Recently, after randomly coming across some dope pictures of Transformer toys on Instagram that gave me a strong case of nostalgia, I was inspired to revisit an old childhood favorite in “Beast Wars.”
“Beast Wars,” in case you never watched or heard of it as a kid, is the continuation of the Transformer’s story set in the future as descendants of the Auotobots and Decepticons, the Maximals and Predacons, respectively, accidentally travel to prehistoric Earth to continue a centuries long battle between the two opposing factions.
There’s a lot of to digest there, so I’m not going to go into extreme detail over the plot, but the cast features colorful characters such as Optimus Primal, Cheetor, Rattrap, Dinobot and Megatron to name a few. They all have interesting and distinct personalities and generally play well off each other. It was a big part of my childhood and I collected an ungodly amount of their toys back in the day.
This was my first ever Beast Wars toy and I think it’s beautiful.
My rewatch though was…a mixed bag to say the least. The graphics have not aged well. The adventure of the week setup of the plot was repetitive and lacked real character development at times. There were characters that were added in last minute to the show clearly to promote a new action figure over the story on numerous occasions. Though I found the humor to still be pretty good, the action was stale and just lacked high stakes most of the time, save for a few episodes.
I was not shocked it didn’t land terribly well on my rewatch but you know what did? “Beast Machines!”
“Beast Machines” was the follow-up to Beast Wars that had the Maximals fighting on Cybertron where Megatron has taken control of the whole planet using a virus that changes Transformers into mindless drones to do his bidding. The remaining Maximals manage to survive however after Optimus discovers The Oracle which reformats them into animal robot hybrids that are both mechanical and biological. This sets them on a quest to stop Megatron and bring biological and mechanical balance to Cybertron once and for all.
The series is much more narrative based than the previous as it follows a steady trajectory to its epic conclusion. The animation is much sharper, and the soundtrack is fun as hell to listen to still. The pacing is much faster as the stakes couldn’t be higher for the Maximals and all the old characters from the previous grow in interesting ways and develop into more organic people (literally in some ways). Optimus is a more hardcore and emotionally damaged leader and Megatron goes from being something of a punchline in the previous series to a far more menacing and calculating nemesis. The story touches on themes of balance, authoritarianism, PTSD, love and reunion to name a few and for a kids’ show it is, dare I say…more than meets the eye.
I absolutely loved it as a kid and I might actually love it even more as an adult, so it was shocking for me, to say the least, when I read further into the history of the show, that a lot of fans straight up rejected it back in the day.
Common complaints I came across were they didn’t like how characters, such as Ratrap especially, “changed.” They didn’t like the new bio/mechanical Maximals and couldn’t believe that Cybertron was once an organic world.
Their big reason (in just about every forum and video I saw about it)? It didn’t adhere to “canon.”
Now, I’ll start this by saying there is no objective way to critique or even not critique a story. People can like or hate something for a variety of reasons that don’t follow a strict logical pattern. Gods know I have a few questionable/divisive favorites in my catalogue that I have written about here that are based on abstract ideas and personal experiences.
But I will say, if you judge a mega franchise’s latest entry on how well it is supported by established canon it is, in my opinion, a flawed way to critique a work of fiction.
Canon, sometimes referred to as “lore” by fans, is most often applied and used to describe the long-running backstories of franchises that stretch beyond just the main books, movies or series, or even the original narrative of the plot. Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and to a certain extent Harry Potter, all fall into this camp of series with so many interconnected parts, with more than one main character featured in each, that fans follow along this canon like ancient monks studying scripture and history books.
And they can be just as fanatical and over zealous about it.
My problem with the ways fans often view canon is that their conceptions of what a new story should be is based entirely on the past rather than what is happening right now with the story and what themes the writer is trying express with it this time.
They base their impressions of the story on external continuity more than the internal continuity.
Yea, the changes in a series like “Beast Machines” are jarring to say the least. Cybertron was formally an organic world like Earth? Rattrap doesn’t have confidence in himself and actually at one point sells out his comrades? Transformers can be biological now? It’s a lot to take in but when watching the story play out it’s not like these elements aren’t explained through the text of the new story.
Cybertron lost balance between its robot inhabitants and its biological life forms and its why it’s out of balance now, and Megatron is the logical progression of that inbalance. Rattrap is struggling to understand his new form, half his friends on the Maximals have been turned into drones, and the remaining team out loud say they don’t have confidence in him. He has PTSD from both the events of this story and the Beast Wars and feels insecure because of how others view him and that’s perfectly logical to not just the story but also the canon. If a fan is willing to give a story a chance they will see that the canon hasn’t actually been destroyed in much of any way and the logical progression is actually there if they simply listen to what’s going on.
Fans need to stop confusing a character achieving a franchise long arc with being “suddenly different.” In this way, criticisms of canon in new entries in long running series reveal that fans really just lack imagination to connect the dots. It would be like complaining that Luke Skywalker can’t become paranoid and make a grave mistake in judgment because people never change, nevermind the character already has changed a lot from his origins in “A New Hope” to where he was in “Return of the Jedi.”
