25 September 2015

Book Review | The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh

He’s a knack for tapping into the zeitgeist, Irvine Welsh; a knack that’s surpassed only by his astonishing ability to superficially reinvent his style, and yet keep it exactly the same underneath. Enter The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins - a strange, symbiotic book that kept me engrossed for the better part of a week, and at the cost of just £6.39 and my good standing in the eyes of my colleagues (who are now convinced that I’m an utterly perverted fetishist).


You can see why my lunchtime read raised an eyebrow or two - Welsh’s unusually lengthy (though not quite his longest), tabloid-headline title suggests a niche and elicit exposé of the type that would find popularity amongst some with extremely specific interests, to put it kindly, as well as those who watch Channel 4’s generally quite gruesome documentaries. In fact though, it’s C4’s Supersize vs Superskinny writ large, transplanted to Miami Beach and reliant upon bondage and cesspools instead of guilt-trips and scare-stories. Rather than tackle the inevitable complexities of the title, Welsh turns his dark humour towards the cult of celebrity and the dangerous modern obsessions with looks, food, sex and status. Whilst the ethical dilemmas borne of conjoined twins’ sex lives do feature in the #hashtag background of Miami’s media, it is only to shine a light on the protagonists, whose complex and increasingly intertwined lives bind them as effectively as shared organs.

“Do I try to understand me or her? Are we opposites, or twins - like the Arkansas [conjoined twin] girls?”

Carried by just two female voices, Sex Lives pits über-fit, orthorexic and venomously dominant personal trainer Lucy Brennan (“Height: 5’7”. Weight: 112 lbs”) against blobby art sensation and long-suffering submissive Lena Sorenson (“5’2”, maybe 5’3”, and about 220 lbs”), whose half-hearted quest to get leaner is unwittingly thrown into overdrive when she’s peculiarly drawn to Lucy after witnessing her disarm a gunman and become the overnight darling of Miami’s media. Of course, fame isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, even fame of the local hero variety, and it’s only a matter of time before even the toughest cookie melts in its smouldering spotlight – particularly when she’s being stalked by a fluffy-animal-obsessed chubster.

With most works in the Welsh canon having been written in his trademark phonetic Scots-schemie dialect, the Americanised English of Sex Lives stands out like one of Nicola Fuller-Smith’s poor massage-parlour hand-jobs in Porno. On the one hand, this must silence the author’s critics who question his ability to write for characters far removed from his Muirhouse upbringing (if not his Miami residence), but on the other, it does mean that his readers have to suffer an entire novel’s worth of grating dialogue that – deliberately or otherwise – is much harder to stomach than a couple of hundred pages of Spud’s finest drawl.

“I’m sorry about the wait.” /
“Well, that’s a start. But don’t beat yourself up, take action...”

Beyond convincing Americanisms, the novel’s credibility rests upon its calculated lack of objectivity on both sides of the fatty / skinny divide. Welsh has clearly done his homework into contemporary schools of thought on diet and exercise, and this shines through in both Lucy’s scathing commentary on her obsessive, borderline-nerdy (says I…) personal discipline, and the ruthless judgement that she passes on all who’ve fallen victim to the “plague of obesity” on which she obsesses with such zeal. Homeless and starving or fat and working at McDonalds, nobody is safe from her unsolicited, help-veiled spite. He’s just as thorough, though, when dissecting the pathology that drives Lena’s appalling eating habits, and he doesn’t shy away from the implication that her underlying neuroses have helped to shape her into one of the foremost alternative artists of her generation, if not a perfect ten. But “The Transformation of Lena Sorenson”, or rather, the re-“Transformation of Lena Sorenson” (she didn’t start off podgy, see), soon spirals into a psychotic and surreal story of bullying, kidnap, rape, and even second-degree murder - one that’s laced with intrigue and a seemingly endless procession of jaw-dropping surprises.

No matter how many twists in the tale though, Welsh makes events seem perfectly plausible and logical. Once the “Hostages” section of the book is underway, there’s even a tangible inexorability to events as they drag the reader towards a dénouement that is surprisingly and refreshingly uplifting: art defeats circumstance in the most misshapen of ways, and the Scotsman finally brings balance to the fore.

“I need her and she needs me.”

I fear though that The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins’ success will be curtailed by its provocative title, which, going by office reactions, is likely to prevent even the mildly squeamish or self-conscious getting as far as the book’s blurb. This is a pity as, of all Welsh’s novels, this one is hands-down the healthiest.

