It had been a long day for Optimus Primal.
The leader of the Maximals was an explorer, not a military commander, yet he and his small crew had crash-landed on a mysterious planet just hours earlier and already faced off against the evil Predacons multiple times. The Maximals were weary and needed a pep talk, so Optimus, still finding his footing in battle, stepped up.
“For now, we’re stranded here with the Predacons on this unknown planet,” he says. “Megatron may be back, and there is still more Energon. If they ever get enough, they can conquer the galaxy. So for now, let the battle be here, on this strange, primitive world, and let it be called Beast Wars!”
With that, the computer-generated animated series Beast Wars: Transformers had begun. Premiering in late September 1996, the series was the first American venture for the Transformers franchise since the original cartoon concluded almost a decade earlier. With a new style of animation and the use of animal transformations as opposed to vehicles, Transformers fans initially met the show with skepticism. Still, before long, Beast Wars was embraced for its dynamic writing and vivid characters.
At the conclusion of its initial 26-episode run, Beast Wars earned an Emmy for its groundbreaking animation and had been so popular that a second and third season soon followed. Overall, Beast Wars ran for 52 episodes, had hundreds of toys, and created a loyal fanbase that exists to this day. Quite the legacy for a scrappy cartoon from Canada, which, like all Transformers shows, began as a simple ploy to sell some action figures.
Thanks to an unlikely creative duo and a bunch of voice actors who’d never watched a single episode of Transformers, Beast Wars defied all odds and breathed new life into the aging franchise. Twenty-five years later, with Optimal Prime and the Maximals finally making their big-screen debut in June 2022, Hasbro and Paramount Studios are hoping that lightning can strike twice.
But before that can happen, here’s the story of how the brilliant Beast Wars redefined a franchise.
“What are you doing with Transformers?”
In the mid-1990s, the Transformers toy line had long since run its course. The original cartoon concluded in 1987, and while Japanese spinoffs had followed, the franchise was all but defunct in America. The toys — once the most innovative in the toy aisle — had become stale. Then, in late 1994, Hasbro began holding brainstorming sessions with its creative team. That’s where toy designer Chris Gross suggested the idea of robots that transformed into animals instead of vehicles.
During the development of these transforming animal toys, the founder of Canadian animation company Mainframe, Christopher Brough, paid a visit to Hasbro.
“In 1995, we were into the second season of Reboot for ABC, and it had been very successful,” Brough tells Inverse. “In short order, Mainframe had become a quarter-of-a-billion dollar company with 500 employees, and I needed to figure out how to keep the lights on. I had done a really big toy and TV series with Hasbro years earlier with The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin.
“So I went down to Cincinnati to see the boys at Hasbro, and I asked them, ‘What are you doing with Transformers?’”
From there, Brough and the people at Hasbro began talking about the overhaul with the Transformers line. Before long, Mainframe, the only studio doing computer-generated animation for television at the time, was hired to make some 3D turnarounds of Beast Wars toys that were already in development.
“They were really good writers”
Hasbro was thrilled with the results, and before long, a series was in production for Fox. To write and oversee the series, Brough hired the late Larry DiTillio — who had written for He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and dozens of other cartoons and Bob Forward, who also wrote on He-Man, G.I. Joe, and many others.
“I’d produced a lot of cartoons, and you recognize the talent,” Brough explains, “They were really good writers.”
In later DVD releases of Beast Wars, interviews with DiTillio and Forward reveal the different dynamics these writers brought to the series. At the time, Forward said, “I think we complemented each other really well… He liked coming up with interesting characters [and] he would always try and work out the rules of the universe we were creating. I tended to kind of wing it more. I wanted to get right into the action.” (Bob Forward declined to be interviewed for this article.)
That give-and-take allowed for a cartoon with satisfying action and surprisingly complex characters, but while DiTillio and Forward deserve much of the credit, the limitations of CGI animation at the time worked to their benefit.
In those DVD interviews, Forward explains that “from Beast Wars I learned more about writing character than I’d ever learned before, and part of that was because Beast Wars had such a limited number of characters…
“We had 14 characters, and we couldn’t budge on that, [so] we had the characters start to bicker constantly, so they were always on edge, and that became really dynamic.”
“Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery, and a lizard”
When DiTillio and Forward began on Beast Wars, they were very open about how little they knew the original Transformers series. “I’m not that crazy about giant robots,” DiTillio says. In time this would change, and the mythology of Transformers would begin to inform Beast Wars, but, at first, the original series had little influence. The same is true for the actors.
Garry Chalk, who provided the voice of Optimus Primal, tells Inverse that he didn’t even watch the original show before diving into Beast Wars.
“He was a monkey, not a truck.”
“Transformers was after my time, so I didn’t know what came before,” he says. “I actually never heard Peter Cullen do Optimus Prime until after Beast Wars was over, and I think that’s probably a good thing.
“Optimus Primal was a bit more of a sage than a commander. He had more wisdom and gravitas. He was a monkey, not a truck.”
David Kaye, the voice of the Beast Wars version of Megatron, tells us much the same. “I didn’t follow the original Transformers. That was good because I went into it fresh. I based my Megatron on a combination of Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery, and a lizard.”
“We’ll just blow up the moon”
When the Maximals and Predacons crash-landed in the series opener, they didn’t know where they were. Neither did the writers. While it looked like prehistoric Earth and the beast modes of the characters were obviously of our planet, DiTillio and Forward were unable to get a straight answer from Hasbro on whether or not they could set the show on Earth.
“We put two moons in the sky in kind of a random way,” Forward explains, “and if we decide that this is Earth later on, we’ll just blow up the moon.”
