Although popular in the 1980s, Transformers was struggling as the 90s approached. The line was rebranded Generation 2 with new toys, a new cartoon and new comics, but its popularity continued to wane. Hasbro handed off production of the line to their newly-acquired Kenner division to try their hand at revitalizing the toys.
|The next generation of Transformers: the original Beast Wars line.|
The first thing Kenner did was ditch the whole vehicle and machine angle of the transformations as well as various group subdivisions that had been introduced. Instead, they had the Transformers change into realistic-looking animals with a size-class system. Unlike the previous toys, these were highly articulated and all components could be concealed within a transformation instead of leaving loose parts around. Dubbed Beast Wars, the original storyline had the newly-christened Maximals and Predacons fighting on modern day Earth like the prior series, but that soon changed.
When the first line of toys proved a success, Hasbro commissioned Mainframe Entertainment to bring the line to life in a new animated series. Beast Wars: Transformers was developed by Larry DiTillio and Bob Forward as the first completely CGI Transformers series. The Generation 2 cartoon and commercials did make use of some CGI, but as it recycled episodes from the original Transformers cartoon it was mostly traditional animation.
The series followed as the Maximals and Predacons crash-landed on a primitive planet rife with pure raw Energon—the substance that powers Cybertonians. However, it was too much of a good thing and could cause them to short-circuit after prolonged exposure. To combat it, both sides scanned the planet’s surface for lifeforms and adopted them as their alternate forms to shield them from the Energon. As the series progressed, it was revealed that the Maximals and Predacons were from 300 years in the future of the Transformers mythos and had somehow teleported back in time to prehistoric Earth where the Autobots and Decepticons still slept after their own crash-landing, awaiting reactivation in the modern day of 1984.
Because of the expense of creating a new character model, the roster was decidedly smaller than other Transformers media; allowing for a greater focus on character development. The Maximals were led by Optimus Primal (Garry Chalk), who had taken the form of a silverback gorilla. Under his command initially were the intelligent Rhinox (Richard Newman), a rhinoceros; recon expert Rattrap (Scott McNeil), an African rat; and youthful and inexperienced Cheetor (Ian James Corlett), a cheetah.
The Predacons were led by Megatron (not to be confused with the Decepticon version of Megatron, voiced by David Kaye), a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Begrudgingly under him were Scorponok (Don Brown), a scorpion; Terrorsaur (Doug Parker), a Pteranodon; Tarantulas (Alec Willows), a tarantula; Waspinator (McNeil), a wasp; and Dinobot (McNeil), a velociraptor. To allow for additional characters to be introduced as they were created for the toy line, a subplot was added that showed the Maximal ship ejecting unformatted protoforms into orbit (these were blank slates at the beginning of a Cybertronian’s life cycle awaiting programming into the kind of bot they will be). A competition arose between the factions to retrieve a protoform when it fell to Earth and program it to their respective side.
Running in syndication from 1996-99 over 52 episodes, the show was initially dismissed by long-time Transformers fans over the abandonment of the vehicle modes, but the mature writing, darker themes, strong characters and increasing callbacks to previous incarnations gradually won them over. The show also fully defined the protoforms and introduced the concept of the spark, which was essentially the soul of the Transformers. The show and toys found additional success when it was exported to Japan, leading to the creation of two Japan-only spin-off shows: Beast Wars Second and Beast Wars Neo, which were accompanied by toys produced by Takara (the producers of the original toys the Transformers line was spawned from, now known as Takara Tomy).
Beast Wars was a tremendous success for Hasbro; consistently at the top of sales charts for the duration of its life. However, Hasbro wanted to keep the line from going stale like the original line had done and opted to revamp the franchise once again. They decided to integrate vehicular Transformers with the organic ones to produce the line Beast Machines. As such, a new cartoon was put into development to help promote the shift.
