Recently a friend of mine argued that while Hollywood has been getting dumber in its insane quest for the PG-13 audience, especially when it comes to making horror for the barely teen crowd, television cartoons marketed mostly toward kids have been getting smarter. At least they’ve been taking on more of the tropes that we take for granted with more adult-targeted programming, little things like multi-episode story arcs, character development, and having more than just one core group of antagonists. Probably the quintessential example of this is something along the lines of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but you also saw it with the recent remakes of a lot of ’80s and ’90s fare, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Transformers, and even freaking He-Man. As hard as it may be to believe for people whose cultural awareness doesn’t stretch back to the ’80s, there was a time when these things were quite foreign to the Saturday morning ghetto. You could rely on the same small band of villains showing up week after week. Maybe a secondary antagonist for the designated villains and the heroes to team up against might pop up for an episode, but they definitely wouldn’t be sticking around in the heroes’ otherwise tiny rogues gallery. Story arcs? Well, in my day we had two-part episodes, and the show’s status quo might change in the next season, but you’d have to watch the special movie released in theaters or on VHS to see why. Does that count? As for character development and character arcs…well, no.
It was, depending on your point of view, a more innocent or a more primitive time. Personally I think that era had its pluses, especially when it led to gloriously surreal things like this episode.
Like pretty much every Transformers episode from the early seasons, it’s all about the Decepticons trying to dig up lots of energy, usually by means of blowing things up. This time Soundwave happens to discover massive amounts of energy being harnessed and processed at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Before you think there might actually be a fantastic, thinly-veiled Namor the Sub-Mariner versus the Transformers crossover there, it turns out it’s not really Atlantis, but “Sublantica,” which is populated by ugly amphibian people only the most devout of Furries could find attractive. Oh, and they’re telepathic too. In another unexpected plot twist, the sound of their telepathy is just their normal voices given the Alvin the Chipmunk-treatment.
Lost civilizations in ’80s children’s cartoons came in only two styles: Complete Innocents Free from the Corruption of Modern Human Civilization, and Total Assholes. N’rgil, the king of Sublantica, at least completely fits the latter category. He really wants to conquer the surface world, but he can’t because…to be honest, I watched the scene three times, and there’s only a throwaway line about how Sublantica and its people have to stay rooted because of their energy resources. It doesn’t make any sense, and you can practically hear the overworked screenwriter rolling their eyes and saying, “Screw it, they’re just there because they’re there.”
Anyway, even though the Decepticons are completely unaffected by the physics of being underwater…
…Sublantican technology beats them to a standstill of sorts. Megatron and N’rgil form an uneasy alliance; in exchange for the Decepticons’ help in harvesting energy from the ocean floor (which frees N’rgil up to lead his armies to the surface because the screenwriter needs to get to the bar in time for happy hour), N’rgil will launch an invasion of Washington DC. Of course, Starscream, since he knows a thing or two about betrayal, correctly suspects that N’rgil has been scheming against the Decepticons from the beginning. However, Starscream, still being Starscream, isn’t really able to change anything. It’s the eternal fate of characters like Starscream to, even when they’re actually right, always be wrong, if that makes sense.
Naturally, the Autobots get involved when the Decepticons’ energy producing methods place Sublantica on the map. A team of Autobots trace the energy signatures straight to Sublantica. True, the Autobots also have the power to act as if they’re not submerged in seventeen quadrillion gallons of water, but it’s the second act, so not only are the Autobots and their human pet…I mean, ally, Spike are defeated and driven off, but Wheeljack is captured and subjected to experiments by the Sublanticans. This in of itself could lead to some really dark turns, but as it is it just means N’rgil is now armed with a weapon that can stun Transformers. With that, we go from an underwater adventure story to the Decepticons and the Sublanticans flat-out invading DC, as we see with a couple of quick scenes showing terrified civilians.
Now probably in one of today’s series this would have been at least the set-up for the next episode, or the beginning of a story arc about N’rgil and the Sublanteans and the implications of them having the ability to paralyze Transformers with a subplot about the Autobots or Spike meeting more benevolent representatives of Sublantean civilization. Not here! The Decepticons and Sublanteans take DC in just a few rushed scenes, capped off with this:
Hey, if a 200-ton robot that can miraculously turn into a gun an average human can hold shouldn’t be our lord and master, who should?
The Autobots really don’t make a good showing against the invaders of DC, although to their credit they do advise each other not to destroy any history, which lets them show more courtesy than their Michael Bay counterparts. Still, all of the Autobots are taken out by N’rgil’s anti-Transformer device, forcing the Autobots to call in the reserves: Grimlock and the Dinobots. You might remember Grimlock from the movie as the one who gets to delight the kids by making the immortal battle-cry, “Me Grimlock kick butt!” In the show, he was a bit of a jerk, constantly telling Optimus Prime he was too much of a wimp to lead the Autobots. In my generation’s terms, it’s like some guy telling Santa Claus, Jesus Christ, and your granddad that they’re all stupid pricks.
In the end, the assholes (the Dinobots) save the day by (somewhat accidentally) destroying N’rgil’s device. N’rgil and the Decepticons retreat back to Sublantica, where N’rgil, proving to be the ultimate sore loser, vows to destroy Sublantica by blowing up its energy reserves (…somehow) rather than see it conquered by the Transformers. Although the Autobots figure out what N’rgil is up to, they fail spectacularly to stop him. Luckily, we the audience never got to see any Sublanticans other than N’rgil and some of his soldiers, so nobody (not even the characters for the most part) gets bummed that an entire species and civilization was just blown up.
And all this, folks, happened in a less than thirty minute episode. That’s how it’s done; just stuff as many ideas as you can into an half-hour all while laughing in the face of reality and sanity.