Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman is Not a Woobie, and Other Lessons in Ineffectual Villainy

Based on casual browsing of several Turtles fansites, as well as comments on YouTube and, it seems like a lot of people see the Fred Wolf version of Baxter Stockman. The nebbish mad scientist/fly monster with a voice like a cat being strangled and a lot of bad times is seen as an innocent victim, even a "tragic" character, which just ain't true.

I say this as someone who likes the character (and several other versions of him), and finds him adorably pathetic and endearingly stupid. But it's the same old thing: just because you like a character, doesn't mean you excuse their actions. While villain apologism for cooler and stronger villains has already been discussed by others, I figured it was time for me to take a crack at it.

But why would a comedic cartoon with absolute moral lines provoke villain apologism? Villain apologism, no matter how ridiculous it can get, is at least understandable when inspired by works that have grey morality and villains with developed, sympathetic motivations. Baxter Stockman has none of these things, and is largely a joke even by the rules of his own jokey universe, which means this all oughta be an open-and-shut case. However, the apologism happens anyway, and for two major reasons.

The first is that if one looks at Baxter's story without considering his actions, you can see him as an ordinary guy who wanted to sell his rat-killing robots, but ends up working for a supervillain, going insane, and turning into a fly monster that's slowly losing his mind. Several technical problems with his character arc also might provoke viewers to not only feel sorry for him, but to excuse him.

But Baxter is solidly a villain, with that fact becoming harder to deny as he changes. The fundamental truth is always that regardless of a character's circumstances, if they do evil things with joy, they're the bad guys. I feel like getting more technical about it, though, so I'll discuss why Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman might be exonerated by viewers, and why this doesn't hold up.

The first issue is the way Fred Wolf Baxter is handled in his first appearance, in the third episode of the series, "A Thing About Rats". Here, he's a relatively ordinary person; not a "mad" scientist: not even slightly disgruntled. Baxter gives Shredder his Mousers, and willingly, but he doesn't revel in the destruction being wreaked, nor even seems to be aware of it.

Instead, he spends most of the episode just standing around looking scared and bewildered, and passively following commands. For a series that is usually so blatant about its evildoers, this seems strange, and might push viewers' sympathies towards Baxter.

Baxter is not totally clean here: he shows a little bit of arrogance when the Shredder picks him up, saying. "Well, it's about time somebody discovered me!", and insolence, talking back to the Turtles when they try to interrogate him. But these things aren't a major part of his character, and someone would have far too high standards to think of this as villainous behaviour by itself.

It does still unbalance me a little, that Baxter's initial appearance had him be so completely non-threatening, and that the series mistakenly said Baxter tried to "take over the city" with his Mousers. In the former case, I really wonder why David Wise wrote him that way. It's possible that Baxter really was meant to be as hard-luck as viewers perceive him, but nothing else about him gives this impression. There's no sense of direction to Baxter's portrayal, no sense that the writers are drawing on dark humour to deliberately present him as a character with a hilariously terrible life. It's a real wasted opportunity.

However, a character's motives and bearing are, at a certain point, irrelevant: you do the crime, you do the time, regardless of your personality. Baxter gave his invention to the Shredder, so he should be held responsible for what was done with it.

In this universe, the Turtles also get their iconic vehicles by stealing stuff that was in Baxter's lab, which I do consider to be unfair.

Sheer pragmatism could justify this Turtledickery—after all, Baxter isn't going to need it, right?
But viewers do expect heroes to have the moral high ground, and not leave everything to mercenary laws. The Turtles stealing Baxter's shit is one of those lazy writer's things where anything the heroes do is right because they are labelled heroes, and they don't actually need to prove themselves to the audience.

But that doesn't change any of the other facts. So, while I don't agree with the conclusions viewers reach, I can see why some fans would ignore what episodes four and five of season one are trying to tell us, and see Baxter as innocent instead.

As the story goes on, however, understanding why Baxter is viewed as innocent gets harder to do. In the second season, Baxter reappears as Shredder's obsequious, cowardly sidekick, now an obvious "mad scientist" with a changed character design that includes long, shaggy hair.

In this position, Baxter Stockman's moral role is clearer: while he is frightened of the Shredder, when Baxter happens to get his hands on something to attack or bully another character with, he revels in it. "Curse of the Evil Eye" is the most obvious example, when Baxter steals the completed MacGuffin, the Eye of Sarnath, and has some fun with it (and looks very funny with Shredder's helmet on).

Baxter also enjoys his Ultimate Rat-Catcher in "Return of the Shredder", too, the modified construction vehicle that he happily attacks Splinter and the Turtles with. Because of incidents like these, it's no longer possible to read Baxter as a character unknowingly working for a villain, or removed from what that villain does, when Baxter has a clear villainous side himself.

I disagree with anyone who's suggested that the Eye corrupted Baxter and made him more vicious and power-mad than he would otherwise be. Baxter wanted to get the damn thing in the first place, and doing so is consistent with his character—no matter how much he simpers at the Shredder, there's still evidence that Baxter thinks highly of himself, as someone deserving of more than he gets, and "Curse of the Evil Eye" is where that all comes to a head.

But there are still writing problems that apparently don't make the opinion come smoothly to some viewers. The chief question is why Baxter now acts wholly evil, and why he is now so eager to work for the Shredder, with a much more devoted, fawning attitude than before.

