By Inflatable Dalek
As a species of virtually immortal robots, Transformers is a franchise that generally takes place over an epic time scale. A scale so large that the two decade jump between the second season of the original cartoon and the first movie is a tiny tiddly little thing compared to the lives of our lead characters.
This sense of scale has been there right from the start, where a key component of the set up developed by Bob Budiansky, used by both cartoon and comic, was that the fighting Autobots and Decepticons on the Ark spent four million years gently snoozing under a volcano after their crash. A whole bunch of metal sleeping beauties having the aeons pass them by.
There were good, practical reasons for this beyond making the story seem more epic. Transformers is first and foremost about war. And wars need armies. And when you're talking about a war that has consumed an entire species those armies are going to be larger than even the most eager of Hasbro toy designers could cope with. A series dealing with the full scale of galactic war would be incredibly unwieldy and difficult to produce.
By contriving a reason to isolate our heroes and villains from the rest of their kin, the story can be more easily contained. Ironically by making the scale larger Budiansky at the same time made it smaller.
The execution of this idea was somewhat flawed. After the pilot the cartoon would almost completely ignore it, with contact re-established with Cybertron in the very next episode and the revelation that absolutely nothing had changed on the planet in longer than many organic species last before going extinct.
Worse than that, the show still had the problem of dealing with portraying a full scale war. Which it managed to fumble by just having the entire planet populated by Space Janitor Shockwave, a creepy old robot with a beard and some girls.
The comic, unsurprisingly considering it was written by the same person who came up with the idea, worked this a little harder. It was two years before the Transformers got back to Cybertron and a big deal was made of it.
Plus, time hadn't stood entirely still back home. The Decepticons had managed to virtually win the war and attitudes towards Megatron (now seen as an obsolete relic) and Optimus (venerated as a long lost legend) had changed over time.
However, it still didn't feel like four million years worth of change, at best maybe a couple of decades. It could even have conceivably all happened in just the two years since the comic launched.
Adding to the lack of conviction in both cartoon and comic was the general lack of any impact on the Ark crew from missing so much time. Any sense of being left behind or having missed vital developments is, bar a couple of nice moments in the UK comic, almost totally ignored. Someone like Hot Rod is treated like a kid compared to the original 1984 cast characters like Prowl even though there's a good chance he's now been alive (or at least awake) for longer than most of them.
The first convincing use of the time-frame came a full decade after it was introduced, in the pages of the Generation 2 comic. It made the characters we'd been following on Earth and Cybertron the equivalent of Japanese soldiers still fighting the second world war on some remote Pacific island decades after the fact. Jhiaxus and his troops had used the four million years to evolve and build an empire spanning an entire galaxy. The moment where Optimus realises his people have stagnated in comparison is almost a direct acknowledgement of how poorly this concept had been used up till then.
Two years later the Beast Wars cartoon would use the four million years in a more imaginative way than any previous fiction, by not depending on how the aliens had changed during this time (though the Maximals are obviously a great deal more advanced than their Autobot forebears) but instead dealing with the evolution of mankind over that same period. In the primitive monkey men Dinobot dies protecting we see the genesis of a species Megatron genuinely fears and wants to erase from history because of the essential help they'll be to the Autobots in the future.
That time travelling epic would effectively be the last hurrah for the concept. The only subsequent substantial (as opposed to one-off Generation One reworking/homages such as Hearts of Steel or the modern G.I. Joe crossovers) Transformers fiction to use the four million years were Dreamwave's G1 books. Where it was used in a slightly embarrassed way and ultimately ignored by just putting Cybertron to sleep for the bulk of the same time the Ark snoozed.
Starting with the Robots in Disguise cartoon, things have been much more straightforward. The Transformers have still been fighting for aeons, but there has been an effort (especially in the IDW and Movie stories) to present it as a war of long lulls broken up by briefer periods of frenzied activity.
There are still characters who have spent long periods of time asleep — such as the crashed Mini-Cons in Armada or Sentinel Prime in Dark of the Moon — but these are no longer our main POV leads.
There is also clearly still a desire to keep the number of Transformers manageable. But this is now handled in a combination of two ways. Firstly by the tendency to keep the focus on small units specifically assigned to defend/pillage Earth, a small part of a wider war.
The second, technically begun in the Headmasters animé but not really moved centre stage until IDW, is the concept of Cybertron as a dead — sometimes even destroyed — world. Now the Transformers are a dying species on the edge of extinction with their numbers both low and dwindling.
This means, for example, the Robots in Disguise comic can feature what is supposed to be virtually all of the remaining Cybertronians (give or take a few hundred) but still not have them take up more space than a medium sized British town. It ensures the half dozen Autobots under movie Prime's command are still vital because of how few they are rather than in spite of it.
Effectively, the four million year sleep has gone from being perceived as an essential part of the set up of the franchise to becoming an irrelevance, forgotten and ignored by the leaner and meaner stories of the last decade.
Despite understanding and appreciating the reasons for this change, part of me finds it a shame we've left this behind. There's something evocative, even Lovecraftian, about things long buried waking up beneath our feet. It's an idea with huge potential the franchise could never quite make work, and now almost certainly never will. The authors who first had the chance to explore this avenue were clearly caught napping.