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Nellasaur ([personal profile] therizinosaur) wrote2012-03-07 12:35 pm

[META] Innocent Amnesiac or Blank Slate?: A Critical Look at TFP's "Orion Pax, Parts 1-3"

Okay, so it goes without saying that I was really disappointed with the Transformers Prime episode “Orion Pax, Part 3” this past Saturday. I was a bit vocal about it over on Tumblr—thank you to everyone who responded in kind, BTW, it’s good to know I’m not alone! What I have not been very vocal about, at least not anywhere but Plurk and in private conversations, is my overall disappointment with this entire story arc. I enjoyed each successive episode in the S2 premiere less than the ones that came before it, and the conclusion of Part 3 just left me feeling deflated and sad.

I’ve already seen people calling for, speculating on, and planning AU fix-it fics, which is a great way to deal with disappointment in the way a favorite show handles something! But, to be completely honest, I’m not interested enough in Optimus Prime as a character or Optimus/Orion and Megatron as a duo to devote mental time and energy to writing fic about them, even if it’s a story I want to see told. (I barely have enough mental juice to handle “Mercenary Medicine” right now, and Knock Out is basically my spirit animal, so that should tell you how hard it’s been for me to find the time and/or motivation to write lately.)

So here’s what I’m going to do instead: I’m going to talk about what I expected out of this story arc and how the events presented at the end of last season made me feel these expectations were reasonable. I’m going to break down the premiere episode by episode, scene by scene, and talk about what I thought worked and what wasn’t successful—what I liked and what I didn’t, and why—and a little bit about what I would have done differently had I been in charge of crafting this particular Transformers story.

So, to start, a little bit about “One Shall Rise, Part 3”, and the contract of episodic storytelling…
Before I get into the S2 premiere three-parter, I want to talk a little bit about what I’m going to call the contract of episodic storytelling. Sequential writing, be it for a television show or a comic or whatever, is hard. I know it’s hard. It can be a hell of a challenge to strike a good balance between the narrative demands of individual installments of an episodic story and the need for a long-term, overarching plot.

It’s true that some cartoons deal with this by having little-to-no inter-episode continuity. Shows like Ed, Edd, n, Eddy and Invader ZIM spring to mind immediately—cartoons where, for the most part, what happens in one episode has little to no bearing on the next. Hell, there’s an episode of IZ that ends with the two main characters, Zim and Dib, transformed into giant, sentient bologna sausages. No explanation is ever given as to how they change back; the next episode just starts with them back to normal. And that’s a perfectly valid method of storytelling in cartoons, especially ones aimed at a younger audience!

But with an action-adventure cartoon targeting a somewhat older demographic, like Transformers Prime, you really can’t get away with that. There has to be some kind of metaplot, a narrative structure that spans multiple episodes, if not entire seasons. Events must build on what’s come before; characters need to learn from their mistakes and experiences so they can develop and grow. This is what an older, more cognitively sophisticated audience expects, and this is where the contract comes into play.

When the writers of a show like this open a plot thread in an episode and don’t close it by the end, they’re entering into a contract with the viewers. What they’re saying to the audience is, “We know we haven’t wrapped up this part of the story yet, but that’s because we’re going to come back to it. Don’t worry, you’re going to get more.” They’re relying on us to trust them to return in future episodes to hanging story threads in their narrative—basically, to delay our gratification to allow for a bigger narrative payoff later on.

A show’s writers break this contract with their audience any time they introduce a narrative thread that doesn’t get resolved. Now, I’m not saying that I expect every show I watch to be flawlessly plotted seasons (or even episodes) in advance. I understand that when you have a cooperative team with multiple writers working week-to-week, producing the episodes in sequence, plots will be dropped. Details will be overlooked or forgotten—or maybe even deliberately left by the wayside for any of a myriad of reasons. I get that, I do.

What I do not get is why the creative crew behind TFP so blatantly broke with us the contract they set up during “One Shall Rise, Part 3”.

In the last episode of S1, the writers establish that Orion and Megatron were once close. In Ratchet’s summary of the history between OP and Megatron, it’s made very clear that at the end of the Golden Age on Cybertron, they had been good friends and confidants. Orion Pax and Megatronus were two passionate mechs who could see something very wrong in the social system around them.

When Optimus Prime sacrifices the Matrix of Leadership at the end of “One Shall Rise, Part 3” and wakes up as Orion Pax, he names the mech in front of him ‘Megatronus’, not Megatron. This implied to me that he had reverted to a point before Megatron dropped the last syllable of his name and revealed the true violence of his intentions for Cybertron—and to a point before Megatron was rebuffed by the council and broke ties with his friend Orion.

In other words, this Orion Pax has no reason not to regard Megatron as anything but a trusted friend, and he does seem to trust him. When Megatron orders him to retreat from Unicron’s spark chamber, he does, with barely any hesitation. What we have at the end of S1 is an Orion who only knows Megatronus to be his closest friend and trusted mentor, and a Megatron who knows better.

So what does that have to do with the contract I feel the writers entered into?

Well, it was always pretty obvious that the first episodes of S2 were going to be about Megatron taking advantage of Orion and the Autobots trying to get Optimus back. Combine this plot with the historical relationships introduced in “One Shall Rise, Part 3”, and what I expected out of the S2 premiere was a series of episodes exploring Orion’s relationship with Megatron, Megatron’s relationship with Orion, and the very nature of the Autobot-Decepticon conflict. I expected Megatron manipulating and lying to Orion, and Orion struggling to understand the truth of what’s happening to and around him. I don’t think these are unreasonable expectations given what we’d seen out of the show up until this point.

I will contend in the rest of this critique that this is not what the writers delivered in “Orion Pax, Parts 1-3”. Some of the plot elements I expected are present, but the entire story was so badly told that I feel that contract was broken.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I hated the S2 premiere unilaterally or anything. In fact, I liked a lot of the specific moments and character interactions, especially in the first two episodes, and I didn’t mind most of the overarching plot. What I was most specifically disappointed by was Orion’s rushed and uninteresting reversion to Optimus Prime, particularly through the third episode. I’m not writing this because I had specific fangirl desires that show didn’t cater to and I want to cry about it—no, it’s my contention that these episodes, especially Part 3, were just plain bad storytelling.

