It’s April 22nd, 1996. You’ve just tuned in to a new cartoon, and after a brief opening credits showcasing the characters – all to a rocking theme song – you witness two spacecraft in battle above a planet. After both take damage, both ships crash on to the planet – and a new adventure begins.
It sounds like it could be the opening to the original Transformers cartoon, but what you just witnessed was the dawn of a new era of Transformers, and the franchise’s first true reimagining and reboot. Gone were the jet planes, sports cars, and tanks – this was a different era. An era of robots who turned into birds, mammals, and dinosaurs. This was the dawn of the Beast Era – the Beast Wars!
Join us after the break for a special celebration of Beast Wars and the Beast Era on its 20th birthday
It’s hard to believe that Beast Wars is celebrating its 20th birthday today – it is a show with a timeless quality, and it enjoys an enduring position with fans. Many consider Beast Wars, this 20 year old show, to be the yardstick by which all other new Transformers shows are measured. As evidenced whenever there is a fan poll for favorite characters or “which Transformers series should get a new comic”, Beast Wars almost always comes out on top. Many of the characters who were first introduced in Beast Wars have gone on to appear in more recent Transformers fiction, such as IDW’s comics or more recent cartoons.
The background to Beast Wars is one many of us are familiar with. In the mid 1990s, the Transformers line was struggling. While Transformers Generation 2 had revived the line following its cancellation in 1990, it had never caught on and the threat of cancellation loomed once again. Hasbro, looking for a way to keep their brand alive, decided to hand it off to their subsidiary Kenner. Kenner in turn took the core concept of the line – robots that turn into other things, two toys in one – and applied it to realistic animals instead of cars and jets. Articulation became the norm, and the line was reinvented to do away with multitudes of subgroups, instead adopting the size class system which has endured in a modified form ever since. The smallest figures used an autotransformation gimmick, and as the toys got larger, the number of accessories and gimmicks increased. Another feature that Beast Wars brought to every toy in the line was the idea that all the weapon parts – be it guns, swords, or missiles – could be concealed somewhere in the toy’s alternate mode, meaning that unlike the original toys, the Beast Wars toys did not leave you with a pile of loose accessories to one side whenever you transformed them.
The line’s new identity – and its new status as a line of fully poseable action figures who happen to turn into realistic animals – was a real breath of fresh air, and a clean break from the past of the Transformers line. Granted, the fiction was not such a clean break, with the earliest bios and the pack-in comic with the Optimus Primal vs Megatron pack implying that the Beast Wars were taking place on a present day Earth. This would soon be revised, though, when the cartoon arrived.
A selection of toys from the first year of Beast Wars
Mainframe’s Beast Wars: Transformers (Beasties in Canada, and Beast Wars in Europe, dropping the Transformers subtitle completely in the region) premiered in the US on April 22nd, 1996. The show was revolutionary, with high-quality CGI and first-class voicework bringing the characters to life. A notable element of the show was the size of the cast. This was not the Transformers of the past, with its huge ensemble cast. Due to the cost of the CGI models, the cast was necessarily limited to a dozen characters total. This worked in the show’s favor, though, as this meant the cast got to be fleshed out episode to episode in a way a show that had many more characters to feature never could.
The first season of Beast Wars was mostly episodic, with a few breadcrumbs of a larger story involving an alien race dropped into a few episodes. These episodic installments fleshed out the various characters, and notably the show was not afraid to reference some of these incidents again in later episodes – there was no “reset to the status quo” approach episode to episode. The writing was strong, and the focus was always on maintaining that tricky balance of drama and humor, which would become one of Beast Wars’ greatest strengths as a show – like Batman the Animated Series, it was a show that kids and adults alike could enjoy. A show that the whole family could sit and watch together.
While season 1 of Beast Wars was hugely enjoyable, it began to gather pace – and attention from the fans of the original show – when the episode Possession aired. This episode featured the ghost of Starscream possessing Waspinator, and was the show’s first true direct connection with the Generation 1 Transformers. It established that Beast Wars shared that earlier universe. It also innovated, with the idea of Protoform Transformers who could be reprogrammed and would scan an alternate mode on awakening, along with the most significant innovation of all – Sparks. Beast Wars introduced the concept that every Transformer’s life force was a pulsing ball of energy, and that they did not truly die until this was extinguished. This set out a spiritual side to the series and the wider franchise – as well as providing a template by which characters might cheat death after their bodies are destroyed.
