Transformers is the grand daddy of all geektoons. It is the show that has had the most impact, both during its initial run and in the years following. Meant to be little more than a glorified half hour toy commercial, something about it captured the imagination, and the story has outlasted the toyline it was created to sell. It is a story that has now been retold in multiple animated shows, comic book runs, and a successful live action movie franchise. But it all started in 1984, with Hasbro wanting to sell a version of some toys they had seen in Japan.
Microman, and its spinoffs Diaclone and MicroChange featured vehicles and objects that would change into robots. Hasbro turned this into the Transformers, and took this idea to Marvel. It was Marvel's Jim Shooter who came up with the idea of a robot civilization waging a civil war. As their planet is running out of resources, they venture out into space and end up on Earth, where the battle continues. The two factions in the war for Cybertron, the home planet of the Transformers, were the noble Autobots and the evil Decepticons. Initially Autobots tended to take the forms of cars and trucks, while the Decepticons were often jets. Whether or not the Autobots could also fly really depended on which episode you were watching.
In the first two seasons it was obvious there was not much thought put into the story. There was no care for continuity, and many of the stories were pretty corny. There were some pretty epic stories too though, like the time Megatron tried to transport Cybertron to Earth. The first two seasons introduced new characters at a pretty steady rate, giving us the Dinobots, The Insecticons, and the many combiner Transformers, robots that would join together to create on giant robot. I always thought it was kind of weird how when they did this the individual robots' personalities got subsumed by the personality of the robot they formed. For every good episode though, there was a super cheesy one, like the one where several Transformers went back in time to King Arthur's court. There was also a disregard for logic as exampled by transformers shrinking or growing when they changed, or the aforementioned inconsistency in flying abilities for the Autobots. Speaking of which, why was it exactly that Megatron could fly? Last I knew guns don't fly.
But anyway, the concept was strong enough to overcome these issues. Then the movie happened. A theatrical release, it completely changed the landscape of the show. I think fan reaction also convinced the makers that kids were invested in these characters and the stories, because the writing seemed to improve. The movie did not play in any theaters where I lived, and so I did not get to see it until years later. As a result, I was completely thrown when season 3 started. Where were Optimus Prime and Megatron? Who were all these new robots? What the heck happened? But the new season was able to grab me by better stories, and by delving into the history of the Transformers. It explained how they were created and how the war broke out. In one episode it also tied in to the G.I. Joe cartoon by having Cobra Commander show up, although never using that name. This was the first time the cartoon had suggested these shows were in the same universe, and it was done pretty subtly and cleverly for a cartoon of the time.
It wasn't long before they brought back Optimus Prime. This was toward the end of the show. It was kind of strange, they did a story that seemed to wrap up the war and indicate that the Autobots won. Then the story picks up with both factions continuing the fight on another planet. This is where the Headmasters and Targetmasters were introduced. This is also where the show seemed to lose steam, and this would be the end of the original Transformers series. It came back in different incarnations, with the robots turning into prehistoric animals, or new tellings of the story of the first series. But it was never as magical as that first show. The first iteration is still around in comic books and video games, and the series and the movie have been released on home video. In my estimation Transformers: The Movie is still the best Transformers movie. Admittedly I am not a big fan of Michael Bay's movies, for me they strayed too far from the original versions of the robots. And Shia Labouf cannot compete with the star power of Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles.
For myself and countless others this show was a big touchstone to our youth. In know that my afternoon centered around watching it. I stuck with this show until the bitter end too, even after they changed all the characters and I had no idea what was going on. With the exception of Star Wars this was probably the most important pop culture element in my childhood. It eclipsed He-Man and the Thundercats, even Thundarr and Dungeons and Dragons. I couldn't get enough, and when the later seasons saw them venturing into space more that just made it more exciting. Every once in a while I still break out the dvd box set and run through the entire show, including the movie. Even the dumb episodes. And not only because it brings back fond memories, but because it's a story I just don't get tired of.
To help get your nostalgia on, here is a clip from an important episode where the Dinobots are introduced. Enjoy!