Mainframe was retained as the production company for the show, but very few of the personnel involved in making it a success was. Beast Hunters, as the series was originally to be titled, went into development for FOX’s Fox Kids programming block; making it the first Transformers series to be made for a network rather than syndication. Because of their good relationship with FOX in the production of Godzilla: The Series, Bob Skir and Marty Isenberg were brought on as the showrunners and head writers, which caused them to pass up their “dream project” of working on an Avengers cartoon (which may have been a good thing as that cartoon became the widely-panned Avengers: United They Stand).
|Megatron in charge.|
The series’ premise came from an outline by Marv Wolfman, despite fellow comic book veteran Steve Gerber turning in a “wildly original take on Transformers” (as described by then-Mainframe head Dan Didio). The show would center on the Maximals returning to Cybertron to find it under the control of Megatron. Hasbro wanted to add a spiritual dimension to the show to try something new with the franchise, and Skir came up with the idea that there should be a quest to find a balance between nature and technology, rather than the cliched dominance of one over the other. That led to the overreaching story arc of restoring vegetation to Cybertron’s surface, which had previously been an idea in the original Marvel Comics treatment. It would become the first Transformers series to take place entirely on Cybertron. It also further expanded on the concept of the sparks, their transformative abilities, and the overall lifecycle of Transformers. The series ended up marking the definitive end of the Generation One continuity (another thing fans weren’t happy about).
Both Didio and Hasbro discouraged Skir and Isenberg from watching old episodes to achieve the freshest take possible, and Didio felt Beast Wars was too continuity-heavy. Skir and Isenberg also passed that edict down to their writing staff, of whom only Wolfman and other fellow comic scribe Len Wein had previously worked on Beast Wars. Wolfman, in particular, was brought on because Skir felt he was owed some work since they ended up using his initial outline. However, this edict was soon ignored as Hasbro began requesting elements of prior continuity for inclusion in the show, and some of the writers looked at what came before to drop references. Along with Skir and Isenberg, the writers included Michael Reaves, Steven Melching, Rodney Gibbs, Brynne Chandler Reaves, Meg McLaughlin, Brooks Wachtel and Nick Dubois.
|The Maximals in robot form.|
Returning from Beast Wars was Optimus Primal, Rattrap, Cheetor and Predacon-turned-Maximal Blackarachnia (Venus Terzo); all of whom suffered from memory loss and were reverted to their debut beast modes (they had gotten some technological upgrades as Wars progressed). The Predacons were replaced by Vehicons: a legion of heavily-armed military Transformers led by Megatron. At the head of Megatron’s army was Jetstorm (Brian Drummond), the immensely cocky head of the Aero Drones; Tankor (Paul Dobson), the slow-witted and immensely powerful leader of the Tank Drones; and Thrust (Jim Byrnes), the dark and brooding leader of the Cycle Drones and loyal to Megatron above all others. It was eventually discovered that Jetstorm, Tankor and Thrust all contained the sparks of Silverbolt (McNeil), a fused wolf and eagle hybrid with an overdeveloped sense of morality and justice, Rhinox and Waspinator, respectively; removed by Megatron and placed in Vehicon bodies.
|Botanica joins the team.|
Other characters included Nightscream (Alessandro Juliani), a vampire bat traumatized by the Vehicon occupation; Savage/Noble (Kaye), a purely organic Transformer created when Megatron tried to rid himself entirely of his bestial side; The Oracle (Carol Savenkoff), an ancient computer that allowed Optimus to communicate with the AllSpark (the source of life for all Transformers); and Botanica (Kathleen Barr), who could transform into a mobile plant. Megatron’s forces would soon be bolstered by Obsidian (Dobson), who fought for whoever was in control of Cybertron, and his consort Strika (Patricia Drake), one of the greatest generals in Cybertron’s history. None of the good guys used guns--another first for Transformers--as Skir preferred to write heroes who didn’t rely on them.
|Vehicon generals Tankor, Jetstorm and Thrust.|
Beast Machines: Transformers debuted on September 18, 1999 on FOX, with music composed by Robert Buckley and a theme song, called “Phat Planet”, by Leftfield. Much like Beast Wars, Beast Machines was largely hated by their target audience—so much so, that Skir and Isenberg received death threats from Transformers fans. Unlike Wars, it would be years before some of that hatred would lift. Fans were generally put off by the much darker and humorless direction Machines took, and the inconsistent personalities of the characters between the shows. For instance, Optimus became an anti-technology guru and a fanatic at times; Rattrap was made a virtual coward; Silverbolt was no longer goofy and noble but grim and vengeance-driven; and Megatron was much grimmer with no sign of his previous agendas. Others felt the message behind the show, technology vs. nature, was ham-fisted and overly forced. Also, because of the serial nature of the show, it made it hard for new viewers to jump on at any point to become hooked.