That’s going to be the primary focus of this review: breaking down the actual character journey that Orion Pax undergoes in these three episodes and talking about how very poorly crafted I found it. When I talk about changes I would make to the narrative, I’m making them in the interest of upholding the narrative contract presented at the end of S1, while at the same time trying to remain true to the general spirit of the story the writing team was trying to tell in these three episodes.

See, I know better than to expect that the journey of Orion Pax could be anything other than “Orion Pax realizes things are not as they seem, draws his own conclusions, and joins with the Autobots”—Hasbro wouldn’t dare risk confusing their audience as to the true goodness and nobility of their precious brand cornerstone Optimus Prime. It was inevitable that Orion Pax realize that the Decepticons are wrong and bad and rejoin the “right” side.

I just wish it had been executed better.

So without further ado…

Orion Pax, Part 1:
Let me start off by saying that I liked this episode the best out of the three. The writers hadn’t done anything yet to conclusively break the contract with their audience (although the seeds are definitely sown for the disappointment to come), there are some really wonderful moments in it, and none of the characters do things that seem OOC or irrational. It’s a strong start!

The first few scenes here are solid, and I don’t have much to say. Ratchet’s summary is succinct and necessary after the hiatus between seasons, and I kind of appreciate having the events of the season finale summed up IC instead of recapped by a narrator over a flashback montage. Megatron threatening his troops and reminding Airachnid of her place neatly sets the tone of how Orion is going to be handled while he’s onboard the Nemesis—even if it does raise the question of why Airachnid’s blatantly insubordinate power grab in the last episode doesn’t seem to have been punished. However, I’m willing to let that slide, because these episodes are supposed to be about Orion Pax and a diversion into what, if anything, happened with Airachnid would only bog down the plot.

The primary obstacles that the Autobots are going to have to hurdle to get their leader back are also neatly set up in the next two scenes in their base: that they have to track down the Nemesis to be able to reclaim OP and that they have to find a way to get Jack to Cybertron so he can access Vector Sigma. And I rather appreciate both June and Fowler challenging the Autobots over the danger of involving Jack, even if it’s inevitable that he go.

Where things first start to show signs of going south, for me, is in the way Orion interacts with Megatron, and the way he reacts when he is shown the devastation of Cybertron. Remember, based on the clues at the end of the last episode and their history together as relayed by Ratchet, Orion has no reason not to be thinking of Megatron as his good friend Megatronus, and that Cybertron is a thriving planet—albeit one experiencing some troubling socioeconomic unrest.

What I would have liked to see in these scenes is some genuine affection between Orion and Megatron. It certainly doesn’t have to be reciprocal—in fact, I frankly wouldn’t want it to be. It’s worth remembering, after all, that Megatron perceived the council choosing Orion over him as a personal betrayal. He stopped considering Orion Pax a friend a long time ago, before he even became Optimus, and as Optimus, the mech has been his enemy for eons. I don’t expect Megatron to treat Orion as his friend, except perhaps as a ruse. But I did expect it from Orion in regards to Megatron, and this is not what we see even in these early scenes on the Nemesis.

Yes, Orion is naïve, and he certainly acts like a younger mech than Optimus, but that’s about it. There’s no sense of affection for Megatron, just a gullible willingness to believe anything that the Decepticon leader says. There’s really no sense that Orion is friends with anyone, in fact—not Megatron, who has become sharp and scarred in the interim that he doesn’t remember, and not with Ratchet, another old friend who has supposedly become a mad, power-mongering warlord.

What they’ve done, really, is present Orion not as an amnesiac throwback to a lost innocence but as a blank slate. When Megatron shows him the devastated Cybertron, his reaction feels more like a generic expression of the tragedy of war than a personal response to the fact that two armies, led by two of his closest friends, have ravaged his home planet.

Orion’s shock and horror at Cybertron’s devastation was a genuine reaction and a good start, but if I had been writing this episode, I would have taken it further. Have him express a more visceral disbelief that his old friend could have done this and condemn Ratchet’s actions. Have him entreat Megatron to explain how he could have let this happen. These scenes, with Megatron spinning his lies for Orion’s benefit, really lacked that personal punch needed to remind the viewers that these mechs have a history together, and that for one of them it is no longer history but the present.

I would have had Orion struggle more obviously to reconcile the Ratchet Megatron is describing with the one he knows—it gives Megatron an opportunity to ensnare him with further lies, and makes Orion’s vow to stop the Autobots more poignant. It’s not simply a matter of picking the side that didn’t ruin Cybertron over the one that did, but rather of taking a stand against someone he thought was a friend.

Orion’s eventual decision in the third episode to cast his lot with Ratchet and the Autobots instead of Megatron and the Decepticons should have been a significant thematic reversal from this moment, symbolic of Orion recognizing the innate goodness of the Autobots despite the lies that he’s been told. Had these scenes carried more emotional poignancy, had the stakes for Orion been more personal than “I am doing what Lord Megatron tells me because I don’t know any better”, Orion’s eventual defection to the Autobots at the end of the third episode would have carried a lot more weight and brought the narrative full circle. Instead, it just comes off as… well, inevitable.

But more on that, in greater detail, later.

The scene with Jack and Sierra is completely pointless. I’d assumed it was some kind of buildup to an identity crisis on Jack’s part regarding risking himself and his normal life for the Autobots, but there was no payoff of any kind in that regard in the next two episodes. In the context of the entire storyline, this scene is just really jarring and out of place. I guess the point was to thematically juxtapose Jack’s normalcy as a human teen with his heroism in going to Cybertron to save Optimus? But if that’s what they were going for, it falls really flat. There is no narrative tension around Jack going to Cybertron in the rest of the arc—the closest they come to it is June and Fowler objecting a few times on the basis of how dangerous it is, and even then, the audience always knows that Jack’s going to go. There’s no real sense that either adult is capable of stopping him, not when the Autobots need him to make the journey, and once Jack realizes it’s got to be him, he’s downright eager to do his part.

