By Sharon "Tut" LaBorde
When the dimmest recollections of a cartoon show from my childhood, The Transformers, came to my mind at the age of fourteen, I remembered only the sketchiest of details. I remembered the characters I loved most and story events that impressed the most in my mind. Also, being fascinated with ninjas at the time, I remembered a female ninja robot that appeared in one episode, whose name had escaped me. Since that time, I have been refreshed on almost the entire Transformers universe; I now know much more about Nightbird, the robotic female ninja that was built by a human scientist, Dr. Fujiyama, in the episode Enter the Nightbird. Ironically enough, while I have never professed her as a favorite character, a few years ago I wrote a story about her entitled "Nightbird: the Resolution". It has enjoyed success among many fans, but I wrote that story before I had even gotten to see the episode again for the first time in ten years. I also wrote the story based on a premise that I had assumed to be true: that Nightbird, who was supposed to be capable of independent thought, emotion and judgement, felt oppressed by her creator, willingly sided with the Decepticons and shared a secret love affair with Megatron. Shortly after writing my story, I was able to watch the actual episode for myself. Since then I have watched Enter the Nightbird over and over again, and unfortunately I must admit that my original conclusions about her, taken purely from fanfiction and unofficial sources, were hastily drawn. Her true role as an individual character, and her place among the Decepticons, is actually a far cry from what I initially understood it to be. Built to be a showcase of Earthen technology and a benefit to mankind, Nightbird was then robbed and reprogrammed by the Decepticons and put to entirely different, more destructive use.
In order to be reprogrammed, then, Nightbird could not have been a being that felt any emotions about her situation. So what of the question of her sentience? Was she just a robot as we know them today, able to follow complex computer programs but nothing more--or could she really think and feel for herself? While the actual episode provides ample evidence that she could react to outside stimuli, it left absolutely no proof that she had independent cognitive ability or even true emotion. She had no time to demonstrate any abilities before being abducted by the Decepticons, but even afterwards, she never spoke or attempted to communicate with anyone. She was able to effectively evade the Autobots' security systems and fully match their individual combat abilities, but this by no means gives evidence of advanced, independent thought. In fact, her capabilities and program parameters are by definition no different from those of a fellow machine of science-fiction lore--the famous Terminator--and a real-life computer known as Deep Blue. In The Terminator (a film contemporary of the Transformers and Nightbird,) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the T101 and T1000 were able to analyze their surroundings and act according to their tactical information files. As the reprogrammed Terminator said in T2, "My CPU is a neuronet processor--a learning computer. The more contact I have with humans, the more I learn." It was able to learn new data, including information about emotion. It responded to young John Connor's sarcasm with visible smirks, even hugged him goodbye and signed with a thumbs-up before being lowered into a smelting pool at the end of the film; but, it specifically said, "I know now why you cry. But it's something I can never do." [author's italics]. Nightbird is a similar being, originating from human technology and having been created for a specific purpose. She had no need for emotion, though for the sake of her mission parameters she could have been given the ability to mimic it; such as at the end of the episode when her optics squint and glow brightly, as though in anger, as she is locked away in a metal chamber.
Terminators are thankfully fictional, but our own world has another example of technology similar to Nightbird. IBM's RS/6000 SP parallel supercomputer, Deep Blue, illustrates the exact same principle of tactical ability that does not require full sentience. Almost echoing Dr. Fujiyama's praise of Nightbird, Industry Week hailed Deep Blue as a "victory in mankind's continuing struggle to create technology that adds to the quality of human life". It was able to defeat chess Grand Master Garry Kasparov after its creators had programmed it with every possible chess move documented by two other grand masters, who played Deep Blue themselves. It also had information on documented games that Kasparov had played. The Decepticons could have done the very same thing, because Megatron stated in Changing Gears that he had run "a secret sensor survey of all the Autobots". Therefore, Nighbird was able to easily defeat the Autobots who tackled her for two reasons: one, because they had orders not to harm her they couldn't even fire full-strength weapons at her. The second and most important reason she had the upper hand was because the Decepticons implanted a computer chip containing information on her opponents into the back of her head.
Outside references illustrate what mankind's technology can already accomplish, as well as what we could accomplish, but the good Dr. Fujiyama stated matters much more directly: Nightbird was not equal to Transformer technology. No matter how much more advanced his work had to be compared to even ours today, it still fell far short of the programming and hardware commonplace on Cybertron. When Dr. Fujiyama stated to Optimus Prime that his work was "primitive by Autobot standards", he was being both humble and perfectly honest. Another point to observe: in every case where new Transformers are created, either Victor Sigma or another Transformer must be involved. This suggests that Cybertronian sentience programming must be replicated rather than created from nothing. Otherwise, Chip could have built the Dinobots himself in SOS Dinobots, and both Scorponok and Fortress Maximus would not need to be Headmasters according to Rebirth. By the same token, Dr. Fujiyama could not give Nightbird the exact same mental capabilities as the Transformers unless one of them provided base programming. Clearly none of them did.
