Year of the Robot, Part 3: Transformers ascendant

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Dec 19, 2014, 4:55 PM EST

Thirty years ago, a tidal wave that changed the world of science fiction forever swept over American television. Transformers, Mighty Orbots and Voltron all debuted on U.S. airwaves in September of 1984. Challenge of the GoBots followed in October. All four of these shows involved giant robots, originally hailed from Asia and captivated kids the world over.

What was behind this all-out assault of Japanese mechanical men? Why did Transformers succeed while the rest faded into various levels of cultural obscurity? We talk to some of the most important minds behind all four shows and get the inside story on the year of the cartoon robots in a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1, in which we kicked things off with a look at the origins of the phenomenon, and click here to read Part 2, in which we dove into the golden age ... and how it came to an end. In Part 3, a victor emerges, transforms and rolls out.

Four Color Fun

Marvel's deal with Hasbro on Transformers was similar to what they'd done with G.I. Joe -- not only did they develop the characters and storylines, but they also gained the license to produce a comic book based on the toy line. The G.I. Joe comic, written by Larry Hama, was one of the company's biggest breakout hits of the decade, but Transformers got off to a rockier start. For one thing, few artists wanted the assignment. Drawing the giant robots on-model (which was essential to pleasing Hasbro) was a challenge, and with new characters being introduced on a near-monthly basis, it was tough to keep them all straight.

The book started as a four-issue miniseries, but sales were high enough to launch it as an ongoing, written by Bob Budiansky with art primarily by Marvel vet Don Perlin. Writing the book was tough, as Hasbro would introduce dozens of new robots over the course of a year and Marvel was required to give each and every one of them at least a little bit of space in the book.

At the same time that Marvel's United States office was producing their Transformers series, the company's U.K. wing was taking those stories and printing them alongside new tales created for a British audience. The writer of many of those stories, Simon Furman, eventually was brought over to helm the American series as well, and became one of the most iconic voices in the franchise.

Furman brought a uniquely British sci-fi sensibility to the American line when he took over the series in 1989. By then, the toy line had mostly petered out, so the need to introduce new characters every issue was gone. Furman took the characters on a space-spanning odyssey that ended in 1991 with the Autobots returning to Cybertron to usher in a new age of peace.

Go-Bots comics and coloring books were also produced, with art by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko (among others). Flagging publisher Charlton also put out a three-issue Voltron miniseries in 1985.

The Big Screen

In 1986, with Transformers at the height of their popularity, Hasbro released Transformers: The Movie into theaters. The ambitious feature was set back on Cybertron, as both Autobots and Decepticons found their world threatened by the enormous planet-eating Unicron (voiced by Orson Welles in his last role). Transformers: The Movie upped the ante on the show's violence, featuring an unforgettable beginning in which Optimus Prime falls in combat to Megatron and dies. Writer Flint Dille said that Prime wasn't originally the only casualty – in an earlier draft of the script, "We had this one scene where the Autobots basically had to run through a gauntlet of Decepticons. Which basically wiped out the entire '84 product line."

Tonka, not willing to let their long-time rivals beat them to the punch, also released a feature film in 1986 – a month before Transformers: The Movie. Titled GoBots: Challenge Of The Rock Lords, it was a thinly-disguised commercial made to promote the release of the most boring GoBots yet: They disguised themselves as rocks.

The film, which was the last released by troubled distributor Clubhouse Pictures, barely made $1.5 million at the box office, despite featuring the voices of such A-list stars as Margot Kidder and Telly Savalas.

Transformers: The Movie wasn't a smash hit either, though. After grossing $1.8 million on its opening weekend, box office dropped quickly and the movie ended up making a little bit less than its $6 million budget. That didn't stop it from becoming a cult hit that was rereleased multiple times on VHS and DVD.

The Pull Of The Past

The Transformers franchise stayed viable over the next few decades, in a number of forms. Hasbro created a second generation of the original toys starting in 1993, mostly recolored versions of Generation 1 robots with some designs from Hasbro Europe thrown in the mix. They then spun the Transformers concept off into a number of different directions. 1996 saw the launch of the Beast Wars line, featuring descendants of the original characters trapped on a strange planet. They take on alternate forms modeled after Earth animals – Optimus Primal, the leader of the Maximals, changes into a great ape, for instance. The show was completely CGI animated and lasted exactly 52 episodes over three seasons – just enough to fill out a syndication order.

In retrospect, Beast Wars holds up fairly well. There was major fan backlash at the time, however, with Generation One fans upset at the franchise's unusual evolution.

2002 saw the launch of Transformers: Armada, a new line of toys produced in collaboration between Hasbro and Takara that aimed to unify the franchise worldwide. It launched alongside an animated series of the same name that rebooted continuity, starting fresh with Autobots and Decepticons landing for the first time once more on Earth. The big twist came from the introduction of the Minicons, human-size robots that transferred new powers when they linked to another machine.

Probably the weirdest Transformers product thus far was 2006's Kiss Players line, which was sold in Japan only. Unlike the other animated series, in which Energon was the fuel that made the giant robots go, in Kiss Players Optimus Prime and his cohorts were powered by… the kisses of young women. It was exactly as creepy as it sounds, and the manga series that accompanied it was chock full of sexually suggestive images.

The Man That Goes Boom

In 2006, the rumors of a big-screen, live-action take on the Transformers franchise finally came true, with mega-grossing action director Michael Bay at the helm. The film had been in production since 2003, when Hasbro teamed with producer Don Murphy to shepherd the project. Murphy had originally been working on a big-screen G.I. Joe reboot, but with the war in Iraq affecting American perceptions of the military, the choice was made to do Transformers, first.

The production worked with a number of names from franchise history, hiring Simon Furman to consult early on in the process. The Transformation Matrix was chosen as a core element of the mythos to build around (and then renamed to avoid confusion with the Matrix trilogy). Bay originally wasn't interested in the project, dismissing it as a "stupid toy movie." However, the involvement of Steven Spielberg as producer was enough to change his mind.

Transformers was the highest grossing non-sequel movie of 2007, and it sparked a new wave of interest in the iconic franchise. Hasbro was there and waiting with a line of tie-in toys that mixed the iconic '80s looks with the more detailed, realistic styling of the movie's robots.

The Transformers franchise now spans four live-action films, with a fifth scheduled for 2016. Its success reignited interest in at least one of its 1984 competitors – a bidding war for the rights to Voltron in early 2014 ended with DreamWorks getting ownership of the franchise.

And Roll Out

So, what is it that made Transformers stand the test of time while the other shows from the Year of Cartoon Robots withered and died? There are many ideas. The quality of the toys, the relative length and maturity of the animated series and tie-in comics, and some dumb luck are all valid theories.

In the words of Cenate Pruitt, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Georgia and longtime Transformers fan, "It's the characterization. Every single Transformers toy sold in stores had a paragraph or so on the package, telling you who this guy is, what he likes, what he hates, a catchy motto. Sunstreaker is a cool name, he's a cool car, and the character bio is that he's this vain prettyboy who'll beat you up if you scuff his paint. Compare that to even the coolest GoBots toy and it's no contest. There were dozens of also ran robot toys by '85, and nobody but the hardest of the hardcore remembers Convertors or whatever."

The irony here is that the robots who were the most successful of the class of '84 were the ones that were the most like us. The Transformers had personality, and that personality has sustained them through three decades and dozens of reinventions while their competitors rusted on the scrapheap.