Friday, June 27, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: The Recon Mini-Con Team

The Cybertron line is the third part of the so-called "Unicron Trilogy," but it has to be noted that it's not a very clean fit. When the Japanese counterpart to this line, called "Galaxy Force," was released, nothing within the fiction indicated a continuation with Energon or Armada at all. Yet Hasbro, for whatever reason, wanted to keep the continuity from those two lines going for just a while longer, so they made a few quickie changes and alterations to the "Galaxy Force" storyline during the stage where the cartoon was dubbed into English, and voilà! It's part of the trilogy! This is despite the fact that several characters seem not to remember key events from the previous storyline, not to mention a few other inconsistencies that we'll get to in a moment. Ahh, well. It's just for kids! Who's gonna notice?

Anyway, the previous key Mini-Con trio of High Wire, Sureshock and Grindor is nowhere to be found in Cybertron, nor is any mention made of their absence. In Cybertron, the main Mini-Con trio (apparently, Hasbro decided that "3 Mini-Cons = Basic retail price point") consists of Reverb, Jolt, and Six-Speed (as pictured from left to right). The designation of Jolt, the helicopter, is one of the first obvious indicators of Cybertron's inconsistency with the rest of the "Unicron Trilogy," as this Jolt is apparently not the same character as this guy, who's also a Mini-Con who turns into a helicopter. Usually, when a name is reused within a given continuity, it's because it's supposed to be a new form for the already-existing character, but this isn't the case here. This actually isn't the first time this kind of inconsistent name-reuse happens within a continuity, but Cybertron seems especially bad about it. It happens a lot (those last two are even within the Cybertron line. You don't even need to go back to another part of the same continuity!).

There's not too much more to say about these Mini-Cons themselves. Since they don't have to merge into a combined form, the designers didn't have to make the kinds of sacrifices often necessary to accommodate such additional transformations. And Jolt's and Six-Speed's robot forms are really quite decent. I find Reverb to be a bit of a disappointment, though. Although his transformation is easily the most innovative of the trio, those painted on arms (which are left exposed in vehicle mode) simply aren't all that convincing.

I've had enough of Mini-Cons for a while. Time to move on to something else....

Friday, June 20, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Energon Perceptor

Although there is a sense in which each Transformers toyline is self-contained, it has become not-uncommon for a new toyline to have ties to the previous (or perhaps even an older) one. The Energon line is supposed to take place about a decade after Armada. It perhaps therefore makes sense that some characters from that line were brought back in all-new forms. This was the case for the Street Action Team, although they are no longer called that on their new toys' package. Instead, these new versions came out under the name of their combined form: Perceptor.

Ostensibly, High Wire, Sureshock and Grindor are supposed to be "more advanced" vehicles than they were in Armada. High Wire is now a motorcycle instead of a bicycle. Sureshock is an ATV instead of a scooter, and Grindor is now some kind of hover-thingy instead of a rocket-powered skateboard. However, it seems to me that Grindor and Sureshock's color-schemes got switched around somehow. This makes properly identifying these characters a bit confusing (You may have noticed that I've switched the two around in the picture, when compared to the analogous image from last week. From left to right, those are High Wire, Grindor and Sureshock.).

I consider the individual robot forms of the Energon versions of these characters at least moderately more successful than their Armada versions. High Wire now has at least one appendage that looks like an arm, and none of the robots has a face that splits right down the middle for transformation. Grindor still suffers a bit in the hand department, but all-around, these toys are a marked improvement.

Even so, the best mode for these toys is, again, their combined form. In most regards, this version of the Perceptor mode is better than the Armada version, as well. It does suffer a little for having his head so far back, and therefore not properly aligned atop his own shoulders, but the Armada version had a "floating head problem," too. All in all, if you only get one version of this team, this is the one to get (not accounting for the many recolors that exist of both the Armada and Energon molds, of course).

