Today, as fans across the US celebrate Thanksgiving, Transformers fans everywhere are giving thanks for a much beloved Transformers series. Yes, we couldn’t believe it either as it doesn’t feel like it’s been a decade, but Transformers Prime turns ten today!
On this day ten years ago Hasbro Studios debuted the pilot episodes of Transformers Prime, Darkness Rising, on The Hub network, introducing us to a series that ten years on is warmly remembered as one of the most beloved incarnations of Transformers. In this special retrospective we’ll be looking back at Transformers Prime and discussing its legacy, what makes it so well remembered, and what newer Transformers series can learn from Transformers Prime.
Transformers Prime opening credits
Transformers Prime opens some three years after an undisclosed earlier encounter between humanity and the Autobots. It is never fully explained, but given the show takes place in roughly present day (2010, when the show debuted), it could be implied that a version of the 2007 Transformers movie took place in the backstory. Since then, things have been relatively peaceful on Earth – until the pilot kicks things off by having Cliffjumper (guest voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) get captured and executed by Starscream – closely followed by Megatron returning to Earth after spending three years wandering the stars. From there things take a series of twists and turns, culminating in the revelation that in this version of the Transformers story, the Earth is Unicron himself – or rather, the planet formed from the spacedust that gathered around Unicron’s sleeping form.
The second and third seasons continued on from this starting point. Unicron was sealed but in the process Optimus Prime regressed to his earlier identity of Orion Pax, and was tricked into thinking he’d never become estranged from his former friend, Megatron. This led to a rescue mission and kick-started a desperate search for Cybertronian relics that seemed to litter every cave, valley, and remote mountain on Earth – with the end goal being the reactivation of a device that could revive Cybertron – which was left lifeless and uninhabitable in this version of the series. The series concluded with a straight-to-DVD feature “Predacons Rising” that showcased the return of Unicron and provided a sendoff for the entire cast.
Optimus Prime from Transformers Prime: a character given authority by the voice of Peter Cullen and the incredible visual direction of the series
As the above summary demonstrates, Transformers Prime was not a particularly innovative series in its plotlines. In a lot of ways, it was an “Ultimate Marvel” version of the original Transformers concepts – taking basic premises that had been tried and proven through years of storytelling, and distilling them to their core elements. While Transformers Prime didn’t break much new ground in its storytelling early on (and fell back on the scavenger hunt type plotlines of the Unicron Trilogy for most of its second season) it carried with it a sense of codifying previous shows and presenting a “definitive” version of the events of nearly 30 years of Transformers fiction.
This sense of “definitiveness” was bolstered by the strong amount of lore behind the series. Never before had a Transformers show so wholeheartedly had a detailed and fleshed out backstory, contained within the so-called “binder of revelation” prepared by long time Transformers fan and Hasbro lore guru Rik Alvarez. This backstory detailed a lot of the events leading up to the series, including Megatron’s rise to power, Orion Pax’s ascension as a Prime, and even definitive identities for the mysterious “first Thirteen” Transformers who had only been hinted at through the history of the franchise prior to this point.
The focus on lore did not stop with Transformers Prime the show – a series of novels and two games by High Moon Studios also played into the lore set out in the binder, and helped to flesh out some of the elements of the story, although unfortunately each story doesn’t fit together completely seamlessly. The focus on lore really gave Transformers Prime a sense that it was something broader and deeper than the typical 20 minute animated cartoon. These were adventures in a world that went beyond what we could see on screen. Plus, a lot of the time, events in one episode would be brought up again in the future. This gave the show a feeling of an ongoing narrative, the likes of which had only been barely seen since Beast Machines.
Transformers Prime Megatron: a villain at his most menacing, and a welcome return for Frank Welker
The codification of the lore of Transformers is one of the most positive aspects coming out of Transformers Prime. For years prior to this, things concerning the lore of Transformers were left fluid and undefined. Elements such as the rise of Megatron were never clear. A lot of stories ran with Megatron as a gladiator who rose to prominence; Transformers Prime and the binder of revelation established exactly how this came about, building on the earlier backstory from Marvel UK’s State Games and IDW’s Megatron Origins, and incorporated a friendship between Orion Pax and Megatron which made their eventual rivalry a lot more than a simple clash between faction leaders – it was personal. This has since carried over – in slightly varying forms – into newer versions of the Transformers mythos, such as IDW’s rebooted continuity and Transformers Cyberverse.
