To a Power Unknown

A prototype weapon designed to reverse the direction of missiles, causes a dramatic change in the Transformers’ personalities. Plus, other stories from the 1986 Transformers Annual.

Growing up in Britain in the 1980s, annual were a Christmas staple. These hardback books carried text and comic stories, posters, fact files, interviews, quizzes and anything and every else. All the popular TV shows of the day had an annual and I recall my bookshelf being stocked with Knight Rider, Buck Rogers, Roland Rat, Spider-Man… and of course The Transformers.

The first annual was released in 1985 and was pretty good, even if it jarred quite annoyingly with the comic continuity (the Plague of the Insecticons story being a case in point) and the 1986 book sets out to eclipse the previous years. Overall, it succeeds but mostly due to Simon Furman’s amazing Dinobot story Victory (which we’ll come to next) and text stories like State Games which aren’t too shabby either. The book is edited and compiled by Sheila Cranna who was the original editor of the UK Transformers comic. No offence to her, but I tend to think things really improved after she departed.

To a Power Unknown offers the intriguing concept of Evil Autobots and Heroic Decepticons long before the 2008 Shattered Glass story set in a parallel universe. The spectacle of a super polite Megatron and Shockwave complimenting the other’s leadership abilities is a hilarious moment but all in all the story is let down by poor execution, jarring dialogue and some questionable colouring (Seekers all being coloured like Starscream for example). The reversal of the Transformers personalities is well explained though by way of a computer virus that infiltrates and reprograms hardware.

The story is by the unfamiliar pairing of Ian Mennell and Wilf Prigmore with semi regular artist Will Simpson on pencil duty. I like Simpson’s work and he has some good moments here, like when Starscream is hit by Jazz’s missile in mid-air – and he draws a realistic Bet Lynch and Ken Barlow from Coronation Street in a bizarre sequence later in the story. Then there are the scenes in Pinewoodsville where Prowl appears in two places and you can make out Mirage’s back wheel but not what he’s doing, that are crammed and confusing.

The story begins with Optimus Prime thundering along a British motorway with several of his Autobots huddled in the trailer. For the explanation of why they are on the other side of the Atlantic, we’re shown a flashback to recent events where the Autobots were the honoured guests of the citizens of Pinewoodsville, USA. All had been going well until a freak malfunction caused the Autobots to attack the humans and one another. All the goodwill they had built up with the townsfolk evaporated. Once the madness passed, Optimus Prime had ordered Prowl, Jazz, Mirage and Sideswipe, to accompany him to Britain where the signal which altered their behaviour originated.

At the same time the Decepticons had also been affected. In their case the signal made them friendly and docile; they even started apologising to humans for trashing their town! Afterwards Megatron was furious and ordered his Decepticons to locate the ‘Autobot’ device that they thought must be responsible for the hack.

We learn that trigger for these personality changes is a top-secret prototype called PARD – the Purnel Auto-Reverse Defence system. It has been invented by one Professor Purnel to reprogram missiles and turn them against their sender. Its waves had literally covered the globe even being felt in the US. Purnel’s Nazi sounding assistant Zeke Heilmann turns out to be a spy who intends to steal the PARD technology.

Prime is injured by a direct hit from Starscream’s missile and is then attacked by his fellow Autobots as another wave from PARD hits them. After it wears off Starscream tries to press the advantage against the wounded Optimus, but his circuits are still scrambled and he starts picking up errant TV broadcasts, including Coronation Street (!!). This is an even weirder cameo than when Richard Branson featured in the TFUK story Salvage a couple of years later.

Jazz arrives at Purnel’s headquarters to find it on fire and Heilmann escaping with the computer core. He hops into Jazz, believing the Porsche to be a getaway vehicle supplied by his employers and is captured by Starscream. Jazz can’t allow the technology to fall into Decepticon hands, so he lobs a rocket at the Decepticon. Starscream transforms in mid-air, narrowly avoiding the heat seeker and Heilmann is blown up along with the computer chip.

Later the Autobots are driving home with the injured Optimus on their roofs. A passing family think Prime is an art sculpture until he waves at them!

The story shows that the Transformers are little more than machines that can be reprogrammed. It’s a serious vulnerability as super advanced robots should be easily capable of replicating anything the Professor has come up with and that’s a weakness of the story. This is also the first and only time we see the Autobots able to fly in their robot modes.

Also, in the annual is the text story The Beginning. Teenager Adam Reynolds tries to hack into Portland National Bank but instead accesses the Decepticon mainframe and uncovers a history of the Transformers war on Earth. It’s a more creative way than a straightforward ‘story so far’ and with a sting in the tail as Adam triggers a security protocol which sends one million volts coursing through his home PC, blowing it to bits!

The Return of the Transformers concerns Danny Philips, the boy rescued from an exploding bank by Inferno a year ago (that’s the same Inferno who isn’t destined to arrive on Earth for another two years in the main comic). He stumbles into a Decepticon-captured power plant and is rescued by Fireflight. Later, Superion demolishes his hotel to get to Starscream. The experience makes Danny realise that the Transformers are not the perfect beings he thought they were, and he throws his scrapbook about them into the sea. Superion as a liability has echoes of the Marvel US story Aerialbots Over America.

The third text story is State Games which is a nice prequel showing Megatron as a gladiator in the Cybertron province of Tarn. Sunstreaker is thrashed by him and is saved by another fighter, Optimus Prime. The games are a public distraction from a serious fuel shortage. However, war breaks out between rival cities. Optimus tries to get Overlord (who in this story is an ageing Autobot ex-ruler rather than a formidable Decepticon) and is guarded by Ravage and his brother Nightstalker. Nightstalker self-destructs when he comes under attack and Ravage switches sides to join Megatron’s new world order. As Megatron builds an army he is hailed, just as he was in the arena.

State Games is also a good read and fills in some of the back history to the civil war. It attempts to portray Megatron as more than a self-centred, power-hungry bully. He is a popular charismatic who’s able to sway hearts and minds and has a justification in trying to overthrow a corrupt and tired world order. In many ways this story is a precursor to 21st Century tales such as Eric Holmes’ 2007 Megatron Origin mini-series for IDW.

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