If given the choice between attempting to give this potential storyline some narrative significance and cutting it entirely, I would cut it. This story arc is supposed to be about OP, not Jack or any of the other humans, and the awkward scene with Sierra at the burger joint is not necessary in any way.

Additionally, cutting the scene with Jack and Sierra gives us a few more minutes to do something else—say, something along the lines of Knock Out checking in on Orion in his little workstation? A brief little scene with KO being legitimately friendly to the “new recruit” would be delightful right around here. It offers a nice callback to KO’s flirtatiousness in “Deus Ex Machina”, a complement to Breakdown’s genuine appreciation of the Vehicons in the next episode, and most importantly, another smudge on the Autobot-Decepticon/good-evil dichotomy.

After all, the prevailing character arc in these episodes is supposed to be Orion trying to discern the truth of his situation for himself. Why should the writers make that easy on him? And why should the show suddenly revert to an overly simplistic black-and-white moral view of the war and the two factions when things have been delightfully blurred up to the point—and continue to be in this very story arc? There’s no real impact to Orion choosing his allegiance if a heavy authorial hand makes it obvious from the start which side is the good guys, and which side is the bad.

That said, I honestly don’t have a problem with Megatron making the choice to use Orion while he can. I’ve seen a few people expressing discontent that these episodes didn’t involve more of Orion and Megatron exploring their relationship in more depth, and while I agree on a world-and-character-development level that I would have liked to see that, I understand why the writing team didn’t choose to take that tack. After all, as I already pointed out, it seems reasonable to assume that Megatron and Orion stopped being friends even before Orion became Optimus. And as much as I personally love playing with the concept of everyone’s favorite warlord harboring deeply hidden emotional vulnerabilities, such as those engendered by losing the support of a close friend, I know we’re never going to see something like that canonized in a show that’s still principally aimed at kids. Realistically speaking, the emotional revelation of Megatron’s long-suppressed pining after Orion was never going to happen.

Megatron’s plan of action as introduced in this episode, then, makes a lot of sense to me. After all, he knows the Autobots will inevitably be coming for Orion/Optimus. He knows that he can only lie about the reality of the war for so long before Orion twigs on to the fact that things are not as they seem. He knows that Orion has valuable skills that he badly wants to make use of. Even if there is a part of him that wanted to legitimately induct his old friend Orion into the fold as an advisor and a support—and who’s to say that there isn’t?—it makes sense for him to take the more pragmatic route. He has a very limited window of time in which to make use of Orion’s skills, and he’s going to exploit it.

I honestly don’t have much to say about the rest of this episode. Like I said before, I thought this one was pretty strong on the whole, and most of the stuff in the last third or so seemed solid to me. Megatron’s brusque dismissal of Starscream’s absence is a little jarring, but again, makes sense—why tell Orion the truth or make up some complex lie when it’s easiest to say he’s dead and leave it at that? After all, it’s not like Starscream’s going to be showing his face on the Nemesis any time soon…

The plan that the Autobots and humans come up with—to locate the Decepticon space bridge and use that to get to Cybertron—is a decent one. On a nitpicky note, I wish that the Autobots had managed to make their own plans in this episode. I know Hasbro insists on treating the human kids as integral to the operation of the Autobot military unit, but is it really necessary for Miko to have inspired the (ultimately fruitless) plan of “turbo-charging” the ground bridge and for Jack to have suggested the space bridge idea? Couldn’t the Autobots have come up with at least one of those—especially the space bridge plan—on their own? As of “One Shall Fall”, the Autobots know that the Decepticons are trying to build a space bridge; at least one of them should have been able to make the connection that KO and Breakdown’s successful theft of the fuel cell means that space bridge will be operational and can potentially be used to get Jack to Cybertron. If it were up to me, I would have downplayed the role of the children here, and entirely eliminated the subplot where Ratchet tries to boost the range of the ground bridge. (More on that later.)

I very much liked the escalating tensions between the Autobots, however, culminating in Arcee’s reckless infiltration of the Nemesis and the frustrated bickering of the whole team at the end of the episode. Unlike what’s going on between Orion and Megatron, there’s a lot of sincere emotion here—it’s very easy to pick up on their frustration and despair as they struggle to figure out how they’re going to get their leader back. That’s good stuff, writers, well done.

Finally, I have no changes to make with regards to Starscream’s infiltration of the Nemesis and nothing much to say about it other than finally.

Again, this episode was pretty solid and definitely enjoyable, by far the best out of the three in my opinion. Too bad things immediately start to go downhill from here…

Orion Pax, Part 2:
This episode starts on a pretty strong note. Starscream being the one to first crack through the façade of Megatron’s lies is actually pretty brilliant. After the warlord’s threats, you need a rogue element who’s either unaware of or willing to circumvent Megatron, and Starscream is a perfect candidate. And while the timing of his presence on the Nemesis is stretching it as far as plot conveniences go, I personally think the setup that had him ducking into Orion’s workstation for shelter (i.e., that Orion’s workstation was next to energon storage for surveillance purposes and Starscream was on the ship to steal energon) was pretty clever.

Also brilliant is Starscream’s escape sequence, even though it doesn’t add much to the plot except for Starscream’s injury. It was a beautifully choregraphed escape, and I don’t think anyone minded sacrificing some plot time to watch Starscream be a badass.

The scene with Ratchet and Raf testing out the ground bridge after Ratchet’s tinkered with it has to go, though. The primary purpose of this scene was to give Raf a chance to tell his inspiring little gym class anecdote, which is just really not necessary to the story in any way. Ratchet gets points for his exasperated lack of comprehension, but that’s not worth keeping the scene, IMO, especially since the ground bridge plan is ultimately pointless. You don’t need Ratchet’s work on the ground bridge for the sake of the plot, and I’m personally just really tired of the “human kids have insight and wisdom that’s escaped the ageless alien robots” trope. This whole scene was, to me, awkward and unnecessary, and so I’d leave it on the cutting room floor in its entirety.