However, what the establishment of the lore behind Transformers Prime really tells us is that this series is one that was given a lot of time and work. This was a series with some serious production values. The CGI animation was top-notch and still looks gorgeous to this day. The plots and story writing were detailed and managed to go beyond simple “hero vs villain” stories. There was some genuine pathos and drama. Characters had to deal with their own personal demons as well as their enemies, and for the most part, the cast were a lot more than simple one-note individuals defined solely by a few character traits. These guys had a fair amount of depth to them.
Case in point: Arcee.
Transformers Prime Arcee and Bulkhead
In marketing material, Arcee is described as an almost unrealistically competent and flawless individual. And while this certainly comes across in some of her appearances, as you watch the series you notice that Arcee has a real attitude. This ‘bot has a bit of a mouth on her – she’ll make sarcastic remarks and snarky comments (like the classic response to being told she’s a motorbike and therefore can she make a motorbike engine “gee, Jack, you’re a human, can you make a small intestine?”). But then you get a bit further beyond the sarcasm into Arcee’s character, and you realise there is another layer beyond this – she’s deeply troubled by the loss of not one but two partners, Cliffjumper and Tailgate, and she’s not fully worked through the grief. A scene in the third season has Arcee comment on how the remaining Autobots are “scattered to the wind” as she looks sadly at a sunset. This is a character who has been through some genuine traumatic events, and has spent more than a little time trying to come to terms. You could even say the sarcasm is her way of coping.
Arcee is not alone, either. A lot of the characters have similar nuances to them. For example, Ratchet carries a bit of guilt over not being able to save Bumblebee’s voice. It’s subtle – mentioned only in a few scenes through the series – but forms a key part in his personality. He’s a gruff old ‘bot, but he means well and only wants his friends to stay safe. Likewise, characters like Knock Out, Dreadwing, Breakdown, even Optimus Prime and Megatron all have some real depth to them, and are brought to life by an excellent cast of voice actors – including the on-screen return of Frank Welker as Megatron, the first time since the original cartoon in the 1980s (I personally feel that Megatron’s first line in the series is aimed as much at fans of the original who wanted Frank back as it was at establishing the big villain had arrived on the scene). It is telling that many of the characters who were introduced, or received alternative interpretations, in Transformers Prime have gone on to become fan favourites, such as Knock Out and the Prime version of Breakdown. The show is also commended for cementing Bulkhead as a part of the Transformers mythos, after his introduction in Transformers Animated.
Transformers Prime Predaking: An awesome and imposing character who sadly left little impact on the overall series
On the negative side, the writing for Transformers Prime suffered in the second season, which felt like a filler arc at times. The reasoning for this was because the writers had plotted a three-season arc for the show – but then in translating this into the series had blazed through the content faster than expected, leading to a need to draw out some of the plot into a longer, ongoing format. Even the third season’s Beast Hunters plot was pretty much a filler story (as evidenced by the fact that none of the Project Predacon and Predaking focused moments had any real lasting impact on the events of the series or the finale. These events were added at the request of Hasbro, and were a deviation from the original brief for the series).
Even so, Transformers Prime hit a really good balance in its storytelling. It was at once epic and wide-ranging, while also focused on a small core of well-developed characters. It was a series with true all-audiences appeal, and it wasn’t too kiddy and simplistic, while at the same time never fully straying into a grim, serious, dark kind of storytelling which more recent “adult” oriented Transformers shows like Netflix’s Siege or Machinima’s Prime Wars trilogy have aimed for. Those shows could probably stand to learn a thing or two from Transformers Prime’s approach, if they want to do the “serious” kind of story.
The core cast of Transformers Prime’s “Team Prime” in toy form
Alongside any Transformers cartoon there is a toyline, and Transformers Prime had a very well-remembered lineup of toys. All this month on my personal Instagram I’ve been sharing photos of the Transformers Prime toys from my personal collection, and people generally have very warm memories of this toyline with some of the frequent comments being on the detail of the designs, the engineering, and loving the characters behind the toys.
Transformers Prime’s toyline occupies an unusual space in the history of Transformers toys as a whole, and is a showcase of the changing approach to Transformers toys as a whole by Hasbro. The First Edition line were some of the last of the “complex” toys produced as a part of the Revenge of the Fallen era of Transformers toys, with high parts counts and some extremely clever transformations. Take for example the First Edition Arcee or Bumblebee, who accomplished highly accurate transformations with a minimum of extraneous vehicle parts, but who also involved some very complicated transformations and in Bumblebee’s case required some fairly precise alignment to get the vehicle mode to tab in correctly.
Transformers Prime First Edition Bulkhead. An absolute marvel of toy engineering.
