Sunday, October 14, 2012

Mental Marathons, Bug Alzheimer's, and Increasing Self-Awareness: the TMNT Cartoon, Continued

Welp, I've done it. There was no way I was going to watch all the episodes, but I have now cherry-picked my way through seasons 1-7 of the Fred Wolf Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, the ones preceding the non-nostalgic "Red Sky" seasons, which I'm still not sure if I'll watch or not. I skipped episodes wantonly, sometimes not even finishing those I picked, meaning that I'm still not going to become a born-again TMNT fan, but I enjoyed what happened.

Despite how fast I went through the series, I still feel like I've run some kind of mental marathon. Even though I started out with plenty of ironic detachment, the series started getting more and more grating as I went past season 3. The dip in quality started to erode the nostalgic/ironic attachment, letting in more in the way of critical thoughts. I can only imagine how dire the experience would've been to those who were paying attention, and who watched everything, and kept watching everything.

Besides this, my actual opinions of the series and characters haven't changed that much. I did start to notice Raphael's sassiness more, and he was the source of the few non-ironic laughs I had, but somehow that didn't lead to me to picking him as my favourite Turtle, and I still don't have one. I actually think there's something to like in every Turtle, even Leonardo, but so far I'm only sticking with my two favourite vermin, Baxter and Splinter, a contemporary and nostalgic interest.

I wanted to like Mona Lisa, the salamander girl, if only on principle, because grotesque female characters are so rare and her design was cool. But again, she suffered from Generic Female Character syndrome, with no real personality besides just being heroic. And I know shippers like to go nuts over the episode, but the little thing she had with Raphael was handled in such a bland way that I couldn't pretend it was anything else but the writers making sure it was that bland.

I did start to become more disappointed with Splinter, who seemed to start taking on a more passive role, with less moments of action or plot significance to balance his traditional non-action role. Still, it's impossible for me to lose my childhood respect for Master Splinter, or even to ask if it's only nostalgia that makes me like him. I don't feel like my interest in the character has actually been renewed, only pleasantly revisited. It's still a satisfying, but there is still a distinction worth making between a nostalgic and a contemporary interest.

The main reason why I can't be a born-again Turtles fan is because it was really hard for me to treat the Fred Wolf cartoon as its own universe. Rather, I looked at it as a physical production more than I do its own story, always keeping in mind the constraints it laboured under, and the likely intentions of the writers. That's not to say I didn't have emotional reactions, but they we toned down, more detached, ironic, or cynical than other series.

For an example, let's talk about the Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman in more detail. I've wanted to do this since seeing all the Baxterfly episodes, but to make the rest of this piece more universal and useful, I'm going to use the character's story to talk about culpability, writers who give a shit, villain intelligence, and why modern stuff is better.

Apparently, the question of whether or not Fred Wolf Baxter is a sympathetic character is A Thing in the Turtles fandom. My take is that as an ordinary human he's pretty much innocent, but as a nutty villain and a fly monster he isn't, and so he's got to reap what he sows. In the particular case of Baxterfly, he's always running around with his death traps and insect mutations, so it's no surprise he keeps getting chucked in limbo and never gets what he wants. Villainous is as villainous does, you know?

There's also minor controversy over the fact that the Turtles didn't turn him human in his last appearance, "Revenge of the Fly", when a potential chance opened up, but I am totally not surprised that that happened. Come on, he'd just turned New York into bug monsters—what'd you expect the Turtles to do, let him get what he wanted afterwards?

Second, in that same episode he went straight for mutating people and then changed his mind and decided he wanted to be changed back. If he wanted it so dang badly, Baxterfly should've gone for a personal transformation first. I'm not sure in that case to blame the character's shortening attention span, or the writers not caring, but either way "Revenge of the Fly" is a perfectly ordinary Baxterfly episode and there probably would have been a million more had the series not been retooled. I can't think of it as a downer like a lot of others do.

