Binge 'n' Purge - Transformers: EarthSpark
Sometimes you just reach a moment where you have to stop and ask yourself “Am I finally too old for this?”
Transformers: Earthspark has brought me to this question.
In some ways, I’m glad this has finally happened…mainly because I’ve been working on an article about ‘toxic fandoms’ for a while now and it always seems to just get too ramble-y, but with Earthspark, I’ve found a way to at least focus it on my primary fandom: Transformers. Before I get into all that though, let’s break down the plot of the series:
The War is over and the rebuilding of Earth has begun. But not everyone got the message as rogue Decepticons and a mad human scientist persist in a war long thought over. Humanity now falls under the protection of Optimus Prime, his Autobots, Megatron and a government organization called GHOST, who are responsible for defending the planet. Meanwhile, in the woods of Pennsylvania, new Transformer life is coming online with sparks originated here on Earth and not on Cybertron. Can the Transformers of old and the family of a former GHOST agent help to nurture this new generation into a life beyond war? Or is conflict a hard coded part of Cybertronian DNA?
At its core, what I’ve written about is actually what the series is about…and during its best episodes, Earthspark does explore those topics. Unfortunately, the focus of the majority of episodes focuses and the human Malto family, their children and their interactions with these new Terran Transformers. While learning about our human POV characters is important, for the first half of the series, this ends up being our exclusive focus, which, if you’re calling your show ‘Transformers’ might not be the best foot forward. [Cue Armada cringe here. – Ed.] I’d dare go so far as to say that the only episodes to address the bigger picture issues are episode 6 “Tradition”, episode 8 “Decoy” and episodes 9 and 10, “Age of Evolution” which serves as the Season 1 finale. “Tradition” even pulls off a small miracle for this series so far, having a family-centric episode that still manages to tell a solid story without having to resort to tropes.
As good a segue as any, let’s talk about what is killing the series for me so far and has me questioning whether or not I’m going to choose to follow it: the tropes. Children’s programming that has focused on children as the main characters have had a huge flaw for at least the past 10 years, likely even more…but I’d say the past decade is when I started to notice (and be annoyed) by it: the kids are always right and any adult is portrayed as an idiot. This was predominantly in kids’ programming on the Disney Channel…but as the House of Mouse expanded, well, so did this trope. Yes, I know, this is a Paramount/Nickelodeon joint, but they’ve fully embraced the trope here. Let’s look at the father in the program, Alex Malto, to prove my point. His role is largely comic relief either as a Bumblebee fanboy, a Mr. Mom type or just downright doofus. How about GHOST Agent Schloder, a stereotypical ‘too-straight an arrow’ trope? I think what makes him more painful is that the Transformers franchise has had a comic relief agent type before with Special Agent Fowler in Transformers Prime who managed to avoid becoming trope-y by being able to play a useful part of the storyline at times. The kids’ teacher, Mr. Smelt? A literal one-note joke that simply doesn’t work. The only adult that seems to be capable of actually surviving real life, much less the extraordinary circumstances around them, is Dottie Malto, the mom, a former GHOST agent that was a veteran of the final days of the Earth’s and the Autobots’ war against the Decepticons. While I’m certain there are corners of the fandom that are complaining about that, I could care less if the only three-dimensional character is female, I’m just glad that there IS an actual character with three dimensions! To end this paragraph, sure, I could be critical of the kids, Robby and Mo, but given the tropes embraced by this series and my own distaste for kids in any Transformers series [That also going all the way back to Armada. – Ed.], there’s certainly a valid counterargument that I’m biased on this. Robby and Mo act the only way they can, given the direction chosen by this series. I don’t hate them per se, but I don’t like that they’re always right about everything and while they do learn lessons, they come out of every episode basically scot-free from any of the repercussions they should see from their actions.
It’s not all negative though. Those that have gone online and said that this series has the best action sequence in Transformers animated history…well, it’s a little hyperbolic but it’s definitely in the top 10 for sure. The animation itself is certainly solid although one could nitpick the character designs a touch. But when the show actually allows itself to touch on the larger themes, there are some great story directions present here should the writers actually decide to pursue them. Megatron not only questions their relationship with GHOST and how the Transformers in the show know as little about them and how they work as the viewers do but also the treatment of the Decepticons that have been captured by the agency. Heck, just the fact that this series is picking up the baton from IDW’s comics where Megatron finally opted to make amends for his crimes against the Cybertronians and become an Autobot deserves massive props, as it brings this unique take to animation for the first time ever. Even the human villain, Dr. Mandroid, feels like he COULD be a threat…if the writers give him an actual arc as opposed an episode here and an episode there.