Baxter is clearly intended to have some kind of mental issues going on, but it's never defined how he became insane, or if this explains his changes in personality. In this confusion, I can see why some viewers might try to give Baxter the benefit of the doubt, to in effect "plead insanity" for him. Since Baxter is no longer in a stable state of mind, being an evil henchman is something he can't be blamed for.

Furthermore, some of the people editing the TV Tropes page for the Fred Wolf series are squeamish about Shredder's treatment of Baxter in season two, which I sort of don't share. It's the standard stuff, you know: the lead villain yelling at his stupid henchman, who cringes and apologizes. I feel sorry for Baxter because I like the character, but there's nothing in his treatment that's actually unusual. (And it's funny, too).

They must think it looks worse when the Shredder is picking on a smaller, older human who is terrified and might not have asked to be a villain in the first place. With Bebop and Rocksteady, they were bad seeds right we first see them, oblivious rather than scared, and bigger and more monstrous than the Shredder, so maybe it doesn't look as bad to some.

Nonetheless, Baxter's episodes as a human mark him as a villain. That his turn to evil is never explained is not meant to be relevant, and no matter how scared Baxter is of the Shredder, he clearly likes doing evil deeds, and so can't be excused for anything.

Of course, usually perceptions of Baxter Stockman's innocence don't revolve around him as a human, but as a fly-creature. Baxterfly is seen as someone who just wanted to be normal again, and had a "tragic" ending where the writers stop bringing him out of the dimensions he gets formulaically trapped in, so that he's in dimensional limbo for all time. His little bit of transformation angst, and his oddly cute Boston Terrier-like features might further endear him to viewers.

Okay...but the "wanting to be normal" thing typically takes a backseat to "get revenge on people, sometimes by also turning them into monsters". Baxterfly is the most definitively and actively villainous of all versions of White Baxter, and the morals of the situation are still simple: even if you hate being a bug-thing, if you keep hurting and attacking other people, you deserve what happens to you.

Throughout the episodes he appeared in, Baxter kidnapped April, tried to kill the Turtles with poison gas, tried to turn the main cast into animals, trapped the Turtles in the gears of a clock, attacked the city with a legion of flies, and tried to turn everyone into bug monsters. You can't think of him as anything even approaching innocent. At best, he gets forgetful of the evil he wants to do, but never for very long.

In most of these episodes, Baxter follows around Zee, the Hal 9000 parody he discovered in an alien ship, now embodied as a 90s desktop PC and Baxter's BFF (though personally, I find Zee a little smarmy and always wonder if he's up to something else). Zee is an enabler, always reminding Baxter of the evil that he wants to do, and helping him to do it. At the same time, Baxter's clearly acting on his own desires.

The jury is still out on whether "Revenge of the Fly", Baxter's last appearance, was meant to have any kind of finality to it. However, it's hard to view it as a sad ending when Baxter's actions are his own fault. Besides, even if more had been done with the character, though, the Fred Wolf series is not one where the villains would ever get what they want, whether it's taking over the world or getting a human body back. I can't view this episode as saddening, or shocking.

What's more irritating is there is no finality to Baxter's character, which would have been more plausible than his becoming human again. Zee could have been killed by Donatello, but otherwise "end up stick in another dimension" is the ending to most Baxterfly episodes, so this doesn't feel like any kind of conclusion for him, but just a standard Baxterfly episode after which no more were made.

I don't mind fans wishing things were different—in that case, I'm not immune. It's just that a lot of people don't seem to understand what kinds of series we were dealing with, and what we could have expected of it. That kind of knowledge can exist independent of personal attachments. Just like knowing a character has committed evil actions doesn't mean you have to dislike them.

In short, the assumption that Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman is an innocent character isn't true. At one point, he did seem ordinary, but he still was involved with evil acts, and after that, it was all downhill from there, as he became more and more villainous. The fact that some of this is not fully explained isn't relevant. He's a bad guy. Often not very good at it, but he still is one.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Not Wishing for Grit: Words from a Softy who Dislikes Macross 7

Macross 7 has apparently undergone a change of fortune. Once the black sheep of the Macross franchise, now it seems to be embraced by a large amount of the fandom, with all the role-reversal of fandom arguments that that suggests.

However, I'm still comfortable with disliking it: we can't all love everything. No problems…except that some associate a dislike of Macross 7 with certain traits that are the exact opposite of mine. The assumption is that those who dislike Macross 7 do so because they assume Macross is, or should be, a gritty, military-driven franchise.

This sucks, because I actually love the ideals and themes of the Macross world.  Themes about the life-affirming power of song and art are usually guaranteed to float my boat, and I'm a sappy, sentimental sort of girl. I even regret the prevalence of military hardware discussion on the fandom, when I would rather discuss plots and characters instead.

But I just don't like Macross 7. In fact, I really hated watching it, and haven't been back to watch it since I finished it three years ago. The way the themes and ideals of the series are presented just do not appeal to me, and I either dislike the characters or haven't any strong feelings towards them. I also don't like the style and look of the series, and I don't even find it appealing in an ironic, "look-at-this-crazy-shit-oh-my-god" way. It all adds up to one unappealing cartoon.

Let's start where most stories start, with the protagonist. Basara Nekki is the lead, and he's the type of character who only makes the world change, and never has his own world changed.
Basara's determination to "listen to his song", and his commitment to peace are both unwavering, and all that is needed is for the rest of the world to catch up to him.

