Friday Flashback - Beast Wars: Code of Hero

If a TV show is very lucky, it will have during its lifespan some singularly defining moment that completely alters the way the entire work is viewed from then onward. If it's fortunate to the extreme, that change of audience perception will even be a positive one. As one of the most important contributors to the overall body of Transformers fiction, Beast Wars was graced with such a moment, when, on this day twenty years ago, March 9th, 1998, the episode Code of Hero debuted in US first run syndication. Keep reading...

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Code of Hero was in the second half of season two, just a few episodes away from the finale. That would prove to be a big event that would change the direction and scope of the show's plot considerably, but in terms of narrative impact, Code of Hero reached a height that could not be matched. This episode concludes Dinobot's character arc, which began in earnest early in this season. For the first season, Dinobot's status as a Predacon-turned-Maximal did not often significantly motivate any plots, nor was particularly deep exploration of Dinobot's character carried out. Season two gave Dinobot some deeper introspection as he faced the uncertainty of what their travel to the prehistoric past of Earth really meant, both for his race and history in general, but also the personal implications. This led to actions of some desperation, including an attempted return to the Predacons in hopes of being able to answer some of his doubts.

Code of Hero begins on this, with Dinobot in his room within the Maximal base, contemplating suicide. Cause let me tell you, first run syndication in the 90s was a wild time. Kneeling in a darkened room, brandishing his sword, quiet. The imagery is clear, even though it's never explicitly stated what he's doing here. He's come to such a point in his existential crisis that he's considering self-termination to finally be free of it all. This ties in, in some way, to one of his own fears expressed earlier in the season which foreshadows this. he says something to the effect of that if he could not be the master of his own fate, that his own death would only be a moment removed from that confirmation - saying in vaguely veiled terms that he would take his own life rather than live according to some predetermined cosmic path. However, in the moment, Dinobot cannot follow through, and casts his sword aside.

Leaving his room, he encounters Rattrap who does not waste an opportunity to verbally attack him over his returning the Voyager disk to Megatron a few episodes earlier as part of his attempt to rejoin the Predacons. Essentially, Rattrap has lost whatever amount of trust he had developed toward Dinobot since his original defection to the Maximals, and he ends the encounter by openly questioning Dinobot's honor and integrity. With this, it seems entirely affirmed for Dinobot that he's lost everything because of the mistakes he's made. He realizes it's not possible to undo his actions. Even if he received genuine forgiveness from the Maximals, the consequences of his choices would remain. But, he can take action now to try to correct that past mistake, and he sets off from the base, gun in hand.

Meanwhile, Rhinox has been doing calculations regarding the transwarp shockwave released at the end of the first season when the first alien super weapon was destroyed. Because of the time travel properties of transwarp, the energy wave is moving forward through time as well as space. As contrivance would have it, the wave seems like it will encounter Cybertron in more or less the native timeframe the Maximal and Predacon crews came from in the first place. This extremely convenient development means that once the wave is detected, it will be possible to retrace its path to the origin point. Rescue from Cybertron now seems a certainty, the Maximals need only wait for it to arrive. But, Megatron has realized the same thing, and finds his hand increasingly forced. To this end, Megatron is currently on an expedition with Rampage, an event which Cheetor is able to observe briefly, before the two Predacons open fire and drive him off. Cheetor can't pursue them, and signals for assistance; someone has to find out what they're doing. Dinobot is the only one in range to receive the messages, and promises to follow up on it.

Awaiting the perverse spider to emerge from his lair in order to collect a recently trapped animal, Dinobot manages to ambush Tarantulas. Dinobot wants the information from the Golden Disk and expects Tarantulas to have a lead. However, after Dinobot stole the Disk itself previously, immediately followed by Blackarachnia downloading the backup copy - and then destroying the computer that contained the files - Megatron has had more than enough with these constant failures of security. Tarantulas explains that all that's left now is the original Disk, which Megatron always has in his pocket. But Dinobot is not particularly deterred by this. He was probably expecting to have to confront Megatron for the original one way or another anyway. Tarantulas taunts Dinobot that Megatron is easily miles away at that point. Ah, but how convenient that Tarantulas gained a motorcycle form when he became Transmetal and Dinobot already has him at gunpoint. And so, Dinobot and his brand new spiderbike take off to intercept Megatron.

