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This Week in Anime
Siege on Cybertron

by Monique Thomas & Steve Jones,

Netflix dropped the six-episode Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy: Siege!, the first part in a planned animated trilogy by Polygon Pictures. Your beloved alien 'bot vehicle boys are back but this time the war is at home. Is this grittier entry in the kids' toy franchise a masterpiece in disguise?

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

You can read our interview with Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy: Siege composer Alexander Bornstein here.

@Lossthief @Liuwdere @NickyEnchilada @vestenet

Well Nicky, since we had such a good time last week talking about a war that people fought with giant robots, I thought this time we could cut out the middleman. In fact, let's cut out the “man” entirely and just talk about sentient space robots at war. That's right, there are no disguises here, and it's exactly what meets the eye—it's Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy: Siege!
What a title!
After Gundam took off in the dear old age of 1979, these robots first rolled-out five years later and have been going ever since! The War for Cybertron Trilogy is the latest shiny new version of this well-known 80s property, and as the name suggests, this is a three-part story in which we'll be covering the first part. But before we get talking about the nuts and bolts of this show. I think we need to talk about who the intended audience is for this thing.
For starters, I guess, I don't think it's me! I definitely had some of the toys growing up, but I never really got invested into the franchise beyond "haha, truck robot goes chk chk chk." The best Transformers anecdote I have is that one of the scenes in Revenge of the Fallen was filmed in my hometown's derelict steel plant.
Oh! that's really neat. My parents only ever assigned me Barbies and other "girl-approved" toys and even though I always loved me some boy-cartoons in secret, Transformers media didn't stick, so I also don't have a large history with this franchise. BUT I did actually watch this with someone who was a fan, and that lead to me to doing a little bit of homework so I'm not totally lost talking about this. More importantly though, although Netflix's attempt to slap a Y7 rating on this thing, this show's target audience doesn't really seem to be kids.
Lol, tell me about it. I don't believe that kids writ large are gonna want to watch six episodes of sad robots pontificating about the ethics and costs of war.
They also let Wheeljack slip one (1) curse word pretty early! Just to let you know they mean srs bns.
To be fair, they also slip in several fake curse words, to undermine said serious business.
Yeah, but the wording or the story isn't the real reason I bring this up. I've seen kids cartoons handle serious themes in the past with other properties and IMO a kid who is a big fan of Transformers will probably still enjoy watching this with some guidance. The reason I bring it up is that there's actually been a lot of Transformers media that handle mature themes or erm...adult humor...quickly glances over at a certain set of Hollywood movies but to my knowledge, the animated series have always been shot to the younger fans and exist as a place where new fans can always be created.
And like I've heard that there are some Transformers comics that actually handle more mature themes and characters fairly well, so I don't doubt the franchise's potential to do so. But War for Cybertron walks this weird line where it feels like it's straddling both Transformers as a Hasbro toy property and Transformers as a vehicle for telling serious stories. By doing both it kinda does neither. It also, aside from all that, tries to do A LOT with just six episodes, with wildly varying results.
Yes, these first six episodes are PACKED with details, lots of story and characters happening in the twenty-two minutes per episode, and most importantly--Dare I say it? The L Word...
Is it "lubrication"? Because with all these ragged rusty robot parts rubbing up on each other, I can't even IMAGINE the amount of oil they'd need to stop the entire planet from sounding like the universe's squeakiest door hinge.
No, I'm in fact talking about that forbidden capital L-O-R-E, LORE! Apparently lots of modern Transformers properties have been doing this, but this thing is filed to the brim with lots of blink-and-you-miss references, nods, and mentions of Transformers continuity staples and it doesn't really intend to hold your hand through any of it.
It also starts very much in medias res, with the war between the Autobots and Decepticons already well under way with both sides battered and exhausted. We get all of two minutes into the first episode, and Megatron is already speaking gravely about revolutionaries and genocide, which certainly sets the tone of the show.
Siege starts with an Autobot Wheeljack, scouting for energy with the aid of freelancer Bumblebee, when they get intercepted by some Decepticons, including the big not-man, himself, Megatron. The autobots are regularly outnumbered, outgunned, out of resources, and out of luck. But fortunately this time they get their robo-butts saved by the one and only Battle Convoy--I mean Optimus Prime.
We waste zero time getting the franchise's two monolithic (action) figures to stare each other down. That's not surprising, but I was caught off guard and pleased by the way War For Cybertron follows their respective struggles as leaders. Obviously "humanize" isn't the best word I can use here, but it's neat to see the two of them act like very flawed people in spite of their near-mythic status in popular culture. Even their first interaction here is a clash of ideology more so than a fistfight, immediately casting some nuance into our simple preconceived notions of "Autobots good. Decepticons bad." That's cool!