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is available to download from iTunes for £5.99 or from Amazon’s Kindle Store for £5.69. Hard copies of the novel are still available too, with the Book Depository offering the hardback for £9.99 with free delivery, and Amazon offering the paperback for £6.39 with free delivery if you buy another £4.41’s worth of books or subscribe to Amazon Prime. Based upon my own experiences though, I would recommend the e-book...

12 September 2015

Time War II | 1984 vs 2007 vs 2010: The Transformers’ War for Cybertron

You’d probably be surprised at just how many transformations Hasbro’s foremost franchise has gone through on screen. Those in my age group can’t fail to remember Sunbow Productions’ iconic Saturday-morning syndicated cartoon, The Transformers, while younger viewers have no doubt been wowed by the spectacle of Michael Bay’s movie quadrilogy, or found themselves enraptured by the CG beauty and epic storytelling of the Hub’s Transformers: Prime. In between, though, there have been countless reimaginings and reinterpretations of the Cybertronians, ranging from ill-fated and rushed Japanese efforts to American attempts to please all (and thus none), and even a highly popular though initially quite radical extension of the “Robots in Disguise” precept that was cleverly – and initially very subtly - couched in The Transformers’ continuity. However, I don’t think that anyone but the most hardened Beast Wars adepts would argue with the fact that The Transformers (or “Generation One”, if you will), Bay’s blockbusters and Transformers: Prime are the franchise’s best known and most widely loved on-screen expressions, and so it is these three Combaticons that will wage a war for Cybertron in this, the second of the great time wars.

The 1980s Generation One (“G1”) cartoon was one of the first series to take advantage of the then-recent relaxing of product-placement laws in the US. It’s easy to be critical of a show that’s episodes are admittedly little more than elongated toy commercials, but it’s important to remember that without G1, Transformers were just imported Takara toys with a hell of a gimmick, but absolutely no context for it. Without the G1 stories, and without the lore that grew out of them, I dare say that Hasbro’s Transformers toys wouldn’t have made it out of the 1980s.

In fact, the G1 programme did a wonderful job of taking these groundbreaking Japanese toys – toys that were vehicles, toys that were action figures, toys that were little engineering puzzles… all at once – and turning them into unforgettable characters. Who could forget the calm, no-nonsense nobility of Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots? Or the incessant antagonism between the megalomaniac Decepticon leader, Megatron, and his all-too ambitious underling, Starscream? Grizzly “Arn-hahhhd”, friendly every’bot Bumblebee, enthusiastic Jazz, irreverent Ratchet, impetuous Hot Rod, sinister Soundwave – all these inanimate lumps of plastic and die-cast metal were imbued with larger-than-life personalities via the G1 cartoon; personalities that would prove strong enough and malleable enough to survive across generations.

The G1 characters’ back story was inspired too, and like its characters would continue across innumerable interpretations, becoming ever more refined and elaborate with each ensuing iteration as new writers would embellish and expound upon its successful elements while dexterously ignoring, or even overwriting, the rest. G1’s opening three-part mini-series, retroactively subtitled “More Than Meets the Eye”, brought the Autobots and the Decepticons to Earth where they would resume the civil war that had left their homeworld of Cybertron depleted of energy (well, Energon). This time, though, they would wage it covertly, using their innate powers of transformation to disguise themselves as Earth vehicles, creatures or technology. I remember thinking as a child that every car that I saw might be a heroic Autobot; every overflying plane could be an evil Decepticon. It’s a thrilling fusion of the mundane and the fantastic, and one that continues to work today. But as the series unfolded, its tapestry would become more intricate and interesting, as through episodes such as David Wise’s outstanding “War Dawn”; The Transformers: The Movie; and much of the envelope-pushing third season, the programme would delve deeper into the characters’ and Cybertron’s history, laying solid mythological foundations for future movies and series to build upon.

In direct contradiction of my childhood memories, however, much of G1 doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. Particularly once we’re into its second season, our supposed robots in disguise are quite the celebrities on planet Earth – if they aren’t taking part in high-profile automobile races, they’re helping out a beleaguered mayor or forming security details for any old scientist with a half-decent invention that Megatron might take a fancy to. Not only does this make a mockery of the toys’ “Robots in Disguise” tagline, but it beggars belief that humanity would welcome the alien Autobots with such open arms when their Decepticon cousins are household names for all the wrong reasons. Fair dues, the three-part “Megatron’s Master Plan” would see humanity briefly turning against the Autobots, but only whilst wilfully siding with the mud-hurling ’Cons. Say what you will about the Michael Bay movies, but the xenophobia brought to the fore in Age of Extinction, especially, is much more credible - and much more dramatic.