The first season of Beast Wars ended with the apocalyptic Other Voices, a two part story that established a darker tone for the show. The stakes were raised when the aliens hinted at previously made their presence know. The Generation 1 ties were deepened with the image of Unicron being used by the aliens to communicate with Optimus Primal. The season finale had the whole planet being bathed in fire, and Optimus Primal making a desperate attempt to shut down the planet-buster weapon causing the devastation. But, in a macabre twist, Optimus was slain in the final encounter, and while the day was saved, the episode ended on a closeup of his shattered remains in orbit with a “to be continued?” pasted over it. This trend of ending seasons on an ambiguous “did they survive?” note would run throughout the whole Beast Era, with the only season finales not to play this card being the ones that capped off their respective shows.
With the end of the first season of Beast Wars, I’d like to think that the older fans who had initially dismissed the show, but tuned in for Possession and then stuck with the show realized that hey, this is pretty good! Some fans still scoffed at the change from automobiles to animals, and others complained that too many liberties were taken or that the names were unimaginative, with Cheetor and Dinobot being two of the worst offenders in their eyes. It is a testament to the success of the series that these names have since become as established as many of the original generation of Transformers names.
By the time the first season of Beast Wars had ended the toyline was well into its second year. Year 2 of Beast Wars dropped autotransforming for the Basics, and brought back rubsigns from the early years of Generation 1 in the form of Energon Chips. Kenner got creative with their animal mode choices, and we got some great and unique designs, such as a pillbug, a hammerhead shark, and a crab, all realistically done and detailed. Older concepts, including some basic triple-changing and combiners, were also revisited and updated.
Some of the Transmetal Beast Wars releases
Kenner knew that they would need to keep things fresh to keep the line going. And so, for its third year, they changed up the line with the introduction of the Transmetals. Organic beasts gave way to mechanical ones, embellished with vac-metal chrome sections and further augmented with “third modes”, which mostly were not triple-changing but were rather transformed versions of the beast modes with vehicular qualities. The robot modes of the Transmetals were organic in design, some moreso than others, which was a nice variation. The crown jewel of the Transmetal line was the giant Super class Optimal Optimus, a toy that transformed into four distinct modes and featured light up missiles. Notably, the majority of the Transmetals were upgraded versions of characters who were a part of the cast on the show, with only one Mega – Scavenger – and the two Ultra class toys being new characters (and Scavenger might have been intended as a new Inferno).
Supplementing the Transmetals were the Fuzors, Dr Moreau style fusions of two different animals such as a hammerhead shark with the wings and claws of an eagle, or an elephant with the head and fins of a shark. While ten Fuzors were made, only two – Silverbolt and Quickstrike – would appear on the show.
Both Transmetals and Fuzors – especially the Fuzors – let the designers at Kenner go wild with their creativity. Designs, details, and decos really hit a high point at this time, with some of the best toys of the whole Beast Wars line arriving at this time.
The second season of Beast Wars from Mainframe was likewise a high water mark for the Beast Wars TV show. This season was dark, the darkest of the whole show. Right off the bat in Aftermath, two more characters were killed off. Other characters became Transmetals – though not everyone to have a Transmetal toy became a Transmetal on the show, leading to a nice mix of Transmetal and non-Transmetal characters on both sides. Naturally, Optimus Primal did what Optimi do and came back from the dead in a powerful new body.
The second season, much like the first, dropped hints of a larger story – this time, “Megatron is up to something” – but it stopped pulling its punches. Episodes were more intense, the character interactions were deeper and more complex, but the show never forgot its humor. Stakes were raised, with Tigatron and Airazor joining the casualty list mid-season, and a monstrous new Predacon named Rampage being introduced.
And then Dinobot died.
Code of Hero is the greatest episode of Beast Wars ever made. It is quite possibly the greatest episode of any Transformers cartoon, ever, and deserves wider recognition as one of the best 20 minute cartoon episodes of all time. Resolving an ongoing subplot concerning the Maximal Dinobot going through an existential crisis, Code of Hero was at once a poetic and heroic sendoff for the Maximal hero. With Megatron’s plan finally being revealed as nothing less than exterminating the ancestors of humanity and rendering the entire human race extinct before they could even evolve, Dinobot alone faced all of the Predacons in a gauntlet that would have made the epic Greek poets of old proud. By the end, wounded, exhausted, Dinobot showed the determination and sheer inner fire that defined his character throughout the series, giving his last ergs of strength to stop Megatron and thwart his entire plan – single handed, and at the cost of his life. And, in five minutes which never fail to bring tears to my eyes – me, someone who did not even cry when Optimus Prime died – Optimus Primal told Dinobot he had saved everyone. Dinobot cracked one last joke at Rattrap’s expense, and delivered his final words:
Tell my tale to those who ask,
Tell it truly, the ill deeds along with the good, and let me be judged accordingly.
