September 5th, 2011
“A Screaming Comes Across the Sky…”
They dared me to do this one.
“…It never ends.”
To be critically viable, you’d have to change more than a character – you’d have to change a whole world. But no matter what changes you made, a story without him in a major role – one of the largest roles – you’d be kneecapping yourself at the outset. He has always been, after all, one of the best of them.
(Image by Guido Guidi)
Well, maybe best is the wrong word.
There have been so many versions of his story that to have something complete, we need to try to assemble those pieces into something usable, a composite of half-formed ideas and unexplored threads, hopefully greater than the sum of its parts. Put aside, for the moment, your specific childhood iteration.
What do we know about fiction’s most perennial traitor?
He was an Autobot, at first. I mean, logically, all of the Decepticons were at one point, they’re all millions of years old and all of the original soldiers have some distant memory of what life was like in the “old days,” the back story days without the explosions. But Starscream was an Autobot after that, as people first started whispering the name “Megatron” in back alleys.
Writers tend to portray Cybertron before the war as about 90% Krypton in the pre-war period, with a few bad eggs on each side setting off the conflict. A few asshole functionaries, a few revolutionaries. That’s bullshit, of course. Wars don’t last forever – forever! – unless both sides have blood on their hands. Playing up the old-school archetypal evil stuff is what made the Decepticons into a bunch of Skeletor types. No, if they say that Megatron started as a gladiator who became a people’s hero, then make that stick hard. Make the Autobot society a decadent Rome before the fall. It’s a Rome that never conquered, yes, but the decadence is pointed by necessity – this is an entire planet of people who have failed at their service (about which more below).
In this society, though, even after it started to topple, we know that Starscream was a… well, it varies, according to the source. Sometimes he’s a scientist, sometimes an explorer. Sometimes he and his fellow Seekers were some sort of proud air force. This guy was a hero! If you assume all of those were true, then he was the Autobot Allan Quartermain, the Autobot Reed Richards or Indiana Jones.
We know he had a best friend. Jetfire was a lot like him, but you know he was less flamboyant (bulky Robotech bastard that he is). The Watson to his Holmes of a sort, a bit of a dire fellow but maybe just a bit stronger and a bit smarter, if not so impulsive; you can imagine their adventures being fictionalized in the holo-pulps. Can’t you picture someone like Bumblebee looking up to a couple of guys like this?
He also had a brother. Sometimes he’s done as a clone – forget that, clones are boring, we’ve got a precedent for Transformer brothers, and they always have issues with each other (and a side note? A Prime/Magnus brotherhood is a lot more interesting than a cliche Prime/Megatron one, as if we needed the reminder). Keep the rest, though, the religious zealotry and the insanity, because that’s when this story starts to pick up. Jetfire is a noted atheist. So already you’ve got our still-hero stuck between two ideaologies, and this is just the backstory.
A scientist with a religious zealot for a brother. Picture the conversations at the lab. Starscream’s working on studying the secrets of the universe with guys like Perceptor, and you know Shockwave was there doing all the high-level math (this is funny because they all have computer brains, and now I’ve gone and explained the joke) and his brother comes to visit. Major embarrassment! Nobody is a hard-lined adherent in stuff like those old Primus and Unicron myths anymore. But there Sunstorm goes, studying at the feet of Emirate Xaaron, the charismatic but marginalized religious leader. I’d bet a guy like Prime only goes to service on religous holidays. He’s a busy guy – blue collar work at the docks by day, white collar work as an archivist, a file clerk, by night. Hey, it’s not like robots sleep, right? It’s all that his two buddies, the doctor and the guardsman, can do to get him to come out for the occasional set of drinks (oil, energon, whatever floats your canon).
This is all fun and games (and charming silver age-style spin-off stories) until The Accident.
You just know it was Shockwave’s fault. The breakthrough that goes wrong. This is a proper superhero/villain story, here. We know our boy has that mutation, that special thing that scientists later tried to replicate, to poor results. It’s made his soul different than other ‘bots. Whether he was stalking through the comics pages as a zombie, or floating through space and time as a ghost in the ‘toons, Starscream’s got something nobody else has got. How did he get it?
Let’s step back a bit, before I come up with an “accident,” and we reach full-on fanfic-style territory here. Let’s back all the way up to the beginning of things.