Until the 1986 movie, the “More Than Meets the Eye” motto was debased too. In fact, it was often more a case of “Just What Meets the Eye” as there was no depth to anything. Part of this is attributable to when the show was made; you’ll be hard-pressed to find a children’s animated series from the same era that doesn’t underestimate its audience on the most fundamental of levels. Mostly though, it was down to overcrowding, as Hasbro did their level best to shoehorn as many ’bots into each instalment as they possibly could, causing no end of storytelling problems as a result.

In most fiction, and indeed most subsequent Transformers fiction, the villains outnumber the heroes. We have a tendency to root for underdogs, and it’s pretty much a given within the genre that villains are supposed to spend two-thirds of a story almost achieving their nefarious ends through sheer might / strength of numbers, only to be foiled by the heroes’ ingenuity or heroism in the story’s final act. Not so in G1 – by the end of the second season, there were apparently a bazillion Autobots on Earth under Optimus Prime’s command. I recall one early episode in which Jazz conducts an Autobot roll call and it takes him about five minutes, and that was before the ranks started to swell in Season 2. To make matters worse, the Decepticons’ often-cited aerial superiority is purely imaginary in G1 – even before the Autobots had constructed the Aerialbots, enlisted Powerglide and turned Skyfire to their cause, they were flying about in their proto-forms, battling with the ’Cons in the skies on a level pegging.

Given the above, the vast majority of the G1 characters are not even worthy of being called ciphers in the first two seasons. Perceptor might interject in a story for thirty seconds just to remind everyone that he can transform into a microscope, should one be required, and then vanish for the rest of it. Hoist might go to Hollywood, but his character will not change or develop as a result of his trip; almost every damned show ends with a press of the reset button. Powerglide might fall in love, but outside his twenty-two minutes of fame he is just one of many ’bots crowding the screen yelling, “Buy me!” Even the heavy-hitters such as Optimus Prime and Megatron never developed beyond their well-drawn initial portrayals. They were both great, iconic characters, and Peter Cullen and Frank Welker’s performances would help to make them legends, but – outside the cinema, anyway – little ever happened to either that would carry any weight from one story to the next.

As the 1986 movie loomed, however, the tide began to turn - the end of the second season would see Starscream finally turn his back on his master in an against-the-grain two-episode arc. The reset button might still have pressed again at the end of “Revenge of Bruticus”, its concluding instalment, but it would still set the stall beautifully for The Transformers: The Movie, in which the treacherous F-15 Eagle would finally get to toss his master’s moribund body into space.

“I… still… function…” / “Wanna bet?”

The revamped third season did improve things somewhat, focusing largely on Rodimus Prime’s inner circle (Ultra Magnus, Kup, Arcee, Springer and Grimlock) within the Autobot camp, and just Galvatron and his two air generals (Cyclonus and Scourge) on the dark side. This allowed for much greater character exposure, if not development per se, though we would see the sparks of a subtle romance blossom between Arcee and Springer, as well as witness Rodimus wrestle uneasily with the mantle of “Autobot protector” across a number of episodes. The latter is especially interesting when you consider the weight of prophecy on the former Hot Rod’s shoulders - the dying Optimus Prime spoke of the Autobot who would rise from the ranks to claim the Matrix of Leadership and use it to “light their darkest hour” with the sort of reverence that made you think this new leader would be - quite literally - the stuff of legend, so it’s a surprising but nonetheless welcome development when he turns out to be plagued with self-doubt and overcast by Optimus’s shadow.

Other characters would be stretched too, and some of them quite unlikely candidates. Octane, a little-known Decepticon triple-changer, runs an Energon scam in the Middle East and as a result is thrown out of the posse by Galvatron, who then puts a price on his head, causing his defection to the Autobots. Spread across several episodes, the Octane arc was marred only by networks’ shambolic inability to broadcast the episodes in the correct order. As transmitted, Octane started off on the run from the ’Cons!

The final flaw of G1 is its abysmal human characters, who are just about as far from remarkable or even relatable as you could possibly get. I think on some level this was recognised within the production office, as the second season continually introduced new human protagonists, presumably in the hope that some would stick, but only Spike Witwicky and his future wife Carly would make it through to the movie, by which time they’d had a son and Spike had learned a bad word. Even Season 3 couldn’t turn things around on this front, with more inane humans appearing on an almost weekly basis - even one called Dirk.