The next toyline to come out of Hasbro, Cybertron, was also considered to be a part of the "Unicron Trilogy," but High Wire, Grindor and Sureshock did not take part. Instead, a new set of "core" Mini-Cons was introduced. I'll deal with them next week.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Get Smart: The KAOS Communications Network

In honor of the release of the new Get Smart movie in theaters this Friday, I am posting a piece of fan fiction I wrote more than 15 years ago. I believe it was for my Junior year in high school, and I was given a project to interview 10 different people on what the 1960's were like. I was then to take all that information (and only that information. I was not allowed to cite any reference books or similar works!) and compile it in any way that I chose. When I'm given that kind of freedom, I like to run with it, and so I used those references and put together a Get Smart story where KAOS caused one of the most newsworthy events of that decade.

It should be noted that, because this story was originally written as part of this project, it contains a few elements that I'm sure I wouldn't have included if I were simply writing the story to be writing a story. You'll see some lists and opinions expressed that are there simply as a kind of "info dump" to relate what I'd gotten out of those interviews. I do not consider this something one should normally do when writing, and it should be kept in mind that I was still quite young when I wrote this particular piece so long ago. That said, I've made no attempt to edit it, except to clean up some typographical errors.

It should go without saying that I do not own the rights to any of these characters or concepts, and that this work is strictly a piece of "fan fiction," not intended to infringe on any copyrights. Should I get a message from the rightsholders, I will delete this post immediately. However, it is my understanding that most rightsholders are okay with such fan fiction if it is not used for monetary gain, and will turn a "blind eye" to the infringement (which still occurs despite the lack of intention). In that understanding, I'm going to go ahead and post this story. I should also note that Get Smart purists will probably see a couple of places whereby this story doesn't fit into the existing Get Smart canon especially well. I'm already aware of a couple of things, myself, but I expect that most, more casual, Get Smart fans won't notice....

It was just another day on the job for Agent 29. Agent 29 was one of Control's youngest agents, a mere 23 years old. Because of this fact, Control often had Agent 29 pose as a teenager to infiltrate KAOS encampments. After all, who would suspect a kid? Tonight, the chief had ordered Agent 29 to watch a program on the recently developed KAOS Television Network. There were suspicions that KAOS was using this network as a means of subjugating the youth of America. Control had to find out how. No sooner did Agent 29 turn on the TV set than he fell into a trance, proceeded to his car, and drove to a farm in southeastern New York state.

A few days later, Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86, reported to the chief's office. The chief had a mission for Max.

"Hi, Chief!" Max said.

"Hello, Max," the chief responded. "KAOS is up to it again."

"Up to what, Chief?"

"Agent 29 disappeared a few days ago. He was supposed to be looking into a new KAOS Communications Network."

"KAOS has an entire communications network?" Max asked, astounded. "How many forms of communication are we talking about?"

"Well, they've got..." the chief started, but Max interrupted.

"Wait a minute, Chief. Isn't this top security?"

"Yes," the chief said reluctantly.

"Then shouldn't we be using the cone of silence?"

"But Max, the cone of silence never works. Every time we use it, something terrible happens."

"But Control Procedure specifically states that in matters of top security, we should use the cone of silence."

"All right, Max. Sit down." The chief directed Max to a chair in front of his desk. After they both sat down, the chief hit a button, and a giant plastic double-domed encasement came down over Max's and the chief's heads.

"Well," the chief started, "KAOS is using graddio, ttellevvisssioonn, ddrrivve-inn mmovvie theeattors, andd olldd bbookks stoo subbblimminnally affecct thee mminnds of Amerriccca's yyouth."

"Eh?" Max said. "Wwhat kkind of realltors?"

"Nott realltors! Ttheattors!"

"Rreal ddoors!?!? Why woudd KAOZZ use ffakke ddoors?"

Growing impatient, the chief hit a button. "Larrabee! Razzze the conne off zilenzze!"

The intercom crackled. "What, Chief? Who plays the violins?"

"RAISE THE CONE OF SILENCE!!!!"

The cone of silence rose above Max and the chief once again. "Not 'real doors,' Max!" The chief informed. "Theaters! Drive-in theaters!"

"Oh," Max replied. "Sorry about that, Chief."

