Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Tapping A Different Source

- Ben Watson

Everyone has one Transformers line that they continually find themselves going back to. It needn't be a favourite or even one particularly expansive. Some kind of mystery element always comes back round to appeal to you again. For me, that line is the original 2001 Robots In Disguise. So what's it got that others don't? 

When I think of RID, I'm always brought back to a very specific point in time. While the line debuted in 2001, I ignored it for the most part of that year. My first line, Beast Wars was still very much in my mind and I couldn't help but view its most immediate successors as lacking. Beast Machines had come and gone in a flash, leaving me with only three of the line's smallest figures. RID appeared and just didn't look that good to me. The Autobot Brothers all looked fiddly and weird and - despite my holding on to Beast Wars - looked too much like Beast Wars figures trying to be cars. Vehicle modes? Autobots? Decepticons? It was all so different. At least the Predacons were there for some continuity...

Christmas 2001 narrowly scraped past to maintain my streak of Transformers under the tree thanks to the Spychanger pair of Ironhide and Mirage. Although I liked them, they held an odd spot in my toy collection. For all intents and purposes, transformable Hot Wheels cars, I proceeded to misplace their tiny tiny guns for the next fifteen years. While they weren't my first Autobots (now I knew what that face badge meant on my little red helicopter and ambulance guys that I was told were super old) as vehicles, they were still a minority in my Transformers lot. Even the name "Transformers" was something new to get used to. I really didn't know how I felt about it all, as some secret history seemed to open itself up and begin to connect dots that me and my mates were aware of through their older siblings' toys.

That all changed in the spring of 2002. Scant months before I tumbled down the yawning chasm of a rabbit hole that had Armada - Turn Back All Ye Who Enter Here signposted at its mouth, I found myself in a strange new toy shop. More of a warehouse for liquidated stock, it offered slightly old figures at discounted prices. It was a veritable Shangri-La. On one side a wall of nineties Spider-Man cartoon figures. On another, an already appreciable amount of Attack of The Clones toys. Tucked away in a corner, I found a Beast Wars Scorponok. But what drew me in, and ended up being what I walked out with, were the RID Decepticon Combiners. 

I had never before encountered the concept of Combiners in this sense. If I got them all (the odds of which felt shaky at the time) I could put them together into this "Ruination"? Surely he would be a behemoth! And that name! An engine of destruction, bristling with gunbarrels and formed from some of the coolest vehicles I could think of! A space shuttle? He was definitely coming home with me. And this army jeep, all dirtied up and packing a massive cannon? Yes please. But they were the only two I could get, so I silently bade the tank and helicopter to stay put - I'd surely be back for them - and walked away with my wondrous new loot. 

The reality however was to be disappointing. I never did go back for Armorhide and Ro-Tor and Mega Octane, the crucial center component was never even stocked there. Ruination would have to hang in the air like a military spectre of pure potential for years to come. But what about Rollbar and Movor? They were loved like little else. While I couldn't make them parts of their gestalt, I still found ways to "combine" them and separately, they represented so much fun. Not large toys, but not as small as the Spychangers, I could take them with me everywhere for an impromptu bit of space exploration or guerrilla warfare. Rollbar possibly has the distinction of being the first Transformer I ever took outside to place in a habitat that suited his alt-mode and honestly, if there's a memory I'm chasing with the continuation of this hobby, it's probably that one. A glorious day spent in the sun and the dirt of my new scrubby front garden as my mum went to work to make it more ours. That's it man. This stubby green bloke has a lot to answer for. 

But that's where my life with RID came to an end. I was opened up to vehicles and blocky robots and red versus purple but what came next was a fat yellow car and his tiny copter mate and the rest, as they say, is history. RID primed me for the explosion that was Armada. I often cite the beginning of the Unicron Trilogy as the most important line to me, but if it wasn't for RID, it wouldn't have meant half as much to me. My genesis of Autobots versus Decepticons, cars against army hardware, red grid packaging with the slick metallic logo, was Robots In Disguise

So if there's a reason I always find myself returning to it, it's that sense of an origin. My starting point of the Transformers status quo. I've never seen the cartoon, but RID as a toyline told such a different story to the Beast Era. To anyone else, it was a return to form, but to me, it was a brand new start and while my experience of those franchise norms was negligible, something of that established rightness definitely bled through to make the line so strong at a very basic concept level. Today it's easy to look back at it and realise it was just filler, put in place while Armada was finalised after the scrapping of TransTech, the proposed sequel to Beast Machines. But I think the line took on something of its own, even being mostly repaints and an odd collection of forms from the franchise's past; because it was mostly repaints and an odd collection of forms from the franchise's past. 

I've come to think RID represents my ideal state for Transformers. Disparate aesthetics and molds separated by decades come together to form a pure and simple distillation of the whole brand. It forms a backbone to how I curate my own collection. Yeah, the main focus is cool new vehicle guys, but there's nothing to say wacky beastformers and clunky old block boys don't have a place alongside them. It had an "anything goes" spirit that lines up with the whims of a kid and their toy box. As such, I can see myself coming back to it, time and time again, able to find something fresh from it until the day comes when I've amassed most of the small line's offerings. Thankfully, that day is currently hardly any closer than it was sixteen years ago. I frequently tap the nostalgia vein of Armada, but that deeper source that is RID, if managed properly could prove to be truly inexhaustible. 

And if it isn't I'll just keep buying Rollbars. 

Follow Ben on Twitter @Waspshot23

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