People Power

Goldbug journeys to Nebulos in the hopes of restoring Optimus Prime to life, only to find the planet terrorised by a new type of Transformer: the Powermasters

As summer 1988 rolled around, Transformers UK was enjoying a strong run of stories. Readers had been treated to the zombie-fest City of Fear (one of my all-time favourites) the Wreckers’ showdown with Galvatron and most recently the satisfying spectacle of Blaster versus Grimlock on Earth’s moon, amid of cast of near hundreds of Autobot and Decepticons, a fanboy moment if ever there was one.

All of this has built up to the year’s main event: the honest-to-gosh-finally-at-long-last return of Optimus Prime! There have been a couple of false dawns on the way: Prime’s brief return in Salvage, which turned out to be a figment of Megatron’s diseased mind, and the Prime who returned in Pretender to the Throne was a video game character, a diminished version of the Autobots’ greatest leader. But now, after an absence of a year and half some 70 issues, Optimus is back.

With Transformers being a toy franchise, it’s perhaps not surprising that Prime’s return should be precipitated by owners Hasbro, who have decided to reissue Optimus Prime as part of their new Powermasters toy line. Building on the novelty of Autobots and Decepticons with transforming heads and guns, the Powermasters have Nebulan companions who become their engines, ‘unlocking the power to transform’.

At this point, Prime had killed off in the comic and, also, more famously in the cartoon canon courtesy of the 1986 Transformers Movie (creating childhood trauma in the process). So, this new Optimus Prime toy is more than just a revamp of an existing character, it’s more a revival and restoration with emotional power underpinning it.

As we know, in the world of comics no death is ever final, and Marvel US writer Bob Budiansky had left the door open for Prime’s eventual return by hinting that Ethan Zachary may have preserved the Autobot leader’s personality on a floppy disk. Now, things have developed, and video game Prime is due to be downloaded into a new body in the one place with the technology to make it happen: Nebulos.

You might say that People Power is the perfect title for a story about humans who become the powerplants of Transformers. Kev Hopgood prefaces the action with his cover of TFUK #176 (dated 30th July 1988) introducing the Powermaster Decepticons, Darkwing and Dreadwind, poised to throw the distinctive globe on to the heads of Roman-looking Nebulan senators (it’s not the first time that globe monument has been manhandled by Transformers either).

The story opens with the two Decepticons in their combined plane form ‘Dreadwing’ opening fire on a high-end eatery under domes, poncily-titled the ‘Gardens of Eternal Peace and Harmony Macrobiotic Restaurant’. A flying taxi plane zooms away, making Nebulos appear to be a futuristic version of Earth with familiar white faces (unlike the cartoon who made their Nebulans alien-green).

The bickering Decepticons introduce themselves and their Nebulans, Hi-Test and Throttle, as they land alongside the restaurant complex. The pair are like the new Runabout and Runamuck, only less complimentary to one another. Darkwing is the more hot-headed and is bonded to Throttle, a small time criminal, while Hi-Test is a self-centred-scientist-turned-bad, but the brains of the outfit. As their order the manager to prepare “20 servings of your best entrees -fast” we learn the first facets about the Powermaster Nebulans: they need food, and an awful lot of it, to power their Transformer companions. It’s an obvious limitation and weakness if sufficient food sources are not to be found.

Shortly afterwards, Steelhaven arrives in orbit. A shuttle departs for a secluded industrial complex on the surface, where its Autobot passengers, Goldbug, Getaway, Joyride and Slapdash, depart at speed. Inside the complex, we’re introduced to the Nebulans, Lube, Hotwire, and Kari engineering machinery of some sort. The Autobots transform and in a ‘take us to your leader’ moment, announce they are seeking an audience with the eminent scientist Hi Q.

It’s unclear at this point how long it takes the Steelhaven to cross the galaxy from Earth to Nebulos: certainly, the journey in the other direction appeared to take weeks or months. Hi Q’s recap of the significant developments that have occurred on Nebulos since the respective armies of Fortress Maximus/Galen and Scorponok/Lord Zarak suggests a reasonable amount of time has passed. To ensure the Transformers could never return the High Council of Nebulos endorsed the plan by Hi Q and his then assistant Hi-Test to detonate a bomb in the atmosphere that would render the planet’s fuels toxic to Transformers.

It’s best not to dwell too much on this drastic solution, implemented at great haste, with little care for the natural environment. Surely such a reckless move would have all-sorts of unforeseen consequences and how could they be sure it would not be easily bypassed by the technologically advanced Transformers, or prevent Nebulan vehicles from working?

Hi-Test had apparently quit in a fit of pique, jealous at his boss Hi Q’s accomplishments, and recruited Throttle to help him breathe new life in Darkwing and Dreadwind – two Decepticons who come to Nebulos in search of Scorponok’s forces and presided over a short-lived reign of terror before the poison fuel permanently grounded them. Using fuel conversion theories stolen from Hi-Q, Hi-Test had mechanically engineered himself and Throttle to become the engine partners of the two Decepticons and returned them to full working order, and more.

It’s worth noting that Hi Q comes across as a massive curmudgeon for much of the story and a decidedly reluctant host. Not only does he make it clear that Goldbug and company are unwanted on Nebulos; he expresses incredulity that they travelled half the universe for the trivial purpose of “rebuilding a machine” (Optimus Prime), and questions their very sentience; then saying he will “not mourn” their passing when they eventually run out of fuel and cease functioning.

