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.


  1. In two parts, since I'm apparently over the character limit.

    Chaplin: Although the parallels to Nick Donatello's crush are rather glaring, I'm more predisposed to be kinder towards Chaplin, and classify him as someone who is awkward rather than a Nice Guy. I think there's definitively an element of fetishism to his infatuation--I don't think he'd be half as interested if she weren't superficially an anime character come to life—but I don't feel that that comprises the entirety of his interest. It helps that this is the only episode where his crush is played in this manner, which allows me to think of his creepiness as something he abandons after it becomes clear that it's unwanted. Perhaps it's the nostalgia talking.

    As problematic as the Amazonian Blade Bots are in concept—Karai has every right to feel creeped out—the actual execution, I feel, hints at a more nuanced character. Given the direction where the design of a robot based on a woman one is infatuated in could go (three words: metal D-cups's) the near-total lack of sexualization in the actual designs says...something. Plus, given that he also appropriated Baxter Stockman's Mousers, I think a case can be made that in addition to everything else, he's a guy who tends to wear his inspirations on his sleeve, which helps explain (if not justify) them.

    Something you've made me think about, though. What Chaplin does with the Blade Bots is materially no different than what Xanatos or Tom do with Goliath, and yet its played rather differently in each occasion. There's an essay there somewhere.

    Karai: I think that what is interesting about the character this season is that, the way I see it, she isn't actually conflicted by her divided loyalties. She thinks she's found a way to square that particular circle—letting her father leave, since there's a better-than-good chance that it'll be centuries before he returns, making him Someone Else's Problem--and so is particularly distraught by the turtles' intervention in the finale. Problem is, she thinks the turtles will and should go for that sort of plan, which is a massive misunderstanding of the turtles' moral code.

    “The Entity Below”: While the episode isn't one of my favorites, I've always been kind of shocked at how little reaction it gets. This is the episode where the turtle defeat the antagonists by straight-up *killing their entire race*. It places the turtles on a completely different plane from other heroic characters, and it mostly goes unremarked.

    “The Lesson”: Easily my least favorite episode of the series, and the only one I haven't rewatched since its original airing. What bothers me more is the way it almost completely breaks the timeline, since it's hard to reconcile everyone's ages, particularly when one throw Hun into the mix--his change from a teenager when he burns down the Jones store to an adult when Yoshi is killed suggests a far larger gap between the two than this episode can easily accommodate--either Casey is considerably older than he looks here, or the turtles are considerably younger.

  2. Female characters: Just to let you know, I don't think you have been in any way vicious towards the female characters, even in those cases where we disagree.

    I was recently told that there may have been a time in the Nick series' development when the creators considered making Michelangelo into a girl. And while the way the show is makes me feel that a bullet was dodged when they decided otherwise, I think that on a purely conceptual basis, making one of the four turtles into a girl is the better way to go, if one is to create a female ninja turtle. Even then there are so many ways something like that could go wrong—unfortunate implications ahoy—that unless it were being handled by someone like Greg Weisman or Pembleton Ward or Lauren Faust, that I'd probably end up fearing the worst.

    As much as I'd like a new take on Irma from the Nick series, I don't see a way for her to be introduced, given the series' limitations. Unless she's brought down into the turtles' world immediately, establishing a context for her would require more resources than they can spare.

    Nick Baxter: It went mostly unsaid in my post about the episode, but I like this version of Stockman too, even with the between-episode inconsistencies. If nothing else, he fits the tone of the cartoon better than the Shredder does. I just wish they had established him as competent in his first episode, or that they'd found some way to explain the change (which isn't hard—one could say that the T-Pod somehow integrated part of itself with him and is boosting his brain or some such pseudosciene).

    1. My first thought was that the Karaibot designs weren't out of a Heavy Metal cover because a) the censors for this show wouldn't allow that to happen b) Chaplin liked Karai enough that he wouldn't change the design one bit.

      I never had any strong dislike of Chaplin after his first appearance, it's true

      Xanatos and Tom's use of Goliath's image isn't the same. Xanatos, while he respects Goliath as an adversary, doesn't revere Goliath the way Tom does. If you simplify it, Xanatos used Goliath's image for the Steel Clan because he was the biggest and strongest gargoyle, while Tom used Goliath's image for his armour because he revered Goliath as a leader and hero. Furthermore, Xanatos "stole" Goliath's image by making a mechanical creature in his likeness, while Tom only wears a removable suit based on Goliath. Both uses of Goliath's image were done without permission, but the intent differs.

      Chaplin's intention isn't to steal but to revere, obviously, but the sexual undertone makes it creepier than Tom's use of Goliath's image.

      Yes, the major problem with "The Entity Below" is how quickly it resolves something, and how it leans on the conceit that whatever the heroes do is heroic, only because they've been labelled the heroes: they don't have to prove it by demonstrating the moral high ground. That's a terrible way to write heroic characters, and I'm glad more people seem to be calling out that style, with the "Our Heroes, Ladies and Gentlemen", style comments.

      Changing the gender of a Turtle would cause fire to rain down from the heavens, obviously, but it does seem like the lesser of two evils in that way. I find it hard to call any character type inherently male or female, so I wonder why they would have picked Mikey to make female? Especially since cartoons are so enamoured with the idea of the female character as the moral centre of the cast.

      Irma might require "more resources" to add to this underground world, and that's true, but it's sad to think that there won't be a place for more worldbuilding in this series, for giving April a life outside the Turtles, as I said.


      I don't take back any of my opinions, just that I still feel a little bit bad for picking on the few members of my gender in a male-dominated series. At the same time, knowing it's my honest opinion is what lets me post it. Same reason why I can be honest about Fred Wolf Baxter but still like him--though in this case, it's also a long tradition of being sharp with my favourite characters when I see faults in them. It's because I want to be honest above all else, I suppose.