“All we need is a little Energon, and a lot of luck.”

G1 is ultimately saved, though, by the genius of The Transformers: The Movie, which, despite its divisive content and box office failure, has to be regarded as one of the boldest tie-in movies of all time. It’s actually a misnomer to use the “G1” retronym when discussing the film as it’s an elaborate changing of the guard from the first generation of Transformers (the 1984 and ’85 toy lines…) to the 21st-century generation of Transformers (the incoming 1986 toy line). Whilst clearly driven by marketing, the mass exodus of ’bots allowed Ron Friedman and Flint Dille to do something truly shocking by slaughtering almost all of the audience’s most beloved Autobots within the space of just a few scenes – Optimus Prime amongst them. The inevitable dark tone, coupled with the weighty performances of actors the calibre of Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles (in his final role) and a scintillating synth-metal soundtrack sets the film completely apart from the episodes sat either side of it. This is quite ironic, really, when the movie tends to be remembered much more clearly than the television series that spawned it, and to which it bears little resemblance.

“One shall stand. One shall fall.”

The movie’s first twenty minutes or so, in my view, are matchless. They represent to me what the G1 cartoon always should have been – high stakes and explosive action carried by characters that we care about. The film didn’t need the constant, irritatingly high-tempo incidental music of the television series to engender a false sense of urgency – here, the script and performances would have been enough by themselves, but scored as they are with a few metal tracks the result is nothing short of spellbinding. The movie’s opening has an oddly climactic feel to it, like a TV show’s season finale, culminating in the Decepticon attack on Autobot City and Optimus Prime’s final stand against Megatron.

“You who are without mercy, now plead for it?
I thought you were made of sterner stuff.”

Optimus’s death is handled with remarkable poise on every front – it’s even believable that he could be mortally wounded by Megatron, who’d never come all that close to doing so before, due to the ill-considered interference of Hot Rod, on whose guilt the plot would then turn. What stands out the most about it though is the writers’ refusal to pull their punches – we don’t just see Optimus wounded and gently fade out; we hear him rattle out a throaty death-bed speech as he nominates Ultra Magnus as his successor before decomposing, his once bright reds and blues fading to charcoal as a drum tolls with the same efficacy as a funeral bell. Had the rest of G1 been half as good as half of this movie, then it would be the hands-down winner of this time war.

“Until the day… Until all are one.”

Whilst the last hour of the film is very good, it feels more like a contrived, season-opening, cliffhanger-resolving episode hastily written over a summer hiatus. It lacks the weight of the movie’s opening, and is marred by some bizarre – but nonetheless memorable – sequences, such as the bizarre “Dare to Stupid” skit on Junkion. What carries it is Hot Rod’s journey from troubled hothead to Autobot protector – arguably the only meaningful character journey that any G1 Transformer would ever go on.

But of course, if you punch “Transformers movie” into a search engine today, the top results returned don’t relate to the 1986 cult classic, but Paramount Pictures’ live-action film series directed by Michael Bay and comprising Transformers (2007); Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009); Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011); and, most recently, Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014). These are the films that have made Transformers household names again, grossing almost four billion dollars between them in spite of widespread negative reviews and even many claims of, “Michael Bay ruined my childhood!”

Whilst Bay’s inability to travel back in time should see such ill-expressed allegations dismissed out of hand, such backlash is to be expected when you consider that his movies deliberately set out to be everything that the G1 show was not. Colourful cartoon characters for kids would become intricately-rendered, photo-real and often quite terrifying CG robots that are as redolent as something you might see in one of James Cameron’s chilling Terminator movies as they are anything from G1. Forgettable, two-dimensional human companions would make way for troubled teens, arsehole agents and even spirited soldiers to whom there really would be more than meets the eye, and to whom an audience could gravitate. Even the Transformers’ mythology would be expanded and enriched by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s wonderfully selective screenplays, which took their inspiration as much from the highly-regarded comic books series as they did G1. Abounding with scantily-clad young women, cursing robots (insults like “dickhead” and “wanker” are even jovially thrown about by Autobots in Dark of the Moon, really putting Spike’s one-off expletive in The Transformers: The Movie into perspective) and action so real and engrossing that watching it is more like being on a rollercoaster than sat in a cinema, Bay’s movies might not be a G1 fan’s wet dream, but there’s no denying their technical excellence and mass-market appeal.

