Beast Machines - The Complete Series
By the spring of 1999, the Beast Wars were over, yet the tale of Optimus Primal and crew was not yet finished. The fall of 1999 brought us Beast Machines, one of the most controversial Transformers series ever to air. Now, Rhino has released the entire 26-episode series on a 4-disc set. Will the passage of time make this series more palatable to viewers?
It's going to be hard to write this review without spoiling the overall storyline. If you haven't seen the series, you may not want to read the synopsis. Therefore, I'll get some of the more technical details out of the way. For the record, I have not watched the entire DVD set yet; in fact, I just received it today, so I sampled a bit here and there to get an overview.
Discs and Packaging
The set comes in a slipcover that has a chrome-like finish to it that replicates the art of the disc set inside. Speaking of art, the front cover shows Optimus Primal, Cheetor, Blackarachnia, and Rattrap in their Beast Machines robot modes, while the back shows them in pre-technorganic beast modes, walking through one of the tunnels of Cybertron. The back text gives a two paragraph synopsis of the show.
The 26 episodes and extra features are spread across four discs:
Disc 1 - Season One:
Disc 3 - Season Two:
Also included is an insert featuring all the Maximals in robot mode. On the back is an ad for all three Beast Wars DVD sets.
When the first episode premiered at BotCon 1999, everyone could agree that it was visually unlike anything we had ever seen in Transformers. It was computer generated, but unlike Beast Wars, we had rich colors and textures. And, the overall look was very dark -- shadows everywhere. There was definitely some inspiration from The Matrix in the use of bullet time, and sometimes we get too anime with motion line backgrounds, but conversely, using different viewpoints on the same screen gave the series a look unique to itself beyond the vibrant texturing.
On DVD, this series has never looked better. In fact, it's even more vibrant than I remember. The colors seem to just pop out of the screen. Detail is fantastic, blacks don't show any noticeable artifacting. I've not seen any weird blocking with the oranges and reds of the explosions, and this straight-from-digital transfer shows no compression problems. As Cheetor would say, "Slick!"
Now, Asaph Fipke, one of the shows producers, stated in 1999 that the series was created with 16:9 HDTV widescreen in mind. It was aired on FOX in normal 4:3 aspect ratio, but it was hoped that this DVD set would bring us the widescreen format we had all heard about and drooled over. Sadly, there would have been too much work to be done to get full widescreen transfers ready for the DVD, so it is presented as it was originally broadcast. A pity, yes, but purists will be happy that the show is as it was aired.
In a nice touch, the menu shows Optimus entering the Council Citadel and finding Megatron for the first time. Megatron speaks as the menu options are displayed for us all to choose.
I just wish I had an HDTV just to see how well it appears, even without true HDTV format.
Speaking of wishes, I also wish I had a 5.1 surround sound system to give the audio a full workout. However, I don't, so we'll just have to take the box at face value. The set gives you a choice of 2.0 Stereo or Dolby 5.1. Let's hope it sounds as good as it looks.
There are a total of three audio commentaries in this set as mentioned above. Interestingly enough, the commentaries for episodes 25 and 26 were recorded before the one for episode 3. Bob Skir mentions that they talked all about Marv Wolfman's contributions... and then found out that he'd be doing a commentary with Marv as well.
The interviews with Marv and Bob provide some interesting -- if somewhat contradictory -- information on how Beast Machines was developed. If you want to know more, head down to the synopsis section with the rest of the spoilers. Something else I found intriguing was Bob's somewhat reserved commentary on the nature of the fandom. Bob was a very polarizing figure in the community back then, although not intentionally. In this interview, he talks about the fandom and how passionate members can be, but I get the sense that he chose his words carefully, perhaps to not antagonize people more, perhaps to not revisit the difficult time it was.
Susan Blu's interview runs the gamut from her live-action career, her first voice over as Poppy, the Pillsbury Doughgirl, Transformers, and then voice directing. She also gives a brief insight as to what a voice director actually does, including talking about how she has to please not just the writer, but the animators and the toy people.
The interview with David Kaye covers both Beast Wars and Beast Machines, starting with his audition for Megatron and Optimus, a little behind the voice he used for the Predacon leader, describing a recording session with Sue, the shift in tone between the two series, conventions, and the fans. David has always presented himself as a class act, and this interview is no different.