But that’s not to say you have to like the new direction either. You can understand these changes and still be like “well, it’s not for me. I don’t care for a PSTD angle or a new origin for Cybertron,” but that’s whole lot different than saying the new series “rapes your childhood” or “Bastardizes the canon.” All the old canon you hold nostalgia for still exists. My love for “Beast Machines” is not harmed by the existence of newer Transformers properties that don’t meet what I look for in the series.
Too often, fans take changes to established “lore” very personally because it doesn’t fit their expectations or have the same nostalgic feelings they had before. When new entries in mega franchises occur fans often try to judge it by how much it is like what they watched before, rather what makes it different and what it is saying now. Again, you don’t have to like new directions in tone or character but consistency to established work DOES NOT equal good storytelling.
I have not been immune to this myself in the past, of course. Back in the day I wrote a 2500-plus word diatribe on “The Amazing Spider-man 2” that mostly went after how it changed the character I grew up with in a bad way and butchered the established back story I knew him by.
You know what other story doesn’t follow canon very well though? “Spider-man: Homecoming.”
Spider-man in the MCU is generally agreed upon to be a good thing by fans. Both movies were big hits both critically and financially and fans often go as far as to say Tom Holland is the “definitive” Peter Parker.
But Holland’s Spider-man differs quite a bit from the comic-book webslinger. This Spider-man does not have a spidey sense. His best friend is not Harry Osbourne but in fact a retcon of a Mile Morales character. His father figure is Tony Stark, something that never happened in the comics, instead of Uncle Ben, which no matter what way you spin it is arguably his most important relationship in the series.
His character is a reverse of traditional Peter Parker too. Where comics Peter is a reluctant hero, who if anything hates being Spider-man and the burden of his responsibility, “Homecoming” Spider-man actively seeks out responsibility and in many ways enjoys his role as the famous webslinger. In fact, his whole arc is about him earning a spot as an Avenger. He wants to be THE hero and be worthy of it. It’s completely different from what we know of Spider-man.
Now I know some fans actually do complain about this Spidey from a “canon” standpoint, but most don’t. So why did this Spider-man get a pass for many but not “The Amazing” one? Quite simply it’s because stories, as cheesy as it sounds, are about feelings and stories like “Homecoming” tell a good story that effectively make those feelings connect with the audience.
We root for this Peter Parker and his journey to becoming an Avenger and successor to Iron Man because the story is told well, the emotions feel earned, and frankly both films are fun and enjoyable.
It’s easy to complain about canon for many nerds because it’s something tangible that they can point to and make a big stink about when they don’t understand why a movie isn’t reaching them. I don’t doubt that many neckbeards genuinely hate a film like “The Last Jedi” (Hell, I’m not a big fan myself) but when those same nerds enjoy something like “The Mandalorian,” a series that has its own loose relationship with canon and establishing new rules in the series, it tells me it’s not about the “lore” to them.
I have come to understand, in my growth as a nerd, that my problems with a lot of movies and TV shows in my favorite series rarely, if ever, have anything to do with the story not meeting some arbitrary guidelines regarding canon. It has more to with the story simply not connecting with me emotionally. The story isn’t drawing me in and keeping me on its narrative path. I’m not feeling the same magic that someone else might feel enjoying it because either a) it doesn’t feel earned to me or b) it just stylistically isn’t for me.
To paraphrase a line from another mega franchise, also owned by Disney, the canon is more like guidelines than actual rules.
It can show you where a story comes from but it isn’t law that you strictly adhere to it. Of course, when writing a new work in a popular series you should consider what came before it but I would like writer’s the freedom to try something new and most importantly fans to be open to it. You don’t have to like it but the idea that new entries in a story MUST remain strict to the canon is bull shit. Not even the original Star Wars trilogy adhered to its own canon perfectly, as clearly the writers were in fact making it up to a certain extent as they were going along.
And that’s ok, because some of those changes were great! Made the story better and made the conclusion stronger.
Again, you don’t have to like every new entry that tries something bold or confrontational in your favorite franchise but if writers strictly followed canon to the T we wouldn’t have things like “Homecoming,” we wouldn’t have “The Mandalorian,” and we certainly wouldn’t have my favorite Transformers series “Beast Machines.”
Canon shouldn’t be a trap for writers and it shouldn’t be a litmus test for fans digesting it. There are so many better ways to judge a story than whether or not it fits neatly into established lore. A good story is a good story, regardless of whether or not it’s supported by something as static as canon.
“Beast Machines” has its flaws here and there, but canon isn’t one of them, at least not for me. Again, if you feel that the lore is important, that’s fine, you don’t have to ignore it but I would ask you to look beyond what came before when critiquing a new story.
Otherwise, you might miss something special that comes next…