If you're anything like me then you grew up with Transformers in the 80s and still have a pile of toys in the attic somewhere. There was something special about the show back then and even though the original series doesn't completely withstand the test of time twenty years later, you still have to appreciate it for what it was. Because of Transformers the science fiction genre for cartoons was never really the same. It could also be said that long after Optimus Prime and company hit television and they've remained cultural icons.
The epic battle between the Autobots and Decepticons has come and gone throughout the years and the franchise has seen many revivals. Transformers: Armada, Energon, and Galaxy Force have been the most recent additions and the most faithful to the source material. The Beast franchise, however, took the biggest diversion from the core concept and has proven to be very hit or miss among diehard fans.
Beast Wars started airing in 1996 and featured a production that was entirely computer generated. The kicker with this series was that instead of riding around as tractor trailer trucks and such, all of the robots here took on organic forms of some sort. They became known as the Maximals and Predacons and continued the struggle between Autobot and Decepticon. I do have to admit that while I have watched the heck out of the older Transformers series, I never really tuned in for Beast Wars when it was airing. I caught an episode or two here and there, but it was definitely not enough to get roped in or completely understand what was going on. Yet here I am sitting through Beast Machines: Transformers which is the sequel CG series to the Beast Wars.
Things seemingly pick up right where they left off at the close of the last series. The follow-up show begins on Cybertron with Optimus Primal running around in a literal monkey suit. He's on the run from a horde of Decepticons on a world that seems entirely out to get him and his furry butt. To make matters worse he has also lost the ability to transform into his more powerful form and his memory is all garbled. That leaves him as a flea picking ape with no idea what's going on for the moment. Before long though he comes across some friends of his and the group gets together to figure out what the heck is going on.
Rattrap, Blackarachnia, and Cheetor meet up with Optimus and find out that they each share the same non-transforming fate. It is all attributed to a virus that they contracted and if they can't figure out a way to change forms soon they'll be trapped in their organic bodies forever. As luck would have it Optimus keeps having visions of some sort and is constantly being lead by some strange force. Their leader's intuition eventually brings them to the very core of Cybertron where they meet the famed Oracle who reformats their bodies. They emerge as bizarre half beast, half machine creatures with more power, but most importantly they each have the ability to transform again.
Now that their powers have been put back into place and all is right with them it's time to start investigating into what's going on. It seems that while they were running around doing this and that, Megatron took control of Cybertron and now commands an army of single minded drones. His goal is to eradicate all organic life from the planet and of course that means Optimus and friends have to go bye-bye. What happens from that point is a struggle to liberate the planet and restore the balance between organic life and robotics.
From there the show is pretty straight forward as far as what it offers. I mean this is a kid's show after all, so you can't expect to witness a grand opus that will blow your socks off. I do have to admit though that there are some elements at play here that you don't find in most Saturday Morning cartoons. There're a lot of spiritual tidbits, personal connections, and even dramatic betrayals to be found in Beast Machines. The battles do grow tiresome after a while, but there is a certain feeling that they build to something as the series advances through the 26 episodes. The progression of the story arc is very slow and I really had a hard time getting sucked into the concept. There were moments where the series elevated to a higher level, but those were few and far between.
If you have never seen Beast Wars or Beast Machines before then you should keep in mind that the look of the franchise is rather polarizing. Considering that the series was put together in the 90s near the dawn of the CG era, you have to take the design with a grain of salt. Naturally by today's standards the show looks rather archaic, though there are a few moments where the art design seemed ahead of its time. Shadows are often cast dramatically and environments are full of detail, but most of the time the animation appears stiff and unnatural.
I suppose my appreciation of Beast Machines would have been greater if I had seen Beast Wars in its entirety, though to be fair this show feels like it's own entity. The tone is quite different from other Transformer series and there are plenty of likeable characters to connect with. The only problem is that considering this is a sequel series if you hadn't been exposed to the original you'll most likely be lost. In the end only fans of Beast Wars need apply for this follow up show.
Beast Machines: Transformers originally aired in 1999 and is presented on DVD in much the same way. The show gets the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio treatment and features a transfer that looks as if it came from the digital source. That means the video quality is very good with a crystal clear image and some very sharp detail. While I did notice a bit of aliasing at points, it's certainly nothing to detract from the experience. From what I remember Beast Wars being like, this series is much more vibrant with a wider color palette. When it's not bathed in shadow Beast Machines is a virtual neon behemoth.
There are two separate soundtracks to pick from on this release of Beast Machines. Just like the broadcast there is a 2.0 stereo track to listen to, but for this DVD set a 5.1 Dolby mix has been added for good measure. The stereo selection offers some fine quality with no real flaw to speak of, but I wasn't really blown away. The 5.1 option brings a lot more channel separation and booming bass to the table though. With all of the screaming, explosions, and mechanical bits featured in this show your speakers will keep busy. The rear channels could have used a little more attention but for the most part it's a decent sounding set up.
As far as extra features are concerned there are a few available on this collection. Basically the bonus content is broken down into two categories: commentaries and interviews.
For commentaries there are tracks available for "Fires of the Past", "When Legends Fall", and "Seeds of the Future". The first one proved to be the most interesting and featured series developer Marv Wolfman and story editor Robert Skir doling out the information. The latter two brought Skir back to the microphone and writer Steven Melcking joined in on the commentary with him. The interviews are done on an individual basis and feature Marv Wolfman, Robert Skir, voice director Susan Blue, and the voice of Megatron David Haye. Each of these interviews offers some insight into the person doing the talking, but also some interesting tidbits about the Beast Machines series itself.
After sitting through and watching Beast Machines, it's safe to say that my interest in the concept has been upgraded a little bit. Unfortunately this isn't the old Transformers that I grew up on and it's definitely something that is mostly reserved for fans of Beast Wars. This series in particular changed the pacing and shook things up by severing its ties from the original idea. The discussion about spiritualism and the mashing together of organism and machine bring up a lot of neat points, but not nearly enough to save the show from its mediocrity.
Fans of Beast Wars will want to rent or buy the series based on how much you enjoyed it, but it will be wasted on everyone else.
Check out more of my reviews here. Head on over to my anime blog as well for random musings and reviews of anime, manga, and stuff from Japan!