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Zob's Thoughts

Unicron: Character or Plot Device?

It sort of amazes me, in a way, that a Transformer the size of a planet--and nearly as large as the late, great Orson Welles himself--is often so easily overlooked in the fandom.

The Transformers: the Movie was an exercise in taking the Transformers concept to the ultimate extreme; everyone and everything could transform. Outside of the usual Autobot and Decepticon characters, Spike and Daniel could now transform as well; the Autobot base could transform; pretty much anything living on Quintessa could transform... and all those guys who got eaten on Lithone could transform, too, if Arblus and Kranix's TRANSFORMERS UNIVERSE profiles were any indication. And yes, somebody decided that it would be fitting that the movie's climax would feature the biggest Transformer in all creation. Enter: Unicron.

As a literary device, Unicron's function is vague, at best. His role in the course of the story is, basically, to eat things. (Though amusing when taken at its face value, this is a threat that taps into our very subconscious. The fear of being eaten by predators is very likely hard-wired into our own nervous systems, even though the vast majority of us don't worry about that sort of thing on a day-to-day basis. I think that's one of the reasons video game characters like Pac-Man and Yoshi are so innately appealing.)

Unicron's only weakness in the film was, of course, the heretofore unseen Autobot Matrix of Leadership. The purpose of the Matrix was not significantly expounded upon in the film, but given that it resembles a miniature planet-mode Unicron, the implication is clear that its sole purpose is to destroy Unicron.  It's the story of an archetypical power play that has been told countless times. (The concept would be visited again in Transformers during the third season's "Forever is a Long Time Coming," in which A-3's coda remote device somehow defeats all the Dark Guardians. The main difference, of course, is that Unicron was aware of the existence of the Matrix, and made its destruction his secondary objective.) It's interesting that Unicron was portrayed as being so powerful that the Transformers themselves, the heroes of the story, were incapable of destroying him without a magic talisman.

Is Unicron actually a character in the traditional sense? In a way, he was more of a force of nature more than anything else. The fact that he spent almost the entire film in planet mode served to depersonalize him; even during his dialogue with Galvatron, which were easily the most defining moments for Unicron as a character, it's difficult for us as an audience to relate to a giant disco ball, even one that cracks jokes and makes snarky comments.

When we finally did see his robot form, he immediately ceased his conversations with Galvatron or anyone else. He didn't even speak to Rodimus Prime, making no efforts to distract or dissuade him, as the Matrix-bearer unleashed the talisman that destroyed Unicron's body. (Unicron's final words were spoken to no one in particular, given that every other Transformer had evacuated his body by this point.) Why didn't he at least try to establish a dialogue? He obviously didn't feel he was entirely above the Autobots and Decepticons, given that he was willing to communicate on Galvatron's level.

Unicron would, perhaps, have been far more interesting as a character if we'd learned more about him in the film. Did he consider his need to devour planets a curse? Was he forced to gobble up entire worlds because of the vast energy requirements of his immense size? Perhaps he felt so guilty that he rationalized the deaths to himself by only devouring planets inhabited by mechanical life. Maybe he despised his creator and, much like the third-season Quintessons, summarily executed anyone he can across who vaguely fit the description. Or, perhaps he was a rogue planetoid, searching the heavens for other life forms like himself.

Of course, the fact that so few of Unicron's motives and desires were explored makes him ineffective as a character. Unstoppable supercharacters are inherently boring, whether in fanfic or canonical stories, because there's no conflict. Nothing's at stake. Unicron gets what he wants whenever he wants it, and he'll eat you if you don't give it to him. (Unless you happen to own the only trinket in the Universe that can kill him, that is.) Even "Call of the Primitives" dropped the ball on this one; the episode had a perfect chance to build on Unicron's character and the significance of his relationship with the Matrix, but instead we get the horribly clichéd "Frankenstein's monster-planet" origin and only a vague hint of his connection to the Matrix.

It's not surprising, then, that Unicron's consistently earned a poor turnaround in the Trannies awards. Everybody thinks he would make a neat toy, but obviously not because of their attachment to the character; he typically ranks behind 50 or more characters when it comes to fan favorites. (He does come out on top when it comes to favorite non-toy characters, but look at his competition. Arcee? Jhiaxus?) As far as the movie goes, he would have actually been more menacing if he had been some lifeless Force of Nature that could not be bargained with or reasoned with. That's basically what he was, as far as the Autobots were concerned, who referred to Unicron as an "it" and showed no remorse as they blew his body to pieces.

