Beast Wars turned 20 years old this year. Specifically back in April when the anniversary of the original airing of "Beast Wars" parts 1 and 2 occurred. But, there was the entire summer then to wait before there was more - or even a repeat of the "Beast Wars" two parter. It left the question of what to expect from this show. On September 18th, we got the first answer, with the debut of the first new episode in the show's regular syndication airing. And so, keep reading, as today we look back on the 20th anniversary of "The Web"...
This is an anniversary not typically specifically observed. September 18th is the 20th anniversary of the first airing of "The Web", Beast Wars' third episode. It's notable as it is the first episode of the show to debut in its regular syndication spot - The Power Block! United States distribution of Beast Wars in first run syndication began in a programming block with fellow Mainframe series ReBoot, as well as GI Joe Extreme and Vor-Tech, which was a kind of second strike at the underlying concepts of MASK. But that's not what we're here to talk about. So, with the launch of this programming block, the two part series opener of Beast Wars first re-aired to bring new audiences up to speed, and then the Wednesday of that week the first season truly began. And then you had to wait until the subsequent Monday for the next episode. The Power Block only lasted long enough to run the first season of Beast Wars in first run and then about the same duration of rerun - season 2 debuted about a month after The Power Block was dissolved.
"Beast Wars" parts 1 and 2 ended up telling a story that was ...well, not too unlike "More Than Meets The Eye" in its way. At the end, the bad guys are defeated to an uncertain degree, leaving them able to tell more story if needed, but also being able to act as a standalone if absolutely necessary. So while it set up some of the basic concepts of the show, it of course couldn't start developing its world in any meaningful way. That's why I think "The Web" is more special to look back on, because it's the start of Beast Wars really being Beast Wars. Both sides are digging in and adapting to the situation of being stranded long term with no sophisticated resources to fall back on. This is a pretty big component of this episode, but is something that kind of drops off quickly after. But the themes here are consistent: The Predacons focus on fortifying and arming their homestead, while the Maximals pursue adapting their technology to improve the effectiveness of what they already have. By necessity, the show had to keep a small cast, and while initially that might have felt very strange to those of us who had just a year or two before been watching Generation 2 reruns of the original Transformers with characters appearing out of nowhere all over the place, in short order it proved a great benefit. Most everyone would have opportunity to get some attention every episode, and you could have episodes like this that had strong focuses on just two or three characters.
So, "The Web" opens with Optimus Primal praising Rhinox for the development of a long range communicator, following up from the plot point of the previous episodes where their regular comm channels are worthless thanks to the energon radiation in the air. It needs to be tested, and so queue Cheetor. Now, for those coming in this without having seen the first two episodes, let me give you a little background. Cheetor instigated the conflict between the Maximal and Predacon parties. After adapting his cheetah form, he took off to test his speed, happened to encounter Waspinator who was just surveying the surroundings, and unprovokedly opened fire on him. A short time later, as Optimus was trying to negotiate with Megatron to defuse the escalating hostilities that were about to explode, Cheetor took a cheap shot at Megatron and threw a peaceful solution out the window. Cheetor didn't crash the two ships, but it's not unfair to say that he's more than a little responsible for how things turn out after. So back to today, Cheetor wants to do the test run of the communicator. Reluctantly agreeing, Optimus warns Cheetor to keep it safe and stay away from any Predacons. And Cheetor is off.
Elsewhere, Scorponok is digging a cannon out of a pile of rubble. He's not getting very far with elbow grease, so he does the only reasonable thing: he transforms and blasts it loose with a missile. Now, Cheetor, who is some fair distance away from the Maximal base by now and still managing good contact with Rhinox's communicator, hears the report of the blast, and declares he's going to investigate, and subsequently ignores all attempts at communication from Optimus who's trying to warn him off. Optimus leaves to go stop Cheetor from, like, double-starting the war, I guess.
Cheetor has gotten the drop on Scorponok, which really just reflects badly on Scorponok to be honest. Especially since just as easily, a previously hidden Tarantulas distracts Cheetor, and clears the way for him to get missiled in the (cat) face. Thanks to Cheetor's attempts to call home, the Predacons know Optimus is on the way, and so do their best to make a quick retreat with the cannon. And as Optimus flies in a short time later, he finds a very broken Cheetor going offline.
