I remember the first “Transformers” action figure I owned as a kid was the Decepticon Starscream, and I think that has a lot to do with my enthusiasm for his character in particular. Yes, I went trick-or-treating as Optimus Prime one year, but Starscream has always been my favorite Transformer. He turns into a fighter jet, has a voice like nails on chalkboard, and as Megatron’s second-in-command, his endless insubordination has him constantly at odds with the Decepticon leader. Their conflict comes to a head in the 1986 animated feature, which sees Starscream blasted to a cinder for his treachery. Poor Starscream.
Starscream is one of many great characters from the original “Transformers” animated series that ran from 1985-1987. My favorite of the show’s four seasons was the first. In the pilot episode, we get to see the Autobots and Decepticons — two warring factions on shape-changing robots — on their homeworld of Cybertron. The pitched battle sends them into deep space, where the crash land on Earth in the distant past. Revived thousands of years later, they’re given new transforms (contemporary vehicles or gadgets) in order to blend in. The Autobots then defend the human race from the Deceptions, who want to drain our planet of its energy resources.
Optimus Prime is the Autobot leader, a stoic and gravelly-voiced robot that transforms into a big rig. I remember many playground debates about Prime’s moving mouthplate. Does he have lips underneath? Most of the other characters, save for Wheeljack and Soundwave, have mouths. I was in the camp that believed his mouthplate was his actual mouth. If it wasn’t, then why did it move when he talked? Discuss!
Prime’s nemesis, Megatron, transforms into a Luger pistol that can be wielded by another character, typically Starscream. Megatron’s the baddest of all the Deceptions and their natural leader. He commands the utmost loyalty from his subordinates, but still somehow tolerates Starscream’s defiance. Megatron and the Decepticons crave Energon, a type of energy converted into cube form, and will stop at nothing to squeeze it from our planet.
Along with the cartoon, there were the Marvel Comics that ran from the mid-’80s through the early-’90s I still remember the first issue I owned was #5 with Shockwave on the cover and the words “Are All Dead?” blasted into a concrete wall behind him. In the book, the Autobots are all but defeated, and Optimus Prime reduced to nothing more than a severed head — pretty heavy reading for a kindergartner like me at the time.
For whatever reason, the Autobot’s human sidekick is teenager Buster Witwicky in the comics, not Spike. This was my first experience with non-canonical storytelling. Or, maybe there’s some in-universe explanation for the two Witwickys.
The edgier sensibilities of the comic book can be felt in “Transformers: The Movie,” which I saw during its original theatrical release. And yes, I was on the verge of tears during (*Spoiler*) Optimus Prime’s death scene (*End Spoiler*). I later got the movie on video cassette and wore out the tape. I still listen to the soundtrack in my car every once in awhile. Recently, I was able to catch the film in a theater again with a sold-out audience at a revival house screening. The actors who were the voices of Grimlock and Perceptor were on hand for a Q&A before the the movie. What a night.
As far as the Michael Bay movies go, I can’t say I’m a huge fan. It’s great to hear Peter Cullen’s iconic voice work as Optimus Prime again, but taken as a whole, the characters and story simply don’t capture my imagination like the Generation 1 “Transformers” did…and still do. Maybe if “Dark of the Moon” beefs up Starscream’s role significantly, I’ll be on board.