IT LIVES! Time now for part two of our double feature exploring the creepiest cartoon episodes that the Transformers canon has to offer. Part one, which examines the origin story of Transfomers Animated‘s Blackarachnia, can be found here. Unlike that first pick, my second episode selection doesn’t overtly have a Hallowe’en setting. Nobody actually chooses a pumpkin or goes trick or treating here. Yet surely there can be no Transformers moments that more deliciously capture the spooky season’s general love of all things horror than “Thirst,” otherwise known as Transformers Prime does Zombies.
“Thirst”: Transformers Prime Episode 60 (2013)
“I’ve seen human horror movies… at drive-in theatres!” – Knock Out
You’d be forgiven for expecting a horror-themed episode of Transformers Prime to foreground Ratchet, who is, after all, voiced by the legendary Re-Animator himself Jeffrey Combs. To be fair, the plot of “Thirst” does hinge on a chain of events Ratchet set in motion in an earlier season (episode 22 “Stronger, Faster”) in which the writers do indulge the Combs association, allowing the Autobot medic to get into full mad scientist mode when he tests his synthetic energon formula on himself with powerful results. Yet however instrumental to its set-up, Ratchet doesn’t appear in “Thirst” at all, indeed none of the Autobots do. Bravely and, I do believe, uniquely, this is an entirely Decepticon-centric episode, with all action taking place on their warship. And what better focus for a Hallowe’en watch than an installment exclusively about the bad guys (and girl)?
In the previous installment of this feature I noted how ”Along Came a Spider” really epitomises so much of what was best about Transfomers Animated as a series and the same could be said of how this episode stands in relation to the rest of Transformers Prime. With its very small, closely interlinked cast, what Prime did best of all was character development: the robots in this show are wonderfully well-defined as complex, flawed individuals and this is as true for the Decepticons as it is for the series’ heroes. There are no one-dimensional bad guys here, each ‘Con very much has their own set of motivating factors from Dreadwing’s honour to Knock Out’s vanity and the way that rivalries and partnerships evolve even amongst Megatron’s ranks is satisfyingly nuanced. This episode brings to a crescendo the relationship between Starscream and Knock Out, whose history together is richly indicative of this kind of evolution. By the time of “Thirst” these two have been everything from superior and subordinate, to treacherous partners in crime, and sworn rivals, while by this point in the action the two are reluctantly reunited by their shared, greater hatred for the newly arrived Shockwave, who has supplanted each of them both in terms of rank and in Megatron’s ever-fickle affections.
In this episode it’s Knock Out, not Ratchet who gets to play with mad science and what a gleefully amoral experimentalist he makes. So, as they say in the Rocky Horror Show, “why don’t you come up to the lab and see what’s on the slab…”
In this case, the answer is Cylas still encased in the mech-suit he made from the body of Knock Out’s former partner Breakdown (yes, relationships get complicated in Prime!) Cylas is the suave Decepticon surgeon’s guinea pig / chew toy in his ongoing experiments with the synth-en formula he stole from Ratchet. Now, as he’s the first to admit, Knock Out isn’t a great scientist to begin with, so it’s great fun watching him in full crazy mode here, injecting more formula without any semblance of precision or calculation. This is Transformers channeling every mad scientist trope out there, but most notably of all, of course, Herbert West and Dr Frankenstein. Indeed there’s a wonderful inversion with regards to the latter. As I’ve shown in my Robo Reads series, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a work that has been hugely influential work to robot fiction, since it examines so well the fraught relationship between human creator and artificial creation. Yet in this scene, we have a robot (albeit an alien life form rather than human-built construct) experimenting on something that is a self-created fusion of human and robotic life. With mad experiments in the mix things are never set to go well anyway but it’s only with Starscream’s interference and insistence that they mix their synth-en with Dark Energon (the curséd blood of a space demon) in the hopes of making Cylas the first in a new breed of super-soldier that things take a distinct turn for the (zombie) apocalyptic…
From here on in the episode follows the classic path of the zombie survival narrative with fantastic vocal performances from Steve Blum and Daran Norris as Starscream and Knock Out attempt to deal with the fall out of their not-so-clever scheme. All the tropes are here: disbelief, acceptance, regret, fear, resolve, even that classic moment in any survival story when thrown together and in fear for their lives the two protagonists take a moment to admit how they really feel about each other. The TF fandom erupted after this particular scene. Here it is with the music from Brokeback Mountain added (just in case you, you know, missed the undercurrents):
However far or not you wish to take its implications it’s a hilarious moment, and a wonderfully self-aware homage to the genre this episode embraces, and it’s certainly true that the air is so thick with confusion and awkwardness that you could almost slice it with Knock Out’s saw.
But the Terrorcon apocalypse isn’t all generically self-aware giggles. Fun as this episode is for anyone with a love of horror tropes we shouldn’t overlook the fact that “Thirst” travels to some very dark places. Specifically, I believe it is pretty much the only example in the Transformers franchise of a named human character with lines actually dying on screen, and not just implied death either, we watch the light fade from that character’s eyes, centre view. It’s quite the watershed moment considering this is ostensibly a kids’ show.
Indeed, while “Along Came a Spider” couches some quite adult themes within some ostensibly kid friendly trick or treat themed action; it’s clear that “Thirst” takes the opposite approach. This episode’s macabre happenings and scary visuals are compensated here by the thread of madcap humour that runs throughout. Take, for instance, the ridiculous fact that Starscream and Knock Out initially choose to lie about their actions and try and cover things up rather than calling for the help they so badly need. Also, the way the two of them run away from the zombies is straight out of a Carry On film. Speaking of references to other shows, the whole episode would probably feel much darker than it does if it weren’t for Knock Out’s wry, meta-theatrical awareness. It is he who advises ”aim for the head” during the pair’s first showdown with the reanimated horde. With his knowledge of and appreciation for human culture, Knock Out throughout this episode is the anchor who keeps the action just safely within the homage side of the horror spectrum. No wonder he’s such a fan favourite.
On the subject of fan favourites, the Vehicons – Prime‘s generic Stormtrooper equivalent – are another of the features that have made this show so beloved (the Vehicons or “Steves” are especially beloved right here on AddAltMode). And these, ahem, “highly trained Vehicon troopers” as Starscream calls them are particularly well-used in this episode. We already knew that Megatron can’t tell his Vehicons apart. It turns out he can’t particularly notice when they’re undead either!
Although “Thirst” really is the Starscream and Knock Out show, what’s a Hallowe’en TF experience without a spider lady? Cue the delightfully evil Airachnid who here is responsible for the single freakiest jump scare certainly in the episode and arguably in the entire franchise. While I won’t ruin the precise nature of her role in this episode, suffice to say that once again Prime takes a very different route to TFA. While the earlier series used a spooky-themed episode to introduce its spider-bot, “Thirst” is very much in the opposite sphere and the final portion of the episode (which is a little weaker and less fun than its opening and middle) is very much in the mode of tying up loose ends in preparation for the approaching series finale.
Watched back to back “Along Came a Spider” and “Thirst” make for an enjoyable – and surprisingly complementary – horror-themed double bill. These episodes confirm that when Transformers cartoons do engage with spooky tropes they do it with gusto, highlighting that engaging double-consciousness that is such a crucial element in the winning formula of this brand at its best: robot and car; trick and treat; friendly to kids and engaging for adults; both embracing and critiquing its chosen pop-cultural genres. And the zombie trope certainly adds a whole other dimension to the TF rallying call of “’til all are one.”