A lot of Transformers fans will likely find it a bit odd I've chosen this particular episode to talk about as an Optimus Prime highlight. They'd probably point in the direction of Dark Awakening, widely regarded as the best episode of the original cartoon, or War Dawn, Prime's secret origin. The Return of Optimus Prime is generally seen as being a bit crap. But the reason why I hold this particular 44 minutes of television so closely to my heart can be seen in the picture to the left, the UK video release.
It will be hard for youngsters growing up in a world where all you have to do is wait six months to buy a film to keep forever on a shiny futuristic disc for less than the cost of a cinema ticket (if they even bother to pay at all of course) how important the video rental market was back in the 80's and 90's. Very few people had insanely massive VHS collections, with them generally never costing less than a tenner even when reduced and them being so much larger and chunkier than DVD's few had the money or the space. So the local video library was a God send here in the UK, especially for parents with kids. Many an hour of silence was brought by grateful parents by renting a tape of their favourite show, with the same tapes often being rented several times over the years (to the point where it would actually have worked out cheaper to have brought a copy, but hey ho).
Most, and indeed possibly all, of the first season was broadcast cut into chunks and alternating with Challenge of the Gobots in WACADAY, but the second season only got a very small number of episodes (though I distinctly remember the bits with Swoop on the Cybertron Subway from Desertion of the Dinobots interrupting some Timmy Mallet hi-jinks) and none of the third year made it to ITV. The videos took advantage of this by generally picking shows from those neglected seasons, which from Hasbro's point of view also gave some extra advertising to the later toys.
In theory a lot of Transformers tapes were put out, but in practice it boils down to mostly being the same episodes. Sometimes in what's basically the same tape in a different cover and sometimes in different combinations, but released over and over again, right into the mid-90's. If you start to think about how The Girl Who Loved Powerglide was probably seen by more kids than any other episode you'll likely start feeling very sad.
What's especially awesome about The Return of Optimus Prime for me is that it wasn't just a rental treat, it was one of the few tapes I actually owned as a child. Despite it not coming to the UK till a couple of years after broadcast and Prime never really having been away for very long in the weekly comic (the Brits main fix of giant robot action) there was still something very exciting about the promise made by the narrator at the end of the film, that “THE GREATEST AUTOBOT OF THEM ALL, OPTIMUS PRIME WILL RETURN” being fulfilled.
And look at that video cover, the use of Powermaster Prime box art is just gorgeous, and even though Prime himself doesn't look remotely like that in the show itself (the Powermaster toy being released after the cartoon ended) it doesn't matter. I especially like Skullgrin (who also isn't in it) looking like he's about to crap himself at the sight of Prime.
Once you got past the cover (though lets pause to note it's proclamation that Optimus Prime is THE ULTIMATE ROBOT) though you arrive at something that perfectly sums up nostalgia, objectively it's an atrocious two part story from a show that was never especially good to start with and that by this point was pretty much a horse with a broken leg begging to be shot and put out of its misery. But it doesn't matter, watching it brings out a warm happy glow within me that makes me take objectivity and throw it out the window.
To put the story in context, the third season of the cartoon was undone by one massive false assumption- That the film which preceded it would be a insanely huge box office hit loved by children and students alike. Voice recording on the third year actually even started before that for the film, meaning that by the time it turned out to be a massive box office bomb condemned by parents for it's ubber violence and the death of much loved lead character Optimus Prime it was too late to do anything about an opening story that assumed everyone watching had seen the film. Nor an early episode compounding the Prime error by bringing him back as an evil mind controlled zombie before blowing him up again (sure, it sounds cool now, but for those kids who'd cried first time round it was like a kick in the face from Chuck Norris).
By the time the season ended, the show seemed to be pretty much over (though it would limp on to a final “season” of three episodes that valiantly tries to shove every single one of the 1987 toys in it via a very big pot of lube), and for the season, and at the time it was made possibly series, final they decided to follow through on Hasbro's request to bring Optimus back properly so that parents would stop writing in.
When they get Prime back to their lab the three scientists turn out to be the worst possible people to have found him, with assistant Gregory being pissed off at all robots for a scar he got during an Optimus/Megatron smack down (a rather sweet flashback marking the original Decepticon leader's last appearance in the cartoon) and his boss Dr. Morgan becoming outraged as his daughter, Jessica, is crippled in a fight over the metal between the Technobots and Terrorcons. This double tragedy means the two decide to use Prime's body and the spores for revenge. Because what can possibly go wrong.
