Article: "Beast Wars" changed Transformers and my life forever
"Beast Wars" changed Transformers and my life forever
On April 22, 2016 "Beast Wars Transformers" celebrated its 20th Anniversary. This is the story of my unique experience with "Beast Wars" and why I believe it changed "Transformers" forever.
ONCE UPON A TIME...
Two decades ago (Primus help me) I remember seeing a post online in a newsgroup (Remember those?) that a new Transformers television show was going to have a "sneak preview" in April. This was a couple weeks before the show aired if I recall correctly so I had a few days to stew on this. At the time "Transformers" as a franchise was in a bad place. "Generation 2" had, for the most part, failed. The Japanese exclusive figures were waning and their own version of G2 didn't do much better. It felt like the line was dying and with it a significant part of my own internal geeky world.
That said I had a lot of hope for this new series, but deep down inside I feared a repeat of the disappointment I felt when I saw th eopening credits for "Generation 2" only to be treated to..."More than Meets the Eye" with CG effects. Ouch.
So on April 22, 1996, I had my VCR at the ready to record...whatever was about to air. Then it began and my young mind practically exploded. Instead of a 2D animated cartoon like G1 or some CG/2D mash up like Generation 2 this was a full blown CG cartoon. This is common nowadays, but back then this was very unusual and the quality (for its time) was stunning. As the first episode unfolded, I lost myself more and more in the world of the Maximals and Predacons mostly because it was so different than what I had seen before. Sure there were some trappings of G1 such as two crews crashing on an "alien" world (to them anyway) and warriors emerging, taking on new forms and so on. However these were not Autobots or Decepticons and I could tell this was not the Megatron I had grown up with. There were so many questions I was caught hook, line and sinker.
Almost immediately after the final credits rolled I rewound my tape and replayed the episode several times and then my brain stewed for the rest of the day. The next day when "Beast Wars" Part 2 aired, I repeated this. My mind was racing. I couldn't stop thinking about it. Suddenly the few "Beast Wars" toys I had on my shelf had all new context (though I still wondered about this bat-Optimus who, at the time, was hanging out with a bunch of G2 Go-Bots). Finally I saw the "Alliance" logo at the end of the show and I visited Yahoo! and looked up the company. I found a contact email address and fired off an email telling them just how much I loved "Beast Wars" and I threw out a bunch of very fanboy questions (How does this connect to the old series? Is this Megatron the Megatron?!" and so on. I never expected any sort of reply. I think at most I hoped this would influence the company to keep this show going. For the first time in many years, it felt like "Transformers" stood a chance of getting out of the doldrums and back into prominence.
Then a reply came.
Instead of a producer or some PR person, it was story editor Bob Forward who reached out to me. Alliance had forwarded him the email I sent and we began a back and forth conversation. In time story editor Larry DiTillio would also be folded into this conversation. Aside from learning about the 300 year gap between the Autobot/Decepticon war, the Pax Cybertronia and other factoids they actually began to ask me questions. Mind. Freaking. Blown. What would happen for the next three years would be a collaboration that led to the two story editors becoming more deeply involved with fans and creating a fan influence on the show that remains unrivaled to this day. Outside G1 references, fan screen names became part of dialogue, there were sly references to collector conversations ("Die cast construction, it's a lost art.") and generally it felt like there was a party going on and fandom was not just on one side of the looking glass any longer but instead a door had opened and we had stepped (part way at least) into the room. I will forever remember the day the character Waspinator said the name "Wonko the Sane" in an episode (referring to my screen name at the time) using a G1 reference in the same scene that I had offered advice on. Never in a million years would I have thought such a thing would ever be possible but there it was and even as I type this I find myself in disbelief that it ever happened.