We're immediately thrust into this world and it's struggles and forced to reckon with the conflict at hand, it would be so easy to simply portray the "Good Autobots" and the "Evil Decepticons" but where the show shines is explaining what makes them both good and bad leaders. Megatron fought a revolution to achieve class-unity but in doing so put everyone under his totalitarian control. And while Optimus Prime is altruistic and idealistic in his fight for freedom, he is not pragmatic strategist nor strong like Megatron.

For example, he can't turn into a tank.
It's legit compelling, even timely lore. Hell, I might have my issues with the show in its entirety, but I can absolutely get down with a backstory about robot class struggles. In fact I wish we got to dig into Megatron and Prime's shared past a bit more.
To take a note from History's book, Optimus Prime is the Trotsky to Megatron's Stalin in this picture. Megatron had previously killed their mutual mentor figure and their Lenin, Alpha Trion in the revolution, which Optimus calls murder. But as passionate as both factions are, there are still some metallic folk who don't want anything to do with the war namely, our actual main character, Bumblebee.

Bumblebee is a humble yellow boy who just wants to live out his life the best he can doing odd jobs and not have to with the reality of the politics around him and right off the bat everyone calls him out as being weak.
For being our main character, ol' Bumbled Bee doesn't show up much. Not that I can blame him for looking at this mess and peacing out.

But like any reluctant hero will tell you, it's only so long until you get possessed by the ghost of a giant glowing samurai who says you gotta save the world.
To be fair, there's lots of other characters to focus on and it takes a while for Bumblebee to gain the power of being the Cybertronian answer to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Bumblebee in this series also isn't much like some of his previous incarnations but you still have some that are pretty much straight out of the 80s cartoon, like Starscream here.

Ha ha ha! Classic Starscream. Never change!
Gotta love a guy whose voice and rhetoric are both indistinguishable from Ben Shapiro.

And with that, TWIA is 2 for 2 this week with Ben Shapiro dunks! swish
Starscream's motto is just: If I were in charge I would kill all the Autobots and simply not fail. Though he is ambitious, the actual captain of the Seekers is Jetfire, who refuses to result to such senseless violence as he sees it as against his reason for fighting in the revolution to begin with. Though Megatron thinks Starscream is an imbecile who wants to wear pants too-big for his metal britches, he gets kept around because his loyalty is more valuable as a tool.

And this is one of many examples where uhh, I kinda think the Decepticons are more interesting than the Autobots!
Oh 100% agreed, and not just because Jetfire literally, in the text, calls Starscream a tool.
I mean they also just kinda have the benefit of having more interesting and weird designs despite being more military-based. Like having a character be a walking walkman or a mad scientist, also they have pets like doggos and birbs.
Oh I do legit love that Soundwave was, I'm assuming, originally fitted with a cassette deck, but since it's 2020, he's since been updated with a touchscreen cassette deck. Exquisite stuff. Designs aside tho, there are two Decepticons, Jetfire and Impactor, who both get arcs about the compounding ethical friction between their personal codes and the increasingly genocide-happy Megatron. And as an unapologetic villain apologist, I'm in my element.
I think a big part of it is that it sets up what the Decepticons want so well and why they were unhappy. It's a little easier to empathize with them. It makes Optimus' talk of freedom and unity feel vague when he himself never had to suffer in the same way. It hasn't gotten through exactly WHY he's so justified other than it is "the right thing to do". Like if Optimus took the throne how could he ensure that the old system wouldn't just happen again? I want to know Optimus Prime's tax policy cuz he's sort-of running a bit of a poor campaign here.