Being a fan of gritty realism in all things, I love the look of the silver-screen Transformers, particularly the Autobots who tend to still be clearly identifiable despite the major changes in their appearances since G1. The decision to make Bumblebee a Chevrolet Camaro instead of a Volkswagen Beetle was a no-brainer, given the film’s tone and style, and whilst making Optimus Prime a flame-tattooed, long-nosed truck cab instead of an unassuming flat-nose wasn’t such an obvious choice, the more that I’ve seen it, the more I like it; I just wish that they’d have stayed closer to his heavier-red G1 colour scheme. Losing his trailer for the first couple of movies was also a change that I welcomed - it used to irritate me no end that it would magically vanish into the aether whenever he would convert into his proto-form in G1. Ironhide has never looked better than in this incarnation either, his GMC pickup truck vehicle mode giving the weapons specialist the fearsome finish that his G1 red Nissan Vanette could only have dreamed of. Even Ratchet, whilst unrecognisable from G1 here, actually passes for an American ambulance (rather than a Japanese one) when in disguise, which makes far more sense.

By the same token, making Megatron’s alt-form a Cybertronian jet rather than a pocket-sized gun is one of the best decisions made in the history of Transformers. Even as a child, I’d be perplexed at how this giant robot could condense himself into a small gun, and as an adult I’d wonder why this great Decepticon gladiator who rose from the pits of Kaon would choose to mass-shift into a comparatively tiny weapon that would be ultimately wielded by another (another who was looking to betray him and usurp his position too!). Both issues are put paid to by Bay’s movies, which would turn ineffectual cartoon villains into absolutely terrifying technological terrors – if largely faceless ones.

And herein lies the rub. For all that sets them apart from G1, the live-action movies are often tripped up by one of the same major problems, though here its cause is rather different. Beyond Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, one or both of whom prop up each instalment of the saga, few of the Transformers are really fleshed out as rounded characters, and even fewer grow or change. Exceptions are made for the likes of Leonard Nimoy’s Sentinel Prime and, to a lesser extent, Mark Ryan’s (Robin of Sherwood) Jetfire and Hugo Weaving’s Megatron, but as a rule the main Autobots and Decepticons generally only get one or two big “hero moments” or “villain moments” in each film, and even these inevitably pander to the characteristics that you’ll find etched on the back of their toys’ boxes rather than taking them anywhere new (other than destruction, that is, in most cases). This is at least a little more palatable this time around, though, as the root cause isn’t as much the endless toy parade of G1 as it is the films’ focus on the human protagonists, which is probably their greatest strength beyond special effects, but their greatest weakness too.

The first trilogy of films are seen through the eyes of young American Sam Witwicky, played by credible everyman Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf does a splendid job of sucking viewers into his humdrum little world and the tiny problems that it contains, before, inevitably, those problems get a whole lot bigger and he finds the weight of the world suddenly brought to bear on his shoulders. Throughout all three films, LaBeouf gives a performance that’s by turns heroic, emotional and, more often than not, humorous, aided and abetted on the way by uproarious parents (perfectly played by Kevin Dunn and Julie White); stunning lady friends (Megan Fox’s car-thieving Mikaela Banes in the first two movies, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s chic Carly in Dark of the Moon); hysterical secret agents (the matchless John Turturro’s Seymour Simmons); and even military might (most notably Josh Duhamel’s Captain William Lennox). Compare that dramatis personae against G1’s Sparkplug, Spike, Carly, Daniel, Chip, Marissa et cetera and note the difference. It’s not just the characters that are deeper, more believable and more entertaining, it’s their significance to the stories. For better or worse, the onus is effectively inverted in these movies.

Age of Extinction then goes onto introduce us to “Generation Two” of the movie-universe humans, led by Mark Wahlberg’s single father and struggling inventor, Cade Yeager. It’s arguably the most human-driven film of the series to date as, rather than extend the Autobot / Decepticon war into a second trilogy, here the writers use humanity to build a new race of Transformers (enter Galavatron…) from the wreckage of fallen ’bots and then follow their folly through a number of well-played and well-rounded human characters. The movie is also notable for its portrayal of Optimus Prime, who becomes increasingly bitter and disenchanted as the narrative progresses, giving Peter Cullen some heavy material to sink his teeth into that’s on a par with his work in Transformers: Prime. Indeed, despite the pummelling that it’s taken from critics, Age of Extinction is the most underrated of the live-action movies by far.

