Headmasters are a type of symbiotic variation on the Transformer lifeform in which a smaller sentient being, frequently but not exclusively organic, transforms into the head of a larger robot. The process by which this is accomplished varies by continuity. In conversation, the term "Headmaster" can apply to both the primary partner (the head) and the significant other (the body).
Headmaster bonding in most continuities occurs between two sentient beings, but there have been cases in which the head or the body (such as the Transtectors in the Japanese anime or the Sunstreaker clones in the IDW continuity) is a non-sentient construct controlled entirely by the other partner.
When it occurs between two sentient beings, the benefits of the Headmaster procedure are many: The partner gains control of a larger, more powerful body, and the Transformer gains an extra perspective on the battlefield, the psychic binary bonding involved allowing him to draw on both his own ideas, tactics, and instincts as well as those of his partner as quickly as if they were coming from his own head (since they are).
The Headmaster technology was primarily the invention of the Nebulan scientist Arcana and was designed originally to let Nebulans utilize the bodies of Autobots to defend their world, something they did not trust the Autobots enough to let them do on their own.
In this continuity, all Headmaster partnerships seen are human/Nebulan-Transformer. The organic half of the pair is able to transform by use of a special suit of Headmaster armor and a control helmet that interfaces with bio-cybernetic augmentation in the surgically altered humanoid. It is possible for an organic to control/communicate with the larger robot's form with only the control helmet, even if he has not undergone the binary bonding/augmentation process to let him transform into a head, and likewise, an altered/binary-bonded organic remains permanently psychically connected to his partner regardless of whether he retains the helmet or armor.
The main weakness in the design comes from conflicts of personality. Since there was never meant to be an equal partnership in the original Headmaster concept, very little attention was paid to how the Transformer and the organic partner would interact during the original bonding. As the prototypes of the binary bonding idea, the Headmasters suffered from a lack of knowledge on how important this interaction would be. Many early Headmasters simply did not get along with their own bodies, and vice-versa. Because of this, partners would often disagree or be at odds with each other, resulting in confusion in the Transformer as the voices in his head had extended arguments over what to do. Depending on the compatibility and personalities of the partners, their minds tend to merge to different extents and their joint psyche manifests in unique ways for each individual.
For instance, in the comic, Spike and Fort Max were two separate minds sharing one body, with each dominant in his own form and the other submissive, while Lord Zarak and Scorponok seemed to reach some sort of fusion where he was both beings merged into one, with Scorponok to all intents and purposes becoming entriely subsumed by Zarak's personality (to the extent that, during the battle with Unicron, "Scorponok"'s interior monologue identifies himself as being Zarak merely filling the role of Scorponok, implying that the original Scorponok psyche was essentially gone). A similar situation developed between Optimus Prime and Hi-Q, except in the reverse.
Headmaster partners are unique amongst their brethren (the Targetmasters and Powermasters) in that they have the power to take full control over the body they are connected to, often against that Transformer's will. However, over time, both the Headmasters and their Transformer partners realized that they worked better when both sides had a say in things (two heads being better than one), and the relationship between them evolved from master/slave into a more equal partnership. In that cooperation lies the real strength of the Headmaster process.
The Transformers cartoon
In this continuity, the Headmaster process was the brainchild of Brainstorm, who had advocated that using an organic partner would be a good strategy in combat with the Decepticons. It also seems much less invasive for the organic humanoid involved. No surgical alteration is apparently needed on their part, and the process seems to consist mainly of altering the Transformer's head to 1) have a control center for a partner to sit at inside and 2) transform around the partner into a fancy exo-suit. While some who have undergone it have commented at feeling a closer bond with their respective partners, there is no reason to believe there is any true psychic connection between them as in the binary bonding of other continuities.
Japanese animated continuity
Attempting to escape the wars on Cybertron, a group of diminutive Cybertronians (most of them only a little larger than human beings) fled the planet, only to have their ship crash on the hazardous, inhospitable planet Master. The need for survival fostered several technological advances (helped in part by technology derived from a time-traveling spaceship that crashed on the planet sometime later). Chief among them was the creation of "Transtectors": large, lifeless robot bodies which the smaller robots could connect to and control. The small Cybertronians had not yet actually mastered the art of transformation, however, and had to undergo rigorous mental and physical training in order to become "Headmasters" (their name, obviously enough, derived from the planet itself).
