The phrase "Beast Mode" seems to have pervaded popular culture over the last few years, becoming something of a hit meme. It's 'a state of physical and mental intensity', according to athletes such as Seattle Seahawks running-back Marshawn Lynch, and ex-Swansea City and Northampton Town striker Ade Akinfenwa. It's the title of a Billboard #9 Rap album by Juvenile. It's even been used as the name of muscle-building dietary supplement (manufactured by Beast Sports, no less).
Who in the dark days of the early nineties would have thought that, by decade's end, the ailing Transformers brand would once more leave an indelible print on the world's collective psyche? How could a dead-in-the-water toy brand have so reinvented itself that it's never been off the shelves since?
By 1994, the Transformers name (in the US and Europe at least), had suffered an ignominious fall from grace. Toy and comic sales dwindled, and a planned re-launch (Generation 2) died on its feet. The Transformers buck was passed to Kenner, a newly-acquired Hasbro subsidiary well known to 80s toy fans for lines such as Star Wars and MASK. It was decided that something new would be required, a way to revitalise and refresh the brand by approaching it from a different angle. The end result was Transformers: Beast Wars.
Cheetor was the Bumblebee / Hot Rod audience
identification character for a new generation.
Beast Wars took Transformers in a completely new direction. Rather than converting into vehicles and machinery, the figures instead transformed into decent representations of organic animals. Unlike the very robotic animals of the Generation 1 days (such as the Dinobots or Decepticon Headmasters), these new Transformers' alt-modes were very much fleshy creatures, with moulded details of fur, feather and muscle. The robot modes still looked sufficiently techy, but the cyborg-like blend of steel and sinew was a big departure from the norm.
As well as the conceptual and aesthetic differences, the toys themselves were of a vastly superior quality to the Transformers of yore. Generation 2 may have dabbled with ball joints and light-piping, but Kenner took Transformers toy engineering to a whole nother level.
The prevalence of ball-joints, hinges and swivels meant that, not only could these toys covert from one mode to another, but they were also fully poseable (putting even non-transforming action toys to shame). These weren't just shape-changing robots any more, but fully-fledged action figures in their own right. As well as the aforementioned light-piping, these new toys featured additional gimmicks to increase playability and practicality, such as storable weapons, battle masks and various other play features. The transformations, too, were more involved and ingenious than before, with Megatron in particular being far more complex than any toy in the franchise up to that point.
So from the start, Beast Wars had an advantage that its predecessors mostly lacked -modern, innovative design features. However, that's not nearly enough reason for a toyline become a hit. Thankfully, many other factors were in place to secure Beast Wars' lofty status....
But before I talk about how Beast Wars became a success, it needs to be stated at this point that not everyone was convinced about this new direction. Transformers had always been concerned with robots transforming into machinery — it was argued that, by ditching this aspect, Kenner were losing a vital ingredient that was at the very core of the Transformers ethos.
Looking back, it's so easy to mock those who thought Beast Wars a bad idea, those who argued that — although decent toys in their own right — they just weren't "proper" Transformers if they didn't have technological vehicle modes. The once-rallying cry of "TRUKK NOT MUNKY" has now become a term of ridicule, levelled at naysaying fans perceived to be closed-minded or stuck in their ways. Those who deride the traditionalists have a valid point — Generation 2 steadfastly clung to the old ways and bombed. However, given such a huge change in the franchise's dynamic it seems churlish to mock those who had initial reservations about this new direction.
Whatever one's view of view of Beast Wars (and its success can't really be denied), with hindsight it does seem to have been a bit of a blind-alley, conceptually. Although Beast Wars (and its direct sequel, Beast Machines) brought the Transformers franchise out of the doldrums, the idea of organic Transformers without vehicle modes is an innovation that didn't really stick. Since the "Beast Era" ended (and made way for the Robots in Disguise line in 2000), the focus has firmly been on vehicles and machinery. The odd animal Transformer has appeared sporadically in the interim (most recently in the Beast Hunters range of toys), but this has always been as a compliment to (rather than a replacement for) the standard robot-into-vehicle figures. The 'Trukk not Munky' brigade were to get their wish in the end.
Hasbro continues to show love to classic Beast Wars characters in its 2013 releases with new Waspinator and Rhinox figures.
But I digress. The excellence and innovation was there, but something else was required — how could Kenner win over the reticent fans and indeed convince the general toy-buying public? Thankfully, the marketing strategy was second-to-none.
Firstly, the way in which Transformers were bought and sold was changed forever by a deceptively simple concept — size classes. In the early years of Generation 1, Transformers were released in a seemingly ad hoc variety of sizes and price-points, which was confusing to retailers and customers alike. Now the offer was streamlined into 'waves' of Transformers of similar size and complexity, from cheaper 'Basic' figures ideal for buying with pocket-money, to more expensive 'Ultra' and 'Super' toys, perfect for birthday and Christmas presents. Furthermore, the two factions were shipped in more equitable ratios — gone were the days of shops overloading their shelves with just Autobots.
Beast! Wars! And they transform too.
Another feature of the revamped brand was that it cut many of its ties to previous incarnations — even the 'Transformers' name itself was minimised. Look at the Transformers: Beast Wars logo (especially the title caption of the animated TV show) — 'Beast Wars' is in a bigger, more eye-catching font. Indeed, when broadcast in the UK, the title of the show was edited so as to omit the T-word entirely. Although some monikers were retained, iconic names such as 'Autobot', 'Decepticon', 'Bumblebee' and 'Optimus Prime' were replaced with 'Maximal', 'Predacon', 'Rattrap' and 'Optimus Primal'.