Not only that but Hi Q is unmoved by news of the death of Galen, one of the greatest patriots Nebulos has known (the guy who gave up his entire future and even left his home-world never to return, to restore the peace). You might be inclined to question Hi Q’s one-sided account of the tensions between him and Hi-Test, but the fact that the latter seems to confirm everything with his own utterances and actions.

That said, Hi Q does warm up a bit when he sees the precision and efficiency of the Autobots at work on constructing Prime body (despite their own weakening). Further brownie points are there to be earned when Goldbug responds to the news of the latest Decepticon attack, by the leading the four of them off to do battle.

Part One concludes with Darkwing and Dreadwind paying the ruling council a visit. They tear off the roof and demand to be told the whereabouts of the Decepticons who once visited Nebulos. Defiant Peers Sorgen refuses to cooperate, which is foolish really as you might think giving the Decepticons the information they need would be the quickest way to get them on their way. Darkwing wrenches the Nebulos globe from its stand and holds it aloft, as per the cover image.

TFUK #177 is fronted by an iconic cover of Optimus Prime ‘back and here to stay’ with his distinctive new-style cranium and Wild-West-style smoking gun as depicted by Jeff Anderson. As the blurb (probably written by Simon Furman) confirms, “this time it’s no dream, no imaginary tale,” and a “new era of Transformers greatness has begun”. That’s quite a claim, but there’s no denying that this is a major development for the title.

The story picks up with Slapdash, Joyride and Getaway racing towards the Nebulan capital, guns atop their vehicle modes blazing, only for Darkwing to react by hurling the famous Nebulos globe in their direction and taking out all three in one hit. As debuts go, these three are not making a great impression so far or exhibiting much in the way of distinctive personalities (to be fair, Rev, Lube and Hotwire, are also pretty much interchangeable in terms of personalities, with only Kari, Hi Q and the bad guys making an impression). The Autobots’ poor performance is attributed to their lack of fuel, with only the ‘energy-efficient’ Goldbug able to offer any resistance.

As Dreadwind circles back, he dumps a burst of blaster fire on the hapless Autobots, further zapping them of strength. Later, at Hi Q’s lab, Goldbug’s wounds are found to be relatively minor compared to the other three, who are now dangerously low on resources. Their plight is at least starting to win sympathy from Hi Q who now ponders whether they are more than just intelligent machines.

Kari points out that the Transformers are “dying” before their very eyes, which causes Hi Q to beg Goldbug to return to the Steelhaven: if he rebuilds Optimus Prime under these circumstances, the Autobot leader might live again, but not for long. Here Goldbug makes a ‘really big’ call, that it’s better for Prime to “die a whole Autobot” than continue in a second-class life as a game character. While the sentiment is reasonable, it’s surely a decision for those more senior than Goldbug.

They continue with the reconstruction, and soon the Prime we know and love stands before us. Kari infuses the robot body with the personality from the disc and Prime, begins to stutter into life in a glow and crackle of electricity reminiscent of the birth of Frankenstein’s monster. He’s had a few upgrades courtesy of the Nebulans, and now with a thought, he can combine with his trailer into a larger and more powerful form (cool, but pointless if, as the Nebulans believe, he’s not destined to survive).

At first, he continues to speak as the game character Optimus, confirming Hi Q’s initial impressions, but when suddenly he collapses in agony, Prime realises that he is fully alive. Goldbug can only apologise but Prime reassures his old friend that it is better to live for a few precious moments than endure the living death of the disc. Hi Q, on seeing the nobility of the great Optimus Prime, spontaneously offers to undergo the Powermaster process to save him. Rev, Hotwire and Lube follow the example of their mentor, but the pacifist Kari cannot be part of this. Thankfully Goldbug has “enough juice” in the tank to survive.

The stage is set for a final showdown, as the peers inform Darkwing and Dreadwind of the location of the Autobots. The pair don’t guess it’s a trap and swoop down on Hi Q’s lab, only to be met by the re-energised Getaway, Slapdash, and Joyride, who are now able to dodge their shots and return heavy fire of their own. The Decepticons decide to retreat but Optimus Prime steps out and shoots them down. Hi Q jumps out from Prime’s Powermaster compartment on his stomach and confronts Hi Test.

He reveals that Hi-Test and Throttle are to be banished from Nebulos (by order of the Council) and must depart immediately, which they do. Hopefully they packed sufficient food for a long journey across space.

With Optimus and the Autobots now bonded to Nebulans, it appears they will have to stay, and Goldbug to pilot the Steelhaven home on his own. That is until Kari points out that Hi Q has accomplished the very thing he set out to prevent: he’s made it possible for Transformers to again survive on Nebulos. The stability of the planet could again be threatened unless they also depart, which Hi Q agrees to do. They rocket away, leaving Kari behind to shed a tear.

In conclusion, the return of Optimus Prime after a year and a half absence predictably overshadows everything else, but overall People Power is pretty decent launch for the Powermasters, with a reasonable attempt to invent a different reason for Nebulans and Transformers to team up. Darkwing and Dreadwind steal the show and are welcome editions to the franchise (we’ll be seeing lots more of them), with great toy incarnations and their unique combining super jet mode. The Autobot Powermasters don’t make much impression though unfortunately.

The small cast of Nebulan characters have been portrayed nicely, although I find it strange that they make a split-second decision at the end to leave the planet for good (don’t they have friends and family etc?). With Kari crying at the end we have similarities to the final Headmasters episode Brothers in Armour.

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