The rest, is silence.
And then, he died. And we were shown the funeral.
Transformers had died before – Beast Wars was already by this point well into the high single figures on its own bodycount – but none had ever been handled with such a sense of finality. In a merchandise driven line like Transformers, when a character dies, you often expect them to somehow come back. Optimus Primal had already shown this was possible. But with Dinobot, we got one of the most mature and nuanced ends of a character ever. This was Beast Wars at its very best. And even our heroes could die.
The remainder of the second season continued in a strong fashion, culminating in another strong story. We’d known Megatron was trying to change the future – and that he was not the kind to give up easily. Exterminating the human race was, as it turned out, only a part of his plan. In The Agenda, we hit another turning point – along with a heavy dose of nostalgia.
The appearance of Ravage in The Agenda was a game-changer, and not only for his role in the story. Here once again was another Generation 1 character making an appearance. And by the end of the second part of the three part episode, we’d seen how Beast Wars Megatron was, in fact, working under instructions left by the original Megatron. With a mighty cry of “Decepticons Forever!”, Ravage transforming – complete with the long-absent classic sound effect – into a cassette. It was a solid connection with the original shows and a heavy hit on the nostalgia which foreshadowed how some day, the classic Transformers would return.
It was also an excellent scene and a great way to end an episode.
The Agenda Part 3 went even further. His earlier attempt to kill all the humans thwarted, Megatron’s plan was now to assassinate Optimus Prime before he could awaken in 1984. Much like the first season, Beast Wars season 2 ended on a cliffhanger, with Megatron shooting Optimus Prime in the head and delivering a chilling “the villain wins” speech as a timestorm erupts and “to be continued?” appeared on screen.
When we talk of the lasting impact of Beast Wars, it is the second season that we can look to for examples of some of the best Transformers cartoons, or just best cartoons period. The second season is where we find a lot of what made the show so memorable, coupled with it coming out alongside the best toys in the line. The show’s second season built on the first’s solid foundation, and dared to push in bold new directions both with the story and also with the characters.
Transmetal 2 Beast Wars toys. Scarem in the center shows off the Spark Crystal feature that replaced the Energon Chip rubsigns.
For the fourth year of Beast Wars, Hasbro (who had by now fully absorbed Kenner) changed up the line once again, introducing the Transmetal 2s. Unlike the previous toys which divided the organic and the mechanical elements between the robot and alternate mode, the Transmetal 2s were full on cyborgs, mixing fur or scales with mechanical detailing, though some of the releases seemed more cybernetic than others. The use of chrome remained as a way to pick out the detailing of the “metal” parts. While refreshing (and featuring a selection of new characters, rather than the upgrades of the Transmetals line) the Transmetal 2s never quite hit that same sweet spot that the original Transmetal releases did. The most notable of all the Transmetal 2s was the Ultra class dragon Megatron, a fantastic new version of the Predacon leader which was one of the few mythical beast designs in the line, and carried itself with a regal splendor with its wings and colors.
Season 3 of Beast Wars picked up where season 2 had left off – with time coming apart – and had Optimus Primal become Optimal Optimus by temporarily hosting the Spark of Optimus Prime while his body was repaired. By the end of the episode, the Maximal base was relocated to the Autobot Ark, to prevent Megatron’s further attempts at killing their ancestors while they slept. A new and hard-edged Maximal named Depth Charge was introduced as a rival to Rampage, and Transmetal 2s made their debut mid-season, with Cheetor, Blackarachnia, and Megatron all getting their new Transmetal 2 forms. Dinobot was also brought back as a twisted Transmetal 2 clone of the original, loyal only to Megatron. Reports go that there was a planned episode, titled “Dark Glass”, which would have explored Rattrap’s reaction to his friend’s resurrection, but it did not come to pass allegedly on grounds of being “too dark”.