Another positive that needs its own paragraph is the voice cast. Alan Tudyk’s Optimus certainly has his roots in Cullen’s original G1 interpretation of the character, allowing for moments of humor as opposed to Cullen’s latter, far more serious, take on the character. While I do like that latter take, I have to applaud Tudyk’s bravery in taking the character in a different direction and in the limited times we see Prime, it feels like it works. Rory McCann’s Megatron doesn’t quite feel right, but truth be told that might be due to the lines he’s given by the writers. I suspect that should there be a second and third season and I actually watch it, this will likely either be a voice that evolves and finds a better marriage to the character or I’ll get more on board with it. Danny Pudi as Bumblebee is fine…he feels like a perfectly good Bumblebee. It’s a natural fit. Diedrich Bader as Mandroid is one of the reasons I want this character to see more screen time. He’s shown that he can chew scenery with the best of them, now let’s see how he handles character work (which I’m certain he’ll excel at, I just want to see it happen). The remainder of the cast handle their roles well for the most part, after all, though I may have beef with the words coming out of their mouths, it’s not fair for me to hold that against them. The only negative I have here is that having a Wheeljack with a southern accent was like scraping my brain with sandpaper. Not a fan. But again, that’s either a writing or direction/casting issue, not one for the actor himself.
Now, let’s talk toxicity. If we start at low level crap, then we have the fact that the only sensible adult is a black woman, as I said before. Then the fact that her husband is Filipino, thus, their mixed-race children are still themselves minorities. That one is easy to get past because the racist fools that despise that kind of diversity have become trite at this point. Further down that same road, of course the only human villain is a white dude. But burning the bacon of the bigots is one singular bot: Nightshade. Nightshade, upon their introduction says that neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’ felt appropriate and thus, Transformers’ first non-binary character is born.
To quote the closing lines of one of my favorite movies, Buckaroo Banzai: “So what? Big deal.”
I mean, you do realize that we’re talking about fictional alien robots here, right? I mean, I could go into this long tirade about gender in the Transformers franchise from G1 to the present…and I did in a previous draft in such a way that I got sooooo tired of writing it…but let’s boil all that down to its simplest argument: whether they’re created and imbued with life by the Matrix or Vector Sigma (G1), grow up out of Cybertron or split asexually (G2), start off as blank protoforms (Beast Wars, RiD 2001, Animated), emerge from the Well of All Sparks (Prime) or either have their sparks harvested or cold-cast (IDW), the point is there’s one thing missing here…actual sex. [Unless you’re on one of THOSE sites. – Ed.] Granted, gender transcends the physical, certainly, and while neither Optimus Prime nor Elita-1 have genitalia, you can certainly tell which one is male and which is female…but if there were any pop-culture franchise that would be best suited to blurring the line, representing non-binary or transgender…it’s Transformers! First off, the whole point of a Transformer is to change, so that seems self-explanatory. Secondary though, again, these are robots…a simple change of a zero to a one and blammo…new code means new gender or no gender. And, again, perhaps even most importantly, as I’ve already said…FICTIONAL ROBOTS! The show, this franchise, is all about escapism. If your world-view is so fragile that this story element feels like an intrusion, you have plenty of other avenues to venture down…move along.
For me, Transformers Earthspark has a number of problems in its first season. In all fairness though, so do most shows in their inaugural seasons. Heck, I despised Cyberverse in its first season for being utterly Bee-centric, but I warmed to it in its following seasons…especially the super-dark Quintesson-themed third season. If Earthspark is allowed to build on top of this season and mature some, it certainly has some big-picture themes that could make it great. Right now though, it’s too kiddy for my tastes. It’s worth mentioning that a good amount of the Transformers fandom seems to be quite pleased with it right now, so I may be simply an odd voice out. Ultimately, even though it does do some things right and certainly has the potential to become something very, very good, Season 1 simply isn’t there for me and, as it stands right now, I simply cannot recommend it. I hate to be a sourpuss in the fandom, but there was more than enough cringe here for me to hand it an Angry Cat rating.