It’s Orion’s conversation with Megatron after Starscream’s escape where the writers really start to drop the ball on the story they promised us they were going to tell in this arc, I think. In this scene, Orion confronts Megatron directly with the fact that he was lied to about Starscream’s fate, and when Megatron dismisses his concerns, he decides to do some further research of his own. This bit’s fine—there’s no way Megatron could have known Starscream would pick now to infiltrate, so there was no good reason for him not to lie about the whereabouts of his second-in-command.

Similarly, both the very fact Starscream is still alive and his grand assertion that there’s a lot that Orion doesn’t know is more than enough to pique OP’s interest and impel him to do some investigation of his own. Again, having Starscream play this role is a very neat way to jump-start Orion’s doubts, especially since there’s not time enough in the narrative to have him come to them “naturally”, so to speak. The story really needed a catalyst to get Orion questioning things, and Starscream was a perfect one.

What is not neat is the fact that the fabricated database Orion accesses contains any information on Optimus Prime. Claiming that Starscream is dead is a safe lie for Megatron to tell; telling Orion that Ratchet is the leader of the Autobots while there are still files in his database that claim otherwise, even altered files, is sloppy.

So if I had been writing the story arc, there would have been no page of falsified data on Optimus Prime for Orion Pax to turn up. Soundwave’s sanitized data core says that Ratchet is and always has been the mad leader of the Autobots.

The next couple of scenes after this, where Ratchet and Bulkhead grill Starscream for information, are pretty good. The same way that I liked the Autobots being frustrated with each other in the last episode, I like them being ruthless regarding their enemy here. Like I said before, one of the things I’d hoped this entire story arc would be about is the moral difficulties and gray zones of war, and this scene with Ratchet refusing to help Starscream unless he has good information to barter plays perfectly into that. It’s a wonderful reminder that the Autobots in general, and Ratchet in particular, are capable of doing very bad things (abandoning an injured mech to die) even in the pursuit of something good (saving Orion from Megatron and restoring Optimus).

As I said before, I actually rather like the Autobot plan of occupying the Decepticon space bridge to get their boy to Cybertron, so the scene where they solidify that plan and put it into motion is mostly a good one. But it’s not perfect, and though I hate to say it, the fault lies once again with the human element.

Now, pretty much any interaction where June reminds us that playing with giant robots is scary and dangerous is wonderful in my book, but unfortunately it provides a very unflattering contrast to Fowler’s bluff assertion that his “contacts at NASA” can wrangle up a Jack-sized space suit in a jiffy. There is not a character in the show who assaults my suspension of disbelief more relentlessly than Fowler, and it’s almost always because the U.S. government doesn’t work this way.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand what Fowler’s role in the show is, metatextually speaking. Having the Autobots allied to the U.S. government legitimizes them as good guys, makes the show more “realistic”, and gives them a handy deus ex machina to whip out when the plot calls for something to happen that the Autobots can’t manage. But it’s that middle bit that’s the point of contention for me—Fowler is not realistic in any way. The things he does, the equipment he uses, the authorities he invokes don’t make any logical sense to anyone who knows the slightest bit about the way the government functions. He’s basically a carte blanche government agent, and his presence in the show will never cease to annoy me.

(To be completely honest, the only way I can handle Fowler doing anything involves me rejecting the show’s reality and mentally substituting my own crack headcanon regarding him. As far as I’m concerned, Fowler is an incredibly eccentric, incredibly wealthy civilian that the Autobots have hired as their go-between, an operative they can use when they need things out of the humans that they can’t acquire themselves. Part of his terms and conditions for allowing them to work through him is that they indulge his delusional fantasies that he’s actually a government agent. He’s not, he just has a lot of money he can throw around for them.)

Regardless of whether you share my personal annoyance with the narrative convenience that is Fowler, his magically appearing spacesuit is still a dissonant element in this scene. If it were up to me, I think I would have had Ratchet actually make the spacesuit. It’s no less sensible than Fowler getting NASA to pony one up in teenage boy size on extremely short notice, and you can replace the scenes where Ratchet is tinkering with the ground bridge with him working on the space suit instead. The overall effect is the same—that Ratchet is very quietly desperate and banking on unlikely possibilities—and cutting the ‘turbocharging the ground bridge’ subplot out of the story streamlines the narrative.

The fight scene where the Autobots take the spacebridge is eminently serviceable, and I quite liked Arcee’s understated moment of pain when she and Jack reached Cybertron. The fact that Cybertron is at the very least abandoned and unlivable and at the worst dead is something that Transformers fiction never seems to address with what feels like appropriate gravitas. Even the slightest bit of acknowledgement from Arcee that her world was once greater than this, and that she feels ashamed that Jack has to see it in this state, is refreshing and badly needed. This can stay.

And so can the scene with Breakdown and Fowler. This is another bit that I really liked, for the same reason as I liked Ratchet being so ruthless with Starscream earlier in the episode, and for the same reason I’d include a ‘friendly KO’ scene in the episode before this. I know I keep saying it, but I really wanted this story arc to be about how morally gray relations are between the ‘Bots and the ‘Cons, because in this universe they should be. The war in TFP is, at its core, about social justice—this isn’t speculation or transference from other parts of Aligned continuity, it’s canon after “One Shall Rise, Part 3”. Megatron rose to political prominence because he was acting out against social inequity on Cybertron. Even if their conflict is now more about resources and one faction beating the other, it started out because an angry, frustrated, and dispossessed Megatron was advocating against the system that oppressed him in the only way he thought would bring change—violently.

Does that sound familiar to any angry, beaten down, unhappy social justice advocates out there?

This is why, ultimately, I wanted to see the show acknowledge the moral gray of the Autobot-Decepticon war. Not because I’m a Decepticon sympathizer who wants them portrayed in a positive light just because I like them better; not because I think it would be gritty or hardcore for the Autobots to be nasty. I wanted the moral gray because it is all too easy to equate this universe’s Megatron with the Occupy Wall Street movement. You know, the people fighting to take back wealth and financial security from the one percent of people who control most of the money in this country? That ought to sound familiar, Transformers fans. Megatron’s revolution against the ruling elites of Iacon in this canon is blatantly a revolution inspired by financial and labor inequalities.

