A continuity is a fictional universe or timeline that is characterized by recurring characters and settings and an internal consistency with regards to characterization and depicted events.
Typically, stories that are produced by a particular licensor (such as IDW) or in a particular form of media (such as comic books) are in continuity with each other, meaning that they are meant to all take place in the same "world".
This is not, however, always the case -- for example, the IDW comic Transformers Evolutions consists of stories that are explicitly set in different universes than the other IDW comics. IDW's own Beast Wars comics are also separate from their "main" continuity. The various coloring books published by Marvel in the 1980s might all take place in the same universe as each other, but there are no direct ties between them, and they could easily each be "in their own little world".
Still, even in cases such as these, there are important similarities. Even though Evolutions' first story, "Hearts of Steel" can't fit in the same story-world as Transformers: Infiltration, they are alternate worlds in a relatively minor sense -- the same Transformers characters are present in both, they just interact with humanity at a different point in time. Marvel's coloring books disagree on many points with the Marvel comic books, but they agree on many points as well. Thus, although the coloring books and the comics are not in continuity with each other, their similarities allow both to be categorized as being members of a Generation 1 "continuity family".
Moreso than most science-fiction franchises, Transformers has been, from the very start, a collection of many varied continuities. Even before the G1 cartoon premiered, there was the Marvel comic series and an array of Marvel-produced storybooks which cannot be reconciled with each other, resulting in myriad micro-continuities. There have been so many mutually exclusive Transformers continuities that a truly exhaustive list would be nearly impossible to complete. However, it is relatively easy to list the major continuity "families".
There is a subjective component to all of this, and each fan decides for themselves how "fine-grained" they want their own personal list of continuities to be. Ultimately, it could be argued that almost every story exists in its own exclusive continuity -- even different stories that were clearly intended to be set in the same universe. For example, two episodes of the G1 cartoon series that make no explicit references to events in each other, but are both "descendants" of the episode "More Than Meets the Eye", could arguably exist in different universes. There may be no particular reason to assert that they don't share continuity, but there is also no clear internal evidence that the events of one affected the world of the other. They might concievably be set in different branches of a timeline that started with MTMTE.
The most inclusive perspective is to consider all canonical Transformers stories as existing within a multiverse which contains countless -- perhaps infinite -- alternate universes. Some of these universes are more closely related to each other than others, but they are all part of the same whole. This approach has been officially sanctioned in a number of stories, most notably Transformers: Universe which takes the existence of an overall Transformers multiverse as the core of its story.
The Transformers: Universe franchise (sometimes referred to as "TFU") attempted to create an overarching structure to the Transformers multiverse. It was helmed, fiction-wise, by 3H Productions, who then held the license to run the official Transformers convention, BotCon. Convention fiction starting in the year 1997 was directly incorporated into Universe, although it wasn't until BotCon 2002 that the term Transformers: Expanded Universe appeared on a BotCon toy box, and the name was shortened to just Transformers: Universe afterwards. The Universe toyline eventually became the home of not just convention exclusive toys, but also other repaints and store exclusives that were sold in normal retail outlets. The bios for the Universe characters were primarily the responsibility of 3H.
The Universe meta-continuity officially established the idea of a Transformers multiverse and pulled together many elements from other Transformers continuities, focusing heavily on variations of Beast Machines and Generation 1. 3H's comic book series, Wreckers and Universe, brought together characters from many parallel universes and are the primary sources of information about this meta-continuity. Character bios published in convention programs, fan club newsletters, and on the 3H and Hasbro websites also contribute.
Among other things, the Universe universe makes some reconciliation between conflicting origins for Cybertron and the Transformers race that were presented in the G1 comics, G1 cartoon, and BM cartoon. It also incorporates the otherwise ignored sub-toylines Beast Wars Mutants and Dinobots into its fiction, and is the earliest example of a story that asserts (or implies) that there is only one Unicron who travels from one universe to another, rather than an infinite array of Unicrons in different universes.
Fun Publications, the company that followed 3H in running the official convention and fan club has since continued this approach. The Fan Club comic storyline "Balancing Act" takes place primarily during the Cybertron cartoon, but features a multiversal battle fought by characters culled from other continuities. The setting changes after an arc ends as characters migrate from continuity to continuity.