I'm not saying a character who starts the story with everything he needs to succeed can't be an effective lead, but Basara is just so fucking obnoxious…. He's a loudmouth, an idiot, but one who's always proven right. He's always "on". It's both offensive and boring at the same time, and never gets any better.

And once again, I get it. I get that Basara is meant to embody the force of Art, the way that a creative person can become so passionately devoted to their work, and how this passion can change the world. I understand it because I'm into the creative arts, too, and usually I love artistic characters—but not now.

Just because you enjoy a theme, doesn't mean you enjoy all representations of it. I don't dislike Basara because I want a more "manly", rugged lead who thinks with his weapons: I do because his mannerisms are so irritating, and his strong convictions don't move me. It's nothing to do with a lack of appreciation for the power of music.

And yes, I don't believe that Basara was meant to be taken ironically, that viewers were meant to laugh at him for being bull-headed and/or he was meant to spoof a pompous "rock star" attitude. Macross has never been short on comedy, but it's never been about that kind of vicious, cutting humour.  In fact, one of the main characteristics of the Macross universe is earnestness: no matter how silly its premises are, they are presented with conviction, which is what I think is going on here.

While Macross 7 isn't short on comedy, it's comedy of the straightforward kind: slapstick and jokes and faceplants, without any criticism of the series itself. We are meant to see Basara as a great hero, a maverick whose methods may be bizarre, but who will be vindicated. As further proof, the name "Basara" refers to a mentality of freedom and forward thinking. That could be a joke, too, but it's even more doubtful.

Macross 7 is not an ironic series, in short. And even if there were, even if this was actually an ironic series, it doesn't excuse any visceral dislike a viewer might feel. "It's supposed to be funny" is never an excuse if you don't actually find it funny.

I don't have a problem with the rest of the new cast of heroes. I don't hate Fire Bomber at all, just Basara and his...Basara. Dr. Chiba gives me the willies, though, since he's a little too close to that particular kind of otaku that exists in real life.

I don't have anything against Gamlin Kizaki either way. He's a cool guy, but he never clicked with me. I guess he's popular because, despite his comic moments, Gamlin is a pipeline to the militarism that some desire from the Macross franchise. I'm not in need of anything like that.

Of course, I don't strongly like any of the newer characters, either, but that isn't enough to make a series repulsive. Veffidas Feaze has grown on me a bit, but just as an unconventional female Zentradi. I still consider her to be a shallow character; I know a character doesn't have to speak to have a strong personality, but Veffidas still doesn't succeed at it.

The second major reason I dislike Macross 7 has to do with the antagonists, the Protodevlin. At first mysterious aliens with their own ships and mecha, they are gradually revealed to be energy vampires inhabiting stolen human bodies or alien constructs made by the Protoculture. They feed on "spiritia", and Basara's music holds the key to defeating them, or at least making peace with them, partly because his life-energy is particularly potent.

I can buy that the "spirita" generated by music can be so intense, so powerful, that it could stop the Protodevlin in their tracks (among other things), but the Protodevlin just get on my nerves. They're hideous to look at, or to listen to.

The construct bodies, without fail, look ridiculous and ugly, like enemies from a Super Sentai show, or Inuyasha, all done up in garish, awful colours. Particularly bad is Gabil, a moth/elf/angel thing who always screams about "beauty!" There are plenty of attempts to make these characters sympathetic, but they never get through to me.

To make things worse, the Protodevlin are overhyped. It is said that they caused the downfall of the Protoculture, the mysterious galactic civilization that is responsible for creating artificial life and countless technological wonders. And yet, all it takes is Basara's music to make them realize peace, that they could create their own "spiritia" through the group. Even if these are only a handful of Protodevlin out of past legions, it's still so hard to believe.

There is also a personal reason for disliking the Protodevlin, and it ain't nothing to dismiss. Protodevlin apparently invoke an instinctive fear or anger response in the Zentradi, turning them into violent terrorists or complete cowards—except for Milia, for some reason, which makes the idea  less credible. It's so brainless, when the Protodevlin don't live up to their hype, and when it means that humans have to save the Zentradi, instead of both races working together, using what they've earned through previous stories.

The odd thing is that the Protodevlin can be considered parallel to the Zentradi in a number of ways, not only because some of their stolen bodies were originally designed to replace Zentradi. Still, this just proves my point that the presentation of a theme is even more important than the theme itself. I dislike the Protodevlin so much, while the Zentradi are one of my all-time favourite things.

Despite all this, I never believed that the Protodevlin would be blown away, destroyed, defeated in that standard manner expected of antagonists. I understand is not how Macross functions: it's a media franchise where a key motif is making peace with one's enemies. I accept that, but it doesn't mean I accepted the Protodevlin anyway. Their embodying a valuable theme made no difference.

Besides the new heroes and the antagonists, there's also the three returning older characters: Max, Milia, and Exsedol. Some viewers have said they watched the series for Max and Milia, while I watched it for Exsedol. I'm not proud to admit it, because watching a series just for a character, and not its plot or themes, always felt shallow to me.

Especially with this character. I know I've talked about this before, but it needs repeating to get the whole picture of my reaction to Macross 7. Exsedol is my favourite character in the franchise, and his form and personality were changed for no reason. Furthermore, Macross 7, he's not much of a character.