I want the show to acknowledge that the Decepticons had a very valid reason to fight, and that their original goal in this universe was laudable. Has the conflict degenerated in the interminable years since its inception in the gladiator pits in Cybertron’s underbelly? Yes. Has Megatron lost sight of his originally noble intentions in favor of merely securing for himself power (or possibly just wiping out his hated enemies)? Oh, very possibly yes. But what he originally wanted was not bad, and painting the Decepticon army or their cause as unilaterally evil leaves a very, very bad taste in my mouth.

Now before anyone gets their hackles up, no, I do not think the show was deliberately trying to code Megatron as a social justice activist and subsequently send some message that fighting for your rights or to improve your life is intrinsically bad or evil—the same way I don’t think the show utilizing the same tired female character tropes as practically everything else is the result of active misogyny. This stuff is subtle. But subtle can still be dangerous, and that’s why I can’t stand seeing the Decepticons being portrayed as intrinsically evil. Their cause is, fundamentally, a valid one. The Decepticons can still be an effective antagonistic force—they have been up to now—without being evil.

Admittedly, the first two episodes of the premiere aren’t that bad about this; it’s really Part 3 that really grinds the EVIL EVILNESS of the Decepticons into the faces of the audiences, and it’s Part 3 that dismayed me the most on this particular topic, so I’ll get back into it again in more detail soon. Suffice it to say for now that Breakdown’s appreciation of the efforts of the Vehicons laborers guarding the space bridge is wonderful.

The scene that follows it, not so much. In this scene, Orion hacks through the encryptions to the files about the “real” Optimus Prime and is confronted with the fact that he is Optimus, as Starscream said. Soundwave reports the information to Megatron, who vows to ensure that Orion’s decoding project will be completed, on threat of pain.

Okay. This. This is where I first started having serious problems with this story arc, both in terms of the internal continuity of the episodes and in terms of how a fulfilling narrative should be structured.

First, internal continuity: we’re told that Soundwave sanitized the data core. Now, I have to concede that this could mean a lot of things, and it’s very likely that “sanitizing the data core” just means “overlaying the ship’s databanks with a layer of falsified information and encrypting the real stuff beneath it”. That’s obviously what they were going for in this episode, but like I said above, this is just plain sloppy work. Soundwave has never been shown to be anything but frighteningly competent, yet the show wants us to believe that a data clerk from Iacon can outhack him? No. Sorry, show, I refuse. Orion is put to work decoding the files from the Iacon archives because, as an Iaconian data clerk, he knows the ciphers. It follows neither logically nor intuitively that he’s a hacker.

So why is Orion able to hack through Soundwave’s encryptions to access the real information on Optimus Prime? Narrative convenience, and that brings me to the second reason this plot turn is terrible.

Orion finds out the truth about Optimus here pretty much entirely so he can (mostly) arbitrarily decide in the next episode that the Decepticons are the bad guys and run away to the Autobots, who must be good. This is cheap storytelling. Period. There will be no poignancy or impact to Orion’s decision to abandon the Decepticons in the next episode, because this discovery here ensures that he Just Knows that he is good and if he once lead the Autobots then they must be Good too.

So what would I do, if I had written this? Well obviously Orion wouldn’t be able to magically hack into the information he needs to make his decision for him. There are no files on Optimus Prime for him to find, just data on Ratchet as the leader of the Autobots. Perhaps he’s been spending time researching, trying futilely to find information on a Prime called Optimus in the databases and realizing as he does that the falsified data on the war doesn’t match up; this scene, then, could be Orion contemplating the sum of his findings and wondering why his friend Megatron has been lying to him. For added urgency, have him inquire of his guards about some of the discrepancies—or even just ask them about Optimus—and let their stubborn silence or faltering inability to answer stand as further tacit proof that Megatron is lying to him.

Megatron is aware that his ruse, already fragile, is slipping further. It’s revealed in the next episode that all of Orion’s work at his terminal is being recorded, so it’s fine to say now that Soundwave is keeping track of what files he’s accessing; Orion’s distraction from his task and suspicious behavior is enough to send Soundwave to Megatron.

In fact, if there’s any place in these three episodes to slip in any acknowledgment that Megatron is conflicted by what he’s doing with Orion, this would be it. I’m not asking for a declaration of forbidden love or anything here, but Orion isn’t just some ignorant proto-Optimus; he’s a passionate mech who once betrayed Megatron. Just a small acknowledgement that Orion is not merely the empty shell of a hated enemy to him, but someone who personally wronged him, would be enough to add some much-needed depth and complexity to Megatron’s role in this story. After all, their friendship was once very real, and Megatron is deliberately capitalizing on it—having him mention that in more detail than one his throw-away line about capturing Orion’s spark in the first episode would be really excellent, and here’s the place to do it.

This episode ends with Arcee and Jack following the Key’s signal to Iacon and triggering an Insecticon sentry, and the only criticism I have here is where the hell are the zombies? When we last saw Cybertron, Megatron had deluged it with enough dark energon to raise hordes of undead Cybertronian warriors, and yet we don’t even get a throwaway line about how they’re stuck in orbit, or how Jack should look sharp, there might be horrible zombiecons around? Really?

Other than this conspicuous lack of acknowledgement, this scene isn’t particularly remarkable, but serves moves the plot along well.

It’s also the end of the episode, which leads us to…

Orion Pax, Part 3:
All right, I’m just going to be blunt about: this episode is a clusterfuck. It is, in my opinion, poorly plotted, poorly written—poorly crafted. The word of the day was “contrivance” when they put this one together, and oh boy does it show.

Let’s get right to it, shall we?

The episode opens with Jack and Arcee making their way through Kaon, still following the Key and, unbeknownst to them, tracked by the Insecticon sentry. So far, so good. The presence of the key triggers the explosive emergence of the entrance to the vault housing Vector Sigma, but before the two of them can enter it, the Insecticon attacks. Okay. This is pretty straightforward stuff for this show—nothing to commend but nothing to criticize either. Perhaps the most interesting moment in this scene is Jack’s hesitation to go on without Arcee—not because he’s afraid to leave her to the Insecticon, but because he’s hesitant to proceed without her. Can I just say that I really appreciate this? Both Jack relying on Arcee’s support and moving on at his mother’s urging are both really nice elements in this scene. Jack realizes he needs to press on alone, and the scene ends.

