Way back in 1984 the lives of many kids – including me – were changed with the introduction of a new line of action figures from Hasbro. Keep in mind that kids had been playing with action figures for decades – that was nothing new. But what made these toys special was an intricately designed feature. These figures could be manipulated into other forms. What was at first glance a robot toy could now be disguised a car, a truck, a military jet, a pistol or even a cassette tape recorder. These toys were collectively known as The Transformers and while they were not the first time a line of changing robot toys had been brought to market, this was the beginning when several different toy lines were brought together into a cohesive universe with an intricate back story. Hasbro enlisted the services of Marvel Comics to develop the lore behind the mechanical beings and a writer named Bob Budiansky gave life and personality to what would quickly become favorite toys for many of us. A triple-pronged promotional campaign began -a line of toys with their own traditional television commercials supplemented by a comic book and an animated series. On September 16th, 1984 the very first episode of The Transformers aired on North American television. Thirty-five years later we look at the very first episode of the series – More Than Meets the Eye Part 1.
Spoiler Warning: This episode is thirty-five years old. We will look at the plot with a little more detail than usual. Expect spoilers.
The story begins millions of years ago on the mechanical world of Cybertron which is the homeworld of the Transformers. These robotic beings are mostly split into two factions. The villainous Decepticons seek to conquer other worlds and usurp their resources to revitalize their war-torn world. The heroic Autobots would rather find peaceful solutions and have struggled to reclaim the planet from their foes. Both sides essentially want the same thing – a prosperous Cybertron – but the Autobots are unwilling to exploit innocent life forms for their own benefit.
The Autobot forces on Cybertron are on the verge of being wiped out. Their leader, Optimus Prime, embarks on a desperate mission to find a new source of energy to sustain their war efforts. He leads a group of his Autobots on a massive space ship only to be followed by the Decepticons lead by the insanely powerful Megatron in their own ship.
The Decepticons board the Autobot ship and the two factions battle it out. During the struggle the Autobot ship crash lands into a volcano on prehistoric Earth and the robotic warriors from both sides lay dormant for over 4 million years.
Fast forward to the year 1984 and the volcano erupts. The tremors reactivate the ship’s computer (we later learn that the computer is named Teletraan 1) and is apparently unable to differentiate between the two robot factions as it begins repairing a fallen Decepticon warrior named Skywarp. After Skywarp revives Megatron and the rest of the Decepticons, they leave the ship and find themselves on contemporary Earth – a world teeming with resources they can use to revitalize their homeworld of Cybertron. They waste no time and immediately begin construction of a new ship while attempting to steal various sources of energy.
An impetuous blast from a wily Decepticon named Starscream (we’ll get to him later) knocking a dormant Optimus Prime into the path of the ship’s repair beam. Optimus is reformatted into a semi truck and he revives his own troops.
The Autobots begin to search for the Decepticons and after an ill-fated attack on Megatron they regroup to tend to one of their own who was damaged. The episode concludes with the Decepticons attacking an oil rig and the Autobots showing up to confront them. This battle also gives us our first look at Spike and Sparkplug – two human characters who will be valuable allies to the Autobots.
As the very first episode of the entire series, More Than Meets the Eye Part 1 is a well crafted story. There is a lot going on from the initial scenes on Cybertron all the way to the robots awakening on Earth with new forms. We even get a roll call sequence which helps us learn the names of these Autobot warriors with an awesome musical score to complement them changing into their alternate modes. With all of this going on in a single episode, the story never feels rushed even if some characters don’t get much more than a few moments on screen. The Decepticons immediately working on constructing a new ship and locating energy sources they can steal is true to their mission while the Autobots seem to be more conflicted. Some of them would rather return home than protect this world. The Autobots present themselves as a diverse group – they do not all blindly follow their leader. One hot-headed robot named Cliffjumper actively disobeys Prime’s orders in a chance to take out Megatron and later shows regret when his actions lead to one of his fellows becoming seriously damaged.
The artwork in More Than Meets the Eye Part 1 offers nicely detailed character models. The Autobots and Decepticons in this show look much better than what we saw in Challenge of the Go-Bots or even what we saw in Michael Bay’s vision for his own movies based on Transformers. The artwork is not quite as detailed as Thundercats or DuckTales. Let’s be honest – some of the landscape shots look cheaply produced but the show holds up reasonably well even after 35 years. Animation errors plague the G1 Transformers cartoons but More Than Meets the Eye Part 1 does not have nearly as many of them as later episodes.
If we are going to be completely honest, the stellar voice performances in The Transformers are the primary reason why these characters stayed with us over the decades. Peter Cullen’s self confident portrayal of Optimus Prime laid the groundwork for future iterations of the character. Cullen himself has returned to the role many times in video games and movies. Casey Kasem, Scatman Crothers and Chris Latta (among many others) give these characters distinctive personalities ranging from arrogant and scheming to rough-around-the edges- but loyal. Unfortunately, it is mostly the Autobots who show a wide array of personalities in this episode. Most of the Decepticons act like stereotypical thugs with the exception of Megatron and Starscream. The latter character also sets the stage for most iterations of Starscream to come – manipulative and power hungry.
More Than Meets the Eye Part 1 is a fine start to a beloved series and is still fun to watch thirty-five years after it premiered.