He's a talking prop, a background object who is too big to have any meaningful interaction with the characters, not that Exsedol is meant to. He's also virtually useless, with very few of his deeds things that could not have been accomplished by another character. All of this puts me in a bad mood for the whole series.

At the same time, Exsedol was also the only thing I ever cared about while watching the series, which proves how screwy my relationship with it is. I don't view fixation on a minor character as a personal problem, but the result of the larger stuff not being interesting. And while there's  nothing wrong with preferring a tertiary character, in this case I feel it's not "earned", because it's not about qualities Exsedol has now, but only what he used to have, back when preferring him to major characters was justifiable.

Max and Milia's portrayals are much better. They have lives outside of their military role, feel like actual characters who matter to the story. Hell, they even look (almost) the same after decades of life. I don't believe the difference in these portrayals is totally due to the relative differences in popularity—Exsedol's portrayal is just an unusual execution, and being tertiary doesn't necessitate making him less a "person". I don't mind Max and Milia getting more focus, just wish Exsedol were more "human" in his function and living.

There are problems, though. One is that Max and Milia are estranged at the start of the series, and it is never explained why. Many fans are content with making up their own explanations, but that never works for me. Stories shouldn't make fans do the mental legwork to fill in their background.

Many believe that Max and Milia's breakup was a commentary on the impossible nature of their relationship. These were two characters who had been bitter enemies, but Max defeated Milia on and off the battlefield, and they were married almost on the spot. There are many practical objections to this scenario, but in-universe there was never the sense that this was anything but a grand love story.

If their estrangement in Macross 7 was meant to be a biting commentary on the previous series, it would have been clearer. The only hint we get as to the reasoning behind the breakup is that Milia complains an "elite pilot won't take care of domestic matters" in the OVA Which One Do You Love?—which is a surprise, when Milia used to be the one tossing babies and blowing up kitchens. It looks like the writers went for the standard gender roles rather than the characters' roles, clearing up nothing about the individuals themselves.

In fact, a huge problem with Milia in Macross 7 is the way she's turned into a comic relief figure by drawing on ugly stereotypes of older women. Zentradi have, ideally, been a mixture of comical and serious traits, but Milia's portrayal relentlessly mocks her in a way that becomes uncomfortable, since it's tied to very real attitudes towards women.

She's portrayed as the meddling mother (pushing her youngest daughter to pick a suitor at age fourteen), the nagging wife, the insecure woman who snaps when you call her "old" or anything similar. While Milia in the original series could be hilariously vain and petty, you never get the impression that was what the writers drew on: instead, they went straight to stereotypes again.

The plot construction of the series also does it no favours. The plot of Macross 7 drags and cycles, with a lot of filler, stagnation, and other messes that are uninteresting if you don't care about the characters. The climax also depends on Geppelnitch, a human-bodied Protodevlin, becomes a "spiritia black hole", a monster that must be stopped...because why the hell not, right?

I realize that newbies are encouraged to just watch Macross 7 in small doses to avoid burnout, but if you need a set schedule to make yourself enjoy a series, that defeats the point of watching something for entertainment. A series should be enjoyable no matter how you take it in.

Also, while Basara's ability to affect the Protodevlin can be defined as an abstract power, Macross 7 attempts to make it literal, in the form of song energy that can be quantified, measured, and implemented. This does lead to some silly visuals, like rocker-piloted mecha with giant speakers, but more than that, it spoils the ideal of music being transcendent, suggesting it's all about a superpower rather than artistic passion. I've backed off over the years, to see that one view of music's power doesn't necessarily cancel out the other, but it does chip away at the power of the concept.

Just as the Protodevlin are ugly to look at, so is the rest of the series. I don't mind the low animation quality so much, or the reused footage, because TV animation has always had those limits. The character designs are good as with all Macross series, but the colour palette of Macross 7 has so many garish blues, pinks, yellows, and purples it just becomes unpleasant to witness. Some of the futuristic outfits and stage clothes are also hard on the eyes, too.

Whatever other problems my dislike might suggest, I know my differences with Macross 7 are not due to wishing for a more gritty Macross franchise. I like the idea of music being able to change the world, of making peace with one's enemies, and of sticking to ones' convictions: I just don't like this particular series. I like the themes Macross embodies, but Macross 7 takes them to unappetizing extremes, and has several specific problems that further bring it down.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Upchuck is Working for the Shredder: Season Three of the 4Kids TMNT

The third season of this series impressed me more than the second, with all the bits that moved the story forward being entertaining enough to make me forget the groaners among the filler. And some of said filler was also fun, too.

Last time I was critical of the Triceratons for being uniform in personality and structure, so I liked that there was a multitude of Triceratons that rebelled against their leader, a trope which is much more satisfying than an otherwise one-note alien race having "the good one" or "the bad one". Their invasion story was pretty strong, too.

There were a lot of unlikable episodes at certain times. I'm starting to think it's not my lack of investment in the characters that's the only problem with being able to get through filler, but that most of these episodes aren't very good. "The Entity Below" and "Time Travails" were favourites of mine (I'd read the original Mirage stories of Renet and Savanti a while ago), although I thought the former's ending with the stranded alien becoming the last of her race was rushed. On the other hand, I like Lovecraft, but…"The Darkness Within" didn't do it for me. I also cringed at the pointless retcon of "The Lesson" and because I dislike casts where it turns out everybody knew everybody.