We are then treated to an incredibly awkward scene where Orion demands of Megatron, “Who am I?” and, upon receiving an unsatisfactory answer, decides to quit cooperating and delete the progress he’s made in decoding the Iacon archives. This proves ultimately futile, as of course the Decepticons have logged records of his work, but before Orion can react to that, Soundwave interrupts and informs Megatron of the activation of the Insecticon sentry on Cybertron.

Orion’s questions in this scene are valid ones, especially given his research up until this point on Optimus Prime. I personally find their delivery to be painfully forced, but they make sense in the context of the scene. Likewise, Megatron’s incredibly curt, dismissive “You’re my clerk” personally made me wince, but follows from Orion’s questions.

What does not follow is Orion’s decision to erase his work.

Let’s take a look at what Orion definitely knows about his situation so far: he knows that he is missing a significant chunk of time from his life. He knows that there is a war with two factions, and that his old friend Megatron leads one and “Doctor of Doom” Ratchet leads the other. He knows that Megatron is lying to him, although he cannot know the extent of those lies. He knows that Megatron is more interested in having him translate the Iaconian archives than anything else.

You know what he doesn’t know? Why Megatron is lying to him, or what he wants the data that Optimus is decoding for. In short, while he has every right to be questioning Megatron’s motives, he doesn’t have nearly enough concrete information to justify deciding he’s no longer going to be playing along. What’s more, he defies Megatron to his face, and has the gall to walk away—and the whole thing is framed like some grand heroic gesture, when what it really should be is a conflicted mech lashing out at the “friend” who’s using him.

It goes without saying that I would change this scene a lot. For one thing, at this point in my storyline, Orion doesn’t know anything about Optimus Prime, except that Starscream called him that. He knows that he’s being lied to by Megatron, and that the “facts” about the war that he can access in Soundwave’s sanitized data core don’t add up. Optimus has a lot of questions, but the question of his identity isn’t the primary one.

So what does he demand of Megatron, when Megatron reveals that he knows Orion has been snooping? He confronts Megatron with the fact that he’s been lied to and demands to know why. Why won’t his old friend trust him with the truth? Megatron, of course, brushes him off, and as in the episode they’re interrupted by Soundwave bearing news of the beacon.

This is only further evidence of Megatron’s lies, and Orion is hurt by it. Again he asks Megatron to explain to him; instead of threatening Orion to finish his work or else, Megatron implores him to keep working until he returns, and he’ll reveal everything then. Mollified by the apparent sincerity of Megatron’s promise, Orion returns to his task.

Megatron is lying between his nasty shark teeth. As soon as the door to Orion’s workstation closes behind him, he orders the guards to keep Orion on task at all costs. End scene.

Back on Cybertron, the Insecticon incapacitates Arcee and goes after Jack. Alone in the tunnels, Jack unknowingly passes a Scraplet and—

And hang on a minute. A Scraplet? Really? Bad enough that he’s alone on a hostile alien planet and being pursued by a massive sentry warrior, but they’re throwing Scraplets into the mix too? Oh boy. Anyway, spooked by mysterious sounds, Jack acquires himself a makeshift weapon, which is honestly pretty smart, even if a bent length of scrap metal ain’t gonna do jack shit against most Cybertronian enemies. Good thinking, kid…I guess.

Megatron realizes here what the Autobots are up to. It’s a very brief and utilitarian scene, and it immediately goes back to Jack and Vector Sigma.

Unpopular fandom opinion time: I didn’t like this part. Vector Sigma as a giant glowing hovering monolith is pretty and all, but it makes no sense. Jack should have no idea how to operate an alien supercomputer—hell, there’s no reason for him to know that the Vector Sigma chamber even is a supercomputer. How in the world does he know that this is the right place to drop his incredibly precious magical activating keycard?

But I acknowledge that it’s partly my own personal distaste for the legitimized mysticism of this universe that’s influencing me here. It’s not actually intrinsically bad or wrong that Vector Sigma operates by magic, and it’s actually well within the operational mechanics of this universe as they’ve been defined so far in the show. I just don’t like it.

Anyway, Vector Sigma powers up and starts downloading data to Jack’s key, and then we’re back on the Nemesis, where Orion is being hassled by his Vehicon guards.

I really didn’t like this part, because when I say ‘hassled’ what I actually mean is ‘brutally attacked and forced to work’. This made me acutely uncomfortable the first time I watched it, and I don’t like it any better now as I’m rewatching the episode for research as I write this critique. And the Vehicons beating Orion were what I was specifically thinking of when I mentioned above the EVIL EVILNESS the show was going to shove at us.

Brutal violence is not exactly uncharacteristic for this show. From literally the very first episode, Transformers Prime has been filled with gory and uncompromising scenes of brutality. Autobots have brutalized ‘Cons, ‘Cons have brutalized ‘Bots, humans have tortured mechs, and mechs have tortured humans. Pretty much no group of characters has yet escaped unscathed.

It’s not the violence that I disapprove of; it’s the fact that it is being perpetrated against a character who is, at best, an innocent, and at worst an avatar of pure goodness and nobility. If there is anything more blatantly meant to scream EVIL, THEY’RE EVIL in this show, I can’t think of it.

And the worst part is that it’s out of character for the Decepticons. Oh don’t get me wrong, they’ve done a lot of nasty, cruel, violent things over the course of the first season. They’re definitely antagonists. But until now, we’ve never seen them attack a non-combatant like this, and never so cruelly. It’s painful to watch and it’s unsubtle, heavy-handed storytelling. The only reason to have the Vehicons assault Orion like this is drive home how EVIL AND BAD the Decepticons are, and to impel Orion to act in his own defense later on in the episode.

In my version of this story, Orion confesses his concerns for how Megatron is going to use this information to his guards, but he doesn’t mention the Autobots, especially not warning them. He has no reason to. The only things he knows about the Autobots is that Megatron had told him they destroyed Cybertron—and that this fact may be one of the lies he’d been told.

