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The Energon animated series aired in the US from January 2004 to June 2005 for 52 episodes, in support of the toyline of the same name. It is a direct sequel to Armada and forms the second part of the "Unicron Trilogy".
The show takes place ten years after the finale of Armada, opening in an age of peace on Cybertron and Earth which is destined not to last long. Energon pits the Autobots against an array of villains: the reborn Megatron, the barely functional Unicron, and the mysterious Alpha-Q and his Terrorcon minions.
Energon, like Armada, was written and animated in Japan and dubbed for US consumption. The series introduced to Transformers cartoons the technique of combining cel-shaded computer animation with 2D cel-animation, creating a fusion between the CGI of Beast Wars/Machines and traditionally animated series such as Robots in Disguise.
(Numbers indicate order of appearance.)
- Cybertron City
- Energon Stars
- Megatron's Sword
- The New Cybertron City
- Megatron Resurrected
- Megatron Raid
- Starscream the Mysterious Mercenary
- Battle of the Asteroid Belt
- Energon Tower
- The Legend of Rodimus
- Crisis in Jungle City
- Kicker Beware!
- Energon Grid
- Rodimus: Friend or Foe?
- Go for Unicron!
- The Return of Demolishor
- A Tale of Two Heros
- Battle Stations
- Alpha Q: Identity
- Shockblast: Rampage
- Survival Instincts
- Each One Fights...
- Unicron Unleashed
- Open Fire!
- Ripped Up Space
- Team Optimus Prime
- Improsoned Inferno
- Jungle Planet
- Farewell Inferno
Return! Our Scorponok
- Crash Course
- Omega Supreme
- A Heroic Battle
- The Power
- Optimus Supreme
- Unicron Perishes
- The Omega Train
- Decepticon Army
- Ironhide Team
- Galvatron Terror
- Destructive Power
- The Sun
"Return! Our Scorponok" was to be "Scorponok's Scars", but it never aired and was probably never dubbed. It is not considered to exist in the English version of the series.
The Unicron Trilogy was a franchise that got off to a poor start, fictionally speaking. Armada (the predecessor to Energon) suffered from a bad beginning that, in the eyes of many, condemned the entire show. Although it improved as it went along (with the "Unicron Battles" story arc regarded as fairly good in comparison), the sub-par start left it laboring under a bad reputation that it never escaped. Many fans had hopes that Energon would be a return to glory.
It was quite the proverbial brick to the testicles, then, that Energon, the televisual representation of Transformers for its 20th anniversary year, turned out to be just the opposite — a series with a strong beginning, which slowly but surely degenerated into what is widely considered the worst Transformers cartoon broadcast in the U.S. In retrospect, the fans' positive initial reaction may have been simply because it "wasn't Armada."
Conceptual and storytelling flaws
It is generally held that the primary flaw of the Energon series is that it simply does not have enough plot to fill 52 episodes. The first half of the series moves at a respectable pace, and at the halfway point, the villains achieve their objective — the restoration of Unicron. However, because there are another 26 episodes to fill, an attack by the Autobots and their allies deactivates Unicron. The storyline is then essentially repeated for thirteen more episodes, until Unicron is reactivated again and destroyed again. But even then, there are still thirteen more episodes to go, and with the driving aspect of the plot destroyed, viewers are served up a virtually pointless storyline full of repaints and combiners, which added nothing to what had already taken place.
Individual episodes are likewise padded out with time-killing scenes such as stock footage sequences, generally a minimum of three per episode. An incredible amount of time is consumed in communication and report scenes, in which the characters stand around in front of video screens and tell one another things that the viewers already know.
The series takes a very dismissive attitude towards characters and their development. With the exception of Ironhide (who survives the series and resolves his long-running feud with Scorponok), the writers seemed unable to carry personal sub-plots and conflicts through to any conclusion. Instead, they would either quietly drop these opportunities for character development, or (much more gallingly) the characters would die and/or get mindwiped, so the stories would not have to be resolved. Examples:
- Demolishor's uncertainty in the Decepticon cause? "Resolved" by having him sacrifice himself to save Megatron, then having Megatron resurrect him with no memories.
- Inferno's struggle against Megatron's Decepticon programming? Brought to an end by having him kill himself, then be resurrected, only to do absolutely nothing for the rest of the series.
- Kicker's hatred of Transformers? Vanishes with no explanation after roughly two episodes, save for the occasional kick to Ironhide.
- Rodimus and Optimus Prime's ideological feud over whether Unicron should be destroyed? Rodimus puts himself under Optimus's command for the mission to defeat Galvatron, and the argument never comes up again.