The fused Ultimate Ninja/Drako was a cool, creepy visual that reminded me of Ratchet and Megatron's fusion in the old Transformers comics, though not as disturbing. It's too bad this creature didn't bring much of an interesting storyline with him, since most of the four-part time-travel episodes weren't that great. I was reminded that I've grown out of "dark future" stories, for "Same as It Never Was" didn't shock or move me at all. Then again, not even "Future Tense" from Gargoyles did that.

However, the Miyamoto Usagi reappearance was fun, giving me a true glimpse of Stan Sakai's world, much more exciting than Usagi and Gen's appearance in season two. The overall climax of the time arc was also interesting, though the Ultimate Ninja's turn to remorse happened too quickly, and his rebirth was a little trite by consequence…though you could argue that losing his memories and personality in being regressed to a child was "punishment" enough.

(And the Damiyo's War Staff still looks like a croquet mallet).

I've decided that Baxter Stockman is my favourite character in this universe. Splinter is still cool, but he never clicks with me as much as the older Splinters did, which is probably my "fault" in various ways. All the reasons I like Baxter in this series are still in place, and there's no other character here that I enjoy quite as much.

Early in season three Baxter seems notably put-upon, and his desires notably doomed to fail. But he continues to be arrogant, and to try to salvage something…and it is satisfying to see him get a turn around by the end of the season, as he betrays the Shredder for good to ally with Bishop. No matter how much I enjoy a character's failures, in the end I do want them to succeed. That's as true for Baxter as it is for anyone else.

Adding to the humour of Baxter's situation in the season is the introduction of Dr. Chaplin, who both idolizes Baxter and is his rival, a contradiction that Chaplin is hilariously oblivious to. And Chaplin, for all his faults, is actually good at his job, at first in danger of outshining Baxter. I liked that, because you often expect a new character to be inferior to the veterans in all but the cheesiest of marketing moves. It was a very funny and entertaining dynamic while it lasted.

Everybody says Chaplin reminds them of Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman, but I don't see it. It's probably because, since I like White Baxter, my standards for a resemblance are stronger than "white nerd with a high voice who works for the Shredder and has an opinion of Baxter Stockman", but that doesn't invalidate my view, anyway. Chaplin's personality just isn't like Fred Wolf Baxter at all, even if you allowed for the fact that Fred Wolf Baxter's extremes of personality wouldn't be allowed in a more serious, modern show. Chaplin is also younger.

No, you know who Chaplin reminds me of? His creepy infatuation with Karai in "New Blood" made me think of Upchuck from Daria, and I could just see him uttering Upchuck's catchprhase, "Rrr, feisty," to Karai. Yeah, bit of an exaggeration, but those Karai robots, and his reason for building them, were both pretty creepy. Fortunately, Chaplin was inoffensive in his other appearances in this season, and I hope that continues.

(Fun fact: Marc Thompson, who does voice work on this series, voices several characters on Daria, including Upchuck himself in the first season)

Leatherhead was a very irritating character, though. I looked forward to a version of Leatherhead that had a personality, unlike the Fred Wolf one, and unlike the generic character the Archie one faded into after a good initial showing. What I got was an over-the-top Jekyll-and-Hyde thing that was just not compelling at all. The same is true for his angst over being "a monster"—just so cheesy and banal. Which is a shame, because I like alligators, and would have enjoyed seeing a heroic one.

Bishop is quite the interesting guy, however. In hindsight, adding MiB (in the original sense, not just the particular media franchise) elements to the Turtles is an obvious match, and here it works extremely well. With the Shredder out of the picture for a the rest of the actual series, it will be interesting to see what gets done with Bishop, or actually, what Bishop does.

"Exodus", the season finale, had me on the edge of my seat, and erased all the bad will built up by some of the previous episodes. (Which is another reason why I'd make a lousy professional critic). The premise is so simple, but the suspense was top-notch, and the action superb. I love the way this series plays around with Karai's divided loyalties, so that it seems realistic that she does not choose a side, but also that she doesn't get destroyed by this refusal to commit.

In fact, season three managed to remain credible regarding the reasons the Shredder kept his three main henches around: Baxter, Karai, and Hun are still useful regardless of their failings, so the Shredder can be "lenient". And as we have seen, he does have familial feelings towards Karai, albeit to a debatable degree.

As time goes on, I'll be watching the "lost" fifth season before I get to the rebranded seasons of the series. And at the end of it the run, I'm going to rewatch Turtles Forever, which I'm excited to do now that I've got more grounding in both of the universes it depicts—well, a more adult grounding in the Fred Wolf universe, anyway.

Ancillary Turtles Stuff

After being so vicious towards the main female character in the Fred Wolf show, let me say it was out of dislike created by disappointment. I wish the TMNT universe had more female characters, and sometimes I wish it were more female mutant characters.

I realize that having grotesque female characters in media isn't going to set the world on fire, and that it will come about as a consequence of larger changes to women's role, but I can't help but be drawn to images of "monstrous" female characters, and be annoyed with their rarity. I think it's because as I kid I usually identified more with monsters and creatures than human characters, and hated not to see my gender represented. This weird self-denial changed as I grew older, but I continued to be drawn back to freaks and creatures.