You know, I think that’s the thing that annoys me the most about the decisions Orion has been and will continue to make in this episode. It’s not that he’s asking questions or suspecting that Megatron is a fraud, because at this point—in both the actual episodes and my reimagined version—he has every reason to suspect that. But the writers have oversimplified the issues in play here grotesquely. I don’t know about you, but when I realize that someone I trust has lied to me about something, my first thought is not Everything s/he has ever said is not only patently false but the reality MUST be the exact opposite of what I’ve been told!

“Autobots are good and Decepticons are bad” does not follow rationally from “Megatron has told me lies”. In fact, the only thing that follows rationally from “Megatron has told me lies” is “Some of the things Megatron has told me are not true”.

Orion has no reason to be worried about Megatron and the Decepticons harming Autobots. The only thing that Orion should be worrying about at this point is unraveling the truth from the shroud of lies that Megatron has drawn around him.

So that’s what Orion would be talking to the Vehicons about in my version of this episode. He’s attempting to drill them for information about Megatron’s true intentions for the information that he’d decoding. The guards rebuff him sternly, and possibly posture and threaten him, but they do not attack.

Back to Cybertron and Vector Sigma’s chamber, where the Scraplets have attacked en masse and are devouring Vector Sigma itself! And the Insecticon is coming! And Arcee is nowhere to be seen! OH NO. WHAT DRAMA.

No. Okay, no. Listen, this is not dramatic. Your audience knows that Jack is going to successfully charge the key and get it to Orion. You know how your audience knows? Because you’re using tricks like this in an attempt to artificially infuse these scenes with drama. And while this probably works like a charm on the younger viewers who haven’t been around the block when it comes to cheap TV tension-building tricks, Transformers Prime prides itself on playing to the adult audience it knows it has. So hey! Go ahead and pile on multiple vicious threats instead of writing a scene with legitimate tension! More is better, right?

Wrong.

In my version of this episode, the tension in these scenes would stem not from a gratuitous buildup of antagonistic forces that somehow magically resolve each other at the last minute, but rather from the fact that suddenly, Jack and Arcee’s mission has a time limit.

You see, I want them to know that Megatron will be waiting for them on the other side of the space bridge. When Megatron attacks the rest of the Autobots as they guard the space bridge in the show, Arcee and Jack are ignorant of it. There’s radio silence. But if you have one of the ‘Bots patch through audio of parts of the attack, whether accidentally or on purpose, the team on Cybertron suddenly knows that they now have to get the key and get back ASAP. If Megatron manages to overpower the others before they can, they end up stranded on Cybertron, perhaps indefinitely.

The tension in the Vector Sigma chamber in this scenario comes, then, from the audience’s uncertainty as to how long it will take the data to download successfully, and Jack’s impotence to do anything to accelerate the transfer—oh, and from the fact that Jack has to distract or otherwise face down the marauding Insecticon on his own once it’s tracked him down. The tension can even be further ramped up by having the Insecticon directly threaten the structural integrity of Vector Sigma, the way the Scraplets do in the episode.

This eliminates the incredibly pat “solution” in the show of using the Scraplets to eat the Insecticon and conveniently having them all fall into oblivion with it, while still allowing Jack a moment of glory as he fights on his own and affording another opportunity for Arcee to come in and be a badass as she incapacitates the Insecticon before it can damage Vector Sigma. Everything that happened in the show happens in this version too, with the added benefit of getting rid of the clumsy narrative contrivance of the Scraplets and the Insecticon doing away with each other as a threat.

Back on the Nemesis, Orion is still being beaten by the Vehicons and I seriously, seriously cannot stress enough how much painful this was to watch, especially when he begged them to stop. Do I have to explain again why I didn’t like this plot contrivance and why I think it’s bad storytelling? No? Good, then let me fix it.

In my story, the Vehicons are trying to balance Megatron’s standing orders that Orion be kept ignorant at all costs with the more recent command that he be kept on task. When Orion persists in breaking from his work to try to ask them questions, one of them loses his patience and pulls his blaster, loosing a shot in a very serious threat to keep Orion to keep working. Remember, in my version of this arc this is the first time that Orion’s been threatened like this, and it outrages him. Instead of being cowed or made obedient by the salvo, he demands to see Megatron (or whoever’s been left in charge of the ship in his friend’s absence).

When the guards physically try to force him to work, he incapacitates them without meaning to, without even realizing that he can. Now shocked and deeply upset by the violence he’s inflicted with weapons he didn’t even know he had, Orion flees his workroom in search of Megatron.

Megatron, of course, is at the space bridge, waiting for Arcee to come through so he can relieve her of the key to Vector Sigma. He doesn’t know that she knows he’s there, and on the other side of the bridge, she and Jack attempt to formulate a plan of attack.

Unbeknownst to them, though, Orion has followed Megatron through the ground bridge from the Nemesis and confronts him, demanding an accounting for his lies and the violence of the guards. Assured of his victory and his ability to force Orion to do his bidding once the Autobots are eliminated, Megatron responds with a sharp and candid remark about the guards not doing their work well enough.

As in the actual show, Orion attacks Megatron, who easily counters his clumsy and unskilled assault. Before he can incapacitate him, Arcee comes through the space bridge from Cybertron and attacks in OP’s defense.

This is the first time Orion has seen an Autobot fight, and he’s taken aback by her ferocity. However, he also cannot help but notice the human she’s working with, something that seems counter to the arrogant Autobot assumptions of superiority that he’s been told about—and the artifact that Jack’s holding inspires a flicker of recognition in him.

In the show, Orion knows he has some connection to the Prime Optimus, clearly understands the significance of the key to Vector Sigma, and asks if he’s worthy. Jack assures him that his is and initiates the transfer.

In my story, Orion doesn’t know why a human is holding out a glowing blue key to him, but he does know that his chassis has just opened and there’s an inert Matrix of Leadership inside. It’s up to him to make the choice. Does he reject what this unknown ally to an Autobot is offering and go to assist his beleaguered friend—the same friend who’s been lying to him and using him? Or does he take a leap of faith, predicated on Starscream’s unguarded words and the Matrix in his chest, and accept what Jack is offering him?

