I loved many cartoons when I was a kid. Spider-Man, TMNT, X-Men, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, Ducktales, Recess, and the list goes on. There was no other feeling in the world like waking up on Saturday and being excited to have some cereal and absorb quality animation. I loved many, but there was only one that I awoke before dawn to watch – Beast Wars: Transformers. Don’t ask me why, but Fox pushed Beast Wars to an early morning slot (5:30am or 6:00am), television purgatory. I’ve never been a morning person, so the fact that pre-teen Adrian set an alarm on the weekend (much earlier than his normal wake-up time for school) just to watch a half-hour cartoon speaks volumes.
Beast Wars begins with the Maximals and Predicons, descendants of the Autobots and Decepticons, respectively, crash landing on an uninhabited planet. Rather than transforming into vehicles, the Maximals and Predicons adopt beast modes ranging from a rhino to a pterodactyl. The two sides spend the series fighting for survival, and eventually, for the future of the universe. The full CGI animation was groundbreaking for the time, even if it looks dated today. But creators Bob Forward and Larry DiTillio never used the cutting edge animation as a crutch for storytelling. Not only did Beast Wars reinvigorate the Transformers mythology, it introduced us to distinct and interesting characters.
Within the first few episodes we see the smallest, mouthiest Maximal Rattrap openly disrespecting his leader Optimus Primal, at one point calling him a “chicken.” The youngest and most impulsive Maximal, Cheetor, regularly disobeys orders. And about half of the Predacons openly express their desire to overthrow Megatron and take control of their side. These conflicts help the characters feel real, with individual personalities, histories, and agendas. As an inexperienced battle commander, Optimus must earn respect from his crew, and he sums himself up in the pilot episode: “I will not give an order I would not be willing to do myself.” In a later episode he leaps headlong from an exploding island, and when Rattrap calls him crazy, Optimus responds, “Eh, sometimes crazy works.” He really does live up to the Prime name. But the stand out character would probably have to be Dinobot. He is a Predicon who joins the Maximals in their battle against Megatron, and he is Shakespearean in his desire to retain his honor while fighting for the winning side.
There’s a lot to like when watching Beast Wars. Many of the beast and robot forms still look super cool (like the half wolf, half eagle Silverbolt). The voice acting is excellent. The direction is better than I remember, with the camera emphasizing the action and violence of war as well as the natural world. Whereas Spidey couldn’t even throw a punch in his 90s TV series (due to silly restrictions), the transformers are shot, blown up, and some are ultimately destroyed in important episodes. I won’t spoil anything here, but the setting is also an integral character. Even with their advanced technology, the transformers are perplexed by the mysteries of their new planet, including alien constructs that defy gravity and foreshadow an even greater threat.
Sadly, the overall quality declines after season one. Season one is the longest season, which gives it room to breathe and develop its characters gradually. Season two is still good, while the truncated final season and its big climax feel rushed. Worse still, the sequel series Beast Machines is a huge disappointment. But none of that takes away from the fun and excitement to be found on Beast Wars: Megatron spending time in a rejuvenation hottub with his rubber ducky; Rattrap constantly bickering with Dinobot; a gorilla flying on a hoverboard; infamous Decepticons returning to the battlefield. Sincerely, Beast Wars is the best. I just wish I hadn’t lost my transforming toys years ago. Well, that’s just prime.