But let's look at this another way. I don't think Baxterfly's situation would've ever been resolved, and that's because he's the product of a series with a complete lack of self-awareness. It's sort of a monkeys-on-typewriters thing: if you have a committee churning out quick scripts again and again, eventually you're going to end up with a plot point that seems cruel and heartless. But nobody intended it to be that way, it just happened, and nobody notices because you've got to get the next batch out. There's no room or perceived need to resolve the situation that's been created.

However, even knowing this, and not considering the character innocent, I'm still critical of what was produced, simply because I think even a goofy show should resolve the situations it creates, and be aware of what it is creating.

 But the TMNT cartoon does not do any of these things. All this bad stuff happens to Baxter Stockman, but you never get the sense it's done for any purpose. It's not an ironic, Wile E. Coyote sort of sad-sack craziness; instead, it's just some stuff that happened to fill time and market an action figure. I find the dark humour in it, and it's part of the reason I grew to like Baxter, but I don't assume his story was supposed to be darkly humorous at any point.

I mean, check this out: it's a little guy who wanted to make money with his inventions, and gave them to somebody—the Shredder looks like a bad guy, but we have to grade intelligence lower for characters in the TMNT cartoon, and the Shredder was the one who used the Mousers for a hero- and property-destroying purpose anyway.  Then Baxter's almost killed and subsequently clapped off into an asylum while the Turtles jack all his stuff to make their iconic vehicles (yes, really). Then he becomes evil for some reason, spends some time doing the "bumbling minion" routine, then becomes a fly monster with transformation angst, at some points seems to be losing his intelligence, gets a smarmy little computer friend, loses him, and also keeps getting chucked off into other dimensions, finally never getting out. Oh, and as a one-off joke, he apparently has a twin brother who knew he was a fly but hates him.

I find it really hilarious because it's so fucked up, but I don't think it was meant to be, because there is no way a series like this would create a character like this on purpose—it'd just be too dark. I also can't assume he was meant to be a sympathetic character because of the cartoon's hard-line morality and his villainous deeds. But that's okay: viewers react in ways not intended to the material we're provided, finding sympathies and fears never planned, and of course I still feel sorry for Fred Wolf Baxter even while laughing at his misfortunes, and I also find him much more delightful than, again, he was probably intended to be. My rational side was just completely unsurprised at not seeing this story resolved, for all those reasons above.

But while accepting the reasons why this went on, I can't shut off the part of my brain that demands a more critical evaluation, and asks what might be done if a series with more self-awareness and interest in a resolution handled a character like this. Fortunately, the answer to this question is easy to find.

I watched the episodes "A Better Mousetrap", "Attack of the Mousers" "Insane in the Membrane", and "Head of State" of the 4Kids Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. "Insane in the Membrane" is an especially infamous banned episode in which the other version of Baxter, the one more true to the Mirage comics in race, mien, and story, has gradually become a cyborg that longs for an organic body. He manages to manufacture one for himself, but it begins to rot and he begins to go insane, hallucinating his childhood as he blames April for his condition and tries to kill her. It's pretty intense and gross shit, the first time a children's cartoon has actually given an older me the creeps.

However, there were surprisingly strong similarities between the set-up for Baxter in this version and the Fred Wolf one: a scientist who thought he was hot stuff, ended up working with the Shredder, getting constantly mistreated, and involved with involuntary transhumanism. I was very surprised, I can tell you. My assumption was the 4Kids series never took anything from the old cartoon at all, and maybe this was all coincidental, but….

The most important difference for the purposes of this post is that the 4Kids series seems much more self-aware: the writers understand the tragic and fucked-up undercurrents involved in such a story and write to bring them to the surface and deal with them. They develop the character through his problems and actually have something come out of what happens to him, instead of throwing out random events with no ending and no real consideration of the effect on the character. In "Head of State", it looks like Baxter's finally going to get closure.

Strangely enough, it might also help that the 2003 series made Baxter villainous from the get-go. Fred Wolf Baxter's personality change from nebbish scientist to nebbish/evil mad scientist was pretty random, and any theoretical explanation for that change falls under the "unintentional cruelty" banner (Made evil by a chance encounter? Awesome!). Beginning with a villainous character makes the story flow better, makes it seem guided, and it makes Baxter seem like a credible creation that someone put effort into.