Major continuity families
At this time, there are five primary continuity families in the Transformers multiverse. These are:
- Generation 1/Beast Era
- Robots in Disguise
- the Unicron Trilogy
- the 2007 Transformers movie
- the Transformers Animated universe.
There is also a much less prominent continuity family centered on the Playskool Go-Bots toyline. Every (or nearly every) Transformers story can be easily fit into one of these families, even if its precise continuity can't be pinned down.
For further information about these continuity families, and families in general, please see Continuity family.
Prominent Generation 1 continuities
Within G1 there are an almost uncountable number of established alternate universes. Some of these continuities are extremely obscure, such as the timeline which houses the second Commodore 64 video game. On the other hand, the G1 cartoon is so widely-known that even many members of the general public (i.e., not fans) would be familiar with it, and quite possibly unaware that there even are other Transformers stories besides it and the 2007 live-action film.
Following is a very incomplete list showing only the most prominent G1 continuities and their relationships to each other. For the purposes of this list, only G1-proper will be considered, and not the extended-G1 that includes G2, MW, and the Beast series. Additionally, in keeping with Teletraan I: The Transformers Wiki's policy, the live-action film is not included as it is treated as an independent continuity family rather than a part of G1.
- Cartoons (American) - Three complete seasons of varying length, The Transformers: The Movie, and a 3-episode "fourth season". Probably the best-known of all continuities.
- Cartoons (Japanese) - Includes the first three seasons of the American cartoons as well as three additional TV series, two OVAs and a manga series.
- Marvel US comics - Includes Transformers, Transformers: Headmasters, and the character profile series Transformers Universe. The comic book adaptation of The Transformers: The Movie is out of continuity with the other Marvel comics.
- Marvel UK comics - Includes the American comics as well as nearly 100% more material that was published exclusively in the UK until being reprinted internationally in the 2000s.
- Dreamwave G1 comics - A new continuity with much of the flavor of the original cartoon series, but a very different history. Includes the three "G1" volumes as well as three volumes of The War Within and a Micromasters miniseries.
- IDW G1 comics - Yet another new continuity, based on earlier versions of G1 featuring classic characters but with some large revisions of premise. Begins with Transformers: Infiltration, published in 2005 and continues through most (though not all) of IDW's Transformer miniseries.
Unified Japanese continuities
In Japan, every Transformers cartoon until the release of Car Robots (the original, Japanese title for Robots in Disguise) can be somewhat easily fit into a single unified continuity, much like the unified American G1/Beast continuity. This includes the American G1 cartoon (minus Season 4, which Japan did not air) and Beast series as well as Headmasters, Masterforce, Victory, Zone, Beast Wars II, and Beast Wars Neo. Despite this additional story material, they can all be fit together.
In Japan, then, Car Robots was the first full reboot. Following CR, Micron Legend and Superlink were connected into a third major Japanese continuity, and then -- as noted above -- Galaxy Force started a fourth.
In 2007, however, TakaraTomy posted on their website an official timeline for their G1 universe. This timeline appears to perform some significant retcons, claiming that Car Robots takes place in the same G1 universe as all of the Japanese cartoons, Robot Masters, BinalTech, and Kiss Players. A great deal of explication would be required to make this work even even in a rough, nails sticking out, not-safe-for-children kind of fashion (though the time travel and reality changing rampant in the last three series might simplify things a small amount). The same website also retcons Galaxy Force back into the same timeline as Micron Legend and Superlink (as it had always been presented in the west).
It is unknown how seriously these retcons are going to be taken by future Japanese fiction.
In addition to the above, nearly every Japanese TF franchise has had ancillary manga published in magazines such as Comics Bon-Bon. The relationship between the manga and cartoons varied. For example, the manga associated with the first two years of Transformers (pre-movie) can easily fit into the cartoon continuity, but would not contribute much of substance to the timeline. Some of the later G1 manga, however, such as those associated with Masterforce and Victory contradict the cartoons bearing the same names.