In time, it was decided that the planet in the series was prehistoric Earth and that humankind was just starting to develop. The series also took place after the Autobots and Decepticons from the original Transformers landed on Earth. So in the background of Beast Wars, Optimus Prime and the rest were lying dormant until they awakened in 1984.
Finally, Beastwars revealed that prehistoric Earth was under the protection of an alien race known as the Vok, who viewed the Maximals and Predacons as nothing more than intruders. Throughout the series, battles were won and lost, characters perished, and new ones arrived. Still, these major threads — the Vok, prehistoric humans, and the first-generation Transformers — would go on to inform the series’ most important stories.
“We were scrambling constantly”
Throughout Beast Wars, the Maximals and Predacons had received warnings about the Vok in the form of strange monuments and anomalies. But in the Season 1 finale, the Vok were finally revealed.
The aliens explained that they were watching over Earth as an experiment, but since the Transformers had tampered with the planet, they had no choice but to destroy it. Before long, that second moon was revealed to be a weapon. Then, just before the Vok could destroy Earth, Optimus Primal sacrificed himself to destroy the fake moon. (Don’t worry, just like all Optimuses do, he’d get resurrected later).
It seemed a confrontation with the Vok was what the show was building toward in its first 26 episodes, but that was never the plan.
“We tied it into this huge story arc that made it look like we knew what we were doing the whole time,” Forward said. “But frankly, no, we were scrambling constantly. [We’d say] ‘thank God we did this back here because now we can pull this up and make it a big important plot point.’
“Lo and behold, we ended up with aliens [and we] ended up blowing up the moon, but we were winging it constantly.”
“Quoting Hamlet as he dies”
Early on, Ape-like prehistoric humans occasionally appeared in the background of Beast Wars, but their most important story — and the episode most often cited as the best of the entire series — is Season 2’s “Code of Hero,” which saw the murder of the character Dinobot.
From the first episode, Dinobot (voiced by Scott McNeil) had proven to be Beast Wars’ most interesting character. The ex-Predacon joined the Maximals out of self-interest, but he also had a sense of honor. His plotline came to its zenith when Megatron formulated a plan to extinguish humanity before they could leave the valley where humans originated. Being the only Maximal present, Dinobot battled every last Predacon, saving our species but losing his life in the process.
Beast Wars writer Ian Weir tells Inverse he only wrote the episode as a fluke.
“Of everything I’ve ever written, that is the one thing I’ve had the most positive feedback on.
“I wish I could claim more credit, but that was Bob’s story. He was supposed to write it, but ‘Code of Hero’ was the first episode he directed, and I guess Mainframe didn’t want him to write and direct the same episode.
“I worked out the dialogue, but the story was handed to me. The one big element I brought was Dinobot quoting Hamlet as he dies.”
“Some sort of supernatural entity”
In early episodes of Beast Wars, references to Transformers mythology were scarce, but towards the end of Season 1, fan-favorite Decepticon Starscream showed up.
Weir, who wrote the episode “Possession,” says, “I pitched the idea that Waspinator would get possessed by some sort of supernatural entity. Then Bob suggested we make it Starscream. That was the first time we really dug into the history of Transformers.”
After “Possession,” the history of Transformers grew increasingly important in Beast Wars, particularly in the second and third seasons. In time, Megatron would discover The Ark — the Autobot ship which contains the dormant G1 Transformers — and he terminated Optimus Prime (who, of course, would be saved later).
Beast Wars even ended with the resurrection of the “Nemesis,” the Decepticon warship from the original series. The timeline would all be set right in the series finale, though, when the Nemesis was re-sunk, most of the Predacons were defeated, Megatron was captured, and the Maximals ventured back to Cybertron aboard an Autobot shuttle.
“The universe weeps”
Beast Wars didn’t just pull from Transformers mythology, it also enriched it in many ways. Brough argues that the most important contribution Beast Wars made to the Transformers franchise was the invention of “The Spark,” which came in the show’s fifteenth episode. In it, Rhinox (Richard Newman) is desperately trying to save a fellow Maximal. He explains that a spark is the Cybertronian equivalent to a soul.
“When a spark goes online, there is great joy,” Rhinox explains, “When one is extinguished, the universe weeps.”
Brough says that DiTillio came up with the idea. “We set up what everyone accepts today as being a major part of the Transformers property.”
While ideas about Cybertronian mortality existed previously, “The Spark” solidified how life works for Transformers, and this element has carried on in every Transformers property since.
“Why the series still resonates today”
Following Beast Wars, another series — Beast Machines — picked up where it left off. Unfortunately, the spinoff came from an entirely different creative team who made many choices that alienated Transformers and Beast Wars fans alike. But despite an inferior sequel, the love for Beast Wars has only grown over the past quarter-century.
“In Beast Wars, it was important to have the characters actually grow and change, to learn from the various conflicts and to not win every battle,” Greg Johnson, another writer on the series, tells Inverse.
“Straight action stories between good guys and bad guys would have worn thin by the third episode, so it became essential to give the audience more.
“Making sure that the episodes were not just plot-driven, but character-driven is why the series still resonates.”
Since 1996, many different Transformers series have come and gone, but while transforming trucks, cars and airplanes are once again the dominant force in Transformers stories, Beast Wars is far from forgotten.
Its characters still appear in comic books and cartoons, toys based on the series appear again on toy shelves, and in Summer 2022, the Maximals and Predacons will make their big-screen debut in the next Transformers film.
Indeed, in the annals of Transformers history, the spark of Beast Wars will never go out.