Wheelie Killed Season Three
Many claim that poor animation was ultimately what made Season 3 of The Transformers less of a success than seasons 1 or 2. Yet seasons 1 and 2 both suffered from glaring animation problems of their own from time to time. Aside from the obvious difference of vastly different casts of characters, the other significant difference between the cartoon episodes set before and after Transformers: The Movie (TFTM) is the way the characters available were used.
It’s true that Season 3 had some horrible animation, and it’s not hard to find examples. But this not just a characteristic of Season 3. During Desertion of the Dinobots, we see Jazz stuck in car mode, unable to transform. In the next shot, which is panned out, we see Ironhide kicking _Red Alert_, stuck in car mode, and then we hear Jazz’s voice say, “Thanks!”. Red Alert is visible in robot mode in the same shot. There are other examples, not just in Seasons 1 and 2 but also in TFTM itself.
So then, why would the cast of characters be to blame? The original cast of characters had, for the most part, been killed off or mysteriously vanished by 2006, when Season 3 was set. It can be argued that Optimus Prime was a better character than Rodimus Prime, but then it can also be argued that Rodimus Prime’s inherent self doubt made him a more interesting character. No doubt that the different cast of characters is a major difference, and in truth the loss of some fan favourites probably did play a role.
But what of the pre movie characters who did persist? Grimlock went from being the powerful, stubborn rebel to being comic relief. Blaster went from being the hip, in touch, music lover to speaking in forced rhymes. Bumblebee hardly spoke after TFTM, it wasn’t until The Return of Optimus Prime (ROOP), where he had to be turned into Goldbug, that he played any real part. Blitzwing was effectively removed from the cast at the end of Five Faces of Darkness (FFOD), Astrotrain and the other four Dinobots appeared sparingly. Only Perceptor had regular appearances as the Autobot scientist that we knew before Unicron came along and spiced things up.
So of the dozen or so persisting characters, most faded away, playing bit parts, or were effectively different personas. This is actually part of the major reason for the Season’s failure - the writers’ bad usage of the cast of characters.
One theme through many of Season 3’s episodes was a reliance on a small core of characters. Ultra Magnus, Cyclonus, Scourge (and the Sweeps, whom I will consider to just be Scourge), Wheelie, Kup and Blurr dominate the cast, along with Rodimus Prime and Galvatron. The last two are the faction leaders, and like Optimus Prime and Megatron before them, are naturally going to be prominent.
On the other hand, what of Tailgate, Swerve, Eject, Runamuck, Runabout, Blast Off, Groove, Skydive or the individual Predacons? These were characters that hardly got any airtime. Hubcap didn’t even appear at all. Surely, from the point of view of a toy advertisement, putting Hubcap in at least once in place of Wheelie is a smart move. Even with all his airtime, Wheelie was probably the worst pegwarming Transformer ever. It wasn’t until Drill Bit in Beast Wars that another Transformer came close to the level of rejection that Wheelie got.
It’s not just reliance of certain Transformers that hurt the show. Daniel, The Quintessons and Marissa Fairbourne all got more airtime than Pipes or Thrust did. And unlike Pipes or Thrust, these characters weren’t available to buy as action figures. Whether or not you like the characters, they were clearly overused in proportion to a lot of the Transformers in the cast.
Then we come to the issue of bad characters. A lot has been made of certain characters being “lame” or “sucky” or whatever word you want to use. No doubt, in some cases this is true. Daniel wasn’t resourceful as Spike was pre-movie, nor was he there to help the Autobots in the human environment. Wheelie plays the tough little guy role that Bumblebee played pre-movie, but like Blaster, he spoke in strained rhymes only, and rarely proved as useful to the Autobots as Bumblebee.
That’s not to say Seasons 1 and 2 didn’t have bad characters, either. Thundercracker had the personality of a piece of timber in the cartoon, but managed to get airtime without becoming an annoyance like Wheelie. Gears was a grouch, but again he got his share of airtime without being omnipresent, ruining the script.
So is the use of bad characters is the reason? No, it’s more the fact that much of the cast was rarely used. Runamuck and Runabout had far more scope as characters than Wheelie, as is evidenced by their use in the fanfic, Green Valley is a good example.
The better episodes in Season 3 (I’m ignoring animation here) tend to be those that concentrate on a wider cast of characters. The Killing Jar, which focuses on Cyclonus, Ultra Magnus, Marissa Fairbourne and an unnamed Quintesson, is a good example of a bad use of characters making a bad episode. Cyclonus is nothing more than a sycophant of Galvatron’s, meaning he spends most of this episode simply proclaiming the glory of the Decepticon leader. Twenty two minutes of riveting lines. On the other hand, The Ultimate Weapon focuses on First Aid, Hot Spot and Swindle quite heavily, all of whom are more interesting than the one-dimensional Cyclonus. The Ultimate Weapon also focuses on Rodimus Prime’s self doubt quite heavily, but it has other agendas, so instead of being twenty two minutes of Rodimus Prime hating himself, we’ve also got Swindle’s treachery, Hot Spot’s bottomless enthusiasm and First Aid’s pacifism.
Another good example is Forever is a Long Time Coming. In this episode we get to see the under used Rewind, Ramhorn and Pipes, as well as Blaster in something approaching his pre-movie persona. Sure, Rewind’s not the most interesting guy ever, but I’d rather hear him every now and then to hearing Wheelie and Daniel ramble on for most of the episode like in Surprise Party - if only for the change.
It’s true there are some episodes that rely on silly plot devices, such as Surprise Party and ROOP with it’s hate plague. But if we look at Seasons 1 and 2 we’ll see The Immobiliser and Dinobot Island. The Immobiliser had a far bigger cast of characters than Surprise Party, so instead of merely groaning about Wheeljack’s shortcomings as an inventor, we get to watch Ratchet cart statue Wheeljack away, We get to see Gears stuck in mid-transform, and Brawn save the day. Surprise Party focuses heavily on Wheelie and Daniel, and the two main supporting characters are Cyclonus and Ultra Magnus, who were both overused. I doubt anyone would argue that Gears and Brawn were overused.
Yes, Season 3 had some terrible animation, but Seasons 1 and 2 did at times, also. Despite the animation errors, they were on the whole more entertaining than Season 3, simply because the writers made better use of the characters available. Yes, Starscream was overused, but not to the extent Cyclonus was. Bumblebee was overused, but again, not to the extent that Wheelie was. Between them, Pipes, Outback, Swerve, Tailgate and the never used Hubcap would have had less screentime than any of Bumblebee’s contemporaries, Cliffjumper, Windcharger, Gears, Brawn and Huffer. Wheelie would have been used more than any of Bumblebee’s contemporaries, with the possible exception of Cliffjumper.
The evidence is plain to see - the better episodes in Season 3, animation aside, are those that gave airtime to the less used, more interesting characters, such as First Aid, Sandstorm, Air Raid, Octane, Swindle and Rewind. Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice, but I know I find myself skipping Face of The Nijika, with it’s overuse of Blurr and those strange Japanese-inspired aliens, and The Killing Jar, with Cyclonus one-dimensional characterisation, instead watching The Ultimate Weapon, Thief in The Night and Call of The Primitives more often.
Whether or not one likes the individual characters that were overused - and I do like Ultra Magnus in Season 3, the fact is Season 3 is worse off because of the persistent overusing of these characters. This is not helped by the overusing of bad characters, such as Wheelie and Daniel, nor is it helped by the fact many of the Season 2 cast that persist are reduced to extras or comic relief - not only were characters overused, bad characters were overexposed on many occasions, and potentially far more interesting ones relegated to the sidelines.