Everyone’s favorite robots in disguise returned to TV this past weekend with the launch of Transformers: War for Cybertron - Siege on Netflix. Except this time, they weren’t really in disguise, as the Autobots and Decepticons duked it out in the final days of the war for their homeworld. But was it an Allspark or a pile of scrap? Here’s what we loved, and didn’t.
Transformers fiction has never been afraid to get bleak before, but there was still something surprising about just how grim Siege is—it starts bad enough for our heroes, and just gets worse and worse. We always knew going in, of course, that the Autobots don’t win—they have to flee and come to earth, after all—but there was still something powerfully dismaying in how Siege captured the mentality of a side on the losing end of a war that’s all but about to be snuffed out (literally, given Megatrons plans to re-write every Autobot in existence with the Allspark). Everyone’s tired and snapping at each other. Even Optimus Prime is wracked with self-doubt and depression about how his own actions may have only made things worse on Cybertron.
Siege ultimately may try to mine this particular nugget for a little more than its worth by the end of its runtime, but still, its push away from what you might typically expect from Transformers was welcome.
Another surprising benefit of that darker edge to Siege’s story is that it meant the show gets to explore some really interesting moments of morality of the Autobot/Decepticon conflict. This isn’t just a fight between Good Guys and Bad Guys, and almost no character is presented as wholly pure, whether in service of noble or ignoble ideas (except maybe the always hilariously sniveling Starscream, or the consistently-messed-up Shockwave).
Internal conflicts abound, not just on an individual character level but on a wider scale, leading to some really interesting conversations and character moments you wouldn’t expect. Ratchet’s dedication to healing his fellow Transformers, whether they’re Decepticons or Autobots, for example, or Bumblebee’s initial role in the series as a third-party with no interest in anything but his own survival. It’s rare to see a Transformers series pack so much drama into such a short runtime.
Okay, sure, this is cheating a little bit—War for Cybertron: Siege takes its name and its character designs from the Hasbro Transformers toyline, so while they’re not uniquely new for the series, it’s still the first time we’ve got to see them rendered outside of the toy aisle. And yes: they remain a really great take on a more rougher-edged, techy version of the Generation 1 designs we know and love. Maybe Bumblebee is still the best media adaptation of that more realistic G1 design, but Siege’s characters look so good that I would not blame you, if—like me—you were googling the action figures and sobbing that Jetfire has gotten so ridiculously expensive to buy.
A Transformers show selling toys? Well, I never.
Speaking of Jetfire, both he and Impactor are standout characters in the show, and perfect vessels for the moral ambiguities Siege is so fascinated by. Both start the series as loyal Decepticon warriors but very quickly become entangled in complexities that see them have to navigate physical and spirtual turmoil. It ultimately sees them aiding those they would’ve formerly called enemy.
Impactor’s storyline is perhaps the most interesting (and bleak, given his sacrifice) of the two, as it’s more about him simply choosing to do the right thing after Ratchet—more so a neutral third party than a dyed-in-the-circuits Autobot here—nursed him back from certain death. But Jetfire’s arc of not just being shaken out of his loyalty to Megatron by the latter’s descent into crueler tactics, but how he attempts to gain the trust of the Autobots, is likewise compelling and makes for some of Siege’s most satisfying moments as he begins to prove himself to his new, uneasy allies. How does one trust a member of a faction literally called the Decepticons in the first place?
Okay, I’m not sure if this was actually intentional—outside of the fact Optimus doesn’t get to use a version of his second-most-iconic rallying cry until the last episode—but when Optimus isn’t burdened with self-doubt, he spends most of the series sending his group conversations with what’s left of the Autobot Resistance by heartily shouting “Autobots...!” and there’s just enough of a pregnant pause that you’re like “Oh, he’s gonna say it, he’s gonna do the thing,” and then, of course, he doesn’t. “Autobots... let’s go!” “Autobots... do that thing!”
It’s very silly, intentional or otherwise, and was a nice little recurring gag to distract from the doom and gloom.
At this point, it’s a common critique of Netflix originals that they allow the free reign of the streaming platform’s reliance on binge-able content to lead to a more, diplomatically speaking, measured sense of pace. No need to worry about a slow episode if you can just put the next one on right away, after all! But here’s the problem: Siege is six episodes long and almost half of it, if not more, feels achingly slow. Virtually nothing happens in the first three episodes, and even then the show doesn’t reach even remotely close to an energetic clip until the final episode.
That also feeds into the meter of the scenes within those episodes, too—not only is it a very talky show, considering it’s about giant robots who occasionally turn into trucks—but those scenes are shot and paced with a similar sluggishness. Getting through the front half of the series is an absolute chore, and it only really justifies sticking around through it all thanks to its last episodes.
Part of that sluggish feeling is exacerbated by how stilted Siege looks in motion. The overall aesthetic of the show is great, but the way the Transformers moved or rather didn’t, plodding along or standing still for muted, static dialogue scenes, felt really off. There wasn’t a sense of dynamism to the characters, which meant they didn’t really stand out in those weighty, talkative scenes.
There were definitely moments to shine—especially when things were starting to become more dynamic, like Jetfire leading the Autobots to the Allspark, or the opening of the space bridge that lets the Autobots flee their home. To boot, the transformation moments were always cool with a great blend of detail and snappiness, and never too belabored over. But it was weird to see how clunky much of Siege looked in motion when its overall aesthetic was such a cool take on Cybertron and the Transformers themselves.
C’mon. It’s literally in the name of the show. How is there so little actual fighting between the Autobots and the Decepticons!? Aside from some incredibly brief skirmishes, Siege saves much of its action for, once again, its final episode, choosing to spend an overbearing amount of its runtime on scenes of Autobots and Decepticons alike chatting it away in their respective bases.
Sure, you could argue as it was the final days of the conflict, and the Autobots were fighting an increasingly losing battle, the lack of action was part of the point. I’m not saying it needed to be non-stop—arguably Siege’s strength was in the way it used quieter moments to give its ‘bots time to reflect and examine their relationships with the conflict—but when 90% of your series about the War for Cybertron is drawn-out walk-and-talks, the amount of action on display was grim.
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