"KAOS has somehow created an entire communications network involving radio, television, drive-in movie theaters, and old books to send subliminal messages directed at young people. However, I've even heard of a case where a 50-year old man turned into a hippie after reading Gone with the Wind."

"Excuse me, Chief. How do you turn an old man into a hippie?"

"KAOS is broadcasting subliminal messages at certain intervals over reruns of Ed Sullivan, Lost in Space, Bewitched, Andy Griffith, My Favorite Martian, The Beverly Hillbillies, and many other popular shows. Even radio's "Wolfman Jack" has been turning kids into drug-crazed hippies."

"So, what's my job, Chief?" Max asked eagerly.

"First, I'd better get Agent 99 in here." The chief pressed a button on his console. "Larabee, send Agent 99 in, please." A few moments later, Agent 99, Max's attractive female sidekick, walked into the room.

"You asked for me, Chief?" 99 asked.

"Yes. You've already been briefed on KAOS' new communications network, I understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good, I want you to work with Max on cracking this case. As you know, KAOS has been responsible for the major increase in rebellious youth in our society today. In fact, we believe that they were responsible for the enormous gathering in Woodstock, New York two days ago. If that is true, their headquarters may be located there."

"So," Max started, "we know 'who,' 'what,' 'where,' and 'how.' What we need to find out is 'why.'"

"What?" the chief asked.

"Not 'what,' Chief, 'why.' We already know what KAOS is up to."

"Stop that, Max!" the chief shouted. "Anyway, here's the plan. I want you and 99 to go to Woodstock posing as hippies. Once there, you're to find out where KAOS Communications is located, and destroy the operation. Now, you got all that?"

"Not all of it, Chief," Max said.

"Why, what part didn't you get?" the chief asked.

"The part after 'here's the plan,'" Max said.

"99, help him, please," the chief pleaded. "Now, I've asked Carlson in the lab to devise equipment for you. I want you to see what he's come up with."

When Max, 99 and the chief arrived at the lab, Carlson was waiting for them.

"Ah! I see you've arrived," Carlson responded. "I've got some very interesting items for you." Carlson picked up a wig. "You'll need the long-haired wigs with the beads in them to fit in. They have special earphones in them that will allow you record whatever you hear, while eliminating any subliminal messages that might be present." He gave one wig each to Max and 99.

"Now, these are special sunglasses. With these you'll filter out any visual subliminal messages, such as those KAOS prints in books." Carlson gave out two pairs of sunglasses.

"And, finally, these beads." Carlson held two long strands of beads. "The bead necklaces are made up of many tiny grenades. To use one, simply take the bead off the string, and throw it." He handed out the beads.

"Excuse me, Carlson," Max asked. "But what happens if the string breaks and all the beads fall off?"

"Then you have two seconds to avoid being blown to kingdom come!"

"Oh!" was Max's reply.

Soon, Max got dressed up in hiphugger bell bottom pants, tie-dye shirt, peace symbols, beads, wig and sunglasses. 99 wore a miniskirt, a round collared blouse, a flower that could fire two bullets, and the beads, wig, and sunglasses. They were then transported to New York. When they got to the farm where the celebration had taken place, Max and 99 found a large number of people still there.

"There are still so many people here, Max," 99 commented. "Where do we start to look for KAOS."

"Quiet, 99, I'm thinking." While Max thought, 99 heard the sounds of Beatles tunes coming from behind them.

"Max, if we follow the music, we might find where it's being broadcast from."

"I've got it, 99!" Max exclaimed. "If we follow the music, we might find where it's being broadcast from!"

"Good thinking, Max." 99 sighed.

They proceeded towards two loudspeakers, which were now playing Mamas and the Papas music. As Max and 99 approached the speakers, they were stopped by a familiar voice.

"Schtop right there, Schmart!"

Max and 99 turned around to see Siegfried and Starker, two of KAOS' top agents.

"A clever dizguise, Schmart," Siegfried commented. "But you didn't actually expect us to fall for it, did you?"

"KAOS is going to be proud of us, huh, Siegfried?" Starker asked. "We've captured Control's top agents. They'll probably play trumpets for us when we get back home. 'Doo, Doodoo, doodoo, doodoo, doodoo!'" Starker imitated a trumpet.