Up next, we get our first hint of Cybertron in Beast Wars, as Cheetor has a dream. Also, a cameo of Starscream's jet mode flying past! Cheetor is just the most amazing bot ever, you know? Megatron, Terrorsaur, and Waspinator can't hit him no matter how much they fire on him, and Cheetor just effortlessly blows them all away. Oh, but then things go a bit wrong as Tarantulas looms in the darkness, beyond Cheetor's ability to strike, and suddenly Scorponok appears and launches a missile at him. With a flash of Rattrap slashing at him Cheetor is suddenly in beast mode and unable to escape the missile about to make impact, and ...he wakes up screaming back at base.
Rhinox has repaired Cheetor, but that communicator is a complete loss. Without the parts to build another, Optimus is very annoyed at Cheetor's reckless behavior. And Rattrap is likewise unsupportive as Cheetor tries to plead his case. Optimus goes to consult with Dinobot about how to handle the Predacons and their new Mega Cannon, while Cheetor and Rattrap keep arguing, leading Cheetor to take off to prove what he can do. With a quick word from Rhinox, Rattrap follows, aware of where Cheetor is going and that he'll need to be stopped.
Cheetor has entered the vicinity of the Predacon base and observes the installation of the cannon, waiting for the right moment to make his move. However, someone else has been watching and waiting, and Cheetor is suddenly dragged below ground. When he regains awareness again, he finds himself strung up on a web in a large cavern Tarantulas is currently inhabiting.
Tarantulas explains his intentions: He's going to drain Cheetor's energy with the stasis web, leaving him just clinging to life, and then Tarantulas is going to eat him. Or at least the meat-like bits and fluids on the outside. For food? Oh, no. No, he's doing it for the fun of it. Episode 3, kids, and Tarantulas has already established himself as being more screwed up than any other Transformer at the time. A title that would be retained until Rampage came along, and even then in a lot of ways it remained a tossup.
Back at the Maximal base, Rhinox is covering for the absence of Cheetor and Rattrap. Rattrap, meanwhile, has tracked Cheetor's path, up to the point he got snatched underground. Finding a rock that moves pretty easily, Rattrap catches on and heads below. Tarantulas was not expecting additional guests for dinner, and he and Rattrap both transform. Tarantulas holds a bit of an advantage, forcing Rattrap to take cover and evade amid the stalagmites.
But it's not much help, as Tarantulas employs thermographic sensors to read Rattrap's heat signature - but not before increasing the setting of the stasis web, draining Cheetor faster than before. Rattrap figures out how he's being tracked and uses a "hot box" to fool Tarantulas's sensors. Catching him by surprise, Rattrap shoots one of his (robotic) legs off and incapacitates him. Heading back to effect his rescue of Cheetor, Rattrap finds he can't deactivate the stasis web, as it's locked to Predacon energy signatures. Thoroughly out of patience by now, Rattrap shoots the control computer and lobs it off a cliff.
The web now inert, Rattrap slashes through it, catching the energy deprived Cheetor as he falls loose. It's not a clean get away though. Tarantulas has hopped back to the main chamber and fires a missile. Rattrap throws Cheetor and jumps clear with him as an explosion erupts - which also results in Tarantulas being buried and left reflect on just how much he hates Rattrap.
Having escaped the collapse of the cave and made it home, Optimus demands to know where Rattrap and Cheetor have been. Rattrap covers for Cheetor, and manages to get Optimus to admit he may have overreacted earlier. Cheetor promises to mend his own ways, and he and Rattrap leave the command center. Cheetor is grateful for what Rattrap did just now, but Rattrap is having none of it. He spoke up because it saved him from falling in the same trouble Cheetor would have if he'd told the truth. Rattrap leaves, but Cheetor now acknowledges him as a friend, and thanks him for saving his life.
Cheetor and Rattrap are notionally the focus characters of the episode and the ones intended to develop through these events. And that does happen. While Cheetor still exhibits most of the faults that caused trouble this episode in subsequent ones, his respect for the idea of following orders does improve, and he's also less generally standoffish going forward. Rattrap starts on what I've long felt is a bigger characterization process. In the early episodes, he shows little but sarcasm, irritation, a bit of hostility, and some insubordination, and there's not much shown underneath it to be redeeming. From here, Rattrap keeps the sarcastic personality, but starts to evolve in to more of a wise guy than the basic jerk he started out as. Later episodes would further develop his resourcefulness that shows for the first time here as well. But man if Tarantulas isn't the one that stands out. There's not enough of him really in the first two episodes to see a personality, besides the cackling of Alec Willows. And apart from the particulars of any dialogue, Alec Willows' performance is so much of what makes Tarantulas through the entire series. The lines could have been read by anyone and had the same meaning, but Willows' performance is what made Tarantulas come to life. Freakish, disturbing, perverse life. The habits Tarantulas debuts in this episode remain a feature of the character for basically the entire series. The process he tried to subject Cheetor to is implied to be carried out on actual large animals at other points, and from time to time he's directly seen consuming things. He's not the only one that eats; he's just the only one that makes you feel bad about the idea of them eating. The episode sums it up well: Tarantulas is just flat out sick, and it makes a much greater impression than anything anyone else gets for development.