But I have a fundamental issue with all of the Michael Bay movies, even the brilliant first one, that isn’t as easy to get around as a dearth of ’bot character development. I loved The Transformers most when I was between five and eight years old. These movies are not suitable for that age range. Age of Extinction was rated 12A by the British Board of Film Classification, but there’s stuff in it that disturbs me: one of the human protagonists is graphically immolated, for instance - and not in a cartoon, slightly unreal Revenge of the Sith sort of way. This shit looks real. And so, even if I wanted my daughter to start dropping little jibes like “dickhead” and “wanker” into casual conversation – which, needless to say, I don’t – I still wouldn’t be able to show her these films until she’s far too old to give a damn about them without risking countless sleepless nights. That’s not to utterly condemn them, of course – for me, and for millions of grown-up, popcorn-munching, thrill-seeking cinemagoers the world over, they are truly outstanding movies – but just too divergent from G1 for many fans old enough to watch them, and too bloody scary for those that aren’t.

Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s Emmy Award-winning Transformers: Prime, however, is clearly product of lessons hard-learned. It effortlessly fuses the most successful elements of G1 with the edgier world and designs of the live-action movies and even elements of Beast Wars: Transformers to create what is, in my view, the ultimate family-friendly Transformers experience.

What stands out about Transformers: Prime right from the outset is the producers’ determination to make a television series, rather than a toy commercial. Indeed, there was even talk of the show not having its own toy line, though thankfully common sense prevailed in the end. The characters are therefore few in number, with the eponymous Team: Prime being limited to Optimus Prime; Ratchet; Bumblebee; Arcee; Cliffjumper; and Bulkhead in the opening mini-series, with only Wheeljack; Smokescreen; and Ultra Magnus joining them as the series progressed. In the purple corner, meanwhile, you’ll only find the classic triumvirate of Megatron; Starscream; and Soundwave in situ at the start, with Knock Out; Breakdown; Skyquake; Dreadwing; Airachnid; and, ultimately, the Predaking joining them en route to the series’ concluding Beast Hunters: Predacons Rising TV movie. The Decepticons’ numbers are made up by legions of identical Vehicons, or “Decepticon Minors”, and Insecticons – ingenious ways to keep the balance of power with the ’Cons without giving the writers too many discrete characters to focus on.

Without exception, Prime’s character designs are stunning. Optimus Prime (played once again by the omnipresent Peter Cullen) embodies the spirit of the series even in his design as, like almost all of the other pre-existing characters, he is a best-of-both-worlds hybrid of his G1 and movie selves. His alt-form is a mighty long-nosed Peterbilt 379 truck cab just like in the movies, but it’s one that stays true to his predominantly red G1 colour scheme, and one that can be seen pulling a G1-authentic trailer whenever a story calls for it (but, crucially, not otherwise). Ratchet, similarly, looks a lot like he does on the silver screen, but adopts a G1-faithful red and white livery for his seldom-seen Ford E-350 ambulance mode. Here he’s given voice by Star Trek veteran Jeffrey Combs, who does a tremendous job of building upon the grouchy scientist of the preceding animated series.

Sumalee Montano’s Arcee, now boasting a speedy Kawasaki Ninja vehicle mode, eschews the bubble-gum pink of previous incarnations in favour of a slick blue that speaks to her general mood. And who better to play her bull-horned muscle car partner than the Brahma Bull himself, former WWE Champion the Rock? Cliff’s tenure in the series may be cut short dramatically, but the People’s Champ certainly makes it memorable.

The young Bumblebee owes much more to his voiceless cinematic appearance than he does G1, but he’s all the more interesting for it. Having had his voicebox crushed by Megatron at Tyger Pax in the war, the yellow and black scout communicates through a series of electronic oscillations that only his Autobot cohorts and young human companion seem to understand. Prime’s second season would provide him with a youthful running buddy in Nolan North’s Smokescreen - a soldier-in-training in the Cybertronian Elite Guard who never saw action in the war, and is all the more reckless and impulsive for it. He’s far more in common with Hot Rod than G1’s Smokescreen when it comes to personality, but to look at he’s something altogether new and striking – a predominantly white Lotus Exige in his vehicle mode, at least initially.

My favourite Autobots though are the Wreckers (of Transformers: Exodus fame) led by the one-handed but otherwise G1-redolent Ultra Magnus (Michael Ironside), and comprised of James Horan’s gloriously unmanageable Wheeljack (who looks like he’s been torn out of G1, but acts nothing like that eccentric inventor) and the loveable lug, Bulkhead (Kevin Michael Richardson of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame). A late replacement for Ironhide, who was pulled from the line-up after being selected for scrap in Dark of the Moon, the Transformers: Animated veteran really comes into his own in Transformers: Prime, carrying many of its most memorable episodes and becoming probably its most sympathetic character.

