Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Horns and Brains: Another 4Kids TMNT Recap and Other Ninja Turtles Things

I've decided to resign myself to blogging about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles whenever I feel like it. I fight the urge because this sudden mix of the past and present is a bit weird, not to mention that TMNT is a huge step down from Macross in terms of emotional resonance and depth of respect, so I will be on some levels, dragged into accepting this new interest. But, to quote from MST3K the movie, let's see how many times I can skip this thing.

The current plan is to start each post with a recap of my opinion on whatever season of the 4Kids series I watched, then throw in opinions on anything else at the bottom. I also leave a possible change in format open, especially if I think a topic is important enough to discuss separately.

So, I finished watching the second season of the 4Kids series, and am now well into the third season. I knew most of the Turtles' original origin through my internet tracks, not to mention knowing a few other things, so the reveals in the earliest episodes didn't rock my world, but it was still interesting to see them played out as a cohesive, if clichéd story.

I had the Triceraton action figure as a kid, and  never realized until a couple of years ago that they came from the Mirage universe having a race of aliens that were essentially humanoid Triceratops, with no explanation. But, see, it's perfect for this "anything goes" media franchise, and is really no worse than the cliché of making aliens that are exactly like humans, or humanoid versions of Earth animals. A good writer like C.J. Cherryh can still make that work, and the Triceratons get by on the sheer weirdness of their presence.

I found out even later that Laird is a fan of things ceratopsian, which was kind of cool. I'm a huge dinosaur fan, too, and I can see the temptation to create things on your favourite saurians. Intelligent dinosaurs are usually based on carnivorous species (like Robert J. Sawyer's wonderful Quintaglio Ascension trilogy), probably due to the greater initial brainpower, so the Triceratons are even more of a novelty. So, dinosaurs, those are neat.

But I've never been a fan of the "proud warrior aliens" trope. The one exception is the Zentradi of Macross, and their story was more about exposing such a race as living in slave conditions, rather than celebrating their way of being.

Both the Utroms and the Triceratons are a little disappointing for the fact that they're one-note alien races with a single culture and so far, a narrow range of characterization. These days I'm easier on SF writers for being unable to capture the complexity of the human race within a single piece of media, but that doesn't mean there's no possibility of variation among the single culture the author has work with. I do like the Utroms being a mostly peaceful race, when they look like something that would be the villain in a B-movie.

I'm completely neutral on The Shredder being an Utrom. It was an interesting twist, and I have no personal attachment to the Shredder as he was or as he is, and Ch'rell is a great villain regardless, not needing to have any necessary species. The only thing I don't like is that Ch'rell himself has an "evil" design, red with horns and a scar, so you know he's evil, which seems a little corny. Some of it could be attributed to body modifications, but I don't know if the series ever goes that far.

It raises an issue I've tackled before, and never came down on one side with: how do you take advantage of a visual medium and create a character whose body reflects their personality, without degenerating into lazy stereotypes? I hate stereotypes, but there's something appealing about a character design whose "parts" all work together.

Speaking of body modifications, Baxter Stockman is an organic head in a little spider robot, and then he's in a robot body, the head apparently all that was left of him after the explosion that easily should have killed him. And then he's a brain in a jar, poor fuck.

It just all looks so cool and disturbing, especially the way he casually has his head turned backwards in the robot body. Baxter obviously doesn't think it's that cool, but I like how Baxter still continues to be insolent and arrogant when he can, despite no longer having a body and being at the mercy of others. That's very funny, appealing to whatever strange part of me likes seeing her favourite characters get fucked up.

That being said, I'm starting to re-evaluate 4Kids Baxter's competence level….but without any disgruntled feelings. He's still in the clear when it comes to fitting with a more modern, sensible portrayal of cartoon villainy, just…slipping a little. My reaction is more pity than contempt, though, especially since Baxter literally can't leave his job at this point.

(Again, despite the obvious differences between the two, ones that go beyond race, I can't help but be reminded of the way Fred Wolf Baxter keeps showing up once you thought you've gotten rid of him. I still love 'em both, naturally.

I'll have to look at other versions of the character before I consider myself a fan of Baxter Stockman in general. Would I find him interesting without transformation and a fucked-up life?)

Hun also seems to be slipping, which is disappointing. I hope the secondary villains get back up to code soon.

