One of my favourite episodes of the old Marvel/Sunbow Transformers cartoon is The Search for Alpha Trion.
In the episode some of the Autobots (mostly red colored ones for no good reason) travel from earth to Cybertron sneakily via the Decepticons dodgy space bridge to search for their mentor.
I don’t know how much “searching” the Autobots actually do in that episode – they find Old Man Freeformer pretty quick if you ask me.
To nobodies surprise the Autobots meet up with the then unknown Autobot sage Alpha Trion and some Autobot fembot resistance fighters lead by the gloriously pink hued Elita-1.
Before I talk more about the fembots, (female Transformers are the main topic of this post) I just wanted to note that yes Alpha Trion does have a beard and only Vector Sigma knows why. For no reason I guess other than to give him a wise old oriental look, like every kung-fu master from every 70s era Kung-Fu movie ever.
Because why does a Cybertronian automaton have facial hair? It’s loveably daft, but has become part of the iconic look of the elder Autobot.
The REAL reason Alpha Trion has a beard? Only Alpha Trion knows, and if you asked him he’d likely tell you it’s because he’s “lived so long I can’t remember”
DESIGNING THE IMAGINED FUTURE
So, back to Elita-1 and her Hellcats… Alpha’s Angels…. ..resistance fighters in the Cybertronian Civil War.
The designs of the female autobots are fairly basic.
In super-robot terms they are not going to win any design awards – but there is an undeniable Retro-Futuristic feel and charm to them. Their bold colors make them even more memorable, and well I just love them for what they are. I hope some day toon-accurate toys get made based on these kick-ass fem-bots, in addition to the various modernized versions and redecos available.
Nothing much happens in the episode, Shockwave is in there, doing dastardly things as usual, and the story is nothing remarkable. It’s really notable for introducing the first in-fiction female Transformers.
I’ll admit the fembot designs are kind of goofy, like someone was making their first ever attempt at Retro-Futurism in robot form – but I still like them.
Did Floro Dery design them? I have no idea who did, totally in the dark. Can’t even find the light switch. Dery did a lot of character design work for the original Transformers show and movie (he also lied and exaggerated a fair about what he actually did) – and the female Autobots do come across as similar to his more organic looking Floro-Formers – such as his ’86 animated movie designs; Cyclonus, Galvatron, Blur etc.
The wise Sage Alpa Trion also has a more humanoid curvy look to him than the big ‘n boxy 1984 O.G. Transformers crowd.
PINKIE PINKERTON AND THE PINK SQUAD
Female Transformers in Transformers fiction were never mentioned before the Alpha Trion / Elita-1 episode (because they didn’t exist). All the toys up until then were basically male looking mecha, and the voices of the characters were male voice actors. It was sort of *assumed* that Transformers were either ALL male, or sexless despite having the physical characteristics and voices of males. Many people either forgot, or never saw the Search for Alpha Trion episode, and later erroneously assumed Arcee to be the first female Transformer in Transfromers: The Movie (1986).
Beast Wars (1996) was notable for being the the first Transformers TV show to have ongoing female characters, such as Black Arachnia.
One sidenote is that Ratchet was originally written to be a female character. The name was inspired by Nurse Ratched in the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – but was changed to a male character to fall in line with the rest of the toy line and characters.
Also in the non-canon mini-comics that accompanied the European release of Joustra Diaclone toys, the Pre-Transformers Ratchet toy / Joustra Ambulance was also female. MAZ over at the excellent blog TF-1 covers pretty much everything you could ever want to know about Diaclone toys. I recommend checking out the full article on the Joustra Diaclone Ambulance
Until The Search for Alpha Trion episode, female Transformers had never been mentioned, or part of the lore (as far as I know, feel free to prove me wrong).
Diaclone toys – the pre-Transformers robot toys from Japan – were piloted mecha, “gender” had no context here (other than the pilots obviously).
Only when the very manly voices of Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime and Frank Welker as Megatron were added to the new HASBRO/Sunbow/Marvel Productions cartoon do we get to know our imported Japanese super-robots as re-branded iconic American heroes and villains, with strong hyper-masculine male archetypes in the typical over the top nineteen-eighties action hero fashion.
The lack of female characters (or female voice artists) in Transformers was more marketing decision than anything else.
BOYS WILL BE BOYS (OUR MARKETING EXPERTS TOLD US SO)
Boys – and their parents- tended to buy “boys toys”.
Gender roles and buying habits in decades gone by were assumed to be fixed and unchanging. Something we know not to be true today where girls, women and even some 90 year old women play video games or watch Marvel movies like the Avengers.
even my local Kmart now has about 50/50 split for boys and girls Tshirts with superhero emblems. DC are even getting into the Barbie market with their line of DC Superhero Girls dolls. Times are different from the dawn of Transformers in the eighties when these types of products and characters were previously only marketed to boys.