The Decepticons are similarly striking, with Transformers: Prime boasting the franchise’s finest-ever Megatron and Starscream. The gladiator turned revolutionary turned Dark Energon-infused madman is closest to his movie incarnation in both his modes, but his battle-damaged finish is more apposite, and his face infinitely more expressive. Coupled with his apposite G1 voice, the legendary Frank Welker, this makes for the definitive Megatron. Starscream is, arguably, even more impressive. In his proto-form, his spindly limbs and large wings give viewers the impression of an insect, which suits his persona right down to the ground. As an F-16 Fighting Falcon, however, he’s just as an imposing force as he is in the movies, but here he has the added benefit of having a personality, courtesy of Steve Blum’s phenomenal performance. If I had to single out just one Prime character for special praise, it would be Blum’s Starscream. At times, you almost like him.

Shockwave is a latecomer to the series, but that’s no reflection on his importance to it. Portrayed here as a logical and apparently unemotional scientist, he’s not only a wonderfully entertaining foil to the histrionic Starscream, but the catalyst for the third season’s beast war. Even Soundwave is well done, which is incredibly difficult given the G1 character’s reliance on 1980s cassette technology. A vow of silence and an impassive, monitor-like face make the slight warrior a chilling presence in any scene, and his alternate drone form is certainly fitting given his penchant for espionage.

My favourite ’Cons, though, are newbies: Daran Norris’s Knock Out, a rare “automobile enthusiast” amongst an aerial armada, is as slick and slippery as his Aston Martin One-77 mode’s finish. His hilarious dealings with Starscream, in particular, are a joy to witness, but the Doctor of Death also has his dark side, particularly when it comes to drawing the line between treatment and torture. Devoid of even the slightest bit of humour, Tony Todd’s (Revenge of the Fallen) noble Dreadwing is impressive for other reasons. A match for even Optimus Prime, the misguided ’Con jet is on a mission to avenge the death of his twin. The trouble is, he’s looking for vengeance in all the wrong places.

Polygon Pictures’ general aesthetic for the show is also pleasing, looking more like the Cartoon Network’s stunning Star Wars: The Clone Wars than the computer game-like Beast Wars: Transformers. As showcased by the title sequence set to Brian Tyler’s epic theme, the mood of the series is dark and troubled, but – set as it is in a desert town – it’s frequently awash with light, providing a defining contrast between the Earthy hues of the Autobot base and the ill-lit, purple-graded corridors of the Decepticons’ ship, Nemesis.

Where Transformers: Prime really leaves its predecessors for dust though is in its storytelling, which rivals that of any supposedly adult show from recent years. Two full-length seasons and one half-length one allowed its writers to tell far-reaching, movie-calibre stories but on a much broader and deeper canvas – one that’s not blighted by over-the-top gratuity or an over-emphasis on humans. Indeed, the series strikes a perfect balance between building and integrating its human characters and focusing on its ’bots; often the two are inseparably intertwined.

The series’ opening five-part tale, “Darkness Rising”, sees three young humans from Nevada - Jack Darby, Miko Nakadai, and Rafael Esquivel - caught in Cybertronian crossfire. Quickly proving their worth to the Autobots, the three youngsters are assimilated into Team: Prime, with each being paired with a Cybertronian partner. The eldest of the group, sixteen-year-old Jack (Josh Keaton), is teamed with the equally-glum Arcee. Metal-loving Miko (Tania Gunadi), who’s just a year younger, befriends the tough green SUV, Bulkhead. Raf (Andy Pessoa), meanwhile, instantly hits it off with Bumblebee as he’s somehow able to interpret Bee’s electronic pulses accurately. The team is rounded out by Ernie Hudson’s incomparable Special Agent Fowler, a former US Army ranger who serves as a liaison between the Autobots and the government. As the series unfolds, Jack’s mum June also becomes a semi-regular, adding a Jackie Tyler-esque layer of realism lost on G1 as she wrestles with her son’s duplicity and then valour, before becoming the unfortunate target (victim?) of an Agent Fowler crush in the third season.

Most of the show’s finest episodes are borne of the relationships between the three human children and their Autobot partners, and how they each learn from one another. It’s a very different dynamic to the Sam / Bumblebee “boy and his car” friendship of the live-action movies as everything is much more in depth here, and the children are that little bit younger and more vulnerable. At times, I think Prime should have gone a little bit further than it does when it comes to consequences and how they could affect the Autobots’ human partners – the second-second episode “Toxicity” might have had a much more harrowing outcome for Miko, for instance.