Splinter isn't in this season very much, and I surprised myself by not missing him. It leads back to something I've wondered about, if my interest in Splinter exists on a purely nostalgic, low-brain level, so it's harder to transfer it onto a Splinter I didn't grow up with. It doesn't make the interest any less worthwhile, but I'm also a different person now than I was as a tot, and that's bound to affect things. That said…I was flailing with joy at the image of Splinter fighting a dragon.

Karai is very interesting. Her personality is at first sharply defined, but with an ambiguous future that has me interested. Her treatment of the Turtles seemed honorable, but she's still on the Shredder's side, with her place being precarious. I'm looking forward to how this would play out.

But why is Casey Jones being portrayed as such a doofus? I'm not that familiar with the character outside of the first live-action movie, but I just hate it when secondary characters aren't competent, and when a character becomes pure comic relief in a story that is supposed to be serious. It never serves any purpose, and is just clashing with the story.

I still have my issues with April O'Neil. I'm starting to warm up to her, and she does have a slightly more defined personality as time goes on, which makes her easier to deal with. I still think she suffers from "the normal one" syndrome, or whatever you would call it, when a character's role in a story somehow permits them to be less developed and harder to write about, but at least it feels more like being the mother/sister-figure is part of her personality and not just a writerly obligation.

Though her character isn't developed much, I like Quarry, because we need more grotesque female characters in animation, and I liked the oni and insect influences in her design. I was surprised to discover that that spider-creature, and the "Quarrysaurus" were apparently women, too.

In between all the major plot beats there are breather episodes, and these aren't as good. I'm not yet invested in the characters to watch their adventures without a larger plot involved, so I sit and wait patiently for the main plot to begin again. I think in general, the season started to sag after the earliest episodes, so I didn't enjoy season two as much as season one.

And the "Big Brawl" four-parter just bored me. I appreciated that they added plot so it wasn't just a series of fight scenes, but damn, I just didn't care. Despite everything, I just didn't care.

Ancillary Turtles Stuff:

I'm thinking of re-reading the Archie comics series, once I get my hands on a portable hard drive to save space on my machine. I loved that comic, which I "graduated" to after the Fred Wolf cartoon and followed until the end of the Moon-Eyes saga, though maybe I won't love it after I read all those environmentalist messages again.

Speaking of comics, Mark over at TMNT Entity has reviewed the amazing Soul's  Winter  trilogy  from Mirage Comics, a piece which I've loved for a long time.

The phrase "like you've never seen them before" is said a lot, but there's no other way to describe Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli's take on the TMNT. It's a powerful, strange, and mystical self-contained tale that completely re-invents the universe and makes you believe in it, all backed by Zulli's gorgeous art, which I also see every time I open up the last volume of The Sandman and my eyes get misty. It manages to tell so much with so little that it's amazing.

And another thing about comics, I did forget one thing before: there was actually one change made to Turtles continuity that I wasn't "chill" over. The IDW comics idea of Splinter and the Turtles being a reincarnated human father and his biological children was something that was an unexpected punch in the gut when I first heard of it.

It was because, without realizing it, I had become invested in this franchise's notion of a family being made, not born, and in this case, crossing boundaries of species (whatever species Splinter was to start with). But by establishing that genetic connection, it makes things more conventional and convenient. I'm not saying I won't read the IDW series eventually, but I've learned not to be ashamed of disliking changes made to media.

And I'll bite: Costco was selling the Fred Wolf Turtles Van box-set for $70 Canadian instead of the standard $100, so I asked family members to buy it for me for Christmas. At first I wanted to hold back, but I can't anymore. I can't justify keeping the pirated copies of the small number of post-season 2 episodes I want to keep, when there's a chance to give money back to the company.

Lion's Gate didn't do that great a job with the DVD releases, but that's never on its own been a justification for piracy. Suck it up, buy the legit releases, and so on. But I don't regret getting seasons 1 and 2 on DVD: they were cheap, after all, and portable. It was fun lying on the couch sick and watching the Sarnath arc again, dizzily wondering again how the search for a stupid Do Anything jewel can be so much fun.

(Though I really didn't need to know that Splinter doesn't wear anything underneath his robe)

I've also started to reconsider watching the Fred Wolf series a la carte. It's not about "disrespecting" a series I still don't respect, but I feel sort of humourless and dull, when I thought I had the usual nerd capacity to ironically embrace absurdity. Sometimes with Fred Wolf stuff, I do, but other times….