With the labyrinth of branching and criss-crossing timelines, it can be difficult at times to say exactly what makes up the history of any given Transformers universe. Over and over through the history of the Transformers brand, stories have been written which both extend pre-existing stories and also "fill in" pre-existing stories, adding details and retcons big and small. These extensions may be written years or even decades after the stories they are descended from. There may be multiple extensions which conflict with each other, written at different times, by different people, for different markets. Branching timelines, on their own, are not that difficult to keep straight, but the relationship between various Transformers stories is much more complex than that because of the way new stories will pick-and-choose elements from old stories. There are no real answers to the questions that arise from this practice. It becomes a very messy question of subjective tastes and opinions, leading to the idea of a personal canon.
Consider the Beast Wars television series: It borrows elements from the American G1 cartoon and G1 comics. The past history of the Beast Wars cartoon's timeline is a mishmash, something that probably resembles the G1 cartoon more than anything else, but which differs from the cartoon in unknown ways and may include more (or less) of what we see in the Marvel Comics. BW is set in a G1 universe for which we have never seen -- and probably will never see -- more than tiny glimpses of the "G1 part". The history of that universe is not known, even though we presumably know its broad outline.
So, what significance does information from Beast Wars, such as the idea of the spark, hold for those older stories? Since being introduced in "The Spark", sparks have become one of the most important and unifying concepts in all Transformers fiction, yet fiction which predates Beast Wars, of course, never mentions them. G1-era fiction which was written post-Beast Wars almost always includes them. Retconning sparks into most vintage G1 fiction is not all that difficult, but should it be done? Obviously the G1-esque universe in which the Beast series are set has sparks, but what about the actual G1 cartoon and comic universes? Do they have sparks? Does the G1 cartoon's future (and past) look like Beast Wars or like something else?
What if a new story instead claimed that its past was exactly like an old story rather than merely similar to it? The main storyline of the Universe and Wreckers comics is ostensibly set in the BW/BM cartoon continuity, happening alongside and immediately afterwards. Are revelations from Universe "true" in Beast Machines, or is Universe actually set in a timeline which is identical to the BM timeline aside from those extra events occurring? Does your answer change when IDW Publishing releases a Beast Wars comic which also claims to occur alongside the BW cartoon, but which cannot be reconciled with Universe?
What do you do with something like the Classics comics published in the official fan club newsletter? Those stories are set in the future of the US G1 comic. Except... that they ignore the UK G1 comic and the US G2 comic. According to G2, there is an offshoot race of Decepticons running around in space who have been away from Cybertron for millions of years. Is that still true in other offshoots of the G1 comic? Is Jhiaxus out there in Classics-comics space somewhere, and simply not visiting, or does he not exist at all? He could exist... but there is no way to know.
The only objective way to deal with all of this would be to take a very strict viewpoint on every story and never assume that anything is "true" unless it is explicitly stated in that story. Taken to an extreme, though, this stance can make it impossible to declare any two stories to share continuity, even two sequential episodes of a given TV series. For all we know, the new episode is set in a universe closely parallel to that of the previous episode but a little different. We wouldn't want to assume that a scene which wasn't shown in the recap actually occurred, after all. Especially if there's a continuity glitch of some sort, like the dialog in a recap being slightly different than the dialog from the earlier episode. So an absolutist "only what they showed" viewpoint can't really work. There has to be some concession; even "I'm going to treat all the episodes of this series as if they are one big story" is a subjective decision, one which another fan may find too restrictive or too liberal (especially if two of those episodes directly contradict each other!).
We... are family?
Lastly, all of this means that it is difficult to tease out questions of which continuities are subsets of others, how closely-related two different continuities are, etc.. A significant example of this is the categorization of the various IDW and Movie continuities. Both are clearly beholden to Generation 1 in many ways, but are generally thought to be "further out" from the G1 "core" than most G1 continuities. Should they be considered new families or not? How do you quantify this? Do differences in physical form such as the movie's drastically different aesthetic make a difference? If so, should it also make a difference that most IDW characters have had their altmodes altered slightly? What ratio of character rehashes to original characters is required to count as part of the old family instead of the start of a new one? What if, instead of a straight-up rehash, it's more of an amalgamation of a few old characters, as in the case of Movie Frenzy?
Again, the reader is referred to the article on continuity families, in particular the section "quibbles", for a brief explanation of the categorizations that have been adopted on this wiki.