Before he can make his choice, Megatron realizes what’s about to happen and charges with full malicious intent. Orion gets to see his old friend coming at him with sword swinging—and he also gets to see his other old friend Ratchet, obviously injured, throw himself in Megatron’s path to deflect the brunt of the assault.

That’s what decides him, and his Matrix initiates the upload from the key. By the time Megatron has thrown Ratchet aside and renews his attack on Orion, it’s no longer Orion Pax that he fights, but Optimus Prime.

In the show, Optimus drives back Megatron and asks his Autobots how they got there. The humans at the base confirm his return and open up a ground bridge, which the Autobots and Jack all retreat into. Megatron howls in rage at his defeat. On the other side of the ground bridge, the humans and the Autobots reunite with their leader, and it’s all very sweet.

This is straightforward denouement-type stuff. It’s not interesting, but it works as a conclusion for my story just as well as for the actual narrative presented in the show.

I will say, though, that if it were up to me, Optimus would remember his time as Orion Pax on the Nemesis. I understand why he doesn’t—because the Matrix giveth and the Matrix taketh away—but eliminating his memory of the choice he made basically nullifies any development he went through. And while Orion Pax didn’t go through any development in the canon narrative, in my reimagining he did, and it bugs me to have that taken away from him.

In either story, it sends a strange message—that if you are good in your soul you will always and ever be good. Ratchet’s comment about how Optimus was always an Autobot in his spark says the same thing, and wow, that makes me uncomfortable? I mean, one of the defining characteristics of this canon is that the Decepticons aren’t all evil and the Autobots aren’t all good and this is the moralistic wrap-up message the writers give us in this episode? That Optimus was good and right and pure all along? It’s really, really, really heavy-handed, especially in the context of the gratuitous Vehicon brutality presented this episode—brutality which seems uncharacteristic when you remember that just one episode before this one, Breakdown was happily thanking guards and laborers for their hard work.

In a nutshell, that’s why this episode was such a staggering, crushing blow to me. It broke the rules and continuity of the show up to this point in a really unpleasant way, all to send a message that ultimately is so morally simplistic that I feel insulted by it. I feel like Transformers Prime just talked down to me like I’m a simple child, and it shamelessly made its narrative and its characters jump through all kinds of contrived, irrational hoops to make it happen.

If that’s not bad craftsmanship, I don’t know what is.

A brief digression on morality plays…
I know, I know, this critique represents a lot of time and effort to pour into picking apart a few episodes of a kids’ show. “Why bother?” you might ask. After all, it’s just a cartoon, and they’re writing it for kids anyway, so it’s not like they can actually address any real issues like morality or the brutality of war, right?

Except that I think it’s ignorant to claim that kids, especially older kids (the obvious demographic of this show), are too dumb to understand complex morality or need to be sheltered from it until some nebulous “appropriate” time.

Beyond that, Transformers Prime IS targeted at an older audience—teens and adult fans. You can’t argue that it’s not, especially when Hasbro developed and released a second Transformers show—Rescue Bots—just to have something that’s appropriate for little kids to watch. You know, the age demographic that should be sheltered from complex and confusing portrayals of the morality of war and violence?

The show can’t have it both ways—either Transformers Prime is a gritty, complex show that tackles its topics with maturity, or it’s just another black-and-white, overly simplistic tale about bad robots fighting good robots. But that’s exactly what they tried to do with these three episodes in the premiere. The things we see in third episode stands in direct contrast to what’s in the first two, all for the sake of justifying the black and white good/evil-Autobot/Decepticon binary and Orion’s otherwise unfounded decision to return to the Autobots.

And it’s not the first time TFP has pulled a stunt like this, either. I remember being very discomfited by the episode “Partners” in season one, where the issue of Arcee’s treatment of the captive and restrained Starscream was brushed off and dismissed as a simple case of her temper getting the better of her. Yes, it’s true that Arcee’s desire for vengeance ran away with her, but she still brutalized a captive for the sake of a personal feud and allowed for the escape of a valuable prisoner. Her actions deserved a more critical reprimand than “You know you made a mistake and next time you will act more properly,” which is essentially Optimus’ platitude at the end of the episode.

I don’t mean to drag this essay on any further, though, especially since TFP’s oversimplified treatment of morality is honestly a completely different topic than the poor storytelling of the S2 premiere arc. So I’m going to wrap up by saying this:

It is both bad writing and metatextually harmful to present, in canon, a complex depiction of war and the morally gray relations between the Autobots and the Decepticons, and then attempt to whitewash the events and issues some of these episodes bring up. More than once, TFP has concluded an otherwise challenging and multifaceted episode (or longer story arc) with some hypersimple platitude, like a moral at the end of a cartoon targeted at little kids. But TFP isn’t supposed to be about teaching simple life lessons, it’s supposed to be about a war, and wars are neither simple nor easy.

Grow up, show. Please.

”So that’s about all I got,” she says, after 10,000 words on this topic.
Wow, I feel like I ought to commend you for sticking with me through this rather excessively long critique and reimagining of “Orion Pax, Parts 1-3”, haha. I really didn’t expect this to end up being this long when I sat down to write it, but I just had a lot to say, and the longer I wrote the more points I wanted to make. I have a tendency to refine what I want to say on a topic as I’m trying to discuss it, so this thing went through a lot of revisions and adjustments on its way to the final piece I’ve presented here.

Speaking of, I’d like to thank [personal profile] saeru for beta-reading this for me and making sure that I was saying what I wanted to say in the best way possible. And I also owe a thank you to everyone who encouraged me while I was working on this, who said they wanted to read it, or who fielded conversations with me in the aftermath of the Part 3, when I was still struggling to collect and effectively articulate my thoughts.

Obviously, most of what I’ve written about here is pretty subjective, and your mileage will almost certainly vary. In fact, I’d love to hear what my fellow TFP fans have to say, about the episodes or about the things I discussed above.

Thank you for reading!

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