lures her into firing on him -- or rather, a projected hologram of him. The real Dinobot strikes from behind, knocking her down. She tries knocking a tree down on him, which he neatly sidesteps; then he pulls the same trick on her -- and suceeds. Pinned by the legs, BA desparately struggles to free her gun as Dinobot walks up, declaring that the "Maximals have made you soft. Megatron will change that, when he extracts the access codes for the Ark -- from your head. Now, hold still -- this _will_ hurt."

Dinobot is about to fire when BA wrestles the gun free and blasts him point blank in the head, putting him down with a dose of cybervenom. While Dinobot is down, BA calls for help; behind her, a strange coil of energy flows out of Dinobot's chest and encircles his damaged portions, healing them. "I let that sneaky lizard lead me straight into Megatron's jamming zone," BA observes. "Your first mistake," Dinobot says, leaping to his feet, "but not your last!" Blackarachnia beats a hasty retreat in beast mode.

Silverbolt soars through the night, then lands to track BA by scent, since he can't use his sensors in the jamming zone. At the base, Rattrap is blowing up one computerized Waspinator after the next, until Optimus and Rhinox interrupt. They can't find BA or Silverbolt anywhere on scanner; they conclude they're in the jamming zone. Primal flies off to find them. Silverbolt finds BA atop a rocky mesa; she's loaded up a triple dose of venom to take down Dinobot. Silverbolt's reaction is mixed: "Thank goodness I found you! So... nothing to say for yourself?" "Yes -- duck!"

Dinobot attacks and drops Silverbolt. "Submit now, or say goodbye to the object of your twisted affections," he says, aiming his eye laser at Silverbolt's head. BA wracks her machine guns -- and blows Silverbolt away. "THIS is between Predacons," she declares. After a commercial, she continues: "I'm through with the Maximals... but I can't go back to Megatron either. Not without someone to back me up. Someone like... you." Silverbolt begins to stir as she outlines a plan. "Usurp Megatron's command and take the Ark ourselves," Dinobot repeats, as they pace about one another [and we can see that Dinobot is HUGE compared to BA.] "It is ambitious." "I'm that kind of a girl. So what do you say... partners?" She winks at him, to Silverbolt's horror. "I say you... are a fool!" Dinobot blasts her with a paralyzer beam of some sort, but is distracted by Silverbolt -- a holographic Silverbolt, which allows the real one to blast Dinobot off the cliff edge. But seconds later, Dinobot claws his way back up -- till Blackarachnia blasts him with the triple-loaded cybervenom from before, sending him sailing over the edge for good this time, as the morning sun begins to climb over the horizon.

"Stop!" Silverbolt orders, aiming a missile when BA walks toward him. "Despite your attempt to destroy me, I... I heard your foul plan to betray us." "Ohhhh, why are the cute ones always tube heads?! That was a diversion. I wanted to get Dinobot away from you!" "You shot me!" "If I didn't he would have blown your head off! And you're still functional, aren't you?" "It seems so, yes, but --" "Oh, oh I get it -- _you_ don't trust me either," BA says, and she's NOT happy. "Back off, bowser. I've tried my best to fit in with you Maximals, but it just isn't working!" "You're wrong! We've all come to think of you as a M-- as a part of the team!" "Yeah, right. That's why apeface and his horn nose pal want to wipe my core!... I heard them say it!"

Optimus hoves into view just then; Blackarachnia tries to depart but is restrained by Silverbolt. "Let go! I don't wanna hurt you but I will!" "You've already hurt me... and you are going to hear the truth if it --" BANG! BA spins and does the old head-butt trick on Silverbolt, whose face contorts delirously before he falls to the ground. "Warned ya!" she says, but then her tone changes. "Ohhh, not such a great idea." she says, before keeling over herself. "You both look like scrap," Optimus notes dryly as he lands. BA brings it all to the table -- "I heard you and Rhinox planning to unzip my core, so I took off." "With reprogramming, you could be the Maximal you were meant to be! But the decision to take that step... is, and always will be, yours to make." "You mean I had a choice?" "That is the Maximal way. Now, let's get you both back to base." "Excuse me, I believe that's _my_ responsibility, as her commander," Silverbolt says. "Which we're gonna have a long talk about, later," Optimus fires back sternly, before flying off.

"By the way, thanks for coming after me. It was... sweet," BA says to Silverbolt. "As was the way you confessed the truth to Optimus. Oh, we'll make a Maximal out of you yet." "In. Your. Dreams. I like myself just the way I am... and I intend to stay this way. Home, rover!" And they fly off into the sunrise.

