Wednesday, 22 February 2017

A Millennial Relationship with Generation One

- Ben Watson

I’m not a “geewunner”. Being born at the start of Generation Two, my nascent mind was only opened to the wonders of transforming robots through the Beast Wars cartoon. I didn’t know about “Transformers” until a few years later and suddenly all of my favourite toys (and my “ancient treasure” I later learned was called Blades) gained new perspective. I was intrigued by the concept of vehicle robots but was able to retain little information from a cursory segment about the franchise from a TV show called “I [heart] 1984”.

Pictured: Things To Insure

Years passed, Beast Machines came along and went with little notice from me and soon vehicle Transformers were everywhere from the Robots in Disguise line and I didn’t really like a lot of them, let alone get many. But the experience did set me up for what was to be my Transformers renaissance as Armada came into the world to usher in pure enlightenment. So popular was it at the time that callback material to the Time Before Time of (what was now called) “Generation One” also proliferated. A cartoon themed sticker book free with the UK Armada comic introduced me to the core concepts and characters and I started to pick out favourites. A viewing of the cheapest DVD version of the 1986 movie where Spike doesn’t swear and a handful of Dreamwave guidebooks and comics later and I felt relatively well versed on Transformers’ beginnings. I had much to learn…

1984 Optimus Prime

Of course, now in the internet age of wikis and eBay and getting to be mates with older fans who remember it all, it’s perfectly possible to almost vicariously experience G1. In the current climate of Masterpiece and Generations figures being the main focus of toy based effort along with the sterling work of IDW to hold up the comics front, it’s also possible to experience it through a modern lens utilising sensibilities I’m far more used to. In fact, there’s very little to ingest that isn’t G1 right now unless you dip into the devolved demographic the current Robots in Disguise line and cartoon have to offer. So what is it like for someone to be living G1 thirty years after the fact?

1984 Huffer and Brawn and 1986 Swerve

Well, for a start there’s not really an alternative. While I’m happy to accept G1 as the roots of the entire brand and the expression of it which is the purest description of “what Transformers is”; I would like a bit of choice in the matter. Every now and then homages to other eras appear and I snap them up – especially if they’re Armada ones (don't cry about Tidal Wave, don't...) – but the core meat and potatoes of every year of Generations and every comic series is G1. This is probably only fair but it forces me being a Transformers fan to partake in it, which at times is tough since that integral nostalgia factor playing on everyone a few years my senior simply doesn’t exist. Nothing is there to hammer home how cool a massive new Trypticon is. I’m stuck here in the perpetual 80’s and so are you. When that’s a time I wasn’t around for, it can sometimes feel like there’s a disconnect.

2015 Platinum Edition Insecticons

Despite this, there are elements of G1 I’ve come to totally embrace and enjoy. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome but there’s got to be a reason everyone loves this stuff right? So it’s time to explore the qualities of G1 I’ve retroactively taken to heart and look at what it has to offer over the modern toys I’m so used to. While I’ve not got a great deal of this particular vintage in my collection, I feel I’ve got a choice selection of the figures that can really illustrate what you just don’t get these days.

1984 Ratchet and 2008 Encore Meister

Going with what hits my eyeballs first every time, let’s start with chrome. A visual touch that has been more recently replicated to a lukewarm response, vacuum metallisation really only feels at home with G1. Optimus’ glittering abs, Jazz’s shining solar plexus, Kickback’s mirror wings, Twin Twist’s blinged-out sidearm. Every figure that got a touch of the silver stuff instantly becomes so much more to appreciate in an aesthetic sense. The reflective surfaces make you want to keep them where the light will hit them just right; til you give in to the urge to pick them up and watch them glint as you turn them over in your hands. Chrome is a kind of dynamic visual addition, the lustre beckoning you in to make the most of it like you’re some kind of oversized magpie.

It’s undeniably eye catching and so very 80’s. Bringing to mind the far too polished surfaces popularised by the likes of Hajime Sorayama, chrome is an artefact from a different time. It’s a hallmark of the earliest years of G1 and therefore a qualifying factor for the status of the most iconic and venerable toys. To me that properly thick and chip free application of chrome is G1. No other line that’s tried has come close to recapturing the same visual quality of the substance which in reality, isn’t the best stuff to go coating the wear sustaining surfaces of kid’s toys with. Maybe I can only really appreciate chrome through a combination of sheer luck and buying reissues… If every figure I came across was as chipped to hell as thirty years of wear and tear would allow, I wouldn’t have the chance to hold it in such high regard.