"Schtarker! Schtarker! Nyecht!" Siegfried shouted. "This is KAOS! Ve don't 'doo, doo' here!" They took Max and 99 below ground to the secret headquarters.

As Siegfried and Starker led Max and 99 to their prison cells, Siegfried explained. "Of course, ve're behind all dis! Ve have acquired the rights to broadcast the most popular television shows of the decade. There doesn't exist a teenager in America who doesn't vatch Bonanza, Rawhide, Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Hogan's Heroes, I Love Lucy, Dragnet, Laugh-in, Hawaii-Five-O, or Gilligan's Island! (I love dat Gilligan! He iz zo funny!) Ve even have National Geographic Schpecials! Unt, in case some nincompoop doesn't vatch TV, ve have a radio schtation unt drive-in movie theaters! (Imagine dat, Schtarker, a teenager who doesn't vatch TV! Hah!) Ve even put subliminal messages in books! Myztaries unt Romance novels verk particularly vell."

"But why, Siegfried?" 99 asked.

"Because chiltren are de future! If ve make de chiltren of America rebellious, unt deschtroy der minds vith LSD unt other drugs, de future of America is deschtroyed!"

By this time, Max and 99 had arrived at their prison cells. Siegfried and Starker locked their enemies up, and returned above ground. Only one KAOS guard remained to watch over Max and 99. 99 shot the guard with her flower gun. She then shot the lock open with her second shot. The noise brought the attention of other KAOS agents. Max fumbled with his bead necklace, trying to remove a bead grenade.

"Max, be careful!" 99 shouted.

"Don't worry, 99, I know what I'm doing," Max said. At that point, the necklace slipped off and hit the ground.

"Max!" 99 screamed and the two ran around the nearest corner and raced behind cover. The explosion was tremendous. Most of the underground broadcasting equipment was destroyed. Max and 99 were pretty scratched up, but okay. As they proceeded back above ground, they found that the party continued the same as before. They found that enough teenagers had brought their own music that the loss of the KAOS sound system had no effect.

"I don't understand, 99," Max said. "With KAOS' broadcasting equipment destroyed, these kids should be free from KAOS' subliminal commands."

"Most of the damage has already been done, Max," 99 replied. "These kids have taken so much acid that they have lost their grip on reality."

"It's a pity," Max agreed. "But at least KAOS won't be attracting any more kids to this place. By the way, were are Siegfried and Starker?"

"They were above ground when the explosion went off," 99 said. "They probably ran off when they realized their equipment had been destroyed. But it's awful what happened to those other agents. They must have been killed. I wonder if we're really and better than they are."

"Of course we are, 99. We have to shoot, kill, and destroy. We represent everything that's wholesome and good in this world." Then Max pauses, reflecting on the meaning of his words.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: The Street Action Mini-Con Team

When discussing Armada Unicron, I briefly mentioned the creation of the "Mini-Cons," small Transformers that added a new faction to the Transformers saga. Three of the most prominent Mini-Cons in the Armada toyline were (as pictured from left to right in the picture) High Wire, Sureshock, and Grindor--collectively known as the Street Action Mini-Con Team. These three look best in their vehicle modes, at least when viewed individually, so let's start with that picture.

These three Mini-Cons were the first discovered at the beginning of the Armada storyline, and each quickly formed a bond with one of the three human children who also played pivotal roles to the story: Rad, Carlos, and Alexis. There, I've acknowledged the humans' existence. We'll speak no more about it.... ;)

I wish I could write more enthusiastically about the robots themselves, but the robot modes of two of these three are really pretty sad. High Wire is an interesting attempt to do a bicycle at such a small scale, but he's pretty pathetic looking. Sureshock is the only Transformer I know of offhand who's robot face is actually split down the middle during transformation! And neither of them have proper hands! At least Grindor isn't too bad, but he doesn't really save the set on his own.

