The Transformers franchise has never worried about canon. “Reboots” and “retcons” are rarely mentioned. Rather, stories refresh as part of arcs, and a good idea will always be waiting for its chance. That’s the premise behind Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy, a series detailing the days before the fateful exodus from the dying planet.

Divided into six parts, each a little over 20 minutes, War for Cybertron is basically a chopped-up movie. The approach makes the short series very addictive, though the brevity also demands a quick reintroduction for newcomers. Constructive Autobots refuse to conform to the militaristic vision of their Decepticon brethren, setting the stage for a civil war on the planet Cybertron. The first episode front loads this information with an exchange between Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Jake Foushee) and his rival, Megatron (Jason Marnocha).

After that, the show wastes no time getting to the good stuff.

Transformers: War for Cybertron stands out from other installments thanks to the independent streaks of its cast. Audiences get an immediate taste with unaffiliated scavenger, Bumblebee (Joe Zieja). Sporting a bad attitude, everyone’s favorite little guy makes it clear he likes neither Optimus Prime’s freedom-preaching nor Megatron’s “I have no choice” despotism.

And looking around, there’s no great mystery as to why. Cybertron is hammering on death’s door. The Autobots are in hiding. Decepticons patrol the streets and skies, pressing independents to choose an allegiance. And energon, the precious currency and foodstuff of both sides, is becoming more and more rare. This is a grim tale, without the glory or the simple “good versus evil” themes of decades past.

This is a grim tale, without the glory or the simple “good versus evil” themes of decades past. Even the Decepticons have a right to be angry with their enemies.

The misery and desperation have long taken their toll on the Autobot ranks. Optimus Prime and Ultra Magnus (Edward Bosco) have differences of opinion which leads the latter to make a fateful decision, driving the rest of this chapter’s plot. Prime is shockingly patient with the draconian Elita-1 (Linsay Rousseau), who frequently questions his benevolent decisions. Meanwhile, all medical needs are solely handled by Red Alert (Todd Haberkorn), a situation explained when the Autobots eventually visit Ratchet’s (Rafael Goldstein) neutral clinic.

On that last point, War for Cybertron carefully paces character introductions. Given the sheer size of the cast, its impossible to give everyone their chance to shine. But it’s intriguing to see many hold back their gifts and abilities out of fatigue with the Autobot leader. This is an honest and appreciated concept, as Optimus has become overly worshiped in the last decade, and perhaps given too much screen time. Witnessing his failings is strangely refreshing.

This isn’t to say the Decepticons don’t get their own moments, which the show runners use quite effectively. In a change up, Starscream (Frank Todaro) is now third-in-command, beneath Seeker commander Jetfire (Keith Silverstein). In the original continuity, Starscream and Jetfire were friends, until the latter vanished and was rediscovered on Earth. Trusting his chum, Jetfire joins the Decepticons before he realized what they stood for, and switched sides. But that friendship is long dead in Transformers: War for Cybertron, if it ever existed at all. Starscream’s snake-like nature cannot abide anyone above him, although Jetfire makes an intriguing buffer between him and Megatron’s crown.

But the most eye-opening character maybe Impactor (Brook Chalmers). Detailing the struggle of Cybertron’s function-determined class system, he becomes a window into Megatron’s appeal. Even the Decepticons have a right to be angry with their enemies.

Tannhauser Gate in

Not unlike… Jay Gatsby, Foushee portrays a beloved character suffering from weakened confidence… Forthcoming chapters will give [him] a chance to grow…

The voice cast is interesting. While the Decepticon actors (Marnocha and especially Todaro) do a great job in emulating their roles’ forerunners, the Autobot voices are more mixed. Some try to recapture their predecessors (kudos to Bill Rogers for his performance as Wheeljack) but others do their own thing. Ironhide for one possessed the youthful voice of Kaiser Johnson, an experience that could be somewhat jarring for old fans.

Yet the biggest hurdle went to Jake Foushee as Optimus Prime. Not unlike the challenge of depicting Jay Gatsby, Foushee portrays a beloved character suffering from weakened confidence, a very tricky proposition. Perhaps only Peter Cullen could have pulled that off with ease, but the torch must be passed someday. The forthcoming chapters will give Foushee a chance to grow more comfortable as the lead.

Jetfire and Megatron in

Netflix definitely tests the limits of the “fantasy violence” rating.

Transformers: War for Cybertron walks a fine line in its storytelling. This is a war. Without death, there would be little at stake, hence a few characters die ahead of their time for various reason. Sometimes it’s tragically random, other times it drives the next plot twist, or has long-term repercussions. Fortunately, the death total never gets anywhere near the Great Butcher’s Bill of ’86.

However, there are also a few scenes of suffering. Perhaps most disturbing is a brief moment of Decepticons gunning down generic Autobots as they fled. While the show is rated TV-Y7, Netflix definitely tests the limits of the “fantasy violence” rating, and parents may want to watch this with their younger kids.

All and all, Transformers: War for Cybertron tries to appeal to both new viewers with the same great characters and old fans with a mature story. On these grounds, it succeeds with relatively few hiccups. Hopefully, the next two chapters will be even better.