In the TMNT franchise, I can't help but feel that the small percentage out of the already small percentage of female characters who are "monstrous" is something unconscious but definite. It has to be for the usual reasons, but also because April O'Neil is both the major female character, and the only human among the major characters until Casey Jones started getting prominent creating the equation of female = normal in the multiverse.

Strangely enough, I've seen male viewers get actually angry when female characters are monstrous. There are plenty of examples, but a while ago I was shocked to see the transformed Fred Wolf April in "Catwoman from Channel Six" derided as "ugly" by fans, when  the point was, she was a frigging mutant—why should you expect a mutant to be "hot"? Whatever the problems I've got with April, I'm glad that when she gets mutated, she doesn't look "sexy". Wasp April in "Revenge of the Fly" looked pretty boss.

Okay, so what about "female Turtles"? I watched some of The Next Mutation while it was airing, and thought it was stupid to add Venus—not because she was female, but because it's very hard to add a new character to an iconic group that's been around for decades and have it work. Also, she was an idiot and defined just as a love interest, with a creepy "mammalianized" design.

However, I've realized over the years that the objections to Venus sometimes were specifically because she was female, and that several ideas for a fifth male Turtle have been floated by various parties without much fuss. I know others have said that adding a female Turtle is am specific problem because it raises the issue of reproduction, and the Turtle's inability to reproduce is a usually unspoken but powerful problem, but for the Mirage story "Sons of the Silent Age".

But pardon me if defining a female presence solely by her reproductive ability makes me a little sick, not to mention it's become harder for me to let writers and fans get away with ignoring population bottleneck when they make these assumptions.

In short, creating a new Turtle as a regular team member is a stupid and lazy idea no matter what the gender of said Turtle would be, and it's a huge double standard to single out female Turtles as the worse problem.

Which in a roundabout way brings me back to Mona Lisa, the lizard/salamander girl from the old cartoon (I bet salamander because of the webbed fingers), whom near as I can figure, is the only grotesque female character in the Fred Wolf series (Kala doesn't really count) whose transformation is permanent. Or permanent as a one-shot character can be.

I'm glad Laird and Eastman vetoed her being a turtle (not a Turtle), and that it was because of the lack of creativity and no other stated reason. I wasn't too impressed with "Raphael Meets His Match", as Mona Lisa seemed like a Generic Good Person, a simple hero without any distinctive traits besides that. But Mona Lisa did look pretty cool. I also give her hair and bust a pass since she started life as a mammal, which Venus didn't.

While I understand it might not be in the best interests of a children's series to give characters a love life (and in the process, throw aside my own belief that multi-faceted worldbuilding is a universal good regardless of target audience), when they give it a try, the floodgates for criticism can be opened up. Honestly, "Raphael Meets His Match" did almost nothing to imply Mona Lisa was a love interest. The title, and the assumption that a female character of similar age must be a love interest, were the biggest things to support it, and that's weak. If you're going to try something different, might as well dig to the bedrock, right?

The fandom has obviously taken the idea and ran with it, but I'm disappointed at the lack of effort canon put into it. Still, I'll give a little cheer for more grotesque female characters in the franchise.

(I'll give my thoughts on Ninjara once I'm finished re-reading all the Archie books. Huh; why did Raphael get the most love interests?)

And the other day, I saw, "Mousers Attack", the eleventh episode of the Nickelodeon Turtles show. I wrote this show off, but I keep running into it, keep turning on the TV when an episode is close to showing and there's nothing else on. It's a reflex, because this series is not even a guilty pleasure: it's just numbing, not worth any deeper criticism.

But this time I actively sought out an episode, and was sad that I had to wait a week for it to air. The reason's obvious: Baxter Stockman in "I Think His Name is Baxter Stockman" was the only thing about the show that I actually enjoyed, and I wanted to familiarize myself with more versions of the character.

(So far I'm only familiar with the 4Kids, Fred Wolf, and Nicktoons versions, plus his first Mirage appearance and the short career of White Baxter in the Archie comics.)

Of course, the real focus of the episode was how the bickering Turtles worked divided into "A" and "B" team and tried to get April's phone back from the bad guys—nothing really fun. And the Turtles are such jerks to each other—lead characters should not be perfect, but the attitudes that lead to this fight seemed childish even for the already immature Turtles, and I don't think anybody got the message that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and so on and so forth.

And the art style of this show is so…dark. I'm not talking about the outdoor scenes, which obviously have to take place at night, but that the Shredder apparently has no lights on in his lair, and several other poorly-lit indoor scenes that made it hard to figure out what's going on. It's the same problem with Transformers Prime and The Clone Wars, and it's really aggravating to watch because of my slight vision problems.

Also, also, also, Dogpound has such an ugly design. It's misproportioned with a squashed-looking head and strange doggie moustache, and hurts aesthetically to look at.

 I didn't notice the "Irma" Easter Egg during the first viewing. I hope she shows up on principle, since April is still the only female character in the series, but I never liked the original Irma so there was no excitement to be had. However, I assume a school-age Irma won't be so obnoxious and creepy, and I always did like the idea of April having a life and connections outside the Turtles. So, you know, knock yourselves out if you want to do something with that.

Nicktoons Baxter is great, though. He won't be to everybody's taste, because he's now revealed himself to be almost as big a dorkasaurus as Fred Wolf Baxter, and has a lot of personality traits in common with him: he's a comical character whose inventions usually work and has an arrogant streak, but that's usually hidden by how easily he bows to threats. Hell, Dogpound even carried Baxter away from a battle scene, the way the Shredder sometimes did in the old cartoon.

