It was the year 1986 and after two seasons of watching the adventures of Optimus Prime and his Autobots taking on Megatron for control of the Earth’s resources, there came the animated movie. And let’s be honest: while the movie was beautifully animated, had a kick-ass soundtrack, and featured several iconic scenes such as Optimus’ final battle against Megatron, Unicron devouring a planet, or the rise of Rodimus Prime, from a story-telling perspective it was a mixed bag at best. A huge villain turns up out of nowhere, only to be defeated by a bunch of characters fresh of the assembly line, using a McGuffin no one ever heard of before. Not to mention killing off a whole bunch of beloved characters so that new toys could be sold.
The third season of the cartoon might as well have been a whole new series. Certainly a follow-up to the old one, but with a different cast, a different setting, and a different tone. And in order to kick off this new series / season, we get what I consider the best G1 cartoon story of them all: Five Faces of Darkness. Not only the only five-parter in the cartoon’s 98-episode run, but also by far the best effort in terms of handling multiple story threads, a pretty large cast, and introducing tons of new characters.
And yes, I am fully aware that Five Faces of Darkness suffers greatly from sub-par animation and production. AKOM, the studio that handled it, had serious problems when it came to scale and coloring, frequently filled out crowd scenes with guys who were either supposed to be dead or elsewhere (for example that infamous scene on Char where Galvatron is among the Decepticons cheering for the imminent return of Galvatron), and frequently had characters mouthing lines actually belonging to others. It’s really too bad that this brilliant story wasn’t animated by the guys who did “Call of the Primitives” or “Ultimate Doom”.
But let’s get to the story itself. Five Faces of Darkness sets up the new status quo after the disastrous events of the movie. The Autobots have retaken Cybertron, now once again a populated planet (though still sparsely due to the limits of the animation budget), and you get the sense of a larger-scale galaxy with humans, Transformers, and aliens competing in an Olympics type event. At the same time the Decepticons are in shambles, having retreated to a backwater planet called Char. Autobots Wheelie and Blurr are on a secret mission carrying Metroplex’ new transforming cog to Earth. And then there are the mysterious new villains, who are observing this new world and make their own plans.
Cue the start of several parallel story threads: even as Cyclonus and the Sweeps search for the missing Galvatron, the Olympics are attacked by the new villains, who capture Ultra Magnus, Kup, and Spike (whose annoying son Daniel is, thankfully, barely in these episodes). Springer and Arcee pursue the kidnappers, while Rodimus Prime and Grimlock check on the Decepticons, thinking them responsible for the kidnapping. As it turns out, though, it’s actually the Quintessons (who first appeared in the movie, but only as a side show), mysterious aliens who seem to have a connection to the Transformers. It was all a trap to lure Rodimus Prime, wielder of the Autobot Matrix, into a trap. When Rodimus and company narrowly escape, the Quintessons switch over to plan B: recruiting the desperate Decepticons.
Speaking of the Matrix, we finally learn a bit more about it. Not only can it destroy planet-sized Transformers and turn medium-sized Autobots into Leader-sized ones, it also holds memories. Rodimus briefly experiences this as he recovers from damages, but can’t make sense of them yet. In the meantime Cyclonus and the Sweeps have made a brief stop at Unicron (who is established to still be alive despite only his head being left) and found Galvatron, who is more powerful and crazier than ever. They run into Wheelie and Blurr, stranding them on Jupiter’s moon Io, before heading home to find Char abandoned. Everyone converges on the planet Goo and we have a big skirmish that ends up with Galvatron accidentally saving Rodimus and company (who are rescued by Wreck-Gar) and ending up in an alliance with the Quintessons.
Needing to learn more about the Quintessons, Rodimus Prime accesses the memories stored in the Matrix of Leadership and we get nearly half an episode of establishing the history of the Transformers. It was the Quintessons who created them, as Cybertron used to be a robotics factory. The robots eventually developed awareness and emotions, kicking out their creators and establishing their own civilization. Tensions between the military models and consumer goods turned violent, though, and the Cybertronian wars between Autobots and Decepticons began. The final scenes are narrated by none other than Optimus Prime, who advises his young successor to prepare, as the Quintessons seek to reclaim the world that was originally theirs.
Enter the final battle as the Quintesson-Decepticon alliance stages simultaneous attacks on Earth and Cybertron. The giant city-Transformer Trypticon is awakened and destroys the old Autobot headquarters, then heads off to smash Autobot City. At the same time scores of Decepticons invade Cybertron. Meanwhile human space pilot Marissa Fairborn is off to Io to rescue Wheelie and Blurr with some help from newcomer Sky Lynx, who gleefully smashes past the new Decepticon combiner Predaking. Tensions mount. Can Sky Lynx bring the transformation cog to Metroplex before Trypticon arrives? And what are the Quintessons’ true plans, as their promise to Galvatron, a Decepticon Matrix, doesn’t exist?
In the end, it comes down to a Decepticon: Blitzwing. Suspicious of the Quintessons’ motives from the start, he overhears them talking about their deceit. When Galvatron doesn’t believe him, Blitzwing instead goes to the Autobots. And even as the battle on Earth is won with an activated Metroplex defeating Trypticon, Blitzwing and Rodimus Prime manage to stop the Quintessons from activating a failsafe deep in the bowels of Cybertron. Sadly a crazed Galvatron interferes and the failsafe is activated nevertheless, freezing all Transformers in place.
Triumphant, the Quintessons arrive on Cybertron to reclaim their new home. But they forgot one tiny detail: Spike Witwicky, unaffected by the failsafe, who manages to destroy it and reactivate the Transformers. Hostilities between Autobots and Decepticons are briefly forgotten in the face of a common enemy, but the Quintessons manage to escape. And as hostilities seem about to resume, it’s Blitzwing again who ends the battle, forcing Galvatron to call off the attacks and retreat.
The epic story ends much as the movie did with a speech by Rodimus Prime, though a more somber one this time. It is an uneasy victory they have won. The Autobots now know that the Decepticons are not their only foes. Because the Transformers have looked into the face of their creators and seen the face of an enemy.
Of course Five Faces of Darkness is far from a perfect story. Many new characters (read: new toys) appear out of nowhere as if they’d always been there. Some plot threads are left dangling, such as why Blitzwing seems to remember the Quintessons from before (the reason for his suspicions about them), where the Matrix actually came from, or why the Quintessons waited so long before attempting to regain their planet. But overall Five Faces of Darkness is, to me, a great success. We are shown a much bigger universe as the story unfolds across multiple worlds and learn about the history of the Transformers. Rodimus Prime and Galvatron are established as the new leaders of their respective factions. We get a great new enemy in the Quintessons.
Side note: the Quintessons’ being the Transformers’ creators has largely been sidelined in favor of the more popular creation story from Simon Furman featuring cosmic entities Primus and Unicron. Personally, though, I always preferred the Quintesson version, simply because it has a more realistic feeling to it and doesn’t blur the lines between magic and technology. It’s a matter of taste, of course.
In closing I must say that I enjoy the Five Faces of Darkness “movie” far more, at least in terms of the story, than the actual animated movie. It might be because I saw it first, several years before I actually got to see the movie, and really came to like the characters of Rodimus Prime, Kup, Cyclonus, Marissa Fairborn, Sky Lynx and others. The animation is terrible, yes, but I still enjoy those five episodes to this day. For me, it’s the definite Transformers movie.