1985 Twin Twist

Having a major visual factor covered, let’s move on to the most instantly appreciable tactile one, the lost art of die-cast. This particular quality certainly wasn’t unique to G1 either and the modern Masterpiece line carries it forward in fits and starts but it seems to be the first thing people old enough to remember 1985 complain about the lack of. Scroll through the comments section of a news piece talking about a new Transformers release from a non-Transformers specific site and there’s bound to be one saying “They used to be made of metal, not this cheap plastic crap.” While this is a sentiment I often scoff at, having had twenty years of purely plastic figures without issue, die-cast is still something I can see as a mark of quality. 

Of course it’s much more expensive and limiting to work with, pushing up paint budgets and existing as an ever present chipping risk but I can’t deny the heft and hand-heat-sapping feel of die-cast is something I enjoy. Much like chrome, it adds an extra dimension to the simulation of a set of metallic beings. Die-cast and toy cars go hand in hand still, so why not toy cars that turn into robots? It sparks the imagination, giving you the idea of how these trucks and cars and the robots they hide would feel to the touch. Also in the same vein as chrome, it’s very retro. Existing as a throwback to a particular stretch of time when toys were made this way. The incredible plastic sculpting Hasbro provides now thanks to computer aided design is more intricate than ever before but I can still admit there’s a primal charm to die-cast.

1986 Hot Rod

Rounding out a triplet of sensory qualities, I’ll move on to a perhaps unexpected one: the smell of rubber tyres. Ok, I’m not entirely sure the smell I’m experiencing is solely due to the use of rubber around the wheels, maybe it’s the chrome, maybe it’s the die-cast, maybe it’s the combination of all three but both reissues and ’84 pre-rub originals on my shelf share it. I’ll admit, I’m not like some wine connoisseur who knows how to write about smells, but there’s an undeniable bouquet of industrial aromas around Optimus for example. Returning to the idea of that simulation of realism beyond the visual, this is (while possibly being an emergent quality) pretty huge. The presence of the character is reinforced in your imagination. But rubber tyres not only affect the feel of the wheels or the kind of atoms that are coming off of them and entering my nostrils but how the vehicle behaves on a surface. G1 Jazz could roll on a road quite happily while RID Jazz probably couldn’t with his treadless plastic wheels. Once more production cost and durability enter into the equation to result in another quintessential G1 retro point of interest.

So much of my contemporary adult appreciation for G1 comes from the things that started and ended with it. It presents itself as a unique line to me despite having endless ancestor pieces cramping my shelves. Without being my personal genesis of Transformers, G1 can be just another line for me to dig through and earth up gems from. To me, these treasures are the ones that embody everything inimitable about Transformers’ earliest days. Chrome, die-cast and rubber are wonderful to have the chance to behold but they do of course exist in tandem with things like detaching hands and static legs that I really find it hard to appreciate.

I’ve sung the praises of 1984 with this article, but don’t get the wrong end of my stick, it’s still far from perfect. But we all know that don’t we? The flaws of the past are forgiven by way of their age, but even they continue to endear the toys to me. I think over the course of the past few years, taking their heritage and vintage into account, appreciating the qualities I’ve outlined along with each figure’s individual quirks, I’ve come to see G1 as a singular source of works of art. 

You might not describe Combiner Wars Optimus as a piece of art but you would G1 Optimus, wouldn’t you? I would too. These figures represent the iconography of the entire brand and thereby elevate themselves from just being old toys to being something worthy of a greater appreciation. Worthy of being tastefully lit on a dark wood shelf and treated with the kind of ornamental reverence mostly reserved to Kenner Star Wars figures or 70’s super robots. These are now cultural objects with all of the connotations usually attached to such pieces and for that reason – to me at least- Generation One holds so much more value than the monetary. 

Follow Ben on Twitter @Waspshot23


  1. Not a bad read at all. Nice to read the opinion of someone that wasn't there for it, and doesn't just say bricks all the time. Thanks for the write up.

    I find super articulation to sometimes be a hindrance to a figure as well, if there's too much weight on one side, they just flop over, or if there's too little tightness on the joints it just gets floppy and bugs me to no end. My personal favorite characters are the 87-92 series worldwide, Scorponok, Black Zarak, Victory Saber, Clench, etc. So even in Masterpiece, I don't get a lot of my favorites being made.

  2. I thought it was cool to read his experience as well. Sometimes I forget what a large percentage of the fandom isn't old enough to remember G1 as it happened.

    1. Or even old enough to remember Moses coming down from the mountain with the ten commandments. You'll need to tell us all about it one day Dan.

    2. It was cool when the wheel was invented. Immediately the rest of us started complaining it wasn't rubber with a chrome rim.