I can't lie: despite my principles about creating quality antagonists who can stand up to the heroes, and about maintaining novelty in media franchises when possible, I was delighted again by another goofy Baxter Stockman; all apologies. Once again, though, I don't anticipate Nicktoons Baxter becoming a fly, since we've already got the robot stuff going.

It's true that Baxter's motivations changed with this episode, since his reveal of the Mousers and plans to use them for robberies were an on-the-nose homage to the Mirage comics, instead of Baxter's "disgruntled office worker" persona of his previous appearance. That fact never crossed my mind until later, however, and it all doesn't change the fact that he was an enjoyable character.

 And Mousers are fun; those little terrors have grown on me a bit, becoming sort of cute. This time their exterminator purpose is eliminated entirely, as M.O.U.S.E.R. is an acronym referring to their capabilities, but I wouldn't be surprised if they go after Splinter at some point.

This means I'll have to keep watching after all. I try to avoid watching a series just for one or two characters, but the Nicktoons show is at least inoffensive enough that I might be able to live with it.

Also, Pat Fraley was on Rob Paulsen's podcast Talkin' Toons at the end of November, which I was already an avid listener of. That was pretty awesome. If you've never given Talkin' Toons a listen, start now. Paulsen has had many, many conversations with the funny and entertaining people that work in the animation industry, and his podcast is always worth a listen.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Thoughts about Dragons, for Some Reason

I've been a dragon geek since I was a toddler. They've consistently been my favourite monster/fantasy creature, because they are such a flexible concept. While other geeks draw blood over what constitutes "real" vampires, werewolves, or zombies, dragons are mostly left to be whatever that particular creator thinks they could be. There have to be some out there who think dragons are becoming too "cuddly", or that giving them sapience or heroic qualities dilutes their mythic power, but thankfully people like this are rare.

While I'm open to almost any depiction of dragons, as an adult nerd I've developed certain tendencies and desires, ones that I make exception for, but that are common. What I prefer from modern dragon fiction is for dragons to be treated like characters rather than serving as symbols or plot devices: they are not purely evil or purely good, but have distinct individual personalities and a defined culture. This happens rarely, and I enjoy other types of dragon stories, but this ideal has a special place in my heart.

While I can enjoy books where the dragon has a small role, if asked what I want from a story that is defined as a "dragon story", I prefer a story about dragons rather than one with dragons, where the dragon is a major viewpoint character that participates in the main events of the plot. Again, this is rare, so I make exceptions.

When it comes to that classic, dragon riders, I dislike the standard Pern-inspired stuff, but can enjoy it when the dragon is an animal, and when the human has to earn that animal's trust. These and many other reasons are why How to Train Your Dragon was a great film.

But the type of dragon rider everyone remembers, the one with a sapient dragon steed and intense telepathic bonding, has always left me cold. It's just a little skeevy to have a thinking being treated like a horse, no matter how the narrative tries to justify it. The implicit wish fulfilment of a companion that immediately loves and understand you is also part of the problem.

The kind of story I don't prefer to read when there can be one about the protagonist earning their place in the world instead. It's similar to my dislike of vampires always being sexy, suave, and aristocratic with tiny pretty fangs: the fantasy is just a "fantasy", instead of an impetus for character growth.

When it comes to dragonslaying, I mostly find dragonslaying stories to be boring. It's not because I'm morally against dragonslaying stories, but standard Perseus and Andromeda story is too predictable and too rigid. But if the dragonslaying story is presented in an interesting or vibrant way, I'm in for it. Dragonslayer is one of those exceptions, as is a children's book adaptation of Saint George and the Dragon, because of the gorgeous art by Trina Schart Hyman.

Modern stories that flip the mythic roles so that the dragon is now a pure, saintly creature persecuted by evil humans aren't appealing, either. Role reversals can be exciting, but "dragons good, humans bad", is just as banal and overplayed as its opposite, still limiting the possibility of characterization and originality. I liked DragonHeart, but I keep to that principle….

Portraying dragons as saintly gets even more aggravating when it seems fans are using dragons to create their ideal vision of society, a fantasy of something that they would rather be than be human. This is ludicrous and a little bit crazy, even before you get to the otherkin and furry stuff, or the nuts who believe dragons are real.

How about the speculation on how dragons could function in real life, the taking of traits from other animals then combining and extrapolating them to create a dragon species? Some of these make for entertaining reads (see: Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons), and I like them as thought exercises. But honestly, I've never needed these kinds of explanations.

I accept that the usual image of "dragon" is biologically and evolutionarily impossible. Animals that specialize for specific abilities often have other ones diminished in the process, so it's hard to imagine an enormous animal that can function equally well on the ground and in the air, which is also a six-limbed vertebrate, and a four-legged animal with a sentient mind and has jaws that can produce both speech and fire. This is too large a mix of abilities that are too equal with each other, in which nothing is sacrificed.

To make dragons even remotely plausible, their distinct qualities have to be hamstrung, and even then, it doesn't quite align with the laws of nature and physics. Those attempts to create plausible dragons are just another way to write them, and not superior to the concepts that do not try. The best thing is to make a fantasy internally consistent, and not necessarily conforming to the laws of the real world.