Of course, my interest in the Fred Wolf series is not purely ironic. As these posts show, at times I show an earnest, sentimental interest that might cripple my ability to be all cool and distant. So that might make me more vulnerable to the show's faults.

I don't mind thinking critically about the Fred Wolf series, and I'm critiquing it for not being good as a goofy spoof show, not in secretly wishing it was like the 4Kids series. I just that I wish I was able to tolerate the OT better. So I might try to watch more episodes if I get that set, is what I'm saying.

However, I've also been able better describe why I dislike Fred Wolf April O'Neil so much. The problem with her is twofold, the first being that it's hard to get a handle on "who" she is. The male characters are simple and easy to describe, but April it's hard to get a bead on for some reason. Sometimes she's timid, other times she's bold, sometimes she's useful, sometimes she's not. Naturally I can't attribute this to April being complex, but just becoming whatever she needs to be in that moment. It just seems like even less effort was put into her than the rest of the cast, and as a result, fans remember her mostly for her breasts.

The second problem is that being "the girl" apparently puts April in this totally neutral position, where she never gets judged for anything, because she's not a "real" character. If somebody were to judge April's character, the assessment would be pretty dire: there are so many times when she is totally useless, and displays traits that in male characters are judged as cowardly or inept. But because April's just "the girl", no one calls her on that, and there's the implication that she can't be disliked for it, because we just aren't expected to form an opinion of this non-entity.

It could be argued that April's portrayal was ironic, mocking the damsel in distress stereotype. But…I don't think it was meant to mock anything, just that the series went through the motions, and then called attention to that fact, not making fun of stereotypes but just talking about itself. And when April is the major female character, there's still the urge to judge her for not being able to hold her own as a heroine—we simply expect more of characters when there are so few of their demographic represented. Even though April is an ordinary human, if the writers had tried, she could have been useful more often, and it also is a little heartbreaking to see how many times April showing initiative just leads to her getting kidnapped.

I feel a little bit bad picking on one of the few representatives of my gender in this show, but it can't be helped. April just gets on my nerves, in a completely different way than any other character. Irma, though she's an annoying stereotype, still has a consistent personality, and because she's a secondary character, we have less of an expectation that she will be effective.

Anyway, with that out of the way, my 1988 Splinter and Baxter toys arrived in the mail, with their file cards included. I hadn't touched my old Splinter in years and have no idea what happened to him, and I was surprised at how small the toy now felt in my hand, which is your mental Kodak moment for the day.

Playmates Splinter doesn't look much like any other version of Splinter, but the nostalgia of that sculpt is just overpowering. I lost the cloak to mine as soon as I had him, and he was naked for all time. I had the hard plastic-headed one, and this was the one with the "soft" head. I'm not sure which is rarer, or why those differences exist, but I'm pleased to have this one.

Baxter Stockman doesn't look much like the Baxterfly of the cartoon, but after the Exedore toy from Matchbox, any other off-base cartoon likeness looks more acceptable than it could be, especially when you know the toy was created first. Looking at this figure again, I wonder if it, with its exposed veins and muscles and psychotic grin, was the large inspiration behind almost every fanartist drawing Baxterfly as a drooling hell-beast.

(He also has a little watch, so he'll always know when it's revenge o' clock)

I'm all for radical artistic re-interpretation, but it's so hard to find art of Baxterfly that's not out of a horror movie that I jokingly wonder if the dark and edgy version is what people believe the character is actually like. If childhood memories could distort the main Fred Wolf villains into badasses, I guess anything's possible, but the idea of anyone recalling Baxter as a threatening villain is very hard to wrap my head around. He's supposed to be a malicious but silly creature even in the confines of his own very silly universe.

(Honestly, if I feel like I've got enough new stuff to say on the issue, I'll deal directly with the presumption that Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman is an innocent victim or "tragic" character: why it happens, and why it's not true)

The Playmates toys always did have interesting sculpts though, with a lot of grotesque detail everywhere, and in some cases, extra vermin crawling on them. These vermin manage to avoid that, and are cute little things to add to my collection.