Why was this done? Well, obviously there was still some stigma attached to the Transformers name — for a seven-year-old kid in 1996, "Transformers" was some ancient series your much-bigger cousin used to like; old-fashioned, brick-like toys that weren't half as cool as modern stuff like Buzz Lightyear, Tickle-Me Elmo or the Beetleborgs. In order to connect with modern audiences, the (somewhat tainted) Transformers name had to be minimised, and the new animal gimmick brought to the forefront.
Video games. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Indeed, the 1990s was the decade of the reboot — on the back of recent successes for Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Tim Burton Batman movies, a reset was an excellent way of bringing new customers to a tired franchise, keeping an established brand name but revamping it for a new audience. Shows as diverse as Jonny Quest, The Wombles, The Outer Limits, Doctor Who and Blockbusters were all revived in the 1990s, with varying degrees of success.
One returning concept was for these robots to actually transform into easily-recognisable alt-modes; colourful, popular and well-known creatures straight out of kids' animal books. One of the speculated reasons for the decline of Generation 1 is that it began to eschew traditional alt-modes (real-world cars, jets and weapons) in favour of more abstract and uninteresting disguises (such as the alien/futuristic vehicle forms sported by the inner Pretender robots). Beast Wars rectified all that in one fell swoop — the figures were now well-designed, playable and fully-articulated in both modes.
But it didn't end there. When the original Generation 1 line needed a bit of a refresh, Hasbro resorted to gimmicks such as friction-sparks and Action Masters. Throughout it all, Beast Wars retained the central concept — humanoids transforming into animals — but kept the line from going stale by introducing some slight variations on the theme, such as Transmetals (robotic animals converting into organic humanoids), Fuzors (Wuzzles -style hybrid animals), and of course those classic Transformers staples, triple-changers and combiners.
So Beast Wars succeeded in part because of the way the toys were designed, marketed, sold and diversified. But there's another big reason why the line remains popular with Transformers fans today, something I've only mentioned in passing until now: the TV show.
A popular range of action figures relies on good tie-in media. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers — even the original 80s Transformers — all based their success upon an excellent TV show. Beast Wars was no different.
These days, your phone can probably
render better graphics in real time.
The first thing to notice about the TV incarnation of Beast Wars is that the show was completely CGI animated. Although by no means the very first show to boast such extensive use of computer graphics (Babylon 5, ReBoot and Insektors came before it), Beast Wars was certainly an excellent early example, at a time when the technology was still new. Thanks to movies such as Toy Story and Shrek, modern viewers are generally quite blasé about CGI animation, but back then it still had a 'wow'-factor, because it was so new and exciting.
However, you can only go so far on visuals alone. Thankfully Beast Wars also boasted some excellent scripts, from the likes of cartoon stalwart Bob Forward (Masters of the Universe, GI Joe, The Real Ghostbusters), Larry DiTillio (Babylon 5, Murder She Wrote) and Simon Furman (writer of many of the best 80s Transformers comic strips).
Together they forged a compelling and intricate story arc, in the days when such things were new to cult fiction in general (c.f. Babylon 5, The X-Files and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), but virtually unheard of in a carton show (outside of serialised literary adaptations such as Ulysses 31 or Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds).
Despite the now-dated computer animation, the show still holds up well today (far more so than its 80s predecessor) — not only for the quality of writing, but also in the excellent voice work. Experienced actors such as Garry Chalk (Watchmen, Stargate: SG-1, The Dead Zone), David Kaye (Up, Happy Gilmore, Battlestar Galactica) and Blu Mankuma (2012, Look Who's Talking) helped create some truly memorable characters — indeed, the Beast Wars characters Dinobot and Waspinator have been voted by fans into the official Transformers Hall of Fame ahead of more obvious names such as Jazz, Grimlock or Hot Rod. The show won an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation, and is still held in high regard today — more than fourteen years since its original transmission.
Hopefully I've now pretty much established that Beast Wars was a critical and commercial success, as both a toyline and a TV show. But what legacy does it leave? Other than breathing life back into the Transformers franchise, how is its impact still felt today?
Well, aside from all the aforementioned innovations in toy design and marketing, perhaps the biggest debt we owe Beast Wars is that it completely threw out the rule book, and changed the way in which we view Transformers.
Not highly regarded, but who hasn't
wanted to be able to fly at some point?
In the 80s and early 90s, Transformers were nothing more than blocky robots who turned into vehicles and other machinery. Now all bets were off, and Transformers could do anything — Beast Wars paved the way for the franchise to open up, to explore new avenues — from the weird techno-organic aesthetic of the Beast Machines, to the human Animorphs, Marvel and Star Wars Crossovers, the highly-stylised characters of Transformers: Animated, and of course the extremely intricate and complex designs of the Michael Bay live-action movies.
Fans are now much more accepting of new and different takes on the Universe, having already been primed for change (sorry) by the radical Beast Wars concept. Without Beast Wars, Transformers as we know it today probably wouldn't exist.
So let's all give thanks to Beast Wars — not just for being a darn cool collection of action figures, nor for being a great cartoon. Let's credit Beast Wars for reviving an ailing franchise and acting as a springboard for all future successes. Let's engage Beast Mode!