What does make this set worth discussing is the fact that they combine into a single, larger, robot (although still not very large) named Perceptor. I still have no idea why Hasbro chose to name this guy Perceptor. He has absolutely nothing in common with the Generation One character of that name. But, if one ignores the name, he's a pretty decent gestalt, and makes the set worth having. I just never, ever, transform the team out of their combined form (except, of course, to take pictures such as these!).

Armada was only the first step of what eventually came to be referred to by fans as the "Unicron Trilogy." These three characters showed up again in new forms in the second step: "Energon." I'll deal with these guys' Energon forms next week.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Titanium Scourge

To hear some Transformers fans tell it, die-cast construction is the epitome of toy design, and plastic is an inferior substitute. I'm not one of those fans. I find that plastic allows for more durable toys (metal actually chips and breaks when stressed! Plastic can bend if it needs to!), and can be molded into a far greater variety of shapes, allowing for more complex designs and transformations. Still, if having a sheer heft is something one wants out of one's toy robots, there is certainly a feel to die-cast metal that one simply cannot duplicate with plastic.

When Hasbro's subdivision, Galoob, started releasing Transformers with die-cast designs (the first all-new such designs since the mid-80s) with their "Titanium" sub-line, many fans shouted for joy. Others of us were put off by the $15 price tag that went on the transformable toys (there were smaller toys for cheaper, but even the Transformers characters at this price point were just figurines). I've commented quite a few times over that I'm pretty price-conscious, so it's probably no surprise that I haven't picked up many of the Titaniums. In fact, the one I'm reviewing today is one that I got as a gift.

One of the advantages of having a sub-line such as "Titaniums," besides providing an outlet for those fans who ached for a return to the days of die-cast construction, is that the sub-line allows for certain characters who just don't "fit" in the context of any of the currently existent main lines. For example, Scourge (not to be confused with this guy from a few weeks ago) was a fairly significant character back in 1986. Characters that came out that year either were introduced in the animated movie, or the final full year of the cartoon that came out after it (assuming that they showed up in the cartoon at all!). And no toy had been released for this character since the two nigh-identical toys released in 1986 and 1987, so Scourge had been in limbo for quite some time.

Scourge was created during the events of the animated Transformers movie by Unicron, ostensibly to help Galvatron in his quest to retrieve the Autobot Matrix of Leadership (the only thing that could destroy Unicron). After Unicron's destruction at the end of the movie, Scourge remained one of Galvatron's most loyal troops. Never having been created to do battle on Earth, Scourge transforms into an odd "futuristic" vehicle that's something of a cross between a hovercraft and a spaceship. The Titanium version of the toy updates the G1 version in a fairly subtle way that nonetheless captures the spirit of the original rather well.

Now, a disclaimer should be made here, although Titaniums are called such because of the die-cast construction that went into them, no Transformer (not even the original die-cast Transformers of the first few years of G1) has ever been made entirely out of metal. Even die-cast Transformers have some plastic parts, and Titanium Scourge is no exception. In the case of Scourge, the metal is almost entirely focused on two areas, the core of the robot (the chest, if you will) and the legs. These metal blocks are held together with various plastic parts: arms, thighs, the head, and the wings. But the preponderance of die-cast in this robot means that Titanium Scourge falls prey to the same limitations that early '80s die-cast Transformers did, and the transformation is pretty simple as a result. Rotate and connect the legs while pointing the toes forward, close the wings around the arms to form a shell, and then raise the head into position. This is more or less the same transformation as G1 Scourge had, so perhaps it doesn't seem like such a limitation, but it's still considerably simpler than most other Transformers of the modern era. In fact, this is one of the few Titanium Transformers that was based on a character that already had an existing toy where it can nonetheless be said that the Titanium version is an improvement on the original, rather than a toy that had to sacrifice certain details for the sake of including die-cast.

