Sing it with me, children of the ’80s: “Transformers! More than meets the eye.”
That forever catchy tagline, embedded into the hearts and souls of fans the world over, takes on a new meaning in Transformers: War for Cybertron – Siege. The title is a mouthful, but it’s on purpose. The six episodes comprising Siege mark the opening chapter of what will eventually be a trilogy.
Based on this first crop of episodes, we can safely call War for Cybertron a reboot of the “G1” period in Transformers history. For the uninitiated, G1 – short for Generation 1 – refers to the original Hasbro toy line, as well as the TV series and comics that went with it.
I’m not going to recap all of it here, but that detail should help longtime fans orient themselves in the Transformers timeline.
War for Cybertron takes us back to the transforming alien robots’ eponymous home planet, and the struggle between the Autobots and their mortal enemy, the Decepticons. In the past, the split between these two factions was a binary: Autobots are the “good guys” and Decepticons are the “bad guys.”
Starting out in episode 1, Siege plays on our assumption that this simple good vs. evil struggle is still at the heart of the story. Autobot leader Optimus Prime is presented as a good and noble resistance fighter. His former battle comrade-turned-nemesis Megatron leads the Decepticons, and controls Cybertron’s infrastructure.
But Siege isn’t interested in retelling the same old story. It’s not long before the new tale starts injecting some nuance into the motivations of different characters and factions. At first, it’s just a questioned order here, a vague reference to long-past rule of Autobot “elitists” there. But by the end of the six episodes, you’ll have rooted for and against various figures on both sides of the conflict.
That’s not technically the end, though. The sixth episode caps off with the mildest of cliffhangers (that won’t be any kind of mystery to longtime fans) and there are two more chapters to come. It very much shows in the writing, which sometimes leaves a little too much of the longer history unknown for viewers to keep up.
I’m saying this as someone who grew up knowing Transformers but then stopped following it closely as I reached adulthood. The significance of characters like Alpha Trion or the Guardians (both of which I went and wiki hunted) is reinforced but never exactly explained. Presumably this is because the deeper histories will matter more later, and be woven into the story at appropriate times.
It happens to a limited extent in Siege. The natural flow of the story reveals that Optimus, Megatron, and Ultra Magnus forged a relationship together on the battlefield. Later, we come to understand, admittedly in somewhat vague terms, the circumstances that drove the wedge between them. Maybe with a little more time – six 30-minute episodes really isn’t a lot for the scale of this unfolding story – we could’ve learned more. As it is, though, Siege raises too many questions that go unanswered.
Siege plays on our assumption that a simple good vs. evil struggle is at the heart of the story.
That’s not a fatal error, fortunately. There’s some strong world- and character-building keeping us anchored in the story’s here and now. We know we’re coming into this struggle at a very late hour, to the point that times have become desperate. A dark tone permeates every frame of the six episodes, giving the story a more grounded feel than longtime fans might remember.
Members of both factions are pitted and scarred, bearing evidence of countless battles fought. The Autobots especially are portrayed as desperate and at the end of their rope. Our peeks into the cloaked ship that serves as their home base reveal makeshift infirmaries and crowds of hunched over robot aliens in various states of disrepair.
The Decepticons don’t fare much better. Megatron is ostensibly in control of the planet, but his depleted forces likewise huddle in Cybertron’s capital, taking cues from their Dear Leader-esque dictator. It’s a real “rule by fear” kind of environment, where even the slightest hint of doubt is answered with harsh punishment.
We come to understand that the real impetus behind the factional struggle is Megatron himself. His burning (and largely unexplained) hatred of Optimus Prime pushes him to make rash, even dangerous decisions. The Decepticon army is fighting for Megatron’s ego and lust for revenge, not for the betterment of Cybertron.
In a surreal (but not surprising) twist, these layers of nuance serve to “humanize” the core cast of characters. They become more relatable. We don’t just root for cool robot vs. robot action, though that’s there too. We invest in their unfolding journey because we understand it in intimate terms. For all the story’s imperfections, the thoughtful grounding works strongly in its favor.
Transformers: War for Cybertron – Siege isn’t the Michael Bay-sian summer fare you’d typically expect from Hasbro’s transforming alien robots. Its nuanced portrayal of the Autobot vs. Decepticon struggle as a brutal clash of ideologies hits on a deeper level than visceral action. And for all the questions the story leaves unanswered (for now), Siege offers a compelling first step into a decidedly different kind of Transformers adventure.
Transformers: War for Cybertron – Siege is now streaming on Netflix.