Despite the premise being extremely flimsy (most obviously, no one involved is a biologist but act like they're an expert on the red dust after one test on some rats), but there's something really fascinating here the cartoon had never previously touched on. This story is set 20 years after the first episode, twenty years of giant robots causing mass destruction all over the place. The cartoon had always been very careful to not show any human cost to all that damage, either being sure to show them coming out of explosions unscathed or hoping no one would pay any attention to Decepticons ripping apart presumably inhabited buildings.
In sharp contrast to that, here we get humans acting, not because they're evil, but because they've been traumatised by their encounters with the Transformers. It's still fairly kiddy friendly, but Jessica having her legs crushed and her father's subsequent angry reaction to the Autobots giving her an exo-suit to help her walk as it's turning her (in his eyes) into a robot is surprisingly strong stuff.
The fact Morgan's logic is blinded by grief also helps hand wave the fact his plan is really really stupid and utterly dependent on the current Autobot leader being a moron as well.
Luckily for him, the current leader is Rodimus Prime. Worse that that, the cartoon version of Rodimus Prime (as opposed to the far more hardcore Marvel UK take), who effectively achieves the one and only accurate prediction the show made about the 21st century by being a great big emo.
He also shows up one of the big problems the third season had, it was aiming, laudably, to have more ongoing stories and continuity between episodes. But the American syndication market in which the show aired was entirely geared towards standalone instalments due to the need for a flexible broadcast order. So as well as episodes being shown before ones they were blatantly sequels to, we also had the amazing yo-yo characterisation of Rodimus. Repeatedly we'd start a show with Rodimus full of self doubt and loathing about his worth as Autobot leader, only to come to realise it is his Destiny(tm) and he really is all that. It happened in, Dark Awakening (repeated right before this story in America despite the discontinuity) and, in terms of original material, in The Burden Hardest to Bear, just two episodes before.
Despite all the constant positive affirmation he's received, we find Rodimus virtually crying like a big baby over a rather horrid statue of his predecessor and moaning about how he'll never be half as good. As well worn as this is it does make an interesting contrast to Morgan though, both characters are acting (or rather in Prime's case, going to act) irrationally because of emotional trauma. It's such a cleaver parallel it's almost certainly unintentional, but it's still an interesting one to look out for.
Jessica arrives and tries to warn Rodimus off, but because of his residual guilt he goes traipsing into a trap. But because of the need to pad out the running time he's very careful to slowly call out the entire assault team he's taking with him (and you can tell it's padding rather than toy advertising because the brand new never seen before Throttlebots are the only ones not to be referred to by their individual names. It's still strangely awesome though and even now I can pretty much quote all of it still.
The Autobots go to Morgan's lab, and all get infected by the plague, as do a group of Decepticons led by Galvatron who've come because their inconspicuous giant purple bat spy was listening in on Rodimus' conversation with Jessica. This starts a trend of Galvatron getting all the best lines in the show, crying “They've all gone mad, this is no place for me!” before running off.
Rodimus and Jessica also manage to escape with Prime's body unscathed, but the damage is already done and the plague manages to get out and infect everyone. Including creatures on the other side of the galaxy. Way to go Rodimus.
To add to his bad day, Rodimus decides that the only solution to his problems are to bring Optimus back to life. When Wreck Gar fails to of any use at this beyond doing Star Trek quotes (a seminal moment in the life of the Dark of the Moon writer) he decides to go to the official arch nemeses of all Transformers, their creators, the Quintessons. And as they were responsible for the whole Evil Zombie Optimus thing what could possibly go wrong?
This at least means the wonderfully superior Sky Lynx gets to give Galvatron a run for his money in the snark stakes as he goes to the Quintesson bolt hole and manages to rescue the one uninfected member of the species. Who, by a remarkable stroke of luck, is their chief necromancy expert rather than the janitor.
Sadly Rodimus gets infected by a seemingly very horny Ultra Magnus (“Where's that punk Rodimus Prime? I WANT him!”), meaning that, bar a slightly dull fight in the second part, the entire Rodimus sub-plot is entirely left behind at just short of the halfway mark. Indeed, outside of the stories coda, we won't be seeing anything of Morgan and Gregory again either.