To be fair, a large number of specialist market action figures and geeky stuff is still primarily marketed to boys today, and most girls and women would likely care more about being treated decently as a human beings in society, over being concerned about the latest mass market toy in a chain-store.
Transformers, like G.I. Joe are about war, combat and power fantasies, and the expression of endless non-stop action and role playing. The fairer sex has been marginalized in most if not all arenas of life for as long as anybody can remember – and of course by male toy/marketing executives with no interest in engaging females in the warrior narrative of fighting super-robots who followed the market and trends of the time.
You’d think that if we temporarily fast forward time a little from them backwards eighties, things would be a little different – and they mostly are –
But in 2007 we got this…
And then in 2011 we got this….
I have no issue with beautiful women in movies hovering around cars, heck they’ve gotta sell those cars somehow, right?
Whether it’s great cinema or junk cinema women being shown primarily as fetishized objects, as eye candy accessories rather than as integral to the plot, than as actual human beings is nothing new.
And nothing really bothers me in the Transformers Bayhem movies in the portrayal of any of the male or female characters, other than the characters all being dumber than bricks. The Transformers Bayhem movies are mainstream movies with simple character archetypes used as shorthand so your brain can go on holiday while explosions happen every five seconds. There is nothing terribly offensive about them. And they did manage to get a female autobot in a film for about five minutes there, I forget which one (Arcee, I forget which film she was in).
I mostly hate the script, the dialogue and how dumb the movies are despite how impressive their (horribly edited) visual spectacle is to watch. No, I just use these examples to show that while some forms of Transformers fiction such as the IDW comics or Transformers: Prime or Transformers RID 2015 are more progressive with female characters (human and robot) being essential elements of the show in vital roles, other aspects of Transformers fiction such as the live action movies reduce females to eye candy. Well, not even progressive, but ordinary in the sense of having a balance of legitimate female characters, rather than as an afterthought in the fiction.
Nothing wrong with eye-candy, I like it, but I’ll take an Ellen Ripley in Alien over a Megan Fox in Transformers any day of the week. Not because of looks, talent or any of that. But because the CHARACTER is interesting. A good story starts with a good character, it’s why Strongarm in RID 2015 is a great character – it all comes from the quality writing, rather than any gimmicks. Megan Fox was alright in Transformers, but her character did not have a whole lot to do, nor did most of the various female characters in the films so far, including blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Arcee.
ACCEPTABLE IN THE 80’S?
Girls have been expected for the longest time to enjoy Barbie, and frilly “girl” things, and that was that. And boys have always been expected to enjoy “manly” things, despite some dudes being really into Barbie or My Little Pony or JEM.
I used to know a guy who had a prominent living room display of vintage original Barbie and tall G.I. Joe dolls, and they they did look quite spectacular the way he had them displayed in glass cabinets.
The closest Pre-Transformers toys have gotten to a female character was the cancelled Waruder mecha “Beet Papil” – who transformed into a Ladybug.
Some of the other Waruder Japanese toys were re-purposed later on as Insecticons and Deluxe Insecticons under the Transformers brand. If this full toy line line had been incorporated into Transformers, we might have seen the first female transformer.
But the toy was never made (as part of the BEETRAS line, or at all) and of course was never directly related to the American Transformers brand. It’s more an oddity/curio thanks to curious internet detectives who took the time to scan the images for other fans to enjoy.
Sadly, this is the best imagine around online of the Waruders I could find. I blew up Ms Bug below for a closer look at those shapely curves and cool colors, but it’s a bit blurry. Still, at lest we can see the deco and basic highlights which are more smooth, detailed and organic looking than your average american Transformer toys of the 80’s era, and even a pixelated image like this is infinitely more impressive than Megan Fox in Transformers ‘Splosionfest 2007.
Beet Papil is More Robocop/Metropolis smooth sexy Mecha streamlined legs and joints than your typical boxy square super-robot. Very cool.
I really like the fembot Ladybug design overall. No joke, I would love for someone to make this toy today, it would be an instant buy for me.
Two changes I would make however – some hinges on the bug shell that allowed it to move up higher in robot mode, so it looked like a cape or cool royal robe, rather than a jacket she’s about to throw on the ground. Or add double hinges on the vertical axis in the middle of each wing, and let it collapse away neatly behind Ms Bug’s back.
While looking up reference images, I found this cool fan-made profile, that re-imagines (or imagineers if you prefer) the cancelled BEET PAPIL toy design into a Transformers style character profile. The profile of Firebomb was created by Hellbat on DeviantARt
An unexpected find, and very cool!