During this period, Hasbro was going through a renegotiation with Takara-Tomy, and a company-wide mandate to simplify the Transformers toyline was handed down. Parts counts were to be lowered as a cost-saving measure; but equally, complexity was toned down to make the toys more “child friendly”. Rik Alvarez, one of the leads at Hasbro on the Transformers Prime series, stated in a panel at TFcon that “Hasbro got a lot of complaints about Revenge of the Fallen Optimus Prime, so we really needed to make the toys less complicated.”
This simplification / cost saving led to the main line for Transformers Prime, subtitled “Robots in Disguise” (henceforth called “Prime mainline”) to distinguish it from the pocket-sized “Cyberverse” versions of the main cast – the latter being a branding carrying over from the Dark of the Moon movie toyline. The Prime mainline toys were definitely less complex than their First Edition counterparts, but the reduced complexity was not an entirely negative thing. The mainline Arcee, for example, was a much more approachable toy than her First Edition counterpart – the mainline figure was far more readily picked up and played with, while the First Edition figure tended to have panels on the chest move out of alignment when posing the arms. The mainline struck a real balance between complexity and show accuracy, and keeping the toys fun to play with and transform. Given the warm response fans still have to the toys to this day, we can confidently say looking back that Hasbro for the most part struck the right balance.
BULKHEAD! I NEEDED THAT! Transformers Prime’s toys were full of character and personality.
Notably, the line did miss a couple of major characters – the most glaring omission being the Decepticons’ resident big brute, Breakdown, and the bigger bad of the entire series and mythos, Unicron. Both of these characters got toys in the Japanese market, but neither one ever made the jump to the US (or in Breakdown’s case, there was a ten year wait to finally get him outside of a costly Japanese import). This was a real shame, as with its relatively small cast most of the characters from Transformers Prime had toys in the larger scale that most fans collected, which made the omissions all the more glaring.
This format would stick through most of the line, although a second major shakeup came in the final year of the Transformers Prime line. With the third season came a major refresh of the Transformers Prime toyline, which now adopted the tagline “Beast Hunters”. In a response to the renewed popularity of Power Rangers at this time, the toys were made more colourful; show accuracy was dropped in favour of a “monster hunting” idea and most of the main cast got redesigns that were never featured in the show. The final assortment showed a sign of the direction that the mainline of Transformers cartoon tie-in toys has been moving in since, with simplified toys with reduced articulation offered to “test the market” for simpler toys. Some have also noticed that a few of the line’s new molds from this period, like Smokescreen, have a design and build quality closer to the Robots in Disguise 2015 Warrior class than the earlier mainline deluxes.
The Transformers Prime toys in Japan are their own oddity, which really could be their own article. Takara-Tomy retooled every single toy in the line – a far cry from today’s brand unification – adding in “Arms Microns” in place of the accessories included with the US versions of the toys. The Arms Microns were model kits and acted as the character’s weapons, but could transform into little robots – so essentially, every toy in the line was a Targetmaster. Takara-Tomy also brought back stickers in a big way as a part of the line. Both the stickers and the model kits were a push to introduce more customisation into the toys by default, which was a move on Takara-Tomy’s part to capture what was popular in boy’s toys in Japan at the time.
Breakdown: an awesome, beloved character, only available on import from Japan. Until Hasbro reissued him in 2020.
Taken as a whole, the Transformers Prime toyline charts the declining course of complexity in Transformers toys; comparing a First Edition Optimus Prime to the final assortment’s upscaled version of the Cyberverse Beast Hunter Optimus Prime looks like comparing two toys from very different toylines, not two toys removed by only a couple of years from what is ostensibly the same toyline. While Hasbro can be commended for simplifying the toys – some of the more complex ones simply aren’t much fun to play with – it feels as though the toyline shifted to the complete other extreme by its end.
But along the way, we did get some excellent toys. A number of shots from the personal collection of the author of this retrospective are attached here showcasing the length and breadth of the amazing toys on offer in the Transformers Prime toyline.
This retrospective has been a blast to put together, and it’s been a lot of fun getting all of the toys out again. In a lot of ways, Transformers Prime was the last mainline Transformers series that got the lion’s share of attention on shelves, with multiple size classes all working together to offer collectors the full breadth of characters; every line since has instead rolled with an approach of multiple versions of characters in the different sizes, which has greatly diminished the number of characters offered. Transformers Prime was in its approach the last of the toylines in the format established by Beast Wars in 1996. It is an approach that we’ve seen return in the collector-oriented lines in recent years, but it is a great pity Hasbro no longer approaches the toylines like they did with Transformers Prime.
Transformers Prime was a fantastic series, and it is rightfully remembered by all the fans who love it.