Still, we have Sky Lynx and the Quintesson acting as the new Two Ronnies to more than make up for this, being entertainingly insulting to one another as the world ends around them, culminating in the Quint remote controlling Prime's body to punch Sky Lynx, seemingly for the hell of it.
But that leads to the money shot, what we've all brought/rented the tape for. Because as Sky Lynx so aptly puts it, “The world needs a leader... now!”. Bathed in white light, standing up majestically Optimus Prime returns from the dead with a defiant “And this time, no force in the Universe will stop me!”. TO BE CONTINUED. Damn, the cliffhanger is that the spores are in trouble from the sheer bad assery of Prime.
Cullen's performance here is especially worth noting, he was certainly never a slacker as Prime, but from the movie onwards he seems to really raise his game as the character, bringing a firm strength and level of kick ass that's been maintained right through to the current films.
Sadly though, The Return of Optimus Prime Part 2 is mainly an exercise in water treading until Optimus can work his cosmic mojo on the hate plague (which, considering the story must take place over a least a few days depending on how fast the various spaceships used to wizz about the Universe are, doesn't seem to be causing all that much trouble. You'd expect more long term health damage from glowing bright red).
The padding starts instantly with the Quintesson spending some time reviving damaged Autobots who will then proceed to contribute nothing to the story except have a lengthy scene of them all talking about how great Prime is and how they have no idea what to do. It does manage to introduce Goldbug, the rebuilt Bumblebee, renamed seemingly totally randomly by Prime seemingly just to remind the former Bumblebee of his standing as Optimus' bitch. More worryingly an animation error meaning the Quintesson has also rebuilt Wheelie into an exact double of Blaster for no readily apparent reason is going to stand out more once you notice it just for the sheer “What the hell?” factor.
Prime decides that, as he's been out of the loop for a year and he's surrounded by idiots he needs the Matrix for help to sort out this mess, but can't touch Rodimus to get it back. Luckily Checkov's Gun comes into play and the heat resistant metal stolen by the Decepticons back in the first episode can protect him, so everyone goes off to the Decepticon base on Chaar. Though there's some fun to be had from teaming up with Galvatron (“I don't need you any more Optimus... So much for your resurrection!”) pretty much nothing of any interest happens in these bits and the infected Decepticons fighting together work better as a unit when supposedly full of hate than in pretty much any other random episode. And we won't even ask how a metal that can survive a super nova can be melted in the first place.
Still, once coated an impervious Optimus returns to Earth, beats the crap out of Rodimus and takes back the Matrix, though at this stage all the other uninfected characters bar our favourite Quintesson have started doing the Ready Brek glow thing, mostly due to them being really, really stupid.
Once back at Autobot City Optimus goes into the Matrix, and talks to the spirits of past Autobot Leaders, including a nice little cameo from Alpha Trion. Learning that only wisdom cad destroy the madness of the madness of the hate plague (so there you go scientists, stop trying to use medicine to cure AIDS, just throw Stephen Hawkins at it) Prime unleashes the Wisdom of the Ages from the Matrix itself, restoring everyone to normal, even if it has the unfortunate side effect of having Stan Bush start singing The Touch.
The final tag scene actually manages to round things off in style, especially considering this was almost certainly made with an expectation of being the last ever episode. Galvatron (possibly made a good deal saner by the Matrix Wisdom) actually comes over to Optimus Prime and shakes hands with him, declaring that “There will be no war today Optimus Prime. You have earned Galvatron's respect”. If the show had ended here, an overture of peace between the two leaders would have been a nicely upbeat final. Despite Morgan and Gregory getting off seemingly scot free for almost destroying the Galaxy just by saying “Sorry” being a bit annoying, Prime driving the Autobots off into the sunset with a “Transform and roll out” still manages to be a fairly cool final shot. Just don't ask where they're going and why they're leaving a bunch of Decepticons and a Quintesson in their headquarters.
It's fair to say that The Return of Optimus Prime is indeed deeply flawed on just about every level. But some great lines and a cast giving enough oommph to ensure even fairly ordinary ones such as “I feel like a Goooooooooldbug” take on a certain memorability means it's hard to hate. There is no more powerful weapon in the arsenal of crap 80's kids TV than nostalgia, but my soft spot for this is still big enough to overcome all the inherent plot problems. Because that is one kick arse video cover.