Back on the lovely nature stroll, Rampage understands that Megatron's days are numbered if Maximals from Cybertron really do come to rescue Primal's crew. All may not be lost for Megatron, as he produces the Golden Disk and explains it contains information - and images - from the planet's future. Megatron has led Rampage to the vicinity of a mountain depicted on the Disk to conduct a test. He has Rampage fire on the top of the mountain, destroying part of it. This change is soon reflected on the image Megatron has been projecting from the Disk, proving that the future as recorded can be changed. Dinobot arrived in time to witness the experiment, and the realization of all his worst fears: The future can be changed, giving the Golden Disk significant power, but that power is currently in Megatron's control, and Megatron is poised to use it to rewrite reality as they know it. Below them lies a valley from which humanity is destined to arise, and ultimately interfere with, and turn the Great Wars in favor of the Autobots, leading to the current Maximal-dominated society. The rest of the Predacons assemble at Megatron's location in preparation for a complete slaughter.

Tarantulas capitalizes on Dinobot's distraction to attack him from behind, but Dinobot is able to best him and leave him incapacitated. Dinobot calls on Optimus to send help, but even as Optimus tells Dinobot to wait where he is for backup, it's clear that this is impossible. The entire valley will be burned to the ground and its inhabitants killed long before help gets there. Dinobot knows the time has come for the final battle of his life. Acknowledging the irony that just as soon as he finds that his future is not fixed and predetermined, he's confronted with no choice in his next action, Dinobot leaps to action and engages the Predacons.

Dinobot is singlemindedly focused on his mission: Stop the Predacons. With each next Predacons he stops, from Inferno, to Blackarachnia, Waspinator, Rampage, and Quickstrike, he fares a little more poorly. But he manages to disable each of them, removing their immediate threat. But it's taken its toll. His damage is considerable, his weapons are already gone by the time he faces down Quickstrike, and doesn't even have energy for an eye-beam by the time he's done. In fact he's exhausted himself so severely that he's on the verge of death. His on board computer urges him to enter preservative stasis lock to minimize his power requirements so what little remains can maintain his life support. But that itself would be suicide in this situation, and Dinobot cancels the stasis lock protocol.

His choice is well made as Megatron rounds a corner to face him. They stand as opposites now, each the last remaining obstacle to the completion of their objectives. Dinobot must stop Megatron to prevent him from changing the future here; Megatron needs Dinobot out of the way to complete his goal and reshape history to his own benefit, a fact he has no hesitation at holding over Dinobot now. Unarmed, irreparably damaged by the battle, and drained almost to the point of death. Nonetheless, Dinobot is ready to take Megatron on, but is just as quickly halted as Megatron reveals a prisoner: one of the protohuman primates that live in the valley. Dinobot's concern over the hostage disgusts Megatron, who chastises him for being so very Maximal. Either way Megatron is unconcerned; Dinobot's old technology, what can he possibly do now? Dinobot's easiest at hand weapon, a stick, is no good against a Transmetal, but Dinobot is a skilled warrior to the last, and is able to bind a heavy stone to the stick. His newly created hammer is just enough to take Megatron by surprise, and allow his hostage to escape. It also causes Megatron to let go of the Golden Disk, which Dinobot seizes and summons up the very last of his power to blast and destroy.