These are interesting conflicts that War for Cybertron (or this Siege part anyway) doesn't really dig into, unfortunately. Worsening the issue is that Megatron goes from anti- to pro-genocide at the drop of an oil can, which is where I really feel the six episode restriction. I think there's a compelling mutual tragedy buried in here, where both the Autobots and Decepticons wear themselves and each other down to the point of desperation, but there just simply isn't enough time to do so properly.
To be fair, everyone is always talking about how they're tired of all this War Biz and want everything to be over. Even starting there are a lot of casualties on both sides of the equation, maybe Megatron finally just wanted to have a little selfcare time? Watch some TV, put his feet up, take a nice bubble bath. So his mad scientist cooks up a plan to use this thing called the AllSpark, Cybertron's resident babymaker and powersource, and use it to overwrite all the Autobots into Decepticons like he was setting up a new external drive.
So the drive is basically finding the AllSpark, the magic D20 MacGuffin, and getting it off the planet so Megatron can't brainwash everyone.

That's pretty yawn-inducing to be hones—SIKE, there are robot zombies.
Oh god, I almost forgot about the robot zombies. But, Optimus Prime's response to all of this is, after getting their comms and location betrayed by a series of events, to play keep away with the D20 like it's a football by shooting it off-planet using an old warp gate stumbled upon in the first scene.
Patrick Star voice
"What if we took the AllSpark and moved it somewhere else?" Did I mention that this could potentially kill the whole planet? Yeaaaah.

And Prime's best response to that is "maybe it won't?" So you can understand why his second in command, Elita, is always like this.
Elita-1 really has her work cut out for her, I guess it's good for Optimus that she seems entirely willing to stand by her not-man though.
She's the wholly sympathetic lens through which we see how Prime's idealism and charisma is undercut but the way he focuses on the big picture at the expense of the smaller yet insidious problems eating away at the Autobots' supplies and morale.
I will say it's not like the Autobots don't have anything to lose here though. It's not just their tiny resistance being squashed out, but their entire not-people's. They continually emphasize that the Autobots are not simply a class, or elites, but they are a robotic race, with history and culture, that are supported on the backs of those that came before them.

We also see many autonomous bots that don't fit in the narrative of being upper class that wouldn't survive in Megaton's society, like Red Alert, who is the epitome of "I'm a healer but" and later Ratchet, an engineer who they employ to repair the warp gate in the Great Yeet.
That culture also apparently includes, despite this being a totally alien planet occupied by purely mechanical lifeforms, gender. Which on one hand is kinda depressing, but on the other hand I think it's very funny that Elita "needs" robot hips and a robot midriff while the other Transformers get to be chunky blocky bois.

