We all have our own stories of getting the wrong toy for a birthday or the holidays. But there’s nothing worse than what happened to author Tobias Buckell. Nothing!
So it’s the 80s, I’m a little boy growing up in Grenada, WI and money is tight. Some of my friends are super into Transformers. I live on a boat, so I don’t get TV, I’ve never seen the cartoon. I’ve seen some of the toys being played with.
In a move rare for me, I do fall for brand marketing and talk up Transformers to my mom. And so, one Christmas, I pick up a package and remove the paper, and then another layer of paper, and then more tape (this was my mom’s things, heavily wrapped gifts that took a while to get to the bottom of) and lo and behold I got…
See that little blue-legged one with the big wheels on the shoulder? That was my Gobot.
They were off-brand Transformers, basically. I was pretty devastated. Mainly because the Gobots were hard as fuck to transform, the wheel on the shoulder came right off in no time, and I remember the joints being rubbery and imprecise.
So, I don’t remember if I was charitable or gracious. I do remember that I knew mom had done her best. I wasn’t angry at her, per se. I was angry because in my mind, if I couldn’t have the Transformer, I wouldn’t have minded the money just going towards more Legos instead of a Gobot. It was a one two punch, see? We didn’t have much money, so I knew that the Gobot had sucked resources away.
Then there were the kids. “What is that?”
“So, not a Transformer?”
“It can be a bad guy that we melt on the stove. Hold its hand over the flame and make it confess.”
Eventually the Gobot, after taking some abuse, faded away. As we couldn’t afford Transformers I developed a reflexive avoidance of all things Transformers and Gobots as a form of psychological self defense. So again, I didn’t own any, didn’t have any marketing material, had never seen the show.
As a result, I’d never actually *seen* the phrase Transformers: Robots in Disguise (the tagline for them).
But I was living in the Islands. I was *hearing* a lot of friends playing with Transformers and singing the line “Transformers: Robots in Disguise.”
But linguistically, a lot of my friends had accents that blurred the TH and D sounds. So it’s not as simplistic as saying they said ‘Da Skies’ but when sung quickly ‘The Skies’ in a Caribbean accent and ‘Disguise’ sounded awfully damn close and so I thought, honestly, that the tagline was:
“Transformers: Robots in the Skies!”
Remember, if I was singing that out loud, I would also have a little bit of an accent with many friends, so they had no reason usually to correct me.
Until one fateful day when I was with someone who had the unholy combination of a) having Transformers b) my saying I didn’t want to play Transformers because I didn’t like them made no sense at all to him and c) he was a white kid.
So imagine us playing Transformers. He’s flying them through the air. I have no reason NOT to think that Transformers DON’T fly through the skies.
He sings “Transformers: Robots in Disguise” and I’m like, yeah, cool, and in a very formal English: “Transformers: Robots in the Skies!” And I’m all Received Pronunciation on ‘THE.’ You can fucking tell it’s a TH.
And he pauses and looks at me. “What did you just say?”
Me, trying to rewind what he just sang. “Transformers: Robots in the Skies?”
Me, hesitantly, like walking along the abyss and realizing something horrible is about to happen. “Transformers… Robots…” yeah, okay, so far so good. So they ARE indeed robots, I’ve inferred correctly there. “in?” Yep, they’re definitely *in* something. “the…” awww fuck, it’s going all wrong… “skies?”
“Robots in Disguise.”
“Yeah, man. Robots in the Skies. Totally.”
Understanding dawns. It’s out. It’s clear I haven’t watched the show. I don’t really know what the fuck Transformers are. I’m a fraud. I’m ignorant. There’s only one way out of this, a Hail Mary pass that will let us move past this and forward. “Fuck Transformers. They’re dumb anyway. Let’s play Legos.”
My antipathy toward all things Transformers and Gobots lasted for many years, and were not improved by the Michael Bay films in any way.
And if I sing the tagline out loud, to this day, in my head, it’s still ‘Transformers: Robots in the Skies!’
Tobias Buckell’s latest book is the story collection Xenowealth. His other books include Arctic Rising, Hurricane Fever, Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose and Apocalypse Ocean. This essay originally appeared on his blog.