The Maximals approach in time to force Megatron to retreat. Not only has his plan been ruined, but he's lost his record of the future. With no Disk, and no copies of its data, Megatron cannot turn to it any longer to learn how to affect ancient Earth in order to remake his reality. He's lost... for now. Meanwhile, the Maximals extinguish the fires, and discover the broken Dinobot. Even putting him in stasis lock now won't save him. Optimus Primal reassured Dinobot that he succeeded, and saved everyone who lived here, and everyone that would come after them. Dinobot is satisfied, and accepts his impending death. After final words with Rattrap, Dinobot asks only that the Maximals speak truthfully of him to anyone who should ask, letting him be judged by the totality of his actions. Rattrap salutes his fallen comrade as Dinobot's spark rises from his dead frame, the other Maximals joining the salute, with Optimus Primal eulogizing him, "He lived a warrior, and died a hero. Let his spark join the Matrix, the greatest of Cybertron." Some time later, back at the base, Dinobot's funeral is carried out, with the flight-enabled Maximals flying a missing man formation over the funeral pyre as Dinobot's body is disintegrated by Rattrap and Rhinox.

And back in the valley, the protohuman who had been held by Megatron finds Dinobot's hammer, studying it curiously. First he's able to use it to break open a coconut, and is amazed by his new discovery. But it's only when he's nearly set upon by a large snake that he truly discovers how powerful this "tool" can be. He screams in joy, now being able to protect himself and others from danger, and having a new way to get food. Panning up to space, a twinkle of light appears among the stars...

Code of Hero would be the jumping off point to the end of the season, the three-part story "The Agenda", with only one more episode to be aired before that. The notions of a fluid timeline that were demonstrated in this episode become a major plot point for that finale as well as season 3 in its entirety. While very significant changes require more specific intervention, from here forward it's known that anything the Predacon, or Maximal teams do could have repercussions beyond what they can imagine. Dinobot's sacrifice removes Megatron's options, as he can no longer consult the information on the Golden Disk for clues where he can carefully alter the course of known history. In fact, the events of this episode are sort of followed up later, as it turns out Megatron has sent recon units back to the area seen in this episode to determine if wiping out the protohumans is still a viable option to pursue. But the thwarted attack scattered their numbers, making it impossible to pursue them all. Because of this, Megatron has to take a far more drastic approach, something even he did not want to consider if there was any other alternative. In this way, Dinobot's act of destroying the Disk pushed Megatron over that line, leaving him no choice if he intended to achieve his original goal.

Dinobot wasn't the first series regular to die. Counting by confirmable deaths, Dinobot is the third after Scorponok and Terrorsaur at the start of season 2. Dinobot would stand as fifth, however, if Tigatron and Airazor are added to the list, as at this point in the series they were more reasonably presumed dead rather than simply missing. If not for a new toy coming up later that just barely had time to be squeezed in the show before the end of season 3, it's likely we never would have heard anything more on them. But whether you count him as number three or number five, Dinobot's death was by far the most impactful. The others written out of the show for being Old Toys were eliminated fairly quickly when the time came; such is the fate of Last Year's Product, after all. But with Dinobot a lot more went in it. This episode was used to bring conclusion to the character arc Dinobot started out on in the beginning of the second season, as well as finally resolving Dinobot's status. That, though being born as a Predacon, by the greater weight of his actions since he defected from Megatron's camp, he had proven himself beyond the sum of his programming and the truth of his spark shone through, as evidenced by it ascending to join the Matrix upon his death. Dinobot was allowed to have a meaningful final act as his exit to the series, and to wrap up most if not all of the story threads the character had developed during the two seasons with a death scene that was, at the time, the most emotionally damaging thing for the audience since Optimus Prime died in Transformers: The Movie.