- Wing Saber's dedication to capturing Shockblast? Well, he captures him — but when Shockblast escapes again, Wing Saber doesn't say a word.
Many similar examples exist.
Of course, any Transformers series exists to sell toys, but in promoting the abilities and gimmicks of its toyline, Energon frequently ignored common sense to the most amazing degree in order to shoehorn these concepts into a setting and story where they didn't make sense.
In choosing to set most of its action in the void of space, Energon foolishly robbed the Transformers of any real reason to transform. They can all happily fly in robot mode (in space, on planets, anywhere), inviting the question of why transformation is necessary. But, to promote the fact that the toys transform, characters would routinely change to vehicle mode anyway, even in outer space. Cue innumerable scenes of cars, trucks, and snowmobiles driving through space. Characters would even transform to vehicle mode on the ground, and then drive away into the air. Everyone could control their flight with no problem in either form, completely invalidating the need for any variety in alternate mode.
Whereas the English version of the series takes its name from the central plot element (the collection of Energon) the Japanese version, Super Link, takes its name from the main thematic concept/gimmick: Autobots powerlinxing. The Japanese version of the show contained a lot of waffling about the symbolic nature of this ("Even when one heart is weak, together, we are strong!"). Unfortunately, the fact remains that, almost without exception, these combinations are used in straight firefights, where combining two soldiers into one means fewer guns to fire at the enemy. Further, the resulting combined soldier rarely shows any sign of enhanced firepower. Similarly, Optimus Prime uses his Super Mode at the beginning of nearly every fight... only to immediately continue firing with the gun he has in his normal mode.
Further failing to advertise the combining gimmick are the "Maximus" combiner teams. For about 90% of their screen time, the three giants are seen in only their combined super robot modes, rarely splitting into individual vehicles. The central torso units are seen as individual robots for perhaps 5 seconds in the entire series, and the show doesn't even acknowledge that the limbs could be individuals.
Other misused toy powerups include the Energon Chip/Energon Star weapons element: the weapons the generated were seldom any stronger than regular weapons, and tended to run out of power and vanish after only one or two uses. This was phased out early on, and for the most part, energon weapons from the toyline were treated as normal weapons that happened to be shiny. The Mini-cons also present some major issues — given the events of Armada, would the Perceptor and Energon Saber teams really want to be used the way they were? And speaking of the Energon Saber, how and why are there yellow Star Saber Mini-Cons who turn into a yellow Star Saber that apparently isn't the Star Saber, for that matter? They apparently exist purely to advertise the toys, and the implications of their presence is never touched on - even by those who were there for the events of Armada.
Art and animation
Energon introduced a new concept to Transformers cartoons: the blending of CGI with traditional cel animation. The animators rendered the Transformer characters in cel-shaded CGI, while animating humans and other aspects of the show through traditional means. On the plus side, this allowed for a consistently high level of cel animation quality (especially enjoyable after the often truly wretched artwork of Armada). In particular, the show uses the CGI to show many characters in motion at once, often with a high frame rate that gives them a very fluid appearance (for example, the many charges of the Battle Ravage Terrorcon drones, replete with numerous stamping legs and bobbing heads and tails.)
On the other hand, the CGI animation was positively primitive. Characters possessed no sense of weight and could not move in any manner but the most basic. Even walking was a challenge for characters with bulky models, like Ironhide, who would often be reduced to swinging his arms and legs back and forth while sliding along a predetermined path. The black-line outlines of character models were often not rescaled for different shots, resulting in the characters sometimes appearing as indecipherable masses of heavy black lines.
Additionally, "emotion" was nonexistent; the blank-faced CGI models could not easily display any facial expressions beyond "mouth open" and "mouth closed." Numerous characters didn't have facial animation, even ones with mouths. Most prominent among these is Alpha Q, who has no facial animation at all despite the fact that he's basically nothing but four faces. In some cases, when it was necessary for a character to emote visibly (Megatron's pronounced yawning, Inferno's tortured screaming), or to do something visually dynamic (acrobatic transformation), the CGI would actually be replaced with cel animation, because it just looked more impressive. Does that seem right to you?
In addition, the show's CGI compares very poorly with Beast Wars and Beast Machines, both of which came out years previously, both of which were fully CGI (without the crutch of cel animation to fall back on), and both of which had characters who boasted complex, nuanced facial expressions and fluid, constant body language — even the ones with utterly inhuman faces and bodies. The only way to spare the animators' reputation is to assume that Energon's budget was minuscule in comparison.