I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the visuals. I think it's a cheap shot to poke holes in the CGI today because of how far the technology has advanced. Bodies of water look ridiculous by today's standards, explosions are frequently superimposed rather than rendered with the scene, textures are ...sparing, let's say. Most episodes don't even have objects cast shadows. In its own time, Beast Wars was visually pretty amazing, it hasn't aged well in many regards. But then the only reason Toy Story isn't regarded as looking awful today is because it had both loads of money thrown at it, and a huge amount of time to be produced.
But Beast Wars holds up on one of Mainframe's great strengths: expression. That was always something the studio did really well. Characters had body language, they emoted in various ways, and that's something that they got better and better at as their tools kept improving. They might not have always generated the ideal facial expressions, but they made the most of what was available to them and they always conveyed a thought or feeling in the look of a character, how they carried themselves. The talent of the animators is still clear and present even after twenty years of computer animation development.
Where the animation may have aged badly, something that was always really excellent was the sound design. And it shows in a very particular, and maybe kind of subtle way. The G1 transformation noise is almost never heard in the show. Every character instead gets a unique sound when they transform, that actually corresponds to the actions of their transformation, at least a little bit. For someone like Optimus Primal, whose transformation is very simple, his sounds are mostly that of hatches and covers popping open. Rattrap makes the sound of his beast mode side panels hinging up and folding away. You get different sounds for different sorts of energy weapons. And the characters make little machine noises when they move. There's a lot of care in this side of things, and it's something whose quality does not fade away with age. Good sound design and engineering is good sound forever.
Alec Willows aside, this isn't the best episode to spotlight voice acting. As early as this is, the cast was obviously still feeling out their characters. This does result in some interesting things, like how young Garry Chalk is playing Optimus Primal. It's a great element since it helps convey a sense of the weight of the situation aging the character really fast as his voice and general demeanor change quite a bit by the time season 2 hits. But everybody is really playing to type still. It'll be a little while before most of the nuance of the performances starts hitting. I guess Alec Willows really just connected with Tarantulas fast. That's... maybe kind of scary, really.
So ultimately "The Web" is not particularly a standout of the series in general, and it never was. I tended to avoid it in the rerun cycles. But if I'm honest, early Cheetor was really hard for me to endure, and still is kind of. So that also tended to leave out "Equal Measures" despite it having a cool concept and some neat action sequences. But "The Web" was never going to be notable for itself, it's notable for what it started. This was the jumping off point from which the rest of the first season followed. This was the first "real" episode of Beast Wars. The first episode to help us see what kind of show we would be watching for the next three years. It was a show that cared about growing its characters right from the get-go. It was a show that did not write "down" to its audience. It was a show not afraid to push the edge just a little bit. It was a show that frequently made you forget it was an extended toy commercial.
It's hard for me to say whether I still think Beast Wars is the high mark of Transformers cartoons. Transformers: Prime did stuff I enjoyed quite a bit, although sometimes isolated in seas of my boredom. And while Transformers Animated was a sensation while it aired, it's something that I found quite a bit less love for in subsequent viewings. In many ways I still want to hold up Beast Wars as the best that's out there, but I have to try to temper the certain nostalgia that must exist in this perception. I still derive a great deal of enjoyment from Beast Wars. I'll admit it's been a while since I sat down and took time to watch through it, but when I do I feel it still holds up. That may be easier for me since I got familiar with it when it was brand new. Someone approaching it for the first time today will undoubtedly have a harder time getting past what it looks like. But if you're one such person that has yet to give this show a try, I hope you'll put that aside for just a little while and give the show a chance to win you over on its other qualities. The things that by and large are still really strong even today. It honestly alarms me that it's been twenty years since this show's first season actually started - and it alarms me even more how clearly I still remember watching the preview airing of the pilot in April of 1996. But it also is something of a comfort that all this time later I can still go back and feel the same sense of enjoyment in watching these episodes. Even as I've fallen in and out with Transformers over those two decades, my love for Beast Wars has never dulled. It's shaped my perception of Transformers fiction at least as much as it's shaped Transformers fiction itself, and I wouldn't be the fan I am today if it weren't for this show. And it all started from "The Web".