Season 3 of Beast Wars took a lighter tone than the second season, with some of the fight sequences being almost slapstick – one that stands out is the battle at the end of Feral Scream. This, arguably, was a return to the show’s original tone from the first season after the comparatively darker second season. However, the dark moments did not completely disappear, and Crossing the Rubicon featured the most outright dark moment of the entire show when Silverbolt was fully prepared to murder Tarantulas in cold blood following the apparent death of Blackarachnia.
The final episodes of the show served to wrap up some of the major plot points. Megatron got his new Transmetal 2 dragon form by stealing the Spark of his Generation 1 namesake, which was followed up with the introduction of the godlike Tigerhawk, a Transmetal 2 Fuzor created by the aliens from earlier in the series by merging Airazor and Tigatron into one being. The show concluded with the two part Nemesis, which had Megatron take command of the Decepticon warship that shot down the Ark. In a finale penned by veteran Transformers writer Simon Furman, many characters including every Predacon not named Megatron or Waspinator were left dead, with Dinobot II dying a hero like the ‘bot he was cloned from.
And so the Beast Wars concluded. Over its 52 episode run it had a few less brilliant episodes, but the good far outshone the bad. Story concepts that would be used in many future iterations of Transformers – the big one being Sparks – were all introduced here. It was also the first Transformers show to feature deep characterization and complex plots and story arcs running across multiple episodes – granted, such a thing might have eventually happened, but the masterful writing of Beast Wars demonstrated how it could only be a good thing.
If nothing else, the fact we’re talking about the show and fondly remembering it 20 years on alone stands as a testament to how much this show is loved.
A selection of toys made for the Beast Wars Neo line, one of the two Japan-only Beast Wars cartoons and toylines.
Like many Transformers shows, Beast Wars made the trip to Japan. While Beast Wars never enjoyed the same level of success in Japan as it did in the US, it none the less retrieved the Transformers brand from limbo there. One important thing about Beast Wars in Japan is that while Beast Wars in the US was aimed at all ages – a true family show as noted earlier – Japanese Beast Wars was pitched at a much younger audience, and received a gag dub in Japan, full of puns and ad-libbing. The 52 episodes of Beast Wars were split into two shows, with seasons 2 and 3 dubbed under the name Beast Wars Metals.
The most notable element of the Japanese Beast Wars, though, are the two Japan-only cel-animated Beast Wars shows, Beast Wars Second and Beast Wars Neo. These shows were produced as filler seasons between the dubs of Beast Wars Season 1 and Beast Wars Metals, and followed the story of two new crews of Cybertrons fighting their respective Destron nemeses. Due to the language barrier, these shows have had less impact in the west, and they are mostly standard boy’s animation fare, though they did bring in some interesting plot elements including a thread linking both series involving the lifeforce of Unicron being the energy both sides were fighting over, culminating in the appearance of Unicron in the final storyline of Beast Wars Neo.
The Japanese Beast Wars toys are noteworthy for their paint jobs, which took the existing toys available in the US and gave them tweaked decos to more closely resemble the TV show. Beast Wars was the first time that this trend emerged – though given the toys launched in Japan after the show was made, it was possible for Takara to go back and adjust the decos. The line also made heavy use of VS packs, with nearly every Maximal released in Japan sold both individually and in a VS battle pack with a rival. Some of these rivalries got very creative! The Japanese line added a couple of new characters, including Shadow Panther, a black version of Cheetor, and a toy of Ravage in the Metals line. There were also some playsets released only in Japan.
For Beast Wars Second, Takara released almost all of the non-show toys from the first two years of the line, some with tweaked decos. They made all of these heroic Cybertrons, and for the Destrons, Takara dusted off some of the Generation 2 toys, along with a couple of other molds from around that period, including toys designed for Generation 2 that were never released. The leaders on both sides were new molds, leading to a white lion Lio Convoy and a mechanical dragon / drill Galvatron. These two were very cool designs, and Lio Convoy was even offered in the US through the now defunct Hasbro Collectors website. As the Beast Wars Second line progressed, the toys got more creative with four Beast Wars molds being heavily remolded into cyborg beasts, and even some Generation 1 molds being redecoed for the line. A third mold original to the line, based on one of the sidekick characters, Moon, was also produced.