|Tankor/Rhinox stands with the Maximals.|
And it wasn’t only the fans that didn’t like the show; it was largely reported that most of the returning actors weren’t too happy with it either. McNeil, who enjoyed the series, had mentioned that Chalk was known to throw angry fits between recording sessions because of the directions the show took. Simon Furman, the writer of Marvel’s UK and US Transformers comics notable for his epic and dark storytelling, felt that the show was too dark and serious for a kid’s show. Despite all the negative attention, one thing that was usually agreed on is that Mainframe stepped up their game with continuing improvements to the visuals and character movements in comparison to Beast Wars.
The series was translated and broadcast in several countries around the world, but it was the Japanese version that’s of special note. It wouldn’t be until 2004 that Beast Machines would be localized for broadcast in Japan as Super Lifeform Transformers: Beast Wars Returns. The translation was headed up by Yoshikazu Iwanami, who had also handled the Beast Wars dubbing, and took the series in a dramatically different way than the North American version. The overall dub was done in a humorous and satirical manner, completely changing the personalities of the characters (Nightscream became a flaming homosexual stereotype), adding chants to the Vehicon drones every time they were on screen, and ignoring key plot points for the sake of goofy adlibbing (such as failing to conceal the real identities of Thrust and Jetstorm by having the same actors and personality traits for Waspinator and Silverbolt used). Characters would also have comedic conversations over the main titles and credits. The Japanese version of the show kept the same music, but added the song “Megatron Ondo” by Yukio Hibariya and Taku Unami, with Megatron actor Shigeru Chiba reprising his role for speaking portions. The song was included on the Japanese album Transformers Song Universe released by Columbia Music Entertainment.
|The North American DVD release.|
The series has been released to home media in various countries by various companies. In the United States, Rhino Entertainment released the complete series in 2006. It was later re-released by Shout! Factory in 2014. Sony Home Entertainment released two season sets in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Spain between 2007 and 2009. The UK release also saw the first season broken up into two volumes, as did Australian and New Zealand with both seasons. Geneon Universal Entertainment released the show in Japan across seven volumes, as well as a box set.
|Art for IDW's The Ascending.|
Beast Machines made the leap to comics with 3H Productions’ Transformers Universe, scripted by Furman with stories by Glen Hallit and Dan Khanna. The book was made in part with the Official Transformers Collector’s Club and available at each annual BotCon. Unfortunately, 3H lost the Transformers license after the third issue was published, leaving the story unfinished. Fun Publications would publish the four completed pages from #4 in one of their magazines in August of 2007, and then an illustrated text story that November that completed the story once and for all. The complete script for #4 was leaked into a Transformers message board around the same time. Transformers: Beast Wars: The Ascending from IDW Publishing in 2007, also by Furman, provided some lead-in to Megatron’s eventual conquest of Cybertron.
The Beast franchise was revisited in 2023 with the 7th installment of Hasbro and Paramount Pictures’ live-action Transformers movie series. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, written by Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber, and directed by Steven Caple Jr., serves as a sequel to 2018’s Bumblebee, which itself served as a prequel/soft reboot of the original movie series directed by Michael Bay. Set in 1994, the Maximals’ home planet came under attack by the planet-eating Unicron (Colman Domingo) and his heralds, the Terrorcons and Predacons, leading to a small faction of them escaping to Earth using a Transwarp Key. When museum intern Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback) discovered half of the key, she drew the attention of the Terrorcons and the Autobots. The film featured Optimus Primal, Rhinox, Cheetor and Airazor, voiced by Ron Perlman, David Sobolov (the only actor from the cartoon), Tongayi Chirisa and Michelle Yeoh, respectively. Scorponok also appeared, but as an army of drones that became scorpions.