I listened to the commentary with Bob and Marv on episode 3, which was an interesting listen. In particular, listening to them talk about how the Vehicon generals were created, and all the thoughts going behind characterization, plus the Jetstorm/Skybolt naming confusion, provided some excellent behind-the-scenes backstory, even if I didn't fully agree with what they did. However, it spoils a lot of upcoming plot lines, so don't listen to this commentary until after you have watched the entire show.
Haven't found any Easter eggs yet; if I find any, I'll let you know.
If you want to see how the Beast Wars ended, you need to get this set. It's a visual treat, and perhaps the passage of time will make those of you who disliked the series come back to it with an open mind. It's a great change of pace from the current crop of dubbed series, and while the current shows have their moments, there's something to be said for true voice acting among your peers than dubbing after the fact. I firmly believe this is one of the best Transformers sets Rhino has put out. The menus are my favorite, the extras are interesting, and the transfer is beautiful. Highly recommended.
As I've stated, here be spoilers. Turn away now if you don't want to know major plot points.
This was the most controversial Transformers storyline ever. Sure, the dubbed series since have provided a lot of vocal outbursts on the Internet, but I don't believe the current Armada/Energon/Cybertron trilogy has resulted in actual death threats being sent to the people in charge. If it has, don't tell me.
Marv Wolfman was approached by Mainframe and Claster to write a new treatment for Transformers that would tie back to the original continuity, according to his interview. But in his interview, Bob says he and co-story editor Marty Isenberg were approached to write Beast Machines based on Marv's story bible because they had no experience with prior Transformers series and they didn't want to tie back to the original series.
Let me just say -- "Huh?" That sounds like it wanted to be both stand-alone yet tied to the past. Perhaps that contradiction was never intended to happen but it came across in some of the details in the show.
Also, this is the darkest Transformers show ever. As we start the show, Optimus, Cheetor, Rattrap, and Blackarachnia are on Cybertron after the Beast Wars, but they're stuck in their original beast modes unable to transform. And the only other Transformers on Cybertron are wave after wave of tanks, jets, and cycles, all intent on killing the Maximals. After multitudes of escapes, Optimus is led to a deep level of Cybertron, where he encounters the Oracle. The Oracle has chosen him to bring balance to Cyberton, and to defeat Megatron.
Yes, Megatron; Optimus thought he had taken Megatron prisoner as they left Earth, but he escaped and landed on Cybertron before the Maximals arrived. Megatron unleashed a virus that immoblized all the Transformers, allowing him to remove their sparks. Now Megatron is in control of the entire planet, and to make it the technological paradise, all beasts must be eliminated.
Like I said, it's dark. Countless drones after you, all your people gone, and it's your fault? That leans heavily on Optimus for much of the show. All is not lost, however. The refomatting by the Oracle has given Optimus the ability to tap into his spark like never before, giving the show a religious quality as well.
At its core, the show seems to be about nature vs. technology, with a subplot of religion vs. science. It's these dichotomies that had the fans worked up. Many (myself included) could not accept the fact that Cybertron once had organic lifeforms, and that Optimus seemed to be leading the planet back to a leafy jungle. It didn't fit with what we had seen before, especially a line about how the Transformers came to Cybertron. Plus, needing the religious aspects to transform? That seemed a bit too mystical and new age for a bunch of robots. Not to mention, Optimus was a general; he wasn't a master or leader. And some of the revelations regarging the true identities of the Vehicon generals? I didn't agree with making them who they were. Seemed a bit too pat, and it did destroy some characterization in the process.
I admit to thinking all of those things and more. I once wrote that Beast Wars had been a kids show that played to adults as well, but Beast Machines always seemed like a kids show. The passage of time has since softened my stance on the show, to the point where I was able to put aside the things I didn't like simply because they didn't fit with what had happened before. The fact that Cybertron eventually becomes fully technorganic still seems a bit too far out there, but it makes sense considering the storyline. Bob mentions a lot of these things in his interview, and it really does shed some light on what he strived to do with the show, as well as how some of the plot lines were given to him, and he just expanded upon them. (For example, the religious aspect was an edict from Hasbro, not just something Bob threw in there for the heck of it.)
Will Beast Machines become my most favorite Transformers series? No; that spot still belongs to Beast Wars, and I don't foresee that changing as long as we have the current situation of dubbed animation. There are some intangibles you get with fully-written scripts and voice actors being recorded as a group rather than translating single lines and dubbing them one actor at a time. But Beast Machines firmly belongs in the Transformers mythos, and I'm grateful that the show is available for all fans to transcend their expectations, if they so choose.
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