They’ve overused Unicron. Movies, shows, comics, they’ve used him so much, and for the same thing every time. The strength and the weakness of the Transformers property is that for all of its gimmicks and its manga-flavored robot action, it is essentially a superhero story. Look, this isn’t a secret. These guys were in the Marvel universe for a hot second. Marvel-style mutants showed up, and Spider-Man swung ’round Megatron’s leg. One of the human supporting characters showed up in Secret Wars II, for God’s sake. Bob Budiansky did most of the heavy lifting, but Jim Shooter, Ralph Macchio, and Dennis O’Neill all took part in crafting the earliest, most important bits of Transformers. The Autobots were sworn to protect a world that hated and feared them, right? If you watched the cartoon, you remember that they all had their superpowers. Mirage’s illusions, Thundercracker’s boom, Skywarp’s teleport, Windcharger’s magnetism, and Trailbreaker’s forcefields. Takara and Hasbro asked Marvel for a backstory for their toys, and Marvel gave them what Marvel does best: a bunch of fuck-up superheroes. Some were sociopathic heroes, some were doubting, tragic villains. So it was only natural, when the time came to give them a devil, a monster above all monsters, a force of nature that ‘Bot and ‘Con alike had to stand against, the agony of Kirby’s influence stepped in, and brought down what Marvel superheroes always end up with in this position: they got Galactus.
Unicorn is important to Transformers and it should be an ever-present element, but this needs to stop. Being a second-rate Galactus is the least interesting part of Unicron. He eats planets, but the one planet he WANTS to eat is his old nemesis, his balancing force. He wants to consume his enemy. Play that up. It’s not a stomach to feed, but an emptiness. True balance by absorption. Marvel’s “real” Galactus isn’t a devil, but Unicron certainly is. He offers temptation, and he offers transformation – a need that every being on that planet seems to have. Look at the books for a second – these guys, both sides, desire to transform even more than they already do, to the point that they’re constantly getting new bodies, new forms. Nucleon is the ultimate drug for a Transformer – if you take it, you have a chance to really transform, really change – but like every drug, there’s a chance of a bad trip, and you can wind up unable to transform at all. It’s Transformer Russian Roulette.
The new thing is that Unicron exists outside of the regular flow of time. Good! Give him something else to distinguish himself. But if that’s where he is, could that not be the sort of fold where an unwitting explorer, a rash scientist, might one day venture?
Picture the great Autobot hero, ready to delve into this space beyond space. The scientists are all in agreement. This… whatever it is, it’s beyond their logical comprehension of physics (or is it? There’s Shockwave, calculating in the corner of the panel…), but it’s the discovery of an age. One day, maybe they’ll be able to utilize this pocket – why, if the energy expenditure for accessing it could be reduced, mass and energy could be shifted in and out for all sorts of useful permutations – a Transformer could change from a truck to its robot form and their trailer could just… slide out of space. Transformations could involve size and mass shifting! Hell, they could be bigger on the inside than on the outside in their vehicle forms! Such a hero would be duty-bound to explore this space.
You can picture a team being formed to go in there, the kind that in a movie might get picked off one by one. Their military elite, led by this hero. A cadre of air troopers, skilled at flying in all kinds of spaces. A new breed of explorer – call them the Seekers. And the hero’s brother is there, too, proud to be called. He probably offers a blessing that the rest ignore.
What, exactly, goes wrong? Only two of them manage to make it through the rift – the hero Starscream, and his brother Sunstorm. And what they find there…
The safety line is pulled, or somesuch. Picture the horrific sight. The brother, decimated – constantly on fire, discharging so much energy he can do little but destroy. He has seen the devil, and it is real, and he has been chosen by God to be its envoy, to bring the endtimes to Transformers. And the planet’s greatest hero… has come back changed. What did he see? If he knows, he won’t say. He might not even remember its face clearly. But he knew real fear for the first time, and to save himself, he shoved his brother in front of him to save his own life. An original sin of cowardice. A destiny set. And the poisonous touch of a demon from beyond the multiverse has corrupted his very soul.
The proclamations of armageddon coming from the loony prophet would be derided as silly… if the antichrist didn’t rise up in the colosseums, not long after.
Megatron is the antichrist, even if you give his motivations the proper shades of gray. He stands in opposition to Optimus Prime, after all, who dies for all of his people’s sins. Megatron’s change from reformer to potential dictator has always been painted in broad strokes, so you’d want to flesh that out, but that’s easy. Transformers has always been surprisingly anti-war in its design (Bay’s movies excepted). I covered this bit once before, so I’ll just quote myself:
Consider the argument from a distance, holding one’s laughter in check for a moment. Here you have a single nation of people, split along arbitrary lines. From the moment of their birth, they know nothing of life but warfare – civilian life is not an option, you’re conscripted instantly into a battle whose origins are largely forgotten. You ostensibly argue for, pray for peace, but knowing nothing else, how can you do anything but continue taking your war with you, regardless of who gets caught in the crossfire? And while there are idealogical differences between you and your foe, indeed (depending on which version of the story is being told) there are even differences in theology, the battle comes down to nothing really but an inability to share the same energy resources.
