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.
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.
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".
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