There are those among us who remember when the “real” Transformers had nothing to do with Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, or Michael Bay. This was a more innocent time, when instead of cynically trying to sell us Mountain Dew, Fords, or Burger King, Transformers was just trying to sell us some Transformers toys.
But was it that innocent? Were there hidden messages contained on the toy packages? Yes! Designed to be cut from the box with scissors (mind the dotted line!) these toys all came with “technical specs” for each Autobot or Decepticon. The specs charted their specific powers (on a downright confounding graph) and provided a brief bio.
Looking back, many of these character bios reveal some deeply troubled robots, most of whom come off as total emotional wrecks. How did we not notice this when we were kids?
The bios in the Tech Specs for the Transformers read like psych profiles. Oddly, the evilest Transformer of them all—Megatron—sounds like he’s fairly functional in real life. Check it out:
“Fires particle beam cannon. Can link up interdimensionally to a black hole and draw anti-matter from it for uses as a weapon. No known weakness.”
Wow! The only thing missing here is “possesses extensive knowledge of vintage Italian wines.”
A vast majority of the lesser-loved Transformers seem to all have problems with being team players, recognizing their own shortcomings, or keeping the blues away. Check out this tragic sentence from Prowl’s bio:
“Fires wire-guided incendiary missiles and high-corrosive acid pellets. The unexpected can often scramble his circuits.”
Is Prowl ADD? Insecure? For being the Autobot who turns into a cop car, you’d probably hope Prowl would be a little cooler under pressure, but I guess he gets befuddled easily. Bummer.
But what about the unloved Dinobot Slag? This one is so good I’m re-posting it here in its entirety.
“I have no need for friends, even less for enemies.”
Enjoys [emphasis mine] melting enemies into pools of liquid metal. Like his fellow Dinobots, resents authority. Disruptive—often brawls with comrades. Shoots 3000 Cº flame up to 80 feet from mouth. Enormous strength—can shatter a brick building with head. Uses electron blaster in Dinobot mode. Rash, not too bright. Nasty, mean-spirited…often the other Aubotos won’t help when he’s in trouble.
Now, Slag is a Dinobot, one of the good guys. But this character sounds like a total asshole! Although he also sounds like the victim of weird peer bullying. I mean, he can shoot flames from his mouth and he’s a little rash, but I’m not sure this justifies the other Autobots throwing him under the robot bus. He is named Slag, after all. It’s not shocking that he’s kind of hard to deal with. (Interestingly, there’s no way a child would read that bio and think, “this guy is awesome!” And yet, we did.)
As you read more and more of these Tech Specs, you find that almost every single Transformer had some personality flaw. Like some twisted punchline, these flaws are almost always written in the last sentence of the Tech Spec bio, undercutting any amazing badassery they possess.
See for yourself below. And try to imagine your parents reading these bizarre sentences out to you when you were a child. Consider the emotional damage these robots were doing to children in the 80’s. Here we go:
“Sometimes his having a good time interferes with his effectiveness”
“Very good at what he does, but sometimes overrates himself.”
“Due to large ego, will often sulk rather than proceed if his plans go astray.”
“Prone to rash judgment which leads to injury to himself and comrades.”
“Other Autobots aren’t always receptive to his advice.”
“Not very fast…often in danger due to due to daydreaming.”
If you had glasses/were nerdy/liked microscopes (likely), check out how Perceptor made you feel like shit:
“Absent minded. Lenses are his weakest part.”
And then there’s this very specific insult.
“Not well suited to function on ground as robot.”
Never loved by mother.
Projects more than he’d like to admit.
Escaped Cybertron but not his drinking problem.
Those last three are ones I made up, but you can’t tell, can you?
It’s almost as though the copy writer of these bios had a grudge against how happy these Transformers toys made children. These weird subliminal messages gets even more creepy when you consider the name of the characters are Transformers, implying they could maybe change and overcome their shortcomings.
But this is not the message we get from the Tech Specs. Even if you do have an awesome power, like Cliff Jumper’s “glass gas,” which makes metal as brittle as glass, this is undercut by the comment that his “recklessness often leads to actual blow-outs and situations too dangerous for him to handle.” Why can’t he just shoot glass gas?
In the end, are we really surprised the Transformers are known as “robots-in-disguise?” It seems that all the particle weapons, photon rifles, laser cannons, infrared range finders, and diamond micro-serrated beaks can’t compensate for their personal failures.
No wonder they pretend to be cars.
[Note, you can find all these Tech Specs on this amazing website called Botch’s Transformers Box Art Archive. Be prepaed to lose some time]
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.