“Transformers, more than meets the eye, Transformers, robots in disguise…”
Boy, does that bring back memories. My son, who’s in college now, grew up with Transformers. He loved and collected them. He showed me up every time I struggled to transform the robots and he would take them and change them in seconds. He also watched the show and reenacted all their adventures, along with creating some adventures of his own, using Bumblee, Ratchet, Bulkhead, and the rest. I’ll never forget him coming to me in tears when he was 4 or 5 after watching Transformers because Optimus Prime had died. To say he was committed to these characters was an understatement. Thank goodness, Optimus came back to life soon after. Thanks to my son, I know who the Autoboots and Decepticons are. There will always be a special place in my heart for the Transformers.
I’m happy to say that the second episode of the second season of The Toys That Made Us pays the proper reverence in giving us the history of the Transformers. And while there might not be as many humorous or laugh-out-loud moments as there were in the previous episode devoted to Star Trek, the creators of the toy tell the story of the robots from the planet Cybertron with the same wit and tongue-in-cheek humor the show has become known for.
The episode cleverly explores Transformers history from its origins in Japan to their popularity in the United States. Robots were already a big thing in Japan with popular TV shows like Astroboy and Ultra Man. Takara Toys, who held the license for making G.I. Joe, started it all. Using the G.I. Joe body, the company created something called the Henshin Cyborg, which, in case you were wondering, means “transformation.” That led to a pared down, smaller-sized version of the Henshin line called Micro Man. At this point, Marty Abram (the same “coolest guy on the block” from The Toys That Made Us Star Trek episode) got involved, and his company MEGO marketed the Micro Man line in the U.S. as Micronauts, which pulled in $45 million for the company without the benefit of a TV show or movie, as Abrams points out with glee.
Then Takara jumped deeper into the robot craze, with the company’s Dioclone line in 1980, which were the first robots to actually transform. Takara did the same with its Micro Man figures, changing them to the new Micro Change line. It wasn’t too long after that the U.S. toy company Hasbro saw an opportunity. The company had been very successful with its G.I. Joe line and were looking to diversify. So why not transforming robots? They ended up making a deal with Takara and things took off from there. For a while, these robots could change into any number of things, such as spaceships, cameras – even a gun. But it was after the decision was made to have them change into vehicles that these robots began to resemble the Transformers we love today.
Transformers even had competition for a while. GoBots had come out six months earlier, and there was some concern that sales of Transformers would suffer. Not the case. It was GoBots who eventually blinked and went away, leaving Transformers line the king of robot toys.
Comic Book Origins
The episode goes on to show how Marvel Comics was brought in to create a backstory for each character, as well as a history. A number of writers (including the legendary Denny O’Neil) tried their hands at it. And while some of their ideas were used (while others were jettisoned), ultimately, it was Jim Shooter who created the story of the Transformers from Cybertron, and the battle between the Decepticons (bad guys who want Earth’s resources for their own) and the Autobots (good guys who fought the Decepticons and protected Earth).
A Beast of a Line
Takara and Hasbro would part ways for awhile and the Transformers toy line suffered, decreasing in sales until the Beast Wars line was created, bringing Takara and Hasbro back together. The Transformers were eventually reborn, once again regaining the success it achieved and continues to have today.
The episode pays proper tribute to important people along the way, including Hideaki Yoke, the original genius behind the idea of transforming robots, the aforementioned Jim Shooter, and Peter Cullen who, to this day, voices Optimus Prime in TV and movies. Each has interesting, and even moving stories to tell.
It’s a final touching moment when the modest, self-effacing Hideaki Yoke is reminded all that his original creations wrought – toys that have put many a smile on the faces of thousands of children and collectors alike, not to mention a couple of TV series, an animated movie, and 5 big-screen, live-action movies featuring stars such as Mark Wahlberg, Shia LaBeouf, and Anthony Hopkins.
All in all, The Toys That Made Us does a nice job telling the story of the Transformer toys. If you were never one to collect them, you very well may want to after watching this astute episode. It certainly brought nostalgic tears to my eyes.