Because her programming and her identity came solely from Dr. Fujiyama, his own background is crucial in order to shed light on hers. While the sentient-Nightbird theory counts her creator as an insignificant afterthought, in truth understanding his point of view is all-important--because Nightbird herself has no point of view. If he were an American scientist, then we could easily apply our own values, personal histories and viewpoints to him and his creation; however, Dr. Fujiyama was Japanese, and his entire culture is very different from ours. The simple fact that Nightbird was given the skills of a ninja hardly covers a tenth of that cultural gap. Even though every culture has its exceptions, odds are in favor that its majority--including Dr. Fujiyama and subsequently Nightbird--follow a given pattern. The Japanese, for example, place exceedingly high value on one's contribution to the greater good, by contrast to American individualism. Curious readers can consult National Geographic articles on the city of Tokyo and Japan as a nation to further understand this emphasis on collaboration in their society (see footnote). Dr. Fujiyama himself stated plainly that Nightbird was built "to help mankind, not to harm him". Therefore, it is increasingly unlikely that she was an individualist who sought autonomy for its own sake. Furthermore, she would not be drawn towards Megatron because of his own rugged individuality. In addition, while she was given the abilities of the ninja, or shinobi as they are more properly known in Japan, Nightbird lacked their most important trait. Historically, the true ninja worked in ultimate secrecy for the highest bidder. Western pop culture has glorified them to the status of heroes, but in Japan the true heroes were the samurai, who swore undying loyalty to their fuedal lords. Since Dr. Fujiyama would be a fool to program Nightbird with the ninja's mercenary tendencies, she had to have been endowed with loyalty on the order of the samurai. Even arguing that she was a fully autonomous individual, she had to have been given some sort of base programming in order to function. She could not be given instincts or a lifetime's education as we know it, but programming served the same purpose. That fact established, she had to be bestowed with some of her creator's values, which are inherently Japanese and not American. Her first order had to be service of mankind. \par Because of her cultural and programming specifics, she would not react favorably to the Decepticons. Even assuming Nightbird were capable of passing character judgement on another individual after a short period of time, she could not possibly find an immediate liking of any of the Decepticons, let alone Megatron. Two reasons for this have already been stated: one, their background and hers were so vastly different, being of seperate planets and seperate levels of technology. Second, they were hostile toward her creator, and promptly took her from his custody. Even if she did not love Dr. Fujiyama, she was aware of the loyalty she owed him as the being responsible for her existence. In Japan where parents are revered and ancestors are worshiped, forsaking that loyalty would be barbarously rude at the very least. To say that Nightbird owed Dr. Fujiyama no debt of gratitude, would by definition relieve characters like Skyfire of whatever he might have owed Starscream for his revival. This debt of honor--which in her culture carried the price of life itself--would be betrayed if Nightbird willingly joined any cause that meant harm to her creator and his kind. Even if she absolutely despised Dr. Fujiyama, which again operates on the assumption she could despise him, something not suggested in the episode, Nightbird surely would not enjoy being abducted without her consent, which she plainly did not give. Going on the slimmest of vague possibilities that she and Megatron shared some relationship, it certainly would have had a very rocky start.
Nightbird could not have had any interest in the Decepticons, but evidently Megatron knew exactly what interested him as soon as he ordered her capture. So what about his motivations? I wrote "Nightbird: the Resolution" under the assumption that he had romantic interests, but I made just as many mistakes about his character as I did about Nightbird's. The biggest error was forgetting that Megatron would have no time for a relationship that intensive. Having real-life experience on the subject, I can attest that it takes a considerable amount of time and effort to maintain a romantic relationship with another person. In more than one instance, Megatron barely found enough time to consider tactical developments outside of his current project; in Cosmic Rust Starscream tried to tell him about Astrotrain's condition and was rebuffed with, "Forget Astrotrain! It is me who must be attended to." Soundwave tried to alert him to the presence of metallic morphobot plants in Quest For Survival, but Megatron had no time to heed the message: "Nevermind that! We must get to the insecticide before the Autobots". Busy as he is, how could Megatron stop long enough to listen to Nightbird or have quality, intimate interactions with her, when not even top officers can hold his attention for long? Assuming for a moment that he could fit a love life into his busy schedule and not be constantly distracted, he would still have to deal with other problems. Most importantly, war is a life-or-death situation and no place for loved ones. Each battle would put both Nightbird and Megatron at extreme personal risk, something neither could allow if they loved each other that much. The mere knowledge that their partner might encounter trouble would be a life-threatening distraction to both Megatron and Nightbird, no matter how skilled in battle they both are. Even Optimus Prime was concerned enough to see to it that Elita-One stayed on Cybertron, where she was needed but where fewer enemies would shoot at her; Megatron, being Prime's equal in every other respect, should at least be so cautious about protecting the life of his own theoretical mate. Furthermore, he could not have a lover because that individual would become an immediate target. If Megatron was lucky enough not to have his authority questioned by other Decepticons (particularly Starscream) because he let a female distract him, then his own principles of war would still get in the way. He used the tactic of targeting a significant other on Optimus Prime because he knew that kidnapping Elita would draw him into an obvious trap, as seen in Search for Alpha-Trion. If Megatron knew the trick well enough to use it himself, he also knew the best way to avoid getting it revisited upon him: by not having anyone important enough to be taken hostage.