Something this demonstrates well is the difference in first run syndication versus network programming, as well as the larger freedom of portraying violence and injury against robots rather than more human-analogous characters. I can't completely clearly remember what all was trimmed from this episode for the eventual Fox Kids rebroadcast, but even fairly innocuous episodes ended up with cuts for both content and time, and the violence level here was especially high. I'm sure Dinobot's storm through the Predacons on his way to Megatron would have been altered more than a little. But in its original and repeat broadcasts in its syndication package, it was surprisingly brutal. Dinobot was heavily injured, with gaping holes in his torso, pieces of his body just missing, and even some of the outer portions of his head and face coming apart. For anything but a robotic character, this would never have made it to air in anything close to the manner it did even with the more relaxed standards of the time. And what nobody seemed to want to take to account in this process was that for the kids who woke up early every weekend or were able to catch the weekday premieres before school, these being robots didn't diminish the emotional connection to the characters. The level of violence on paper isn't that much different from what had happened to other characters over the course of the series up to that point. yes, mostly Waspinator, but he definitely wasn't the only one. What made this different was the context and the tone of the setting. Dinobot's battle and eventual death were treated with complete seriousness. Everything about it was structured so you knew that it mattered, and the consequence would be lasting. This hit, and it hit hard. I can only imagine the morning of the original airing (which the TF Wiki indicates as March 9, 1998, a Monday, though I'm pretty sure in my market this debuted on a Saturday) and the kids who got to see it right before having to head off for school who would be absolutely devastated. After all, if even 8 year old ExVee was destroyed by seeing Optimus Prime die upon first viewing of Transformers: The Movie, how could this episode do any less for its contemporary kids?

Visually this episode stands out from much of the rest of the series, and there's a reason for that. Bob Forward, one of the series writers and story editors actually went and worked with the animators at Mainframe and directed this episode to make sure everything was just right. (it wasn't quite. oops) Forward even drew up storyboards, which according to the Wiki was a first for the series. But because of this, it was possible more capture the specific vision for the episode. This shows mostly in scenes focusing on Dinobot which are framed quite distinctly from what the show typically offered. Scenes not specifically focused on Dinobot weren't too dramatically different from the series standard look and feel, but the early scene with Dinobot in his quarters and again as he looks over the valley under attack definitely show the extra care and attention the production of the episode was given.

Season 2 definitely had improved visual quality as compared to the first season, though it's small leaps. Even so when compared to more modern CG work this still has much of the quality of a Nintendo 64 game. But that doesn't matter a lot, because after a minute or two when the story really pulls you in, you largely don't pay attention to the technical limitations of the animation. Part of that is thanks to the strength of the writing doing its best to keep your focus, which I think it does well, and it's also a credit to the ability of Mainframe's animators to essentially bleed a stone. They wrung every little bit they could out of the technology they had available at the time. There are flaws, certainly, but in terms of making the characters expressive, giving them distinct body language and personality that comes through with or without the dialogue to go with it, there are still shows being made today that don't accomplish these important things as well as Beast Wars did twenty (and more) years ago.

Something that's not really appropriate to dive in to for this article, but that I hope to have a chance to talk about in the future is the creativity of the animators, especially in season 2. Solutions to toys not being designed with projectile weapons but still needing firepower in the show spawned some innovative solutions, among other interesting interpretations of features the toys had - or needed. Transmetal Optimus Primal's assault mode seen toward the end of this episode is a good example, and is something that the toy is pretty well capable of doing. It's a specific charm of an era where the toys were designed before the show models, and creative animators had to imagine ways to make them work as living things. It's a method of production that I really miss in modern Transformers fiction.

Anyway, to wrap up, because I think I could go on for a while still, especially diverging off on tangents like that last one, Code of Hero was a highly significant moment in Transformers fiction. Many long time fans still look at Beast Wars as having contributed heavily to shaping what Transformers fiction was. This is both in terms of inventing ideas like the Matrix (as in the concept that would go on to evolve as The Allspark, not the gadget in Optimus Prime's chest) and sparks, but also for the kind of storytelling Transformers could be. Long, over-arching plots, carefully developed characters that feel like they really live in their world, and solid sci-fi concepts being folded in intelligently. Somewhere along the way it broke free of just being a new licensed production, and became something more. Code of Hero really illustrates a lot of these qualities all together. The Agenda itself at the end of the season often gets held up as the high water mark for the season - if not the series - and while I can see why, I think as a single 22 minute TV package, Code of Hero really serves to represent what this series is and has to offer better than anything else.

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