But regardless, the Transformer culture is another thing I would've appreciated more background context on. And in general, I'd say War for Cybertron brushes against a lot of stuff with interesting potential, but ultimately lacks the finesse in execution to explore them satisfyingly. Case in point: I really liked the image of these gigantic, shadowy, almost Eldritch robot gods.
Oh, I loved Arrival!
But then a Guardian shows up to grease the climax's wheels, and it ruins their whole mystique at the expense of a humdrum action spectacle.
Anyways, gonna walk it back to where we started with our boy, Bumblebee. So Optimus' Bro and Commander of Military, Ultra Magnus, exhausted, walks up to Megatron to make a treaty because they used to be War Bros, and promptly gets imprisoned and tortured. Yeah dude, what did you THINK was gonna happen?!
He doesn't squeal but ends up eavesdropping on the whole genocide plan and informs the Autobots, but in doing so reveals their comms. Later he leads Megatron to what he claims is the Autobot base. This is a ruse. Megatron murders him which turned out to be Optimus Prime's real intention cuz as soon as he bites the dust, lil' lights start skittering out of him and straight into Bumblebee.
And this sparks Bumblebee's hero's journey, which I presume will develop further in the second part. For now, however, it's emblematic of my chief complaint with War for Cybertron, which is that everything happens too quickly and too conveniently. Like, you can take narrative shortcuts, but you gotta make up for them with SOME kind of craft.
Bumblebee gets imbued with the THIRD McGuffin (yes, there's another one), called the Alpha Trion Protocols, which I can tell is unique to this series, because unlike the other ones, they actually bother to explain what it even is.
It also kinda doesn't even matter, because it gets wiped out by a virus almost as quickly as it arrives.
I think symbolically, it still does because it represents everything they fight for. The ATP is basically just downloading the entire e-book library of Autobot history directly into Bumblebee's brain mod. He uses it to locate the AllSpark (To be yeet). But it gets destroyed by a virus created by Megatron. Originally, it was part of this thing called The Matrix of Leadership, basically robot Divine Right, but when Big AT kicked the bucket, Optimus and his bro split them up to share it so that no one bot could abuse it.
Meanwhile, this is where my status as a non-Transformers-inductee starts to wear me down, because how am I expected to care about all this when I can barely keep the names Soundwave, Shockwave, Soundblaster, Starscream, Sideswipe, Spacejam, Spinister, and Skywarp straight?...okay I might have made one of those up. But only one.
Sometimes between series some of these characters are literally interchangeable. Also one of those is Soundwave's evil clone!
Like on an aesthetic sense, I appreciate the way everyone conducts themselves with the gravity and pageantry of a Shakespearean thespian, but at some point I need raw pathos to hold onto.

The cape's a good touch tho. Love the cape.
The cape actually baffles me because it's the one somewhat organic matter in a robo-world but I digress.
I guess to wrap my point up with an example of my frustration, please take a look at this screenshot of Ratchet and tell me what kind of emotion he's experiencing.
I think most of the character animation in motion actually pretty good in a way that's hard to tell in just screenshots. It does get hard to tell some of the robots apart at times and the backgrounds are pretty sparse, instead mostly choosing to focus on the character's robo-lips as they're talking. The animation is brought to you by an interesting joint effort of Hasbro's production company AllSpark, Rooster Teeth, and Polygon Pictures. So I suspect some of this is cutting corners, but overall I do think the direction, tone, and lighting are quite good, even if it's a bit dry to look at. We could deffo use more transforming for a show called Transformers!
Oh yeah, I think Polygon and Co. actually do a pretty good job with the mechanical animation and setting the mood. But there's some more fundamental creative conservatism that prevents War for Cybertron from reaching the emotional peaks. By the way, for all you playing at home, the answer I was looking for was: reacting to the death of his friend in his arms.

Though I would have also accepted "dull surprise".
Me: shoving spoonfuls of cereal up to my screen
The robots are just hungry.
Hungry for a taste of Megatron's luscious lips.

Tho I imagine Rooster Teeth will probably leave that to the fanfics, sadly.
Mmm tastes like iron.
Starscream's browser history aside, the Autobots do manage to succeed in casting their die in a crazy gamble to split the war to two fronts, but also splitting up their forces and launching us into the next part of the story.
[shudders at the thought of an online Starscream] So overall, while I had an admittedly surprisingly good time with War for Cybertron, it has more untapped than tapped potential. But it still has two more parts left in which to settle into its groove, so who knows?
Despite myself being wholly unfamiliar and the show having little amounts of breathing room, it's still was an enjoyable and tight action show. It's dialogue and world actually feel pretty natural and it doesn't try to dumb down anything that it's saying even if it comes at the expense of trying to initiate a new audience. Established fans of the franchise are sure to get more out of this more nuanced entry of toy to comic-book page to screen. Just don't look at your phone or anything while you're watching this because the show only wants you to focus on ONE set of electronics.
Yeah, and if you don't listen to Nicky, you'll have to answer to Bumblebee, with a Gun.
Anyways, I'm willing to come back for more for part 2, but as for this discussion, this Nickybot is ready to roll-out.

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