So mecha buglady aside, back to Cybertron… where our heroes and fembots are looking a bit frisky….
What I liked about The Search for Alpha Trion is that in one single episode, we got a lot of lore and world building. Most of it is implied, but it’s there if you want it to be.
The details are sparse, but *some* of the greater space saga and lore of the Transformers (expanded on in later fiction such as the 1986 theatrical film and shows such as Beast Wars) is laid down here.
The later ramifications of this episode include Alpha Trion becoming a major significant figure in Transformers fiction (larger mythology) who ties into both Prime, The Matrix and one of the many origins of the Transformers as a race of sentient alien robots.
We find out that not only do female Transformers exist, but apparently a bunch of them, who all seem to have romantic ties to our heroes made obvious by their affection in the show, and the way then run into each others arms. Sorry skeptics – you greet friends with handshakes and hugs, and maybe a kiss on the cheek. Running into someones arms dramatically is usually reserved for your beloved. So don’t play that “they were just really really really good friends” card with me.
ROLL CALL RUMBLE
So just who are these dashing fighting fembots?
We don’t get a good look in the episode at the characters at the same time in full view, so fortunately thanks to some lovely fan art from Dan-the-Art-Guy we see a full view of the basic character models.
From left to right in the image below image we have Moonracer, Firestorm, Elita-1 and Chromia.
Elita-1 is their squad leader in pink, slightly in the foreground.
Thanks to an anonymous fan online who sent me some further images upon request, below is a photo of the model sheets / guides for Chromia and Moonracer which he bought in a private online auction. Model sheets are just guidleines, and so are typically more colorful and detailed, while in show models will be simplified so that they can be animated smoothly (and cheaply!)
Oh, before I forget – there are some other female characters in the background in various scenes too. We don’t get a whole lot of info about them, but they are there. The green character in the image below is called Greenlight.
PRO-BOTS AND ROBOPHOBES
The fighting fembots are mostly forgotten relics from Generation One lore. Chromia would go on star in IDW comics many years later, along with other new female characters such as Windblade. Elita-1 has had some nods from third party and official figures, but mainly as redecos. A few fans have made their own custom versions from various molds, but often they lack a certain something. So far no figure has really gotten close to the original version.
Windblade, Nauticaa and Chromia are the main female characters in the IDW comic book continiuty, which is like a sort Ultimate Marvel reboots of old school character, with new ones mixed in from other shows. The three main IDW fembots follow on from the general flow of the old school G1 fembots.
The sleek more humanoid forms recall Floro Dery’s “Floro-Former”movie designed original characters such as Galvatron, Hot Rod and Blur. Chromia (in blue) in IDW quite similar to her old school appearance, with a few tweaks to modernize her look, but is for all intents and purposes is a new character that is more of an homage to the old character.
The curves of Dery designed Floro-Formers give a real contrast to the square jawed and square shouldered Abe Lincoln / John Wayne body type used for Optimus Prime, and would set the basic look or jumping off point for later designs in various Transformers media. The art for these new wave fembots tends to vary in the comics and animation according to whoever the artist is, and the style of the particular book or show.
SIEGE ON IACON
Free of the robots in disguise earth vehicle design motif, the fembots of Cybertron and 1986 movie-bots were able to be designed with more freedom and experimentation.
Note the curvy legs (on both male and female characters) that stand in stark contrast to the old school square legged super robots style (see Megaton on the left of same image). These new wave bots had smooth lines rather than hard edges, part of the look no doubt influenced by 1950’s concept cars and Retro-Futurism (a topic for another upcoming post).
The square shouldered look of Prime is a staple of super-robot anime, not to mention overly male machismo characters – while the more humanoid look of rounded shoulders are sometimes seen in super-robots, but those curves are more commonly in real-mecha designs where the robot is basically a suit of armor fitting around human anatomy, that has to make both aesthetic and practical movement considerations for human joints etc.
In the above image, we can the contrast of Square and Boxy vs Organic and Round (humanoid) styles in contrast.
The curves tell us two things – that these robots have a more humanoid appearance, mimicking human anatomy and rounded joints, and of course emphasizing feminine curves whether for a male or female character, much in the way 1950’s concept cars used the same motif of sleek curves instead of hard angles. This sort of thing may bother some fans who want to see Galvatron as the ultimate mentally unstable bad-ass villain, and ignore his thigh high sexy ladies street walker boots that once seen, can not be un-seen.
THE SEARCH FOR ELITA-1
The Search for Alpha Trion episode unexpectedly gives us a whole new context to view the Transformers media and Cybertronian civil war through.