During this time frame I started the beginnings of what would become Ben's World of Transformers. At first the site lived on a University server, then later a friend's server. In time I naively registered "beastwars.com" and ran my site off of that. Nowadays no one who is paying attention would make such a blunder, but the internet as we know it didn't exist back then and much of the domain of IP on the 'net was still being sorted out by PR people and lawyers alike. One day I received a call from Hasbro. We had been communicating on and off for a few months at that point (another shocking development in my life) so a call was not unusual. Being told that their lawyers could not let me continue to use the domain name on the other hand was unexpected. However after about a minute of thinking about it I remember thinking "Of course they can't let you use it." I berated myself mentally even as I came to terms with Hasbro (which shall remain between me and them). Eventually I transferred my domain name to them and registered BWTF.COM which remains the URL for this site to this day. Of course at the time it stood for "Beast Wars Transformers" but as my site expanded in scope over the years I realized the title "Ben's World of Transformers" fit perfectly. To this day people still come up to me and say "I remember when your site was on XYZ server." and it never fails to bring a nostalgic smile to my face.
There were other side benefits of being on Hasbro's radar. I was among the first fans invited to Toy Fair to see "Transformers" product in advance. This was in the era when Hasbro still owned a building in the Chelsea section of New York City (it is currently a Home Depot. Unlike the current "Fan Media Day" run by Hasbro this event was largely for retailers. Indeed, my first Toy Fair experience was thanks to Meehan Toys, who sold toys on the old alt.toys.transformers newsgroup. Later I would be invited by Hasbro PR to visit the showroom long after all the othre reporters and retailers had already had their tours. These early experiences are why to this day Toy Fair is a special experience for me. Sure it has a formalized structure and other sites are there with all their fancy equipment ready to report everything in a heartbeat, but it always strikes a wonderfully nostalgic chord in my heart.
SUNSHINE & RAINBOWS
I learned very early on in my online fandom experience that there will always be a group of disagreeable individuals who will handle their opinions with the utmost level of immaturity and insensitivity. "Beast Wars" was very divisive and some fans walked away from the line because of it. Others chose to spend a lot of time online engaging in flame wars, lashing out at those who dared to like this new take on "Transformers". Being one of the most vocal supporters of "Beast Wars" at the time, I was often the target of insults and sometimes threats. One small group of individuals went so far as to threaten my ex-wife in a particularly nasty thread.
However, for every flamer out there, I had several more friends who would leap to my defense in a heartbeat. With these friends we did not just share a mutual love of "Transformers", in time we grew to be friends and care about each other even before any of us would ever meet in person. Twenty years later, I count many of these folks as my dear friends. Indeed, two of those friends are the technical brains behind BWTF.COM itself, so the spirit of friendship and support lives on even with my web site.
WHAT CAME OF IT
"Beast Wars" the toy line and show ended after three years (continued by "Beast Machines" which I had little to no involvement in). However the die had been cast. Years of Hasbro and writers communicating with fans (not just me) had opened a door that remains open to this day. For the first time Hasbro began to understand that there was a loyal and significant fandom they could tap into for information, feedback and enthusiasm. Thanks to my experience on "Beast Wars", I developed a strong sense that fans are not just consumers of the "Transformers" legacy, we are part of what will maintain it. For me at least, maintaining a professional and open minded demeanor with those working on the brand is not only a courtesy, it is my responsibility so "Transformers" can live on in the future while respecting its rich history.
When I look at "Transformers" now and see the worldwide popularity of the live action films, several series of toys running at the same time and young kids getting into the line I cannot help but think back to "Beast Wars". None of us knew it at the time, but "Beast Wars" would be go on to save the "Transformers" brand. What was a dying line slowly emerged from a metaphorical cocoon and began to realize its own potential. In 1995 "Transformers" was a brand that was losing steam, then one year later "Beast Wars" helped prove that this was a line that could survive radical reinvention over and over with success. Only a select few brands have achieved this. Over the years many brands have tried including "Voltron", "He-Man" and "Thundercats" and for whatever reason failed to catch fire in the same way as "Transformers".
I am extremely grateful to "Beast Wars". It helped propel "Transformers" back into the limelight and it took my life in directions I could have never expected. On the 20th Anniversary of the line I once again think about how we fans now live in a Golden Age of collecting, thanks in part to a bunch of Maximals and Predacons.