Well. I expected this episode to center on Blackarachnia getting a new TM2 body -- and I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't. Instead, what we got was virtually *everything* that marks Beast Wars at its best. Suspense and high tension, intense confrontation between the characters, picking up of earlier plot threads that could easily have been forgotten, interesting character development, spectacular visuals that enhanced the mood, and light but well-done dashes of humor (and in some people's books, lots of screen time for Blackarachnia!) Summarizing it was incredibly difficult, because I didn't want to leave out a single little detail -- it was that good. It is episodes like this that truly make me regret the departure of Bob'n'Larry from the series.

First, the bad: the big plot weakness, and the cliche I mentioned at the start of all this, is that Blackarachnia's entire journey is prompted by a simple misunderstanding -- one that by rights shouldn't have even happened. After spending a considerable amount of time -- probably several months, at least -- Blackarachnia should at least have some inkling of how the Maximals work. But instead, not till the end does Primal state for the record that 'we're the good guys and we don't do things like that, you silly bad guy!' Indeed, Primal's words before Blackarachnia's departure ("That may be too big a risk to take right now") seem chilling at first, both ominous and out of character, as he seems to speak of removing the shell program as if it were a foregone conclusion. Of course, it's not clear what he's referring to when he says "That may be too big a risk to take right now." Does he fear having a Predacon around when they're trying to defend something as valuable as the Ark? Or is he worried about the possibility of losing one of his few troops when so much is at stake? Given the outcome of the episode, we can assume it's the latter. And in retrospect, maybe to Primal, it's such a foregone conclusion that the matter is Blackarachnia's choice, that it doesn't even need to be mentioned. However, on screen it comes across as a scheme to be implemented no matter what. As Blackarachnia left the Ark, I couldn't help but think: jeez, Primal wouldn't really do that, would he?

Despite the weakness of this whole premise, I'm willing to forgive it in light of the character-driven plot that sprang from it. It definitely beats the socks off of two episodes of characters running around chasing some arcane technology. Primal's disturbing pronouncement briefly had me wondering: since the new Blackarachnia toy is reputed to be a Maximal, _will_ they remove BA's shell program? If they did that, she'd practically be a new character. Face it, her Predacon instincts comprise a lot of what she is -- quick to the attack, bold, fearless -- a warrioress. Take that away, and what would be left? Not much. Interestingly, the issue of altering someone's personality was touched on a number of months back on ATTCM, during a debate over the G1 ninja character Nightbird. The debate centered on whether or not it's morally acceptable to restore an altered personality to its previous state, if the new personality is happy the way it is. This marks at least the second time that an episode of BW has mirrored prior newsgroup discussion (the first time was "Law of the Jungle" and its sentiments on war and survival), though given that the discussion happened in September and the episode was written around spring or summer, it's almost certainly just coincidence.

Another minor plot quibble is that Blackarachnia should have _known_ she was being lead somewhere. How long does a Predacon run without fighting? "Not very" seems to be the answer most of the time, and the only reason for Dinobot to stalk and retreat would be as a lure of some sort. By rights, BA should have seen a trap coming long before she did. Still, perhaps one can account for this by her frame of mind -- she was _not_ happy at that point in the game, and perhaps not thinking clearly; later she's overtaken by battle lust.

The question of Blackarachnia's loyalty seems answered at last. "Silverbolt is every bad girl's dream," she says to herself, believing no-one else to be around. That about settles it -- her feelings are real and firm. Personally, I've been having doubts about it, given the whole Cheetor thing -- which is another plot point laid to rest. Far from being attracted to him, Blackarachnia regards his interest as a "stupid crush". So their little conversation at the end of "Feral Scream" was nothing but a tease, evidently. Poor Cheetor. Though personally, I'm rather glad we don't have to worry about Cheets and Silverbolt coming to blows over a woman. Cheetor takes the rejection in teenage macho-tough stride -- "Ah, who needs Preds anyway? Not me!" No further word on Cheetor's beast mode problems, alas. Maybe next time. Like Inferno's muddle-headedness, it might just be something that's just presented as-is, rather than fussed over; or maybe it's gone for good. We'll just have to wait and see.

Getting back to BA: she also demonstrates genuine frustration over the lack of acceptance and trust among the Maximals. To me this implies a need for acceptance that we've never seen in her before... in the past she's never seemed to care a wit for anyone else around her. Maybe there was more going on in that Pred base besides "backstabbin' and treachery"?

Rattrap's incessant distrust and dislike of Predacons reached almost annoying levels in this episode. The Rat comes across as a sort of pot-bellied beer-swilling bigot for a good chunk of the episode... till Silverbolt asks a chance to prove Blackarachnia, and Rattrap reluctantly agrees. Though one could interpret this as Ratty doing a favor for a friend, I prefer to see it as Ratface not really being as bad deep down as the surface bluster would have you believe. We've seen it before, in "The Web" and "Code of Hero" for example.