Or compare it to Waspinator from Beast Wars, a character whose mannerisms Baxterfly reminds me of. Waspinator started off as a disposable minion, and went on to become the "Kenny" of Beast Wars, constantly getting blown up, and then commenting on that fact. You get a better sense that people, writers and viewers alike, recognized affection for a silly, pathetic villain, and ran with it, having a real sense of humour. As another concession to self-awareness, Waspinator also gets his "happy ending", no matter how absurd it is (hanging out on Earth with the protohumans while all Transformers are gone), because you should give a character a resolution. Even a morally absolute series like Beast Wars has learned its lesson from modern style.

I'm also against villains that are dumber than heroes, and of low-tier villains being especially stupid, cowardly, or simpering. Even with a comedy show, even with a kid's show, if you've got any moments of conflict or threat in your series, the antagonists have to be able to stand up to the heroes, otherwise it's pointless to pretend you're creating tension. Fred Wolf Baxter is all this to a T, while early 4Kids Baxter has the same low-man-on-the-totem-pole vibe, but he's not so much of a silly sycophant.

The issue of writing is not so much about a show being "serious" or not, but whether the creators care about what the heck they're doing, and if they look a bit more at the implications of what they produce, and create resolutions. Even comedic series should do the most to develop their plot and setting, especially if they have any serial aspects. The Real Ghostbusters, when it was good, was a much better example of how to do an action-comedy cartoon that appealed to children and isn't that stupid.

But despite all of this, I like Fred Wolf Baxter as he is. I find him to be really fucking hilarious, both because of his accidentally sucky life, and because he's so tiny (seriously, he looks almost super-deformed in proportions) and dorky and screechy. I've called a personal moratorium on the word "adorkable", but if I didn't, the term would probably apply, authorial intent be damned.

By the end I also have a slight preference for human Fred Wolf Baxter over Baxterfly, especially his shaggy-haired crazy version. His abrupt transition to evil doesn't bother me as much as Baxterfly's pathetic outcome, because he is just slightly less childish as a character.

Baxterfly, on the other hand, is dumb even by TMNT villain standards. In several later episodes, starting with "Son of Return of the Fly II",  it even seems like he's mentally degenerating. This tapped into primal childhood fears about the loss of intelligence, and the character became slightly less likable. I know it's not a rational impulse, since the character wasn't all that smart to begin with, but that's how the human mind works.

In the tradition of everything else, I'm sure this wasn't intended to be the reaction. More likely it's just that he's supposed to have the "brain of a bug", but a former scientist mistaking a circuit board for food or being unable to remember April's name for more than three seconds was just very slightly unnerving. I'm not about to make a big deal about it, but there you go.

That's not to say that I dislike Baxterfly. He's still nebbish and funny and an adorable little bug-Muppet thing (depictions of a scary and edgy Baxterfly look extremely odd to me, though I know they're going off other sources, including the Playmates toy). I liked the strange notion of his recurring computer friend, a Seth Brundle parody hanging out with a Hal 9000 parody. However, I felt like Z was played as smarmy and slightly creepy towards his "pal", though this time I'm not sure if that was the intention or not.

Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman is definitely the product of a bygone era, one that's good to be rid of, but I can make an exception just this once. Every other version of the character should be based on the Mirage comics, and I still hold to my general dislike of moronic villains, but, well, I like this one.

Despite all these cynical disclaimers, it's fun to find a contemporary interest in a character from a nostalgic series. I barely remembered Baxter Stockman existed, and certainly had no idea he hung around in human form for as long as he did, so this was an interest I didn't expect. On the other hand, Fred Wolf Baxter is a nerd with a crappy life, so it's not exactly a surprise. I just try not to absolve him of too much, and recognize that this is not what villains should be.

All in all, this is why Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a good experience. It doesn't lead to anything, and sometimes it's painfully stupid, but it helps me remember good things. It helped me remember a character I liked, and let me fuss over a "new" one, while being inspired to talk for a while about the nature of nostalgia and villainy. This means I made out like a bandit.

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