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Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy – Siege Review

July 27, 2020 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Transformers War for Cybertron Trilogy Image Credit: Netflix
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Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy – Siege Review  

Author’s Note: This is a spoiler-free review for Transformers: War for Cybertron based on screeners for the entire season provided by Netflix.

Netflix’s Transformers: War for Cybertron is quite possibly the best piece of media to come out of the franchise since the end of Transformers: Prime back in 2013. Don’t be confused by the title. This isn’t a prequel or connected story to the War for Cybertron games developed by High Moon Studios. This is not a prequel to the Generation 1 animated series by Sunbow. The story is brand-new, heavily inspired by the G1 era, but it’s not connected to previous works. It’s a new reset continuity, taking the Autobots and Decepticons back to their epic conflict on their home planet of Cybertron.

Transformers: War for Cybertron

Courtesy of Netflix

Chapter 1 of the War for Cybertron Trilogy, “Siege” is effectively set after a civil war on Cybertron has already taken place and ravaged the planet. Megatron (Jason Marnocha), leader of the Decepticons, has won that war and completely subjugated Cybertron to his totalitarian rule. The story picks up what appears to be shortly after the Autobots, led by the reluctant Optimus Prime (Jake Foushee), have started a resistance, fighting against Decepticon tyranny. However, the past war and continued fighting have left Cybertron in ruins.

The Cybertronians, without a faction, have been left disenfranchised, and Cybertron could very well be on its last legs. The Autobots are overwhelmed and outnumbered, while both sides are growing anxious. Megatron is ready to do whatever it takes to bring an end to the fighting, and Optimus Prime is running out of options to counter Megatron and free Cybertron from his tyranny.

If Transformers: Cyberverse or Rescue Bots Academy are the gateway animated shows into the Transformers Universe for younger viewers, then War for Cybertron Trilogy is the long-awaited show that adult fans, who have grown up with this brand, have been waiting for. Transformers may have begun as a vehicle to sell toys imported from Japan. However, from that idea, a group of talented writers, artists and creators over the past three decades have developed these transforming robots into a complex, evolving, unfolding epic science fiction saga. The War for Cybertron Trilogy, or at the very least the first chapter with Siege, honors that legacy of great stories from writers such as Bob Budiansky, Simon Furman, Bob Forward, James Roberts, Nick Roche, John Barber and numerous others.

Transformers: War for Cybertron

Courtesy of Netflix.

I was initially very cautious about this series due to the presence of the same writing and producing team as the Transformers: Prime Wars animated series that was released by Machinima. War for Cybertron is a massive improvement. For whatever reason, Prime Wars turned out to be a very awkward, haphazardly executed mess. The animation looked choppy and herky-jerky. The writing and dialogue were very stilted and awkward. The show left a lot to be desired. Showrunner and executive producer FJ DeSanto has redeemed himself here following the misfire of Prime Wars. This is a dark, mature Transformers story that tonally hues closer to the classic Marvel and Marvel UK comics, along with the more recent additions by IDW.

Additionally, the show’s production values and animation, produced by Rooster Teeth and animated by Polygon Pictures, are leagues better than the Prime Wars Trilogy. That choppy, clipped animation is gone. The character models have a lot more vivid depth. The animation is fluid and smooth. Since the animation production and style are infinitely less jarring, it makes War for Cybertron exponentially more immersive, even though it’s a show about CG-animated, anthropomorphic robots. Since this is a G1-inspired series, the design aesthetic is akin to an evolution of G1. Not to drag on the Transformers: Prime or Robots in Disguise, but those unnerving, flat, featureless faces are gone. Thankfully, blocky, humanoid robot faces are back in.

There were clear limits to the budget for the series. Much like the classic Sunbow animated series, you can see a lot of character models being reused or slightly recolored to fill in the Decepticon or Autobot ranks. Also, since the character models are almost directly translated from the Siege action figure line, they incorporate some of the design flaws. Specifically, the Decepticon Seekers who have that chest piece resembling the cockpit canopies for Earth-based jets remain, and in their alt-modes, it ends up uselessly on their rears by their engine boosters, which looks rather silly. Granted, this was a design flaw for the Seekers who still had that piece in their robot modes on Cybertron millions of years before present-day Earth. But in the Sunbow animated series, the alt-mode pieces would fold over the chest-piece canopy, rather than folding it over to the back ends of their tetrajet modes.

Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy

Courtesy of Netflix.

One area the show is lacking is the rather underwhelming integration of the weaponizers. The writers pay some slight attention to it with the presence of Cog, but it only comes up a couple of times. None of the Battlemasters or Decepticon Weaponizers show up. If the Decepticons needed an army of drones, why didn’t Rooster Teeth and Polygon duplicate an army of Brunt-type tanks rather than just multiple versions of Rekfraktor or Starscream’s Seeker design?

Another issue is that there are multiple characters who never even transform or get to show off their alt-modes in the first season. For example, Wheeljack, Elita-1, Arcee, Soundwave, Shockwave and Bumblebee are among the notable characters who never transform once, especially when it would be convenient. It could be that some of the characters in Siege have models who were initially designed for the Earthrise toyline, and they don’t have alt-modes to reflect a more Cybertronian style. But there are times when it would make sense for characters to transform, and they just never do. This is likely where the production and animation teams had to cut corners or save money for the show by not showcasing the various transformations or alt-modes. It’s also strange because Hasbro did design Cybertron-based alt-modes for some of these characters for Siege. This might sound like a strange thing to be hung up on, but this is still a Transformers show at the end of the day. The transformation is part of the fun.

