Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on G1 Skids

During the second year of Transformers toys, there were a number of characters who—for one reason or another—weren't featured in the comic books or cartoon shows designed to promote the toys. All the toys licensed to Hasbro from Bandai, for example, were forbidden from appearing in the cartoon because Takara didn't want another toy company's products being advertised, explaining why we never saw the Deluxe Autobots or Deluxe Insecticons on the TV show (and also why Jetfire was at first heavily redesigned into the nearly unrecognizable Skyfire, and then later discarded altogether). The Jumpstarters, on the other hand, actually were Takara products, so theoretically there was no reason why they couldn't have been included—they even got official character models—and yet both Topspin and Twin Twist were ignored by the cartoon completely, and appeared domestically in Marvel Comics only as background characters. Another character who was virtually ignored was Skids. While it's true that he was included in both the comic book and Sunbow cartoon, his role was fleeting and he remains a largely forgettable Autobot. People still tend to dismiss him as a non-show character, lumping him together with the likes of Roadbuster or Chop Shop, and express surprise when they learn he actually showed up on TV. In a way, his brief taste of media exposure is even more tragic than the characters who didn't appear at all.

Like all the Autobot Cars from 1984-85, Skids originated from the Diaclone toy line in Japan. Interestingly, while Skids was a unique toy within the Transformers toy line, there were actually four different Diaclone toys in this style. The Diaclone version of the Honda City Turbo, characterized by the off-center hump in the hood to make room for the turbocharged engine, came in both blue and black. There was also a toy based on the Honda City R, which had a different head sculpt for the robot mode as well as a completely flat hood; it was sold in red as well as silver. The Hasbro toy instructions actually show the Honda City R model, complete with alternate face sculpt, suggesting that Hasbro was selling this as the Transformers version at one stage. (The silver version was eventually repurposed by Takara in 2002 and released as the eHobby exclusive character Crosscut.) In other words, if you thought the Bluestreak/Prowl/Smokescreen trio was a tad excessive, consider yourself lucky that you didn't have to buy this toy four times over to complete your Transformers collections! (Ironically, Skids was only available as a Transformer in Japan—the market that would most likely recognize and embrace his vehicle styling—as part of a limited edition gift pack with Sunstreaker and Buzzsaw.)

What's interesting about Skids is that even though a lot of people classify him as a second-year toy, he was actually released by Hasbro in late 1984, along with other toys like Shockwave and the Dinobots. Like all the other Japanese toys repurposed by Hasbro, Skids was theoretically ready and available for a domestic release at any time. In this case, however, his toy's production came too late for him to make his appearance in the cartoon pilot episode, or to be included in Marvel Comics as a member of the Ark's original crew. Skids didn't appear in the comic book until issue #14, lumped together with other second-year Autobot Cars like Hoist and Tracks, and he didn't show up in the cartoon until midway through the second season, when many of the 1985 toys were being introduced. Hasbro mandated to some degree which toys would be featured prominently in the cartoon show, specifying that they wanted a TV episode starring Blaster, another one for Omega Supreme, etc. The fact that Skids had already been released in 1984 may explain why he never got a showcase episode to his name—as far as Hasbro was concerned, he was already old news. (He was notably absent from the 1985 toy commercial that introduced other Autobot Cars like Grapple, Smokescreen, Red Alert, and Inferno.)

Skids transforms into a Honda City Turbo, a compact car that was popular on the Japanese market in the early 1980's, and to a lesser extent in Europe (where it was marketed as the Honda Jazz), but it was less familiar to consumers in the American marketplace. For this reason, numerous fans have frequently mistaken Skids for a minivan, despite the fact that Hasbro identifies him as a "race car" in his instruction booklet. (Even the artists at Marvel Comics portrayed him as particularly boxy and van-like, particularly during the aforementioned carwash scene.) In vehicle mode, the toy measures less than three and a half inches in length, officially making Skids the smallest toy in the entire Autobot Cars assortment. He's styled accurately to the real-life vehicle on which he's based, with details for added realism that include vacuum metalized headlights, tinted windows, opening driver and front passenger doors (which are designed to lock in place), and an opening hatchback. The Diaclone version of the toy came with a small foldaway scooter that stowed away in his rear compartment, just like the real Honda City Turbo. Hasbro got rid of the scooter accessory because it was designed for the Diaclone driver to ride, which they had also omitted from the domestic release. (Like most of the Transformers based on Diaclone toys, Skids has a seat to accomodate a driver figure, but you have to partially untransform him to gain access to it.) The wheels and tires on the toy, incidentally, are identical to those on the Sunstreaker toy.

Skids' transformation to robot mode is similar to that of Jazz, with the rear of the vehicle forming his legs and the front end serving as his chest. He's oddly tall and lanky as a robot, with unusually long legs and weirdly skinny arms that suffer from a lack of elbow articulation. At this early stage in transformable robot history, little effort was made to give the robots the same articulation we're so accustomed to in this day and age—back then, the fact that a car could even change into a robot in the first place was enough of a gimmick—so the only useful joints that Skids has are swiveling wrists and shoulders that can either pivot or rotate. (His lower legs can move individually, but they can only bend backwards at the knees.) You actually have a few options regarding how to position his arms; according to Hasbro, his front wheels belong on the outsides of his shoulders, but this ignores the hinge that allows his arms to swing up and out, giving him broader shoulders and more reasonable proportions (now his arms only come down to his knees, instead of his ankles!). Skids is fairly delicate in design, and older, well-loved units have a tendency to pop apart in bothersome places—pretty much anywhere he had a snap-together assembly—like the roof of the car, his head, his kneecaps, and at the waist. Thankfully, his windshield popping off isn't the result of the toy breaking, as it tends to be with more fragile toys like Prowl or Jazz.

