Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Musings on my influences - HOW has Transformers endured for 30 years?

What I say next, I say completely without shame or irony: I love Transformers. I've always loved Transformers, ever since the age of 6/7, and I honestly reckon that my love of the weird and the epic (seriously, that's a concrete part of my biography and everything) came from the opening of Transformers: The Movie, in 1986.

Y'know, where the first scene has a planet being eaten. Seeing something like that was bound to have a lasting effect on the brain of a 7 year old, and no mistake.

The thing is, though, that it wasn't just my prepubescent brain that Transformers had an effect on; it also somehow went on to become one of the most successful toy franchises in history, and is still going strong today, thirty years later. The big question, of course, is this: why? How did a toy franchise aimed at 7 year old boys manage that?

Well, to understand it, the first thing ye need to do is basically forget much of the media around Transformers. The G1 cartoon? Remove it from yer mind. Beast Wars? Forget about it for now. The Unicron Trilogy? Gone.

Bayformers? Yeah, definitely forget that one... 

No, what we need to do here is go right back to the original G1 toy bios, the ones on the boxes, next to the Tech Spec meter that you read through that little bit of red plastic.

Yeah, okay, at this point, I do also have to admit that the franchise's enduring popularity is because oh my god, they're cool toys that turn from vehicular and other thingies into big robot thingies with guns. 

So yes, the toys are awesome, but there's more to it than that...

Y'see, what has allowed them to endure, I reckon, is the central conflict told through the toy bios for Optimus Prime and Megatron, a central conflict that never even got a look-in throughout the G1 cartoon, and only really came into play properly in the recent TF: Prime cartoon and, more importantly, the utterly brilliant IDW Transformers comics.

These are the two I mean:

Optimus Prime - "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings." 

Megatron - "Peace through tyranny." 

Yeah, the whole saga of the Transformers is not a simple case of good versus evil, even though it gets flanderised down into being that all the damn time. Sure, other 80s toy franchises might have been all about the good and the evil (Thundercats springs immediately to mind, as does Action Force; yeah, I'm British, I refuse to call it G.I. Joe), but that ain't the case here; the saga of the Transformers is one built on ideology, specifically on two competing ideologies.

It's freedom versus control. Liberty versus authoritarianism.

Now correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that one of the eternal conflicts that humanity keeps coming back to time and time again? I don't just mean in our fiction, either (although we do love that trope, as a species; it's something that is going to rear its head in the Cynos Union, one day), because it's something that crops up in the real world.

That is why Transformers has endured for thirty years. The central conflict was nailed, early on, as being something that's a core, central part of human existence, something that we grapple with, even today. In turn, that made the franchise, in a certain sense, timeless: as long as humans have that conflict, the Transformers will endure.

It's just that the franchise also has giant, planet-eating evil entities, and the coolest toys to ever roll off a production line kicking the slag out of each other.

Best of both worlds, really, which I suppose is kind of appropriate when ye think about it... 

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