Silverbolt was absolutely perfect in this episode. I especially love the little quaver that Scott McNeil put on the word 'plan' in "I heard your foul plan to betray us." For a brief moment, we got to see Thylacine2000's "weary hero" version of SB, as he was certain that BA had betrayed him, and his morals compelled him to do something that went absolutely against his personal wishes. Almost a shame that it didn't last. Even SB has trouble accepting BA for what she is... ironic, considering that one of her defining traits is (to me) strident individualism.

More tidbits on Dinobot 2: he seems as intensely loyal to Megatron as was earlier surmised by various newsgroupers. Given that he has control of Rampage's spark fragment, he could easily have sided with Blackarachnia in her proposed trade-off, forcing Rampage to come with him (not that it would take much convincing to get Rampage to turn against Megatron.) He seems to take pleasure in the hunt, regarding it as a game. He really is like the original Dinobot, but completely drained of honor and most emotions -- unbridled rage is about the only feeling we've seen him display. BA's attempt to lure him in with a wink seems almost laughable against his cold, remorseless facade.

Dinobot's miraculous self-healing answers two nagging questions: what is the "Transmetal 2 technology" that everyone's been raving about, and how did Cheetor get repaired in "Feral Scream" part 2? One might speculate that having Rampage's spark somehow triggers the process, rather than the TM2 tech, but given what happened to Cheets in "Feral Scream" I'm wagering that the self-heal is something inherent to the technology itself (though I've not had much luck with wagers of that sort lately.)

Another techno-tidbit is the mention of the Predacon shell program. Bob'n'Larry explained this to us on the newsgroup in a long-ago post way back in Season 1, and it's nice to see it officially incorporated into the show. Heck, maybe we'll get mention of the Swarm before the season's over...

Stuff that _didn't_ happen: we didn't see any of the Preds but Dinobot. Depth Charge was likewise nowhere to be seen; I almost forgot he was in the show at all. As I mentioned, still no answers on Cheetor's beast mode problems. We still don't know what the cylinder that BA stole in "Cutting Edge" was. And most importantly, Blackarachnia _didn't_ change into a Transmetal 2. I'd swear the writers are toying with us -- so to speak -- via BA's lines at the end, where she declares with certainty that she's not changing the way she is. I'm pretty certain she means her personality, not her body, but I bet that line will be a source of some double takes among the viewing audience at some point. For those wondering when she might make the change, remember, Rampage didn't debut until Season 2 had only 6 episodes left to go -- so don't hold your breath.

One of my favorite elements of this episode also showed up at a couple of points in "Feral Scream" -- namely, dialogue that can be read more than one way. The best is Silverbolt's "You already have hurt me", which to the kiddies can mean "Ya friggin' SHOT me, bee-atch!" while the 13-and-up set realizes that there's an issue of betrayal at stake as well, an emotional hurt. The confusion over Optimus's statements in the beginning results from a similar double possibility. And Blackarachnia's proposal to Dinobot had me wondering for quite a while... is she stalling, or is she for real? Likewise, I briefly wondered if he would accept the offer.

Another nice point was... the fight scenes. Yes, I, one of the leading opponents of "obligatory fight scenes", was quite into the ones in this episode. Dinobot proves himself to be _quite_ a dangerous foe, both heavily armed and skillful. The close calls were done realistically and grippingly -- I was getting tense as Dinobot hunted BA through the forest, and cheering her on.

Minor complaints: haven't we seen the old "takes two hits to knock 'em off the cliff" bit before? Like in "Maximal No More" and "Bad Spark"?... the "night" sure isn't very dark. You have to be looking hard to realize it's night at all, sometimes. I guess Hasbro wants their characters brightly illuminated and in full view... The background settings were magnificent. The water looked almost _too_ real, it was so good. The trees were towering and darkly ominous. And it was nice to see the kind of endless sea of greenscape that characterized the backgrounds in a lot of Season 1. Obviously this area wasn't affected by the Big Burn in "Other Voices"; those trees are many decades old. Particularly nice as well was the early morning sky behind Optimus at the end, as well as the sunrise on the mesa while BA and Dinobot square off. Notice the chirping birds as the morning breaks, as well. Nice touch.

BA's head butt of Silverbolt made me smile, but it was her collapse right afterward that really cracked me up. Heh heh. Nice to see that old cliche battle move turned on its... erm... head, so to speak. Rattrap's computer games were also a riot, especially the Waspinators; however, you'd think a computer of the Axalon's sophistication would be able to do a bit better. Maybe it's an intentionally small program, so as not to bite into precious system resources? Wait, whaddaya mean, 'it was just a joke and I'm overanalyzing'? Nonsense!

Overall: This is probably my favorite episode since "Changing of the Guard", maybe bumping "Deep Metal" from its number two spot this season. I don't mind a cliche plot point, a moral of the day, or an unchanging status quo when they're done _this_ well.

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