The voice cast for the show is fairly solid and a lot better than I expected. The amazing Keith Silverstein is the chief standout performer as Jetfire, who has one of the most fleshed out and satisfying character arcs in the first season. I appreciated the attempts by the actors in the cast evoking that classic G1 Sunbow style with many of the characters, such as Bill Rogers as Wheeljack, Frank Todaro as Starscream and Edward Bosco as Soundwave. I thought Transformers: Prime was a great series, but it was always strange to me that the show never added those extra sound effects to enhance and underscore the Cybertronians’ vocals. Thankfully, the production team adds those elements here, so the show utilizes that familiar vocoder style for Soundwave. The sound design, mixing and editing for the show are top-notch. Even the classic transformation sound from the original 1980s series is back to punch in that authentic sound mix and aesthetic.

Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy

Courtesy of Netflix.

The other voice cast members are solid, if unspectacular. The Prime Wars Trilogy was just weird. The acting was just very stiff and wooden. There was no inner-life to the vocal performances, even among the more talented and experienced cast members who have previously worked on many superior animated projects. Whatever the cause, the vocal performances are kicked up, and the actors are finally given the chance to act and perform. Transformers at its very best is a space opera, and there should be some quality drama here. Jason Marnocha is a notable Megatron, and he gets to incorporate some of that pathos that came with later iterations of the character as a more tragic figure.

Foushee’s Optimus Prime in War for Cybertron is decent. He’s trying to put his spin on the classic G1 Sunbow version of Optimus, but he never quite gets there. In time, it sounds like he could develop into a stronger version of Optimus in later seasons. There is a rather flimsy attempt at a romance between Prime and Elita-1 (Linsay Rousseau). This is one subplot that’s hinted at earlier, likely due to the characters’ past relationship in the 1980s series, and it really could have used further development here.

The other area where the show excels is world-building and mythology. One of the best attributes of the Transformers franchise is how much the lore and mythology have been fleshed out over the last several decades. The show pays homage to that mythology and fleshes it out even further. Showrunner DeSanto and contributing writers George Krstic (Creator of another great robot-smashing show, Megas XLR) and Brandon Easton (Agent Carter and the 2011 Thundercats reboot) do an excellent job of adding world-building elements. Just with some snippets of dialogue, they’re able to effectively hint at a whole, long-spanning history of Cybertron as a planet, and the Autobots and Decepticons as respective races for the Cybertronians.

One of the most effective narrative elements for War for Cybertron is the implication that the Decepticons were a race of second-class citizens on Cybertron, built for either hard labor or forced to live in squalor in subservience to the bourgeois Autobots. It’s easy to see why Decepticons would rally under a charismatic leader such as Megatron, even with his more extremist tendencies. This characterizes multiple Decepticon characters as something more than just one-note bad guys. Other stories have gone more in-depth on Cybertron classism and division, but it was nice to see those elements at play and effectively woven into the narrative.

The show also rewards longtime fans who have paid attention to the vast history of this mythos with various familiar terms and references. What I like about the writing though is that the references are not just token Easter eggs or throwaway lines, but important to the overall world-building. A character doesn’t just name-drop Praxus but will mention how one of the characters used to live and work and have a whole life in Praxus before the war. The writers might also set up “core overrides,” something that adds depth to Decepticon subjugation at the hands of the Autobots and context to their eventual uprising. Even the first appearance of certain characters, a clear homage to the first episode of the classic 1980s animated series, serves a storyline purpose. These are the parts that make War for Cybertron more than just a toyetic cartoon and veritably transform the plot into a complex sci-fi storyline.

Transformers War for Cybertron Trilogy - Ultra Magnus

Courtesy of Netflix.

Thankfully, the writers avoid constantly undercutting the darkly serious story for War for Cybertron by inserting painfully forced humor. This is Cybertron amid a debilitating conflict and on the edge of destruction. The fact is, there’s not a lot for the Autobots to laugh about right now. They’re struggling to maintain hope and keep their spirits up. Another animated Netflix reboot Voltron: Legendary Defender was a good show, but it would irk me how much comedy was forced into the plot in segments where it never really felt appropriate, such as with Coran. The stakes of War for Cybertron are real. Characters die, and when they die, they don’t come back.

Besides the other aforementioned flaws, while the story and writing are vastly improved from the Prime Wars show, there are a couple of clunker lines of dialogue here and there. At one point, Elita-1 delivers an alliterative head-scratcher, “Please consider my concerns.” Additionally, the plot is a bit lean at six episodes. If the season had two additional episodes, it really could have rounded out the whole Siege storyline.

Overall, War for Cybertron appears to be the start of a compelling, epic saga and retelling of the classic Transformers mythos. The writers for this series clearly love and care about the material. They are well aware of the potential the stories about these characters can bring. Welcome back, Transformers.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
This is more like it. The Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy is off to a great start with Chapter 1: Siege. The writers have presented a dramatic, compelling look at the Cybertronian war between the Autobots and Decepticons. This is a much more meaty Transformers story that's far more evocative of the darker elements of the mythology. The stage has been set for great follow-ups with Earthrise and Kingdom. While the episode count is a bit on the short side, this show more than makes up for the utter disappointment of the Prime Wars animated series. Also, the Transformers finally look Transformers again.