Well, Megatron doesn't have to be romantically attracted to Nightbird to consider her a strong warrior--at least, for someone non-Cybertronian, right? He even went so far as to say of her, "She's everything I've always wanted". There is no denying he had an interest in her potential usefulness, but he had no reason to regard her as an equal to his own soldiers, regardless of threats to Starscream otherwise. Megatron also said in Triple Takeover, "The Decepticon cause supersedes personal vengeance." Therefore, when he ordered the others after Starscream for shooting Nightbird and deactivating her, it could not have been for the purpose of avenging his love interest or even a highly esteemed comrade. Rather, it was because Starscream ended Nightbird's mission before it was completed successfully, thus hurting the Decepticon cause. Furthermore, simply to prepare her for said mission and make her powerful enough to take on the Autobots, Megatron had Bombshell give her an additional booster pack. No self-respecting Decepticon ever came off the assembly line in need of extra power cells simply to carry out orders effectively. Furthermore, Bombshell--whose forte' is mind control to begin with--placed in the back of Nightbird's head a chip which, in addition to the aforementioned tactical files, gave her new programming and instructions as he said gleefully, "I love warping minds for you, Megatron--love it". We know this chip contained new programming because Megatron asked, "Is she fully programmed?" He did not even bother to verbally brief her on her mission, which would have been standard procedure for any of his sentient troops. If true Decepticons join the ranks by choice, which I accept as perfectly rational truth, then Nightbird does not count as such because she was abducted and reprogrammed rather than allowed free choice.
Considering the difficulty that sequence presents toward the sentience-oriented interpretation of Nightbird, some have raised the question of whether it should even be counted as canon. While certain episodes are so ill-fitted to the overall series that they could be left out, no single scene in a perfectly good episode should be cut out of consideration. Therefore, the sequence where Bombshell works on Nightbird must be counted, in its entirety, as canon: she worked for the Decepticons because they added new elements to her programming to make her do so. If that scene were to be left out so the overall meaning of the episode could be interpreted differently, then Skyfire might as well have never disobeyed Starscream in Fire in the Sky and could remain within the Decepticons' ranks; or Starscream might never have thrown Megatron out of Astrotrain in the Movie and ended his leadership, making Galvatron nothing more than a figment of some screenwriter's imagination. But the fact remains that Galvatron exists, and Nightbird was reprogrammed.
The most compelling reason why Nightbird was never a Decepticon is also the most obvious one: she was never given a symbol. True, we can gather that she was among them for only a short amount of time, but if she had been meant by Megatron to be inducted into the ranks at all, it would have happened immediately. Leaving the symbol out for her protection would have been a moot point, because regardless of even her existing alterations the Autobots still felt bound by their word to bring her back to her creator unharmed--removing a sigil would have been no lengthy effort. Even Skyfire, despite being eternally branded a traitor afterwards, was given a symbol as soon as he was revived from his icy imprisonment. If Starscream's word bore weight enough to swear in a new member, then most assuredly so would an order from the Decepticon leader himself--had he given it. But Nightbird was never awarded a Decepticon sigil, not even stamped with it as she was getting her upgrade. In fact, Megatron had no plans to keep her for very long at all. He very matter-of-factly told a skeptical Starscream, "She won't burn out until she returns with the computer chip we need; it's all been programmed." This means that either her power cells would be spent by the end of her mission, which again constitutes substandard construction for Decepticon specs; or even worse, that she was given a self-destruct code set to initiate upon completion of her mission. No full-fledged Decepticon warrior had programmed instructions including a self-destruct code that would activate after a mission was successful. Therefore, to promote Nightbird to their ranks both questions Megatron's judgement and challenges his authority.
Nightbird was an example of the most advanced Terrestrial robotics ever constructed, and a being steeped in Japanese culture; not a Terran warrioress who joined the Decepticons and fell in love with their leader. At the time I wrote my now-infamous story about her, I felt indifferent to her character. But now that I have seen her onscreen for what she truly is, I have grown quite fond of her. She now stands in my mind as an obscure but unique symbol of a civilization whose language and history I have long studied with fascination. I see her lost potential, not as a lethal Decepticon ninja, but rather as a benefactor of humankind. She rests sadly in Dr. Fujiyama's lab not because of her seperation from Megatron and company, but because her usefulness and contribution to her fellow Earthlings was cut short.
Author's footnote: For a description of how the age of the samurai ended and Japan first entered the modern era, see National Geographic's June 1984 issue. To further understand how traditional Japanese values and customs have survived in America, pick up the April 1986 issue. Finally, a look at modern-day Tokyo can be found in the issue of November 1986.
Information on Deep Blue can be found in the December 15, 1997 printing of Industry Week, volume 246 no. 23, as well as the May 1997 printings of Newsweek magazine.
The Terminator copyright 1984, Orion Pictures.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day copyright 1991, Orion Pictures.
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