Skids comes with three weapons, which is a bit overkill considering he only has two hands. Without holes in his fists to hold them, though, he remains one of the blesed few Transformers toys whose accessories clip to the sides of his arms, like Rumble/Frenzy or Shrapnel and Kickback. It's possible to equip him with all three weapons simultaneously by clipping his single-barreled gun to the front of his arm and his double-barreled gun to the side of his arm (indeed, the weapons seem designed to do just that), but Hasbro apparently didn't notice this since they instruct you to equip him with only two accessories at a time. Curiously, Skids is described in his TRANSFORMERS UNIVERSE profile as being equipped only with a twin electron blaster and a liquid nitrogen rifle, even though he's drawn with his rocket pod instead of his liquid nitrogen rifle. The rocket pod was designed to fire missiles, but Hasbro neutered the launcher for the domestic release and supplied a very weak spring.

Skids did manage to appear in two separate cartoon episodes, albeit very briefly. We first see him as part of an Autobot strike force who arrive to fend off the Insecticons in the episode "Quest for Survival," and shortly thereafter we see Hoist working on him in the aftermath of that encounter. When Spike reports the successful acquisition of a robotic insecticide designed to stop the Insecticons from devouring the Earth's crops, Skids utters a single remark, "Robotic insecticide?" in response. We also see him later in "Triple Takeover" as part of the group who infiltrated Blitzwing's football-stadium-turned-highway-maze and stop him from launching bombs into the city. "We'll stop him at the ten-yard line!" Skids promises in a completely different voice. Skids and the other Autobots present are thoroughly demolished by Blitzwing, and their remains are later rebuilt by Scrapper into a makeshift throne. (Skids is restored by the end of the episode, but quite frankly I can't blame the guy for venturing out into the field more often!) He was such a forgettable character that voice director Wally Burr must have forgotten that Michael Chain (Hoist, Powerglide) provided his voice in the first episode, because Dan Gilvezan (Bumblebee) was assigned to the character for his second appearance. It's notable that the animation model for Skids is clearly a second-year design, interpreting the toy far more faithfully than the first-year animation models.

Skids has a far more prominent role in Marvel Comics, and even got his own showcase story. In issue #19, Skids is damaged in combat and abandoned by the Autobots, so he spends the entirety of issue #20 masquerading as a normal car, pretending he belongs to Charlene the cashier cowboy. This issue features the infamous carwash scene that has gone down in history as one of the most pseudo-sexually charged moments in Transformers lore. In issue #101 of the British version of the comic, Skids is shunted into a temporal limbo as a result of Galvatron traveling from the future to the present day. Given that these events were not part of the U.S. story, this prompted the UK artists to redraw Skids, or remove him entirely, for scenes from subsequent U.S. issues that were reprinted in the UK in which the character appeared in the background.

It's possible the toy was never featured prominently in the media because the character simply wasn't very marketable. While characters like Sideswipe and Brawn were described in their tech specs as powerful warriors, and Bumblebee was a super-secret spy—all very exciting stuff to children—Skids had a tech specs function of "theoretician," a word most seven-to-twelve-year-old boys could barely pronounce, let alone understand what it meant. Essentially, Skids' job was to sit around and think about stuff. (One supposes that this was what he was doing behind the scenes, perhaps explaining why we didn't see more of him.) Speaking of his tech specs, there appears to be a rather significant typo in his biography. He's described as being able to travel at 560 mph, which is improbably fast for a ground vehicle (this nearly approaches the speed of sound), particularly when he only has a Speed rating of six on a 1-10 scale. In any event, there don't seem to have been any edicts from Hasbro specifically forbidding the use of the character, like the ones that were eventually put in place for Skyfire and Reflector, so one supposes the writers just didn't find him compelling enough to tell any stories about him.

It seems as though Hasbro may have been planning, at one point, to release the red Honda City R toy as Skids instead of the blue Honda City Turbo. The Hasbro instruction booklet for Skids actually shows the Honda City R model, with the alternate masked face used for the illustrations and the turbocharger hump notably absent. There's also a Find Your Fate, Jr. children's book that identifies Skids as a red car. Further evidence to support this theory is the fact that when Skids returned from his absence in the UK comic book, he was inexplicably drawn with the alternate head sculpt of the red Honda City R toy. Given the sheer number of different color schemes that some of the Diaclone toys were available in (SEE: Bluestreak), these types of mix-ups really aren't that surprising.

Skids has demonstrated considerable longevity, given his relative obscurity during the olden days. His original toy has been reissued in both Japan and America; the domestic reissue had its launcher mechanism gutted entirely, but aside from that is a faithful reproduction of the original. The character was also revisited for the Alternators toy line in which he was reimagined as the oh-so-boxy Scion xB (though the toy looks a little more like Ironhide to me than Skids). There will also be a character in the upcoming Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen film named Skids, though it's doubtful this is intended to be the same character. Likewise, the character's name has been used for the Robots in Disguise toy line (spelled Skid-Z) and Transformers: Armada (for one of the Mini-Cons).

Some people collect Transformers because they want to own physical likenesses of their favorite characters. For people like this, there's almost no point in even bothering with Skids. However, if you happen to enjoy Transformers because they're cleverly-designed toys and can appreciate the engineering that went into them, Skids is an interesting little toy surrounded by a surprising amount of history—and mystery.



Zobovor said...

No comments at all? Really? (Well, I guess that means I got my Diaclone history right so there's nothing for people to nitpick...)

Jimtron said...

It's a good review, and timely given my review of #20 a few days earlier. I guess I just didn't have much to say about him.

Mark Baker-Wright said...

Likewise, I liked this review. Fills in a few details that I wasn't aware of when I did my own so many months ago.