The Headmasters subsequently migrated from Master and joined the Autobot and Decepticon forces on Cybertron and Earth, leading to a lengthy conflict that ultimately resulted in both factions departing the Earth for a prolonged period of time. With easy access to Earth cut off, leaving its safety in doubt should it be attacked by Decepticons in the future, the Autobots on Master created Master-Braces, technology that harnessed the mysterious Chōkon Power to transform humans and allow them to connect to Transtectors and become Headmasters themselves. A set of six Master-Braces and Transtectors were dispatched to Earth, but half the shipment was stolen by Decepticons, and both factions subsequently used the technology to turn three young human children into Headmasters in defense of Earth.
Cybertronian Headmasters possess numerous energy-manipulating superpowers. They are able to exchange Transtectors freely with their fellow Headmasters to increase their power levels and can link up with each other in the Head Formation for various destructive results. In contrast, human Headmasters do not possess any of these powers, but have their own natural physical strength and reflexes enhanced many times over by the energies filling their bodies. Their cellular structures undergo some form of ill-defined holistic transformation which allows them somehow to transform their actual, physical bodies into heads. However, unlike organic Headmasters in other continuities, they do not have to undergo any permanent alteration; they are capable of "turning off" their powers and becoming normal human beings with ease, the only drawback being that they are unable to remove the Master-Braces that give them their powers.
Though only glimpsed in profile art, the Headmaster heads here seem to be larger "mecha" that the human partners pilot.
IDW comics continuity
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The Headmaster technology is a product of the shadowy human organization known as the Machination, using technology developed by Scorponok on the planet Nebulos. Following a tip offered to him by Swindle, Ultra Magnus found schematics for enhancing a biological entity with Cybertronian technology, in effect producing a "transformable man". Magnus was able to determine that Nebulan businessman Mo Zarak had been subjected to this process shortly before Scorponok fled the premises.
Approximately 18 years later, the Machination captured Sunstreaker and Hunter O'Nion. They dismantled Sunstreaker and subjected Hunter to an extensive regimen of surgery and implants. Subsequently, they attempted to brainwash him into one of their soldiers. Hunter resisted and was able to contact Sunstreaker, allowing him to become a Headmaster to fight for the Autobots.
Initially, all Headmasters created by the Machination were non-sentient, guided by their human pilots. As well, all of these models were replicas of Sunstreaker, wired into the Autobot's actual head to help coordinate their movements. However, the success of these initial forays into the technology allowed for the first true binary-bond, enabling Abraham Dante to combine with his Decepticon master Scorponok to facilitate his rebirth.
Without their heads, Transformer Headmasters are at a severe disadvantage. Most Autobots and Decepticons are shown entering a kind of stasis lock when their heads disconnect from their robot modes, often seeming sluggish and able to perform only the most basic of functions. In their alternate modes, however, a Headmaster seems no different from any other Transformer, perhaps a little more dangerous. With another intelligent being to help with the task of driving, flying, or shooting, the Headmaster is able to focus more clearly on tactics, strategy, or just the task at hand, freeing up considerable processing power from more mundane requirements. This makes a Headmaster capable of extreme multi-tasking and amazingly rapid decision-making—if the two partners have similar attitudes and mindsets.
- The Unicron Trilogy featured a few examples of smaller robots (Mini-Cons) becoming the heads of larger ones.
- Armada Sideways had two Mini-Con drivers, Rook and Crosswise, for his motorcycle form that could become individual heads, or combine together into a larger robot/driver.
- Armada Overload's Mini-Con partner Rollout became the head (and part of the chest) of the larger robot, who could in turn become armor for Optimus Prime.
- Energon Omega Supreme also had a Headmaster partner, Omega, which combined with two vehicles to form a large robot.
- The Transformers Animated series features a supervillain named Headmaster who can use a flying robotic head that aggressively removes another robot's head and replaces it with itself. The head itself can also transform into a small robot mode.