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Silenced Revolutionary: Megatron And Hidden Classism In Transformers: Prime

Though there’s been discussion of the Transformers movie universe on The Fandomentals, no one has taken a closer look at the cartoon series and Megatron, silenced revolutionary, in the world of transforming robots. Until now!

Produced by American toy company Hasbro and its Japanese counterpart Takara Tomy in 1984, the Transformers franchise starring mecha-shiftable robots eventually went on to create a corresponding television and comic book series colloquially known today as the “Generation One” series

Since then, the franchise has spawned a legion of comic, toy, cartoon and live/animated film lines. Transformers throughout the decades, despite various setups and conflicts, primarily revolves around the civil war between two factions of sentient, form-changing giant robots: the noble Autobots and the nefarious Decepticons. Usually fleeing from their dying home planet of Cybertron, these Cybertronians throughout different franchises find themselves on Earth, hiding from most of the tiny, organic populace and continuing their millennia-long feud.

Though I grew up watching snatches of the Transformers: Animated cartoon, the series I actually sat down and paid complete attention to was Transformers: Prime.

Prime follows a smaller cast of characters than its Animated series and sported a complete CGI style not seen in a Transformers series since its Beast Wars iteration and was a far more mature version of the usually goofy, animated brand. It featured graphic deaths, implications of torture, devastating betrayal and a darker form of humor.

Ergo, despite having its own share of juvenile humor, Prime as a whole portrayed not just Hasbro’s next line of toys but a group of alien soldiers, outnumbered and outgunned but nonetheless grimly trooping on and each carrying their own baggage. The series had moments that hit home the fact that these robots were people, and thus were not above the quiet horrors of war, especially one that had lasted centuries.

Of course, there were also moments in which the series flopped, unable to balance its prerogative to appeal to a primary audience of children and preteens with the maturity of its characters and the world they lived in. The complexities of the series are sometimes overridden in favor of a forced black and white simplicity. The foremost example of this, one that has stuck with me for a decade and that I’ve chewed over since I heard it, was this monologue from the character Ratchet as he describes the tumultuous history between the famous Optimus Prime and his sworn foe, Megatron:

There was a time, back on Cybertron, in the twilight hours of the Golden age, when Optimus and Megatron were not sworn enemies… And he wasn’t always Optimus, either. He was once a clerk, in the Iacon Hall of Records, named Orion Pax.

But as he learned more about Cybertron’s past, he grew increasingly concerned about the present corruption in high places, an inequality among the masses.

Orion became inspired by the words and ideas of a gladiator one who had named himself after one of the thirteen original Primes…Megatronus.

Megatronus vowed to challenge Cyberton’s leadership and demand that all Cybertronians be treated as equals. This gladiator turned revolutionary rapidly began to gather a loyal following, Soundwave chief among them.

Orion began corresponding with Megatronus who came to be something of a mentor to him…Before long, Megatron[us] appeared before the High Council to propose his vision for a just society.

And it was here that he began to reveal his true colours – proclaiming the need to overthrow the old Guard with force and arrogantly demanding to be named the next Prime.

But Orion did not believe in violence as a means of achieving justice. The sparks and minds of the Council were moved by Orion’s words. Here, for the first time since Cybertron’s Golden age, stood someone worthy of being a Prime.

His ambitions thwarted, Megatron spitefully severed all ties with Orion and the Council, and came to wage war on all who opposed him through his growing army of followers which he named “Decepticons”.

in “One Shall Rise Part Three”, episode 1×26
The monologue begins around 45 seconds into the video.
Cybertron Was Not A Utopia

Now there are several segments that raise some eyebrows, especially if you come in with prior knowledge regarding the franchise lore. This entire speech has a ton of little nuggets of information that are easy to dismiss, but provide the blueprints of Cybertron’s past, so we better understand the present.

Setting the idea of a perfect world that is only disrupted by a cruel evil force is an easy premise. It’s a bare bones narrative of good versus evil, doesn’t require a ton of critical thought, and certainly helps to establish two factions that can be sold as toys to whatever fan picks one or the other.

But a perfect world itself cannot exist in a vacuum. Any society with free-thinking individuals comes with a baggage of historical inequality, prejudice and resentments. Everything, including our entertainment, is tainted by discrimination, and as such, so are the worlds we create in our imaginations. Art, after all, does mimic life.