When it comes to designing dragons, I do have a soft spot for the standardized modern dragon: four-legged with handlike forepaws, two bat wings, long muzzle, long thin horns, maybe finned ears, a long tail...but at the same time the prevalence of this design is disappointing, because dragons have so much visual potential.

I'm glad to see any exception to it, like the many species of the How to Train Your Dragon universe, and often turn to Medieval European depictions of dragons. These could get much more wild and strange, including the incorporation of human features. I wish modern artists would look back upon the offbeat past of the western dragon and buck the trends more often.

(Oh, and I like "cute" dragons, but not fat ones with tiny wings, except Gronckles)

These are the last things I have to say about dragons in general, and I'll close out this post with a list of my favourite dragon media. This is not a list of the best of dragon media, or a wide-ranging history, but works that I find something worthwhile about. Where there are omissions, I either haven't looked at them yet, or I personally don't like them.


How to Train Your Dragon
Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real


Age of Fire (Dragon Champion/Dragon Avenger/Dragon Outcast/Dragon Strike/Dragon Rule/Dragon Fate), by E.E. Knight
The Black Wing, by Mary Kirchoff
A Book Dragon,  by Don Kushner
The Book of the Dragon, text by Montse Sant, illustrated by Ciruelo
A Diversity of Dragons, text by Anne McCaffrey Richard Woods, illustrated by John Howe
Dragons: The Modern Infestation, by Pamela Wharton-Blanpied
The Dragon Book: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
Dragoncharm/Dragonstorm/Dragonflame, by Graham Edwards
Dragons Can Only Rust/Dragon Reforged,  by Chris Cymri
The Dragons of Babel,  by Michael Swanwick
Dragons of Darkness, edited by Orson Scott Card
A Dragon-Lover's Treasury of the Fantastic, edited by Margaret Weis
Dragons of Light, edited by Orson Scott Card
Dragons: A Studio Book, by Peter Hogarth
The Flight of Dragons, by Peter Dickison
Guards! Guards! , by Terry Pratchett
The Iron Dragon's Daughter, by Michael Swanwick
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, by Bruce Coville
Miss Fanshawe and the Great Dragon Adventure, by Sue Scullard
Saint George and The Dragon, Retold by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, adapted from Edmund Speser's The Farie Queene
Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton
Winterlands (Dragonsbane, Dragonshadow, Knight of the Demon Queen, Dragonstar), by Barbara Hambly

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Few Short Guilty Pleasures

This isn't the end of the Guilty Pleasures series. But I've reached the end of the current list of characters, works, and abstract concepts that I felt qualified as "guilty pleasures", so I'm putting the series on hiatus.

To close off, here are some short guilty pleasures that I didn't feel needed a long post to discuss them:

The Word "Pterodactyl"

I'm a huge fan of pterosaurs a.k.a. "pterodactyls", with the name of this blog even poking fun at inaccurate pterosaurs with bat wings. However, my interest is casual and based on aesthetics more than anything involving scientific rigour.

I don't know everything about extinct saurians, and tend to accept inaccurate popular depictions of pterosaurs with little fuss. Yet I know enough that "pterodactyl" is technically an inaccurate term for the whole of flying reptile species, though exactly why it is inaccurate has changed with the times.

But it's such a fun word to say. Pterodactyl, pterodactyl, pterodactyl.

Doing Everything But Playing the Silent Hill Games

For some reason, I never ended up getting into video games. The only ones I played were Duck Hunt, where I'd sit close to the TV to end up getting all the ducsk, or Gahan Wilson's the Ultimate Haunted House, which we had for some reason. But, I've become fascinated with the mythology behind the first four Silent Hill games.

I'm constantly looking at images, wikis, walkthroughs, and Let's Plays, loving the strangeness of the story and the freakishness of the monsters, not to mention the care put into the backstory and artwork. But…I've got no interest in actually playing the games. I realize that doesn't make sense, and I don't call myself a Silent Hill fan for this reason, but I just don't.

Ancillary media adaptations won't scratch my Silent Hill itch, either, since the movies and comics get rid of many things that made the original storylines good, and put crap in their place. There's nothing that actually re-creates those compelling stories within the narrative conventions of a comic or film, and nothing that's as good as those original stories. So I have to stick with watching people play video games.

Internet Trainwrecks

I suffer from a serious case of "There but for the grace of God go I" syndrome, convinced that if I didn't have so much self awareness or self-control, I could have become one of many terrible breeds of nerds, or maybe several terrible kinds of nerds at the same time. I won't go into detail, but the possibility sticks with me.

So I would enjoy watching/hearing others discuss internet trainwrecks, exposing the perversity of people online, because this makes me feel better about myself, reminding me that I didn't become that kind of person.

Sometimes the act backfires on me, because the commentary reminds me that I could still be more mature than I am. It makes me more self-conscious instead of less, and makes the whole activity even less justifiable. But I can't stop myself either way. It's brain-rotting, but fun.

I sneak around, lurking on various websites and watching strange people have meltdowns or watch other people talk about strange people having meltdowns. I don't join in, because I know I'm too damn earnest and sensitive. I can't make myself pretend there's nothing I care about for the sake of cutting into others, or that I have anything to lord over anyone. Eventually I'd expose myself as just another nerd.

Lacking that killer instinct, I just like to watch.