As a child of the 80s, I am of course absolutely riddled with nostalgia; fond memories of the twenty-two minute commercials that masqueraded as cartoons that turned every Saturday morning into a riot of primary-coloured lasers and non-fatal shootouts. But no property holds a stronger grip on me, to this day, than the Transformers.
Everybody knows the basics, of course. Two factions of robots, the good guys led by Optimus Prime and the bad guys led by Megatron, battling on Earth in semi-secret disguise. Created out of whole cloth by Marvel back in the day to give some kind of storyline and character to the toys Takara was putting out, that basic framework has gone on to be expanded, stretched, skewed, warped and downright tossed in favour of new versions. And that's the key to the longevity of the Transformers.
And, y'know, the odd tune-up and oil change.
No franchise that I can think of has done such a good job of reinventing itself on a regular basis, without sacrificing the core idea that brought viewers and fans to it in the first place. Dr Who and the Star Trek franchise are probably the closest competitors, but the transitions in Who represent continuity, something the various Transformers iterations break away from as often as they cleave to it, and after TNG and DS9 Star Trek just didn't seem to have any good stories left in it, or at least not enough to carry seven seasons of show. From the very beginning there were options for Transformers fans; the Marvel comic and the cartoon ran concurrently, and while both told roughly the same story, subtle differences evolved over time into major digressions, with the cartoon ending up chronicling the battle between Rodimus Prime and Galvatron in 2005 while the comics hugely expanded the fight against Unicron, throwing every one of Optimus Prime's Autobots and Scorponok's Decepticons against the Chaos Bringer, and killing a fair few of them in the process. I have always believed that the success of those related, but independent, storytelling formats paved the way for the serial reinvention and rejuvenation of the Transformers franchise.
There was Beast Wars, and to a significantly lesser extent Beast Machines, which explored themes of love, betrayal, revenge, loyalty, self-sacrifice and fate vs free will, heady stuff for a kids cartoon. There was the Pat Lee/Dreamwave comics, the first to set down a solid pre-Earth storyline. There were the Michael Bay movies, derided amongst TransFans but hugely successful at bringing the Transformers to a wider mainstream audience. There was Animated, the most kid-friendly property since possibly the original 80s cartoon itself. And there are, currently, the cartoon Prime and the ongoing IDW comic series, both vastly different in terms of tone and scope, but equally compelling and equally capable of carrying the brand for years to come. And there are series I didn't mention, mostly because I either didn't watch them (the Unicron trilogy, Car Robots) or because TransFans just do not talk about them (Kiss Players, Beast Wars II/Neo). But aside from Kiss Players, all those series had their own fans, and more importantly their own toys and merchandise to keep the franchise running for another few years. Which, in the end, is what's allowed the Transformers to keep going and going, while other 80s properties have faded away or enjoyed only temporary resurgences.
Given the timing of its introduction, I don't think I'd be exaggerating if I said that the Transformers were one of the two most influential science fiction properties when I was a very, very young child (the other was the launch of TNG). A universe of giant robots, aliens and cyborgs, brimming with possibility, populated by strong characters you only saw just enough of to want to know more and, with Unicron's appearances in both media, an epic battle between good and evil, with actual casualties and sacrifices and heroic last stands, was more than enough to fire my little imagination and hook me for, well, apparently for life.
Yup. Still got it.