The real world parallels are obvious – maybe too obvious, it was a Reagan-era creation, and the waters would have to be muddied a bit – but plenty can be done with the initial rise in conflict, the drawing of lines, the recruiting of members. Gaining the Seekers would be a great coup for Megatron – they could appear from nowhere, raze cities in seconds. And to get the great Autobot hero? Their greatest warrior? What a source of fear, what an easy tool of propaganda. But Soundwave’s eyes and ears are everywhere, and Starscream’s secret wouldn’t remain such for long.
Why does Megatron keep Starscream around? The secret of immortality, perhaps even power beyond reckoning. Much easier to frame, in that light.
Which leaves us, here at the end, with their relationship.
A sadomasochistic love triangle. Hey, Soundwave, if he can’t defend himself without you tattling, maybe your loyalty is misplaced?
They’re written with human psychologies. An attempt was made to portray their behavior as “programmed,” and to my mind it didn’t work. So do you want to view behavior of Transformers under a psychosexual lens? It’s available. I like Arcee and Elita-1 and Blackarachnia as characters, so I’m not against giving them gender on principle. And if you do that, sexualized readings are even harder to ignore than without. Do yourself a favor, don’t look for fanart of Starscream and Megatron together. It’s a fangirl favorite. And given Megatron’s dominating instinct, if you attempt that reading, you’re going to end up with similar readings for every character he interacts with heavily – Soundwave, Prime, Shockwave, Ratchet… it’s lazy. It’s “Batman is gay” lazy. There are more interesting routes to explore.
Megatron needs Starscream. That’s where the abuse comes from. Megatron doesn’t want to need anything, or anyone. For his power, for his ability to corral the Seekers. As a symbol to the Autobots. “I took the greatest of you. The rest of you will fall.” The very appearance of Starscream is demoralizing, terrifying. Megatron might never have succeeded without Starscream.
For Starscream, his greatest moment of fear was followed up with the first Transformer who was not impressed with him, was not anything but contemptuous. Megatron is stronger, is a monster. Starscream fears him. But he also doesn’t fear him. Starscream can’t die, not fully. Megatron can make him wish that he could die, but he can’t die. But Megatron’s charisma, in Starscream’s moment of panic and terror and need, made him turn against his people. He is fallen. He is now weakness incarnate. But he is also special. But he is special because he is tainted by the robot equivalent of an Elder God. Picture the warring sides in his mind. It’s an argumentative loop that doesn’t end, and if one thing damages a computer mind, it’s an infinite loop.
Picture the vanity and ego of someone in Starscream’s position. The elite, the hero. And now, the chosen one. He was probably carted around to appear at rallies and get cheers from the Decepticons, the way he had from the Autobots. Picture the self-loathing of someone in Starscream’s position. He doomed his brother, he lost his friend, he destroyed his people. He is a chained dog. Now picture his and Megatron’s relationship. And how it must escalate every year, every day, every minute. Megatron experiments on Starscream liberally (And Shockwave is no doubt always there to help), but he never can figure out how to harness what Starscream has. And so the wheel will turn again, and the abuse will increase, and Starscream’s fear and hatred mix with his vain ego and…
Well, it’d be something like… Starscream would challenge Megatron’s leadership, and get kicked down for it, and it would repeat ad nauseum. Both of them just waiting for the moment when the cycle will stop and one of them will be free of the other.
In a world and story written to suit, the sick drama would be a microcosm of the ever-cycling Transformer conflict as a whole.
And of course, that poison in Starscream would be an everpresent reminder of the devil coming for them, the one they all ignored – the one, in fact, that the Transformers had all been created to destroy. They were a people built as weapons, it was insane to think war would not be the result.
And if the other characters were written even to their own designs, the conflicts between our Rogue here and each of them essentially write themselves: Thundercracker, the doubting conscript; Sunstreaker and Mirage, the sour aristocracy of fallen Rome, who once treated Starscream as an elevated plebian; Bluestreak, sole survivor of a razed city (by Starscream himself?), covering his trauma with a motormouth; Ratchet, the former Hawkeye Pierce type who gets his destiny entwined with Megatron’s; Jetfire, Starscream’s former best friend; Sunstorm, his mad brother, enemy to both sides and emissary of Unicron; Grimlock, the people’s hero who may as well be a villain; Emirate Xaaron, religious leader turned guerilla leader; and of course Prime, Bumblebee, Soundwave, and Shockwave.
You tip one, and the rest start to go. It’s not hard to see how the property as a whole could become completely viable again.
Other bastards reviewed in our Month of Bastards: