I underwent my first emotional crisis sometime in the early nineties. I was distraught – Transformers had disappeared. I went into the toy shop one day, and the pegs were empty. For the next year or so, I went in every week and asked the lady at the till if any new ones were coming in. The answer was always ‘no’, and so I gave up hope.
Transformers were dead, and a little bit of me died with them.
Then one weekend in 1996, I was in McDonalds with my mum and dad. I’d finished my Happy Meal and rather than sit down for another half hour listening to my dad grumble over a cup of coffee, I escaped out the back exit and into the adjacent Woolworths.
Browsing the toy shelves, I came across some really cool boxes. They had a wicked dinosaur-skin pattern on them, and said in neon green letters “BEAST WARS”. My curiosity was immediately piqued. They looked to be toy animals. I saw a bat and an alligator at first.
Looking closer, I saw the names “Optimus Primal” and “Megatron”. My heart skipped a beat. Could it be!?
At first, I figured that these toys were knock offs – imitation Transformers designed to cash in on the brand’s former popularity. They certainly didn’t look like any Transformer I had ever seen before. Optimus “Primal” may well have been a cheeky attempt at skirting the copyright, and the factions were “Heroic Maximals” and “Evil Predacons” instead of Autobots or Decepticons.
What can I say? I was naive.
I warmed to them quite quickly once I realised they were the bona fide article. Although I was certainly put off by many of the toys’ orgainic styling at first. It was almost the antithesis of Robots in Disguise – wheels and wings and cockpits were replaced by paws and tails and animal guts. Many of the early toys were quite messy, too; they had all these extraneous animal parts sticking out.
The first toys I actually bought were Terrorsaur – because of his superficial resemblance to Starscream – and Snapper, a turtle of the non-teenage but possibly still mutant variety. They cost £5 in my local Toymaster. Not £5 each, no – a fiver for the two. How times have changed.
I loved them dearly, and they were soon followed by Waspinator and Tarantulas. I had a thing for the Predacons at first, probably because they looked a lot more mechanical than the Maximals, being based primarily on insects or reptiles. One toy I steadfastly refused to buy was Rattrap. “Yuck,” I said at the time, “Who wants a robot that turns into a rat?”.
I’d eat those words, though, because in the summer of 1997 there was a Beast Wars cartoon on GMTV! It was absolutely brilliant. It was CGI, in the vein of the earlier Reboot, but it looked amazing. It says something that, twenty years on, it still stands up to viewing today. In fact, although the computer models might look a tad dated, the actual animation has yet to be bettered.
It starred a small cast of characters, about five or six Transformers on each side. This allowed much greater character development than the earlier cartoons. Optimus Primal was wise and compassionate, Megatron was calculating and snobbish. The young and impulsive Cheetor was the Hasbro-mandated kid-appeal character, but many fell in love with the insolent and obnoxious Rattrap instead.
I could write a whole other article about the Beast Wars cartoon, and maybe I will, but for now I’ll just say that it is by far the best Transformers cartoon ever made. It’s action-packed, funny and thoughtful – it can be enjoyed by adults and children alike, and makes most modern cartoons look like programming for idiots.
Proving that we’re all of us malleable tools of the media, my interest in the toys exploded after watching the cartoon, and my collection grew to include pretty much all the characters in the show and a few extras that took my fancy. New toys started appearing on the shelves shortly before season two aired. They were called “Fuzors” and “Transmetals”.
The former were two beasts melded into one. An interesting idea, but most of the toys looked pretty naff. Silverbolt the wolf/eagle was the best, but ended up looking less like two animals monstrously blended together and more like a regular (if there is such a thing) griffon. My mum bought me a toy called Torca (wait…), which I didn’t really care for at the time. It was only years later that I appreciated the kooky hideousness of the elephant/orca hybrid.
The Transmetals were an attempt to win over the stubborn fans who refused to embrace the new organic designs. It threw the Beast Wars concept on its head; the toys were very shiny and very robotic-looking in beast mode, yet maintained gooey insides for their robot modes. Soft on the inside, hard on the outside – ARMADILLOS! (Readers from foreign lands: resign yourselves to not getting the joke)
Like many of my hobbies, Beast Wars was enjoyed in clandestine secrecy, lest I be mercilessly mocked by my peers. We were too old for toys, my friends said. My next door neighbour caved and bought one, but only “because he looks cool on the shelf. I don’t play with him or anything”.
Looking back, I should have done what all teenagers do and just told them all to go and fuck themselves. If your friends are willing to disown you because you like a cartoon, they aren’t your friends to lose in the first place.
Times have changed – Transformers are a pop culture mainstay, and people are generally more accepting of ‘geek’ culture. You can go into Primark and buy t-shirts with Bart Simpson or Adventure Time or Big Bird on them, and wear them with pride. Years ago, you had to get these things from specialists or just make them yourself.
Beast Wars brought me many happy times. I loved the cartoon, I played with the toys, and it ultimately contributed a great deal to my childhood and adolescence. It was quality stuff, and it fuelled my imagination just as the classic Transformers had done.
Were it not for Beast Wars, then I’m certain Transformers would never have returned in such a big way, and we wouldn’t have all this great merchandise to rekindle fond memories – and make new ones. It’s worth noting that there was a short comic series made by IDW in 2006 (it still seems brand new to me, despite being nearly ten years old now!). The art is astounding, and it ties in nicely with the cartoon with a script by British National Treasure Simon Furman. Pick it up from your local dealer today. Uh, your comic dealer you understand. Not the shady guy who hangs around outside the nightclub.
“Love with the insolent”