For Beast Wars Neo, Takara went all-out with new molds. The Cybertron side got all kinds of animals not used in the US line including a giraffe, a rabbit, a snake, and a penguin. The Destron side meanwhile got all kinds of dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures. Many of these designs were extremely clever, though moreso than the US designed beasts they revolved around folding up the inner robot and then moving various beast mode panels around the central part – it was around this point that the expression “kibble” for extraneous alternate mode parts entered the fandom lexicon, so that’s another fandom innovation we can chalk up to Beast Wars. Some of the Destrons from this season would later be offered in the US under two different iterations of the “Dinobots” subline, first during Beast Machines and then again during Transformers Armada.
The Beast Wars Neo line was popular with collectors for its creative designs, though it was not very successful in Japan. This in turn influenced Takara to not bring over the sequel to Beast Wars, and instead produce a new show, called Car Robots.
Toys from the Beast Machines line, released in 1999
Beast Wars received a sequel series which continued the Beast Era. This show, titled Beast Machines, took the action back to Cybertron, now a stark and desolate place ruled by Megatron and his armies of drones, and otherwise devoid of all sentient life. It charted the struggles of the Maximal survivors against Megatron’s Vehicon armies, and took a nature VS technology theme at its core, with the eventual message being there must be a balance of the two elements.
While the show was a considerably darker and more adult one than anything that had gone before – with spiritual and philosophical themes presented as some of the show’s core themes – it lost the fine balance between drama and humor, plunging headlong into the drama. The CGI was excellent, and storytelling was again strong. Many fans would complain, though, that several of the characters diverged too far from their previous characterizations, with Rattrap being one of the prime criticisms. The ending was also a target of criticism, with some disliking how Cybertron was transformed into a lush planet of green, although the final battle was intense and Optimus Primal’s final sacrifice was a truly heroic ending for the Maximal.
Beast Machines was also supported by a toyline, and this too attracted criticism, due to some of the Maximal toys looking nothing like their show counterparts, and also being out of scale with each other – such as the smallest Maximal, Nightscream, being one of the biggest toys in the whole line, and Silverbolt, one of the taller Maximals, only getting a Basic class representation. The Maximals all made use of translucent plastics for their toys, which made them quite striking to look at, but overall the Beast Machines beasts fell short of the admittedly high bar set by its predecessor. On the villain side, meanwhile, the Vehicons were mostly excellent and a welcome return to the vehicular roots of the franchise, though they too were bit by the disconnect between the designs of the characters on screen and in toy form. Some of these issues were remedied when the line shifted to the Battle for the Spark subline, with some core characters getting updated looks. However, the failure of Beast Machines to catch on as a toyline and as a show meant that Hasbro drew an early close to the line, leaving a handful of toys unreleased at that time.
With the end of Beast Machines, it had become clear that the Beast Era had reached its natural conclusion. While there were plans for a third series – named Transtech, and featuring concept designs by Draxhall Jump – these were discarded in favor of a closer partnership with Takara to develop the next era of Transformers, an era which would see the return of robots that turned into cars and other vehicles once more. That new era would come to be known as the Unicron Trilogy, and in the interim, Hasbro brought over the Japanese Car Robots line as a stopgap titled Robots in Disguise.
So ends the story of the Beast Era, some of the most significant years in the development of the Transformers franchise along with the years that gave us such a beloved show. While there are some who feel that Beast Wars was a “dark time” where the line had lost its identity, it is only right to acknowledge the wealth of innovations that the line brought into the mainstream of the Transformers franchise. The standardization of articulation begun in Generation 2, molded details, and paint have carried over ever since, and the size classes have been used for every successive line, with modifications. Story elements introduced in Beast Wars, like Sparks and Protoforms have gone on to appear in many of the shows that followed.
But perhaps the biggest precedents set by Beast Wars were the idea that yes, the franchise could undergo a full-scale reboot, setting the trend to periodically reinvent the franchise, and the deeper characterization and plots introduced by the show. Would these things have happened without Beast Wars? Most likely. However, were it not for Beast Wars reigniting the franchise, the Transformers line arguably could have languished for years, and there is no guarantee that the line might have bounced back the same way that it did under Beast Wars.
And that is the truth of Beast Wars. Love it or not, it provided the Transformers with a much-needed reinvigoration. The fact it also introduced so many other popular elements and characters just stands as an example of how much the show got right. Even if you discount all of these things, it was a solidly written show, with likeable characters, clever stories, a perfect blend of drama and humor, and 20 of the best and most touching minutes depicting the death of a character ever.
So for now, let the battle be here, on this strange primitive world. And let it be called…Beast Wars!