And to Prime‘s credit, it doesn’t completely paint the idea that the character’s home planet was some idealistic place destroyed by inner greed. The shows narrative acknowledges there were problems:

And he wasn’t always Optimus, either. He was once a clerk, in the Iacon Hall of Records, named Orion Pax. But as he learned more about Cybertron’s past, he grew increasingly concerned about the present corruption in high places, and inequality among the masses.

Now in case you weren’t aware, Iacon in the world of Transformers is effectively Cyberton’s capital and federal base of operations. This is important to recognize.

So, we’ve acknowledged that there is an inequality in terms of representation and acknowledgement on the robot’s planet. This is driven home in the next set of lines:

Orion became inspired by the words and ideas of a gladiator, one who had named himself after one of the thirteen original Primes…Megatronus.

Gladiators are not exactly common sight in an equal society. The idea of a gladiator might conjure the image of the Roman Colosseum, titled the Flavian Amphitheater. And rightly so, as this is the image we’re given of the soon to be tyrant:

Megatronus in the fighting pits

Now it’s doubtful that Cyberton had a militaristic society in which war, conquest and death were an avid part of life. But like the late Roman Empire, we definitely see that there is a nationalist/imperialist streak that persists and even fuels this futuristic civil war throughout the series.

In fact, we see this in the sheer fact that the Autobots are on Earth to begin with: they fled to the planet not just because they were losing, but also because both sides had seeded the planet with energon deposits – their life blood and fuel – effectively creating colonies. Ratchet, the narrator of this tale, is never shy about his less-than-charitable opinions on humanity’s technological and sociological status. Even on the ropes of the war, aided by “lesser lifeforms,” this nationalistic superiority takes a long time to fade.

And for the people in the Colosseum itself, it was varied between being a death sentence and being one’s ticket to opportunity. While it’s doubtful that Cybertron touted chattel slavery, more than likely there was a class system similar to that of the Roman Empire. Megatron may not have worn iron shackles, but based on just what we’ve seen and read from just a handful of lines and images, it’s a fair bet he wore social ones. People were willing to risk death for wealth and status because that translated into power—the power to change one’s circumstances. And for that matter…

…The Classism Is Severely Understated

Megatronus vowed to challenge Cyberton’s leadership and demand that all Cybertronians be treated as equals. This gladiator turned revolutionary rapidly began to gather a loyal following, Soundwave chief among them. Orion began corresponding with Megatronus who came to be something of a mentor to him…Before long, Megatron[us] appeared before the High Council to propose his vision for a just society.

It’s interesting to note Ratchet’s language here. Revolutionary. From this perspective, we the audience are already meant to draw on our knowledge of Megatron’s status as he is now (tyrant) and correlate Ratchet’s image of him as he was then (activist). The word “revolutionary” conjures the idea of violence.

Megatron is already being dismissed as violence-inclined before he has even done so. As such, we’re encouraged to diminish our mental standing of him, even if we don’t know anything about what he will become. He’s not an activist; he’s a powder keg.

And here’s the thing about the High Council: not only are they the ruling body of Cybertron, but guess where they’re located?

That’s right – Iacon.

And suddenly other parts of Ratchet’s story begin to paint a different picture. Orion Pax is a clerk in the Iacon Hall of Records. To be blunt he’s a librarian – but a librarian working in the planet’s government primary information hub. That’s the difference between being a librarian at your local library and working the shelves of the Library of Congress. Orion isn’t just a simple white-collar worker now – he’s a worker with direct connections to the government that Megatron is trying to appeal to.

This story also has to be taken with a grain of salt when one considers it narrator – Ratchet – himself implies throughout the series that he himself had affiliations with Iacon and the higher profile medical industry and universities:

Well on [Cybertron], you would have been awarded the highest honors!” he blusters in regards to his (unwanted) interference in the children’s science fair projects.

A bit of background research shows that in the franchise lore, Ratchet indeed spent time working in Iacon as a doctor, before firmly throwing his lot behind the Autobots and specifically Orion once war erupted. The medic has shown considerable bias, not just because of his long friendship with the future Optimus Prime, but also a considerable reverence for the status of Prime itself. Ergo, it’s worth reinforcing that the story being told has a definite taint by Ratchet’s character.