In the third season, Unicron was a bit more interesting, if less threatening. He never really recovered from his ordeal in the movie until "Ghost in the Machine," when Scourge and Starscream's ghost reactivated him. For the first time, Unicron was helpless, bargaining with Starscream not because it was convenient for him to do so, but out of necessity.

Unfortunately, Unicron's yearnings consisted of little more than returning to the status quo--once he got himself some peepers and a shiny new bod, he would have gone right back to the celestial smorgasbord. The fact that Unicron made an honest bargain, though--having to place trust in Starscream that he would fulfil his end of the deal even after getting his new body--made for an interesting, if brief, moment of character interaction. (I'm wondering if the third-season Unicron wasn't a bit off his rocker panels anyway. Somehow I can't picture Unicron from the film cackling madly and moaning, "All tresspassers must dieeeeee!")

So why wasn't there a Unicron toy? One reason cited by Hasbro at BotCon '94 was that kids didn't find him particularly enticing during play-testing; all he really did was fold up into a big ball. Personally, I'm not convinced that too many of the other 1986 movie toys that were released had any more inherent play value. Wreck-Gar is only a vague approximation of a motorcycle. Ultra Magnus is, to use the vernacular, a brick on wheels. Surely Hasbro was relying on kids remembering these characters from the film and wanting to own physical representations of them, rather than hoping the merits of the toys alone would push the sale. With this in mind, I'd say this bodes poorly for Unicron's potential as a memorable character.

Of course, there's also the notion that even in a fictional universe in which there is a very clear deliniation of "good guys" and bad guys," kids are far less likely to root for characters who don't even have toys made in their likeness. Even with the innate understanding that Megatron or Galvatron will never emerge triumphant because they are, of course, Evil Decepticons, the target audience also wants to see these guys live to fight another day, if only so as not to diminish the usefulness of the toys kids have bought in their likeness. The same does not hold true for villains like the Quintessons or the Sweeps; the writers may feel free to abuse these characters as they see fit, or not to use them at all, since these characters do not exist to sell toys, and kids are far less likely to mind if one of them blows up on-screen. The practice of treating non-toys as disposable characters is a very real one, and so the message of "no toy = non-character" persists.

The Marvel Comics version of Unicron, meanwhile, was a very different entity indeed. Like the cartoon version, he represents the ultimate evil archetype, and is still the biggest Transformer in creation (indeed, he holds the patent on the gimmick). This version of Unicron, however, has an arch enemy. The introduction of Primus serves as a more believable yin to Unicron's yang--a living being that can match him in size and strength. It's a nice idea, but sort of falls apart in practice, since Unicron only interacts briefly with Primus, acting through Emirate Xaaron, before Unicron destroys the puppet, killing one or both of them. Primus, then, was little more than a plot device himself.

The comics Unicron wasn't above interacting with the Transformers themselves though, and he was much easier to relate to as a character. In U.S. issue #75, easily his star performance, Unicron spent almost all his time in robot mode, transforming to planet mode only when he was ready to devour Cybertron. He took the time to address several Transformers individually before eating or killing them, which was a far cry from his role in the movie in which he barely acknowledged the Dinobots' presence and remained almost completely oblivious to all those Transformers running around inside him.

This Unicron also had actual motives behind his behavior. He actually snacked on planets for a reason (he was trying to recreate the Void, where he was apparently at peace with the non-universe) and his fear of the Matrix made perfect sense (it was basically the life-essence of his mortal enemy). The art from that issue frequently featured dramatic head shots of Unicron himself, clearly showcasing him as a character instead of just a machine.  Unfortunately, Unicron did very little before his starring appearance aside from plucking Galvatron from the future and doing a lot of evil foreshadowing (to say nothing of his role in the movie adaptation, which nicely mirrors the non-character from the theatrical version).

One could even argue that Unicron's role as a plot device in the comics was even more transparent. While the theatrical movie was a vehicle unto itself in which Unicron just happened to play a major role, Unicron's main function in issue #75 seemed to be to dispense of the characters that Hasbro was no longer selling as toys. In that respect, Unicron was little more than a Starscream/Underbase retread, albeit a more dramatically-written one.

What we're left with, then, is a character who had a powerful impact on the Transformers mythos in every continuity. He was involved in the stories that shook both the cartoon and comics universes to their respective foundations, and the fervent wish of one of his toy prototypes being mass-marketed haunts the fandom to this day. His legend persists to such a strong degree that he's been mentioned in numerous series subsequent to the original cartoon, including Beast Wars and Beast Machines, and at least a couple of the Japanese series as well. He is one of the most profoundly significant characters ever to be associated with the Transformers name.  

Which is funny, since he's really not a character at all.




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This Page Created 7/2/2001