It was inevitable that we’d find a way to shoehorn in some Transformers-related content somewhere along the wooded, winding and deliberately badly-lit path of our Creepy Countdown series, so here we go…
Across the vast corpus of Transformers TV show content there have to have been some episodes that would make for sufficiently spooky viewing, and indeed there are. It doesn’t happen too often but when Transformers cartoons do decide to engage with scary tropes they pretty much go all in: from All Hallow’s Eve-set episodes that see the Cybertronian immigrants struggle with the night’s candy grabbing traditions, via reanimated zombie showdowns to that classic horror staple, spiders, oh so many spiders – here with a robot twist of course. So grab your pumpkin-flavoured popcorn and sit back for the first of two posts in which I recommend and appreciate a double bill of the finest Hallowe’en episodes the franchise has to offer…
“Along Came a Spider”: Transformers Animated Episode 9 (2008)
Transformers Animated was a wonderful series that somehow managed to be simultaneously the most radically innovative and the most classically Transformers-feeling show since G1. Like the original show it had a huge cast and grew in later seasons to have a hugely expansive feel, Earth, Space, Cyberton. But at the same time, the series’ writers played hard and fast with Transformers lore, channeling in some really unique decisions. “Prime” in TFA isn’t shorthand for Robot Jesus, it’s just a military rank, and not even an especially lofty one. Another thing that was unusual about this show was its timeline. Here the Autobot – Deception war is very much past tense and led to a decisive Autobot victory, Cybertron is an active Autobot planet but with the war being ancient history all of the good guy’s military technologies are dated relics; meanwhile the remaining Decepticons are nomadic renegades. TFA is also one of the few series’ accurately to scale the characters: most jets and tanks should be much larger than car and trucks so in this the warlike Decepticons generally tower over almost all the Autobots, and not just over Bumblebee!
“Along Came a Spider” goes with the classic kids TV Hallowe’en episode format, being set on the night itself and chronicling the Autobots’ efforts to understand and participate in this bizarre human tradition. Optimus Prime’s precis of the custom is priceless:
So the purpose of this Hallowe’en is to disguise yourself in order to frighten strangers then extort sugar-infused nuggets.
The action could easily have played out in a cute kind of way as a comedy episode following the ‘Bots’ attempts at trick or treating. It certainly starts out in this manner, and there are some giggles to be had watching Bulkhead’s efforts to obtain a costume large enough for his, uh, bulk. The smaller Bumblebee has an easier time with his Count Dracubot outfit, but he doesn’t quite get the tone right either. His “I have come to drink your motor oil” line only sounds like a suitable threat for a robot vampire until we remember that the Cybertronian blood equivalent is energon. Drinking oil is more like the robot version of having a pint, so as TfWiki puts it, this is “‘roughly the equivalent of a vampire saying he wants to bum a few beers off you!”
But from these kitschy beginnings the episode grows into one with a little more bite as Bee, Bulk and Sari get rather more trick than treat on their Hallowe’en candy-gathering expedition.
The cyclical traditions involved in any annual festival can provoke strong memories of experiences from previous years. This is the foundation of almost all classic Christmas stories from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol onwards and dealing with resurfacing recollections of Hallowe’ens past is an equally effective format for this kind of seasonal spooky tale (check out Todd Croak-Falen’s The Druggist, for a nice example of this done well in the horror short story format). Although this is the ‘Bot’s first Hallowe’en, the episode writer, Marty Isenberg, makes good use of this classic “seasonal memories” plot device, as some of the town’s spooky decorations stir up troubling recollections for Optimus. Much of the narrative takes the form of flashbacks unveiling a story that adds much emotional depth to the character of TFA‘s “Boss Bot” and also explains the roots of his ongoing antagonism with Sentinel Prime.
If you hadn’t figured it from the title, ”Along Came a Spider” introduces one of the show’s best recurring villains, and my second favourite female Decepticon (after Slipstream, yes I am biased), I am talking of course about Blackarachnia. This episode is her origin story, which interestingly enough plays out in almost exactly the opposite way from the character arc of the Blackarachnia in Beast Wars. It’s wonderful to see her being given such a deep and affecting back story here. As I’ve discussed before, there are a lot of sexy villainess clichés around the Spider Lady construct and TFA both embraces these and subverts them. Blackarachnia certainly uses her sexuality to manipulate allies and adversaries alike: Bulkhead’s jaw literally hitting the floor at the femmebot’s attentions is an amusing moment, but it’s made ten times better by Sari’s nonplussed “duh, she’s [just] a girl” type response, even though Blackarachnia is the first female Cybertronian Sari would ever have seen!
Flirtatious, yes, but TFA Blackarachnia is far from being a one-dimensional character. This episode introduces her as a Decepticon who is at war with herself as much as with the Autobots, and her story also flirts… with some weightier issues about trust and acceptance. Although the Autobots’ Hallowe’en, and the city, are saved just as you’d expect, the episode still ends on a dark, sad note that subtly reminds us that the campy “sugar-infused nugget” extorting traditions of modern Hallowe’en belie some much darker fears about the approaching darkness of winter and the unknown horrors that could lurk in its shadows.
Neatly capturing the spooky season’s mix of of fun and fearfulness, ”Along Came a Spider” is not just a great little watch for Hallowe’en, the episode also encapsulates so much of what was great about Transformers Animated as a series. For a start, the colour palette on this episode is glorious (check out that orange sky in the screenshot before the jump). With its anime-influenced stylings, TFA was fun, bright, brash and cartoony with plenty of one-note joke story lines and overdone super-powered plots. But at the same time, Bots here feel very human: they make mistakes, they have a lot of regrets and hang ups and they are all, in different ways, haunted by the past. As the unofficial Transformer mascot of Halloween, Blackarachnia epitomises this duality as both haunter and hauntee and as such her origin story is well worth checking out. Arachnophobes need not apply.
Part two of this feature will have less robot spiders and more robot zombies knocking on your door very soon. Stay tuned!