Megatron Was Set To Fail

And it was here that he began to reveal his true colours – proclaiming the need to overthrow the old Guard with force and arrogantly demanding to be named the next Prime. But Orion did not believe in violence as a means of achieving justice. The sparks and minds of the Council were moved by Orion’s words. Here, for the first time since Cybertron’s Golden age, stood someone worthy of being a Prime…

Now, was Orion directly trying to step on Megatron? It’s doubtful. The narrative and the images we are shown create the image of Orion being a naive but well-meaning young robot. But it’s a bit eyebrow-raising that the main body of government looked between two candidates and chose the one that had affiliations with them and not the one who was both considered a lower-class citizen and is highly critical of them.

Furthermore, from what we’re shown Orion “learned more about Cybertron’s past” and “began corresponding with Megatronus who came to be something of a mentor” to correlate and create his argument about Cybertron’s corruption to the Council. We can infer that parts of Orion’s experience and ideas come from his relationship with Megatron, and yet the latter is given none of the credit.

Furthermore, given his class and settings, it would not be out of the question to assume Orion had more education than his counterpart, and was able to present a case that, to the Council, would have been seen as more eloquent.

And Megatron knew this:

His ambitions thwarted, Megatron spitefully severed all ties with Orion and the Council, and came to wage war on all who opposed him through his growing army of followers which he named “Decepticons”.

The passage is meant to seal Megatron’s nature and fate as a petty and jealous tyrant in the making. And let’s be honest: he does go on to do so. The Megatron we see throughout the series is cruel, abusive, and power-hungry. At one point his actions result in one of the series’ human characters, a pre-teen, getting hurt and the Decepticon leader only crows as the child hovers on the brink of death. There’s no question that Megatron becomes evil.

What is brought into question is the extent that Cybertron, and by extension the Autobots, not only facilitated that cruelty, but proceeded to blind and cover their own role in its formation. As noted above, Megatron no doubt knew he was being passed over in favor of a candidate that the Council would have preferred to begin with. His ambitions thwarted – the word “thwarted” carries with it a negative connotation. As if he was already evil and his inability to secure the Prime status was due to some nefarious plot luckily prevented. Megatron is being judged, is socially profiled and shunned. The decision on the Council’s part may have been triggered by Megatron’s caustic nature, but it was solidified by a potential maintaining of the status quo through Orion.

To Megatron and his followers, this would have been more than a personal attack on his character – it would have been proof that the ruling body had no intention to listen to them. The Council, in their eyes, doesn’t even pretend to entertain the idea of greater representation – Orion Pax provides the perfect cover to ensure their class superiority.

There are Real-World Shades of Grey to Consider

When the audience is dropped in the world and history of Transformers: Prime we are firmly steered to support the Autobots and their endeavors and for good reason.

The Decepticons have no qualms with killing or attempting to kill humans. Three episodes in, Megatron attempts to raise an undead army from Cybertron to come and invade Earth. There is a Decepticon who thrills in hunting down one of the Autobot’s human companions for sport. For the vast majority of their ranks, the Decepticons are not good people.

But I feel that it’s worth remembering that most of them started with good intentions. I feel that it’s worth remembering that the Autobot forces were government forces and their symbol was the chosen symbol of a classist, oppressive government. It’s interesting that in the numerous Transformers cartoon series, very few put a spotlight on life on Cybertron prior to war. Animated sets up life where the Autobots won the war, but all the Decepticons and their descendants are forced to traverse the stars. It’s an ugly fate, and one seen as utterly deserved.

We rarely focus on the events prior to the war or the life of both factions on the planet, not because it’s boring or uninteresting, but because on Earth, the people we are supposed to see as heroes are more clearly defined. The Decepticons destroy, the Autobots protect. The history of Cybertron muddies the waters on those rules – how noble are the Autobots if they’re supporting an oppressive system? How monstrous are the Decepticons if they’re fighting to overthrow the system that won’t heed their cries?

This story Hasbro is trying to tell isn’t just one of heroes and villains. It’s a story of long-held injustice, class inequality, of good intentions gone sour and nobility with questionable political origins. And it’s a reminder to question the past as well as the present, especially in a country whose dark history of enslavement and colonization has a habit of being swept under the rug. And as cheesy as it may sound, it’s a reminder that even though it pays to question your heroes, its also worth believing they exist.

Images courtesy of Hasbro, Inc.

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