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The Spin Sheet

DVD review by Jeff Kleist of The Digital Bits

Transformers: The Complete Series - 25th Anniversary Matrix of Leadership Edition
1984-1987 (2009) - Hasbro (Shout! Factory)
Released (via mail order) on DVD on July 13th, 2009

Program Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/A/B+

Transformers: The Complete Series - Matrix of Leadership Edition Box Set

Millions of years ago, a great schism emerged between the peace loving Autobots and the imperious Decepticons. The resulting war reduced their mechanized planet, Cybertron, to a shell of its former self, covered in rubble and drained of all natural resources. Backed into a corner on the losing end of the war, the Autobots set off to find new sources of energy. But after a Decepticon attack, both factions crash-land on Earth and spend millions of years in stasis, only to have an earthquake uncover their sleeping vessel. Reconfigured and restored to disguise themselves amongst Earth machines, the war ignites anew with Mankind caught in the middle.

Transformers returns to DVD after many years of being out of print, carefully pieced together from the best available tape material. While previous DVD sets had attempted to go back to the original film elements, the incomplete sources available, combined with the large amount of temp animation contained in them, produced results that many fans found completely unsatisfactory (more details here). The good news with Shout! Factory's new version is that it's mission accomplished: They've produced the best possible version of classic Transformers available on disc.

Colors are much brighter - in fact, very close to the original animation cels I've seen - and image fidelity is very high for standard DVD. Print damage and dust is all over the place, endemic to the quickly-produced, low-budget Japanese productions of the time, but I'm told this was present on Day One broadcasts of the show. It was often present on the actual negatives (which were then transferred to tape for editing). The animation budget suffered quite a bit in the show's third season, as funding started to run a little short, but overall there's a consistent level of quality here, and most of the complaints can be attributed to the original production rather than DVD transfer or mastering issues. The soundtrack on these episodes is as good as can be expected for a 25-year old kid's show, with the original mono spread out to create a strong and consistent stereo track, far superior to the gimmicky "5.1" mix that came before.

The overall packaging features two cardboard slipcase-style end pieces, that slide open to reveal the disc compartment under a lift-able lid. Inside are four Digipack style cases (one for each season) containing 16 DVD discs in all. The overall box is definitely aesthetically pleasing, but may not be as durable as more traditional packaging, so those of you with small children might want to keep it out of short arms' reach. Also included in the box is a full-color, 56-page booklet, complete with character bios and a guide to all the episodes, as well as a pair of magnets. Measuring a solid 5-inches tall each, these are high quality Autobot and Decepticon emblems suitable for display on any metal surface - even on your own vehicle, to make the kids in the parking lot do a double take. They're only printed in grayscale and not the proper shiny purple or red, but that certainly doesn't distract from their fun factor.

The contents of the Matrix box set

As far as the actual disc-based content, Disc Three offers Season One bonus features, including the Triple Changer: From Toy to Comic to Screen featurette, which spends a solid 20 minutes talking about the effort to get the franchise off the ground and the challenges of combining multiple unrelated toy lines into a cohesive whole. The Season Two bonus materials don't appear until Disc Eleven (which will be part of the Season Two, Part Two DVD set down the line), but are the best of the lot. The Combiner: Forming the Transformers Animated Series featurette covers the casting and creative shaping of the show, with director Wally Burr, members of his production team and a few of the voice actors. Meanwhile, Headmasters: Voicing Robots in Disguise re-unites 8 original members of the voice cast including Frank Welker, Michael Bell and more. They discuss their approaches to their roles, offer wonderful anecdotes and, of course, give "off the cuff" character voice performances. Also available here is a printable Writer's Bible for the series that the scribes used to keep the characters and continuity straight. This is a great little gem and is the kind of thing so many other series rarely included on DVD.

Disc Sixteen holds the last of the extras from Seasons Three and Four - the post-movie era. The Autobots, the Decepticons & the Fans featurette gives the people who kept the franchise alive for a quarter century their due, and includes a look at a truly awesome 1:1 scale Optimus Prime model that should not be missed (too bad there isn't more on its construction). The final video extra is the Into the Creation Matrix featurette, which spends a half hour with Bob Budiansky, the person most responsible for defining the Transformers characters and the universe they live in. What's most interesting to me here is the acknowledgement of the differing continuities between the comic book and the TV show. The comic used many early concepts ("fuel" instead of Energon for example). It's a shame that Shout! couldn't have included the original comic miniseries a a DVD-ROM extra. (Conversely, it would be cool to see the entire comic run on DVD-ROM, as many Marvel Comics series have recently been released.) The final video-based extra is a short fan-created CG cartoon that incorporates some of the Michael Bay movie into the "real" Transformers universe. It's mostly worth viewing for the enthusiasm contained within (this CG short also features a commentary track from the creators).

Rounding things out, about a half-dozen printable scripts are spread across the entire set, along with vintage Hasbro toy commercials, some G.I. Joe-style "knowing is half the battle" PSAs, galleries of concept and fan art, and something called From the Files of Teletran-2, which includes character profiles that seem to be from some prior video releases back in the 1980s. If there's one thing that's really missing from this package, it's the unfortunate lack of Peter Cullen, the one and only Optimus Prime himself. Something else I would have liked to see included, especially with all those voice actors gathered in one room, would have been a new 10-15 minute radio drama or something similar - a new Transformers story of sorts, just for kicks. Good thing there's a 30th anniversary down the line. Matrix-willing, these actors will all stay healthy enough for another go. Until such a time, this is a nigh-perfect DVD collection of our favorite animated, after-school time waster.

Remember when all the major TV networks would run a preview night of their new Saturday morning line-up (with their biggest stars as hosts) the day before the premieres? In the early 80s, big new kids shows with toy tie-ins all took a similar route on syndicated UHF stations. G.I. Joe, Transformers, and many others had 2-hour prime-time premieres supported by heavy advertising campaigns. Saturday and weekday afternoon 'toons were a really big deal back then - something that's hard to replicate in today's age of multiple 24-hour kids cable networks. Transformers was among the best of these shows, and it's still highly watchable as an adult. I've been digging out my old toys, are they're still just as cool as they were back then. If you're a fan, this box set may be a little pricey, but it's still definitely recommended. Enjoy, and roll out!

Jeff Kleist
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