What began as a straightforward, if stylistically super-serious take on the Generation One Transformers setting in the War For Cybertron Trilogy comes to a close with some considerable shake-ups in influence and inspiration here in Kingdom. It’s not just that the bumpy road to Earth in the second chapter resulted in a lot of shuffling of plot points, for better or for worse. Rather, the entire landscape and objective that Kingdom‘s story has to occupy has shifted, resulting in something that definitely feels like a continuation of the story that started with Siege, yet still comes across like a very different show despite picking up a mere twelve episodes into its telling. The lush Earthbound setting, the back-ported lore focused on the Golden Disk, and of course all the new ‘bots introduced betray a large part of the agenda here: There’s a new generation of Transformers nostalgia in line to be catered to, and let it be called “Beast Wars“!
The merchandise-mandated drafting of all the new beast-bots into the story of Kingdom makes this one feel immediately different from its predecessors. There’s a passingly-explained time-travel plot powering all this that necessitates changes in focus and story objectives. Heck, the Cybertron side of the War For Cybertron isn’t even revisited until the final episode, and even then, the presentation of the setting has shifted almost completely. Instead of the weary final days of an all-out war, this chapter portrays a messy skirmish on the planet Earth, burgeoned by conflicts between inter-faction alliances and allegiances shifting with revelations and priorities from episode to episode. We’re back to a more contiguous structure after Earthrise‘s experimenting with an episodic approach, but there’s still enough clarity in the plot points Kingdom is picking out that you can keep track of the sections the story is separated into.
Getting to play with all these new toys apparently allowed the writers of Kingdom to realize the potential of some of the big-name concepts and characters they were working with here. Guys like Optimus Prime and Starscream have been reinterpreted countless times across the franchise‘s iterations, but fan-favorites like Dinobot are significantly more singular. As such, the story makes use of the notable strengths several of those characters come pre-packaged with. In the case of Dinobot, that amounts to effectively speed-running his character development from the original Beast Wars cartoon up to his story’s famous climax. What’s surprising about that approach is how well it actually works: The writers clearly have a degree of reverence for characters like this, evoking a lot of the same emotional appeal even with the more economical telling of the tale.
Similarly, the character of Blackarachnia also demonstrates a specific strength of Kingdom‘s setup. Like Dinobot, her core appeal is clearly grasped, but she gets to tell an effectively abbreviated version of several of her classic story beats that benefit from being unmoored from other characters more influential to her old version. She, and the aforementioned Dinobot, carry more charisma into their roles than many of the previously-established War For Cybertron characters, to the point that their plotted influence on others, especially Starscream, increases the energy in those roles as well. Being anchored by some strong, distinctive vocal performances certainly doesn’t hurt, leading this final chapter to feel like it just has more energy and personality overall.
They can’t all be winners, though, and Kingdom is not without its own now-requisite stumbling blocks. As well as the new iterations of characters like Dinobot and Blackarachnia turned out, several others are not so lucky. The most obvious example of this is “Beast” Megatron, re-versioned here as a simpering devotee of the original Megatron, delivering one of the most dismally-directed voice performances in a series already filled to the brim with indistinct gravel. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with radical reimaginings of classic characters; Transformers as a franchise has proven that too many times over to count. However, even disregarding what a departure this new Beast Megatron is from his 90’s cartoon counterpart, he simply ends up not being a particularly interesting or engaging entity on his own, as a key villain or otherwise. Compared to a lot of the new characters who are simply ‘there’ in this story, Beast Megatron actually feels like a drag when he’s being involved in the plot, a waste of an inclusion in a cast that is already forced to make economical use of what it has.
As well, for as much as it feels more interesting overall, not all of the risks of Kingdom pay off. The plot particularly feels like it loses a lot of its ability for impact after the conclusion of Dinobot’s arc in its first half. The story is still constantly increasing in scope and ambition, to be sure, and there are plenty of wild turns powering these major moments. But much of it gets lost between the apparent necessity to construct an ‘epic’ finale clashing with the limitation of only having a few episodes in which to do it. The final stretch is even forced to sweep basically all of the Cybertron plot from the preceding Earthrise under the rug, with barely a moment for the characters it casually confirms as killed off. It retroactively turns that section of the story into even more of a shaggy-dog story, and serves as a microcosm of the various genuinely interesting ideas this show has that actually make you wish, for once, that War For Cybertron had another episode or two to truly flesh out their potential.
But that’s rather praising with faint damnation, isn’t it? Kingdom still carries a lot of the messiness that characterized Earthrise, but feels a bit more confident in presenting it, like it knows when to back off from punching above its weight. It makes for easily the most intriguing entry in the trilogy, even as it’s throwing out unelaborated-on concepts or making some less-than-enthusing characterization choices. The sense of extra effort extends to the art and animation this go-around as well, with plentiful new environments and converting character models, carrying even some of the more ethereal elements this story gets up to. It’s not all perfectly presented from Polygon Pictures (check out that T-posing Ultra Magnus!), but as with the story itself, it feels fresher than the way Earthrise carried on.
As entertaining as Kingdom generally is, is it ultimately worth catching up on the other War For Cybertron chapters just to be able to check out? To be sure, it’s not a lot of TV overall, and Siege is serviceable, if pretty droll in hindsight, while Earthrise is exceedingly uneven. It’s definitely going to be a case-by-case basis in terms of what each audience member feels is worth sitting through. But for this long-time Transformers fan, I still appreciate being able to experience an effectively executed Generation One/Beast Wars crossover. At the absolute least, it leaves this Trilogy on a decidedly distinctive note, depicting some fresh takes on elements of the franchise that I can hope to be further expanded on with future iterations.