Even within the limits of the animation, many bad editing, design, and lighting choices make the series difficult to follow visually. Unicron's body -- primarily black, to match his Energon redeco toy -- is frequently lost against the blackness of space. When Alpha Q energizes Unicron's head, it becomes a glowing red orb, with no visual indication as to what it used to be. Scenes set underground or within Unicron's body are commonly underlit, to the point that the characters can't even be distinguished. Strange elements such as the rift in space are inconsistently animated and described by the characters, making it difficult to figure out what they are.
At times, Energon tends to flow like a single feature-length film — a film that has been mercilessly chopped up into 22 minute segments. Thus, confusing, unclear elements like the rift in space and Unicron's dark, partially re-energized body are routinely shown in closeup without any introductory establishing shots, making it extraordinarily unclear what's happening or where for the viewer who's just watching one particular episode by itself. To be a little bit fairer, this "chopped-up film" sensation is not exactly uncommon in Japanese animated series with a defined length, but Energon is a good example of the method at its very worst.
The show's scene editing also tends to be very abrupt and choppy. Battle animation in particular routinely cuts between numerous, very short scenes, showing several simultaneous but unrelated events as if the viewer must be kept up to date on all of them in real time. This makes it difficult to grasp the significance of any of the events shown. When boiled down, this editing style often serves to mask the fact that not much is actually happening.
To make things worse for the credibility of the editors, Scorpinok, Improsoned Inferno, Deception Army (should say "Decepticon Army") and A Tale of Two Heros all have blatant spelling errors in the titles!
Scripting and dubbing
The original Japanese version of the show is, in short, sluggish and confusing... but at least the conversations make sense. Even that got lost when the show was ported for North American consumption.
The dub of Energon seems even more rushed than Armada, which was already known for being so hurried that dubbers were working with unfinished animation, got names wrong, and had moments of dialogue that didn't jibe with the action. Energon generally got completed animation, and usually got names right—though Misha gets three different names during the course of the show, and Downshift and Cliffjumper are constantly confused.
The rushed dub script is full of mistranslations. Though some elements obviously needed to be altered to suit a Western audience, many aspects of the dub were never checked see if they made logical sense. As a result, the script is stilted, perfunctory, and repetitive, constantly throwing in cliche, time-killing phrases like "We've gotta [repeat the plot which everyone already knows]", "Let's do it!", and "It's time to [perform some action that's already patently obvious]". There is arbitrary new dialogue (that seems to exist purely due to writers' carelessness) which does not match what is occurring onscreen. The final result is a show with some bizarre non-sequiturs and more than a few moments of genuine nonsense.
To cite just one example: at the start of "Team Optimus Prime", Dr. Jones says, in a frustrated tone, "I can't get back the energon I sent to Kicker. That's impossible!" The entire notion of "getting it back" is absurd on the surface; saying that not getting it back is impossible is even more ridiculous; and further, the original dialog is a passive lament, more along the lines of "It's not like that energon I sent is ever coming back." Similar examples exist in nearly every single episode of the show.
Outside of these accidents, there are also some strange deliberate changes, chief among them the tendency for Primus to be intermittently ignored. In one episode, Primus would be dubbed accurately, talking with other characters normally, while in the next, he would be deliberately edited out, with his lines erased or given to other characters, and references to him replaced with "the core". Other odd instances include Terrorcon drones having spoken lines randomly inserted in some scenes, never attributed to any one Terrorcon.
Given all of this, the quality of voice acting frequently suffers throughout the show. This can be a common result of the antiseptic ADR (automated dialog replacement) environment, where actors perform solo, with no one to play off. But Energon is particularly bad in this regard. Lead talents such as Gary Chalk and David Kaye still turn in strong performances, but actors for many of the secondary characters clearly struggle to make something of the material they're given, often sounding flat and uninspired, or just confused. There are many times when all the actors clearly have no idea what their lines mean in the greater scheme of things, nor any idea of what they're really talking about; the Dr. Jones quote cited above is also an example of this problem.
There's also a pronounced amount of "filling dead air," with characters talking from offscreen simply to make noise where there was none originally. Take a drink every time someone goes "Uhh?" to break the silence, and you'll be hammered by the first commercial break.
- No, really! In every preview for Super Link, Alpha Q promised the audience that "Something cool might happen" in the next episode. When the series ended, he finally declared that the promised coolness had, at last, come to pass. He might be crazy, but he's not entirely wrong in the head.