An untested leader, a gung-ho cadet, a rebellious youth and a hulking brute stranded on Earth with a hundred or so of the galaxy's toughest Decepticons. I haven't been this excited about a new Transformers animated series since Beast Wars.
The first two episodes of Transformers: Robots in Disguise debuted on Cartoon Network in the States last weekend (Australia is several episodes ahead), introducing fans to new team of Autobots facing off against a different sort of Decepticon threat. What makes this show different than the majority of series that have come before it is that this group of heroic 'bots is not led by the legendary Optimus Prime. I like to think of them as the Autobots' Bee-team.
Warning: Spoilers for the first two episodes of Transformers: Robots in Disguise and the Transformers Prime animated series follow.
The Transformers Prime series ended with a pair of fairly massive bangs. The final episode of the series proper saw the death and rebirth of Autobot scout Bumblebee, the process restoring his vocal circuits, which had been damaged since the days of Transformers: War for Cybertron.
In the Transformers Prime Beast Hunters: Predacons Rising animated feature the restored Bumblebee, now voiced by Will Friedle (Eric from Boy Meets World, Terry McGinnis from Batman Beyond) is promoted to warrior class, just in time for Optimus Prime to sacrifice himself to restore the desiccated husk of Transformers home planet Cybertron to its former glory.
The first episode of Robots in Disguise opens on a Cybertron restored. Years have passed since Optimus' sacrifice, and the planet is full of mechanical life once more. Enter Lieutenant Bumblebee, robot cop.
"Cybertron. My name is Bumblebee, and I keep the peace around here."
The obvious question is poised almost immediately by Bumblebee's partner in justice, fresh-faced female Autobot cadet Strongarm, voiced delightfully by Constance Zimmer of Entourage and House of Cards fame.
"After all you and Optimus did for Cybertron, I'm surprised you weren't made something more prestigious than a street cop."
Bumblebee offers no response, but it seems pretty obvious to me — he's not a leader. Bumblebee has been following Optimus Prime for what, hundreds of thousands of years if not more? He's a soldier, and the closest he can come to being a soldier in this golden age of Cybertron is patrolling the street. He's keeping the peace, even if the biggest threat to that peace is a teenage devil-may-care rebel named Sideswipe, voiced by Darren Criss (Blaine Anderson from Glee.)
It's obvious from the get go that bad-boy Sideswipe and by-the-book cop Strongarm were created to play off of each other. Outraged by the former's direspect for her planet's greatest hero (he's doing doughnuts in front of the Optimus Prime statue), Strongarm moves to take Sideswipe down while Bumblebee is visited by visions of his dead mentor.
Guided by a ghostly Optimus Prime to an inactive space bridge in an Autobot museum, Bumblebee distracts the guards while the now cuffed together Strongarm and Sideswipe work on activating the interstellar portal.
Meanwhile, on a planet Earth that's long since forgotten the conflict between the Autobots and Decepticons of Transformers Prime, the prison ship Alchemor has crash landed, losing most of its payload of more than a hundred Decepticon criminals in the process. Its pilot, a Minicon named Fixit, begins transmitting distress signals.
Not far from the crash site we're introduced to the series' obligatory humans, Russell "Rusty" Clay and his father Denny. Rusty's not happy about visiting his dad, a carefree scrap vendor with a large amount of incredibly Transformer-convenient land.
But Rusty doesn't have to worried about being bored for long. There's the crashed prison ship, for one. And then Bumblebee steps through the space bridge in one of the best scenes from the two-part pilot.
In that single minute and change we've established the dynamic for the show. Bumblebee is the unwilling leader, being followed whether he wants to or not. Strongarm is a young and eager cadet with a serious case of idol worship. Sideswipe is an excitement-craving rogue with no great love for authority and a knack for getting himself into trouble.
A knack which manifests moments after his first footfalls on the planet. Sideswipe, meet Rusty. Rusty, meet Sideswipe. Overbite, attempt to eat Rusty and Sideswipe.
Overbite is our first look at the new breed of Decepticons Bumblebee and crew will be dealing with as they attempt to keep our planet from being turned into a mechanical criminal paradise. As with most Decepticons in the show, he's got a vehicle alt mode with an animalistic robot mode. It's sort of a Beast Wars in reverse thing. Underbite is a Chompazoid, sort of a giant robot dog who powers up by feeding on metal. Like the massive piles of metal at Rusty's dad's scrapyard. You see where this is going.
It's up to Rusty, Denny, Fixit, Bumblebee, Sideswipe and Strongarm to find a way to stop the rogue Decepticon before he powers up beyond their power to stop him, but before the battle begins in earnest there's one more member of the cast to introduce.
It's Grimlock, but not the Grimlock we met back in the Fall of Cybertron video game. This Grimlock wears a Decepticon symbol, yet happily joins the Autobot cause after being forcibly extricated from his stasis pod by an angry Overbite.
He's a loveable brute, expertly played by veteran voice actor Khary Peyton (Cyborg from Teen Titans, Aqualad from Young Justice and tons of video game roles).He just wants to punch things, and the Autobots seem like his best chance of doing lots of that. So he joins up. Why not?
That's what I love the most about the pilot for Robots in Disguise. Like Beast Wars before it, it features a ragtag band of characters forced together by circumstances beyond their control. This is not an elite military team, or a group of seasoned warriors that have been fighting together for eons. It's Bumblebee finally stepping up into a leadership position. It's Strongarm learning to accept that heroes can be flawed and regulations aren't everything. It's Sideswipe discovering you can be a bad-arse bro while still being a useful part of a group. It's Grimlock...ok Grimlock is just there to punch things.
There's a heartwarming tale of father-son reconciliation brewing as well, not just between the human father and his child, but between Bumblebee and Optimus Prime, who makes a brief cameo towards the end of the second half, saving the day one final time before officially passing the baton to his "son".
"I'm not Optimus!" Bumblebee shouts in frustration as the pilots conflict builds to its boiling point and his teammates look to him for guidance. No, he's not, and that's a good thing. He's not sure he can handle this assignment. The audience isn't sure he can handle the assignment. And with Optimus Prime mysteriously phasing in and out of existence, there aren't going to be any more last-minute saves (I hope).
After watching the pilot, the first part of which can be watched on Cartoon Network's website, I have high hopes for Transformers: Robots in Disguise. If the show can maintain this level of wit and charm, they have got my attention, and possibly my toy money.
OK fine, they already have my toy money. Not too fond of the one-step changers, but the Warrior class figures aren't too shabby, and the upcoming Minicons have piqued my interest.
Transformers: Robots in Disguise episode three airs in the show's regular 6:30 AM Eastern time slot on 4 April. Without spoiling too much (thanks, Australia), it features a new would-be Decepticon leader voiced by Mr Troy Baker. Suddenly I am questioning my Autobot allegiance.