Although Titanium Transformers lasted for a couple of years, they never did sell altogether well (largely due to the $15 price) and stores were reluctant to carry more characters when they still had less popular ones warming the shelves, exacerbating the problem. Hasbro/Galoob finally threw in the towel on this sub-line about a year ago, arguably just as they were finally starting to figure out how to take full advantage of the unique combination of opportunities and limitations of the concept. One can only hope that concepts revealed at BotCon last year, featuring the return of classic characters Cosmos, Shockwave, and Arcee in Titanium form, can see the light of day in some non-Titanium line in the future!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Game Show Review: Million Dollar Password

I got home late from dinner on Sunday night, and so missed the first part of Million Dollar Password on CBS. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I was able to catch the episode Monday night, enabling me to share my impressions of the "newest" game show on the prime time scene. I say "newest" in quotes because Password is one of the true classic games, having roots as far back as the early '60s. However, Million Dollar Password is the first new version of Password in nearly 20 years, and so it's all-new for almost an entire generation of viewers who weren't even born when Super Password, the most recent previous version of the franchise, was on the air.

There's much to like about this new version. The basic premise of using one-word clues to communicate one-word answers to your partner remains intact. The producers have wisely chosen not to drag a single game out through an entire hour (as so many modern games shows do), but instead gave us two full matches in the single episode. The Million Dollar Game (I don't know that the show calls it that, but I need to differentiate it from the "Elimination Round," which is so named...) is fairly easy to understand and exciting to watch. Regis, of course, is a solid game show host, and keeps the game moving quite well.

That's not to say I don't have criticisms. The addition of a timer for every single part of the game makes this version of Password resemble its cousin Pyramid a little too closely. Also, whereas Password has traditionally been a competitive game, the competitive aspect of this version is clearly taking a back-seat to the single-contestant Million Dollar Game. I'm of the school of thought that the single-contestant part should be a "bonus round," and that the bulk of the game should be played in competition with another contestant. I also miss the "Password Puzzles" that were introduced in Password Plus and Super Password, but since that was an evolution beyond the original concept, perhaps their loss isn't such a tragedy.

Indeed, most of my criticisms with Million Dollar Password have less to do with this particular game, and more with trends that I've seen in game shows ever since Who Wants to Be a Millionaire resurrected the game show genre from near oblivion (note that not all of these issues were present with Millionaire itself):
  1. Does every game show these days have to be played in a round stadium, with the audience on all sides?
  2. Let the contestants (and the celebrities) have a seat! Don't make them stand up the whole time!
  3. I think the emphasis on the Million Dollar Game to the exclusion of the "Elimination Round" is a side-effect of so many games spending all their time on a single contestant vs. "the game" instead of players competing against each other. Competition isn't a bad thing. Don't run away from it!
  4. Yes, it's another Money Tree. Lots of game show fans hate these. I'm not so set against them, but do feel that it's an overdone concept. If you have to have one, this one works pretty well.
  5. Don't give the player the words ahead of time! (In Million Dollar Password, this only happens in later parts of the Million Dollar Game, to entice the contestant to take the risk of playing on.) Find another way to tempt your contestants!
  6. The audience should not applaud in the middle of clue-giving. Especially in a timed game that requires such deep concentration as this one, this is a massive distraction.
  7. Too many shows these days are clearly played (in studio) for hours, then edited to fit the one-hour time slot. This causes some suspense to be lost, because we know that a contestant that just won say, $50,000, isn't going to take his money and go home if there's still 15 minutes of the show left to go. Likewise, a contestant who won a round with less than a couple of minutes left in the hour is pretty much guaranteed to say "I've had enough," no matter how much money may still be potentially on the table. Game shows used to be filmed "live to tape" (some still do, of course, but every one I can think of that does so has it's roots going back more than 20 years, and no prime-time game show currently does). That is to say, the cameras only stopped (and editing only occurred) when a commercial break came up, or something unforeseen happened requiring the game to stop and the error to be fixed. More modern shows would do well to restore this practice. Let the game play naturally. Don't force it!
  8. For that matter, it isn't necessary for every show in prime time to be an hour long. Many (maybe even most?) game shows work quite nicely in a half-hour time slot. The fact that NBC is pushing Deal or No Deal into as long as two hours (on occasion) is pure insanity!
All that said, the first episode of Million Dollar Password is clearly a hit, with very strong ratings. I hope that these strong ratings continue with subsequent episodes. The show is actually a rather good one, but with a few tweaks, it can be truly great.
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