Another strength of Prime is its handling of Transformers lore, the vast majority of which is lifted from Alex Irvine’s phenomenal 2010 novel Transformers: Exodus, which has since been incorporated into the series’ aligned continuity. It’s apparent that, right from the outset, the writers had the benefit of a four-hundred page production bible (“The Binder of Revelation”) that allowed them to carefully plan arcs, even seasons, ahead with everything ultimately tying together in that pleasing way that modern audiences demand. The beauty of the delivery is in its drip-drip reveals – the opening story throws us into the present, and it’s only as events unfold on Earth that we see start to see snippets of the past and, in them, the shape of things to come.

The end of the first season and beginning of the second lift the veil on Orion Pax and his rabble-rousing thug of mentor, Megatronus, who would shake Cybertron to its very core, while also introducing us to Unicron the Chaos-Bringer in a new, yet hauntingly familiar, guise. The end of the second year would then focus on the resurrection of the Chaos-Bringer’s ancient nemesis, Primus, and his Well of AllSparks that holds the key to all of the Transformers’ future. Finally, the show’s third year would fold elements of Beast Wars: Transformers into the Prime universe, with Shockwave’s experiments resurrecting the monsters of Cybertron’s past (rather than its far future, this time), leaving the Autobots with no choice but to become beast hunters. And throughout, Kurtzman and Orci pepper the show with compelling elements borrowed from other earlier iterations: Alpha Trion, the keys to Vector Sigma, the Matrix of Leadership, even the AllSpark. It’s all here, refined and dextrously woven into one, long spellbinding narrative that builds character rather than declares it.

The thing about Transformers: Prime that left the biggest impression on me, though, was its ending. G1 never ended; it briefly went mad, then either quietly faded away or went even madder, depending on which side of the world you live on. The movies, likewise, are still wide open, as Optimus Prime is off hunting his five-faced Quintesson creators just in time for the fifth film. Prime, though, concludes – and it does so decisively. I won’t spoil its end for those yet to watch it, but both the final regular episode, “Deadlock”, and the Beast Hunters: Predacons Rising TV movie have a satisfying sense of closure to them, yet both surprise in just about every way imaginable. However well you feel that you know these characters, having spent generations with them, it seems that they still have the capacity to surprise you - it seems that there really is “More Than Meets the Eye” to them after all.

As Beast Wars’ Optimus Primal might say, “It’s Prime!”

Regrettably The Transformers is not available to download from iTunes in the UK; however, you can pick up all four seasons on 13 DVDs from Amazon for £19.99. You’ll need to spend a penny more or join Amazon Prime, though, if you’re expecting free delivery these days.

The Transformers: The Movie will cost you a small fortune to source in HD in this country, but its nonetheless well worth it. Amazon have the lush, region-free Madman release available for £18.70 plus delivery (unless you have Amazon Prime). This is the most comprehensive HD release, in my view, but be warned that it does not include both the full-frame and widescreen versions of the movie as erroneously indicated by the rear-cover image on the Amazon site (which I drew to their attention upon receiving my copy) - it’s just the cropped widescreen version (sic - the movie was animated in 4:3 and then cropped to 16:9 for theatrical release). Youre likely to get a better price on eBay though, mind.

As they’re far less niche, the Transformers live-action movies can be picked up in HD on Blu-ray for as little as £12.99 from Zavvi. The 4-Movie Collections cardboard slipcase is far from being a collector’s dream, but it’s significantly cheaper than iTunes’ digital bundle, which is almost double the price at £23.96.

Getting hold of Transformers: Prime in HD is even more difficult than getting a decent copy of The Transformers: The Movie. Season 1 is available to download from iTunes for just £9.99 (probably for a limited time to tie in with the recent release of Beast Hunters: Predacons Rising in the UK, as until recently this was priced at £40.99!), but Season 2 has been divided into four volumes (Orion Pax, Nemesis Prime, Toxicity and Darkest Hour) the last of which is - inexplicably - not yet available, much like all of Season 3. The recently-released TV movie, Beast Hunters: Predacons Rising, is available to download, however, for just £9.99. For Seasons 2 and 3, then, Id recommend that you do as I did and import the American releases on Blu-ray through Amazon or eBay. If you do so, you’ll need a multi-region Blu-ray player and be prepared to pay any relevant customs charges.