Sadly, I've discovered the secondary market for toys based on the 4Kids series has them trading for high prices, so I won't be able to make any new additions anytime soon. At the same time, I'll likely buy the upcoming Nickelodeon Baxter Stockman toy, since he was the only enjoyable thing about this very boring series. I'm sorry, everybody, I tried, but I can't get into it.

But even so, until next time.


  1. I'm sorry you found "The Big Brawl" boring; I've always found it to be one of my favorite arcs in the series, with a lot of stuff I found pleasing: Usagi and Gen, who sold me on the original Stan Sakai comics; the way it further solidified the turtles-verse; and several pleasing character interactions. I even like the climax and conclusion, which I choose to see as pleasantly unconventional. But eh, we can't all like everything.

    You might have noticed this by now, but season 2 is something of a low point for both Baxter and Hun. The former, I feel, appears a tad too often and with little to add, while the latter gets defeated too dang easily. Both I feel are rectified rather nicely by the third season.

    The Casey thing, is, I feel a good idea taken too far. The point as I understand it is supposed to be that he's someone who doesn't have the turtles' training, and is going purely on the strength of muscle and guts. In a 'verse with ninjas who have been training for years, it makes sense for him to be outmatched once he's facing anything above street punks, which makes perfect sense Still, the point is taken too far, and the comedic aspects of it don't work. He'll get better, but it's a definitive stumbling block, and in many ways, he is never as effective as he is portrayed in "The Way of Invisibility".

    Karai is Karai. She's my favorite character in the series, arguably the most complex, and I've been trying to write an essay about her since forever.

    I have to agree with you on the Utrom and Triceratons. The Oots are most interesting as the mysterious force in season one, and are never as developed as they eventually become in the original comics. The Triceratons are...I'm not sure. I'd have liked to see more of them to see the way they're developed. There's potential in the disparity between the Proud Warrior Race aspects and stuff like arena sportscasters Raz and Zed and the World War II War Promos, but it's never really developed.

    I recently bought a trade paperback collecting some of the first few Archie stories--the very first ones to not adapt the cartoon, and I was surprised at how enjoyable they were. The series is still very much finding its feet, but in its way they manage to be just as enjoyable, in a way that is lost once things begin getting serious. If I'm still unsure about collecting the whole series as its re-released, it's because IDW's collections have ridiculously poor bang-for-the-buck value.

    1. I'm trying to sit on my hands and not segue into some of my opinions of season 3, since I just finished that and am working on a related post. I'll just say that a few of the things I remarked on did improve with that season, and while the filler episodes had a few groaners, I was overall impressed with the season, and the finale had me on the edge of my seat.

      I actually borrowed an assortment of "Usagi Yojimbo" volumes from the library book-sorting room this week. It's a comic I've been meaning to read since forever, and if the Battle Nexus didn't prompt me, the season three episodes featuring Usagi did, as they were much more interesting. I enjoyed the books a lot, and as always, a creator-driven comic with such a long lifespan is impressive and gratifying.

      The reason why Casey is portrayed as bumbling makes sense to me, and it's something I picked upon: that he's the "other guy", so he can't keep up with the Turtles in combat, and that extrapolates into his becoming comic relief.

      But being such a doofus really has nothing to do with whether he could hold his own in combat or not, and it doesn't fit with the tone of the series. 4Kids Mikey is a better example of how to do a comical character in a serious show, imo.

      I re-read some of those exact Archie stories in the second volume of TMNT Adventures as put out by IDW, and I agree with you that they are very fun. They seem to, again, fill the niche that the Nick cartoon does, being not "too" silly, or not "too" serious, making the Nick cartoon feel even more redundant to me, though dullness is a bigger problem than redundancy, at least on my end.

      (I'm still tuning in for the Mouser episode tomorrow, though. :) )

      Maybe it's the nostalgia talking (since I first read these stories in the Turtles Classics Digest, but even then, I was still in grade school), but I'm still fond of Wingnut, mostly because I like bats, but the backstory story they set up for him was compelling, if a little weird when you stop to think about it. (Skylights?)

      I liked Archie when it "got serious", though. Very exciting stuff for a young Pterobat, especially when my first issue was one of Four Hourseman arc ones.

      And yes, I looked over some of the newer Transformers and Ghostbusters graphic novels, and was surprised at how thin they were based on their cost. (In Canadian dollars, yet). The print quality of the Archie volumes also bothered me, what with looking like cheap scans of the original newsprint.