In the context of Transformers (the Sunbow/Marvel cartoon), the Autobots and Decepticons were at war. The Autobot group we know as our familiar heroes left – they evacuated the resource depleted Cybertron and became stranded on earth when their ship crash landed after being attacked by Decepticons.
Both the Autobots and Decepticons crash on earth and have a kip for a while (stasis lock), then our lazy snoozers get up a few million years later and resume their quarrelsome shenanigans.
Prime, Ironhide, Inferno and Powerglide being reunited with their female compatriots (or more likely partners / girlfriends) on Cybertron was like soldiers coming back from the war. Women during our real world WW2 were at home, and running the factories, and doing just about everything else useful in society while the majority of men were sent away overseas.
The Search for Alpha Trion had that sort of feel about it for me, and made sense in the context that their war had moved to earth, and they had no clue what has happening back on Cybertron. The Autobots did not see their compatriots for “million of years” due to being stranded on earth during the civil war era.
One thing to note here is this episode isthat Cybertron itself was not as empty and barren as we were lead to believe. We know Shockwave was there, fighting against Elita-1 and her underground resistance but there is something more hinted at, and it only raises more questions.
Was the sector Shockwave resides in mostly empty due to his having taken strategic control of assets like the spacebridge? Was Elita-1’s fighting force the ONLY underground resistance, what other power struggles may have been taking place off screen, on other parts of Cybertron? Did other Autobots and Decepticreeps evacuate Cybertron like our Heroes did in the first episode of the show, and where might they be now?
What is implied is that perhaps what we are seeing is just a small window into the world of Transformers and Cybertron, that there may have been other evacuations, and more battles still going on both overt and covert. It seems obvious when you think about it, the planet was at war and obviously the population was bigger than just our humble heroes and their foes.
The Transformers Origins as outlined by Jim Shooter was intended to encapsulate the beginning of the shared Transformers lore for the comics, cartoon and toy line. Expansive world building was still a long way off. Nobody could have predicted the success of the Transformers brand in the short or long term. What we take for granted today with multiple shows, movies and mass media projects was mostly not even considered in the early days, there was no reason to, other than the general plot of the shows which often contradicted every other episode.
Enough lore was created week to week to get a show together and something for the characters to do, episodes were made intentionally to be screened in any order (as happens on syndicated network TV, particularly with repeats), the exception being several multi part episodes that suffered cruel confusing fates when played out of order.
FEMBOTS ARE GO!
The legacy of female characters continued in the Transformers franchise with notable characters such a Black Arachnia in Beast Wars (year), Arcee in Transformers: The Movie (1986), Airachnid and a new version of Arcee in Transformers: Prime (year), Strongarm and Windblade in Robots in Disguise (2015), and of course fun characters such as Nauticaa and Chromia in the IDW comics, with each of these various characters receiving *mostly* decent toys.
That about does it for this rambling article, below is some images of toys and art of various female Transformers.
The legacy of The Search for Alpha Trion is introducing the first ever female Transformers to the fiction, and it way too long for HASBRO to catch up and realize how appealing female characters and toys were to both male and female audiences members of all ages.
Windblade, G1 Arcee and Chromia toys (above). Arcee was notable for not receiving a 1986 move tie in toy (her toy was cancelled) and did not receive a proper toy until well after a decade after her appearance in the cinema.
Strongarm and Sideswipe from Transformers Robots in Disguise toy line. Strongarm and Grimlock are easily my favourite character from Robots in Disguise.
Strongarm as featured in the Robots in Disguise cartoon. This is some lovely fan art by Raikoh. The RID show has some fantastic visual design, including the bright energon glow highlights on characters giving it a really unique look.
Nightbird, Black Arachnia and Slipstream from various Transformers toy lines
Some fan art of Arcee by Goddess Mechanic. On the left is Arcee from Transformers: Animated, in the middle Transformers:Prime and on the right classic movie or comic book Arcee.
*Diaclone images and art from MAZ / TF-1 Blog
*Elita 1 / Optimus Prime “You’ve got the ipod touch” by Catussnake
*Arcee’s by Goddess Mechanic
*Alpha Trion model sheet image sourced from TFWIKI.com
*Ratchet fan art by Thuddleston / Terry Huddleston
*Team Elita fembot image by Dan-The-Art-Guy
*BEETRAS toy images from The Pre-Transformers Page
*Firebomb character profile by Hellbat
*GREENLIGHT image from TFWIKI http://tfwiki.net/wiki/Greenlight
*Chromia and Windblade by Raikoh
*Strongarm fan art by Raikoh
*Optimus Prime and Elita-1 image by Yhykurama
*Black and White manga art from TFWIKI
Inferno and Firestar by JP_V