Saturday, January 5, 2013

Scary Monsters, Super Creeps: Season Four of the 4Kids TMNT series and Other Stuff

Sorry for the long time this has taken: I did finish watching season four a while ago, but fell off the blogging wagon, as I tend to do.

After feeling each season was a "mixed bag", season four was the most consistently entertaining:  few hiccups, but overall an enjoyable run, with the filler being much more exciting than usual, so much that I didn't mind the lack of a main plot. Who would have thought?

While many would call the removal of a series' major villain a shark-jumping moment, TMNT thankfully has much more to draw on, so that it doesn't miss a beat between when Ch'rell is gone. Even Karai isn't in this season that much, proving that the TMNT universe doesn't have to be about the Shredder—but there creates another problem.

While I'm still not sure how Bishop's rogue clone gained the ability to control rats, 4Kids's version of the Rat King in "I, Monster" was wonderfully horrific. The Rat King has always been creepy, even in the Fred Wolf series, and even to a rat-lover like me—not because he can control Splinter, but because he's just so unsettling. In addition, ravenous hordes of almost anything can be scary, and rats are still creatures of pestilence. So "I, Monster" was a perfect atmosphere in which to show off the 4Kids Rat King.

(Incidentally, the term "rat king" also refers to a group of rats fused together at the tails and moving together. Some purported specimens have come down through the ages, but the veracity is doubted)

The path that Karai has chosen as avenger/replacement Shredder is exciting. Various media have made me skittish about female villains and side-changing, because it suggests female villains have to be more "moral". Thus, it's refreshing to have Karai not change sides. And it makes sense for her to do so.

I just wish she was in this season more often, since she seemed to be forgotten for most of it, and then the Foot Mystics played her like a harp. That part was disappointing, and I hope Karai will get back on that horse at some point, and not end her story defeated by talking garbage cans (who turn out to be aliens).

(Also, thank God they didn't give her armour boob cups)

Baxter Stockman isn't seen much in this season, but when he is, it's a hell of a thing. But before that, Baxter's poor attempts at ass-covering in "Outbreak" still don't phase me. I do still view 4Kids Baxter as respectable, but without failure and hubris, he'd be boring. I still think that when he does screw up, it's still within the parameters of this being a serious show, and of Baxter being a character who is more than comic relief.

Hubris is at the core of "Insane in the Membrane", as Baxter is so eager to get a human body he ignores the possibilities of failure and pays a horrible price. It's an intense, scary episode, the first time since childhood that a kid's cartoon has actually shocked me.

I've spoken before about how showing a character's human side doesn't exonerate their actions, and "Insane in the Membrane" is a perfect example. It is not trying to tell us Baxter is innocent, but rather to display, neutrally, the visceral reaction that any person would have when faced with knowledge of their own failure, their own lost potential.

This adding of a sudden dimension to a long-standing character can be tricky, but here it's excellent. Regret is an aspect to Baxter we've never seen before, but it fits him perfectly. For all his ego and confidence, objectively Baxter's story has been a string of failures. To be reminded of the faith his mother had in him, and the many ways it all went wrong, helped to push Baxter over the edge quicker. He sees that his confidence doesn't measure up to the truth.

The gorier parts of the episode are also necessary to up that emotional intensity—it wasn't until the second viewing I realized the metal "stitching" on Baxter suggested he had been trying to staple himself together, the way we know he had been using nails for the same purpose. (Eeeeggghhhhh)

I don't believe kids should be shielded from conflict or terror, and it is an absolute shame that this episode was never aired in the U.S. Although, I do ask why nobody intervened when Baxter was degenerating. Maybe Bishop wanted to teach Baxter a lesson….

And then, goddamn, he's back, in that weird cyber-organic construct that looks to be made of muscle fibre wrapped around a metal skeleton; just another day in paradise for the guy named after a type of paper. With this, Baxter's fate goes from amusing and disturbing to just disturbing. He swiftly reasserts his arrogance, but now it seems defensive.

Poor guy. I find Baxter's failures amusing, but I like him, so it's no surprise that eventually my more standardized instincts take over. It's not like, say Dr. Venture, whom I also find entertaining, but I don't like—I wouldn't care if Rusty were hit by an eighteen-wheeler, but watching Baxter can be heartbreaking.

While you can do anything with a character in different universes, I guess I now have a solid investment in the image of Baxter Stockman as an evil but pitiful failure, and I liked the 4Kids version making this subtext of failure text.

The Mirage Baxter, at least in his first appearance, is merely defeated, but is not a failure, if that makes sense, though he is obviously the roots for the 4Kids version. Fred Wolf Baxter, as I've pointed out, has more in common with 4Kids Baxter than you might think, which is a topic I hope to get to once my 4Kids viewing is done.

The only problem with all of this is that the reveal of Baxter's past in "Insane in the Membrane" doesn't have any impact on his portrayal outside of that episode, at least so far. Baxter is back in his rut, being treated as he usually is, acting as he usually is. But I'm still so impressed that I can't fault the series that much.

"All Hallow's Thieves" was another good episode, since I'm a big fan of Halloween and this was a well-done episode. The thought of Splinter taking the little Turtles trick-or-treating was just so adorable I could die. However, I kept expecting the thief-demons to have an ulterior purpose, or to turn on the man who controlled them. Oh well.

I'm glad, for reasons of principle rather than affection, that Casey Jones isn't so big a doofus in this season. Mikey, on the other hand, is starting to get excessively goofy. Maybe I'm late to the party in noticing, but it's only just now started to bother me.

Not all of the episodes were that great. "A Wing and a Prayer" was boring, and I disliked the cliché of the technological Avian being the villain. And who didn't assume that the flatulent midget would be the Ancient One and teach Leonardo a trite lesson about failure? I like that Leo's anger wasn't resolved in a single episode, but the payoff wasn't that great.

The animated version of "Sons of the Silent Age" was also a disappointment—I really doubt Stephen Murphy intended the threat of genetic bottleneck to replace the immediate hopelessness of his original ending.

I don't like the conclusion others draw, that female mutants of any sort shouldn't be allowed because it would dilute the unspoken tragedy of the Turtles being the first and last of their new species, but a story stating that truth still strikes an effective blow, and it's a shame the TV version lost that.

However, I did like the 4Kids conceit of tying both the angels and the fish-men into the Atlantis legend. It doesn't feel forced at all.

"Samurai Tourist" was a lot of fun, especially since I've read some Usagi Yojimbo. I question the rhinoceros Gen eating the hot dog, but it does fit with Sakai's habit of avoiding most species-specific traits for his animal characters, apparently to minimize the amount of questions raised. There are exceptions, but mostly Sakai likes to write his characters as people who happen to look like animals, without the distinctive traits of their respective species.

I also did a mental spit-take at Gen dressing like Rocksteady. I thought there was no way Peter Laird would have let a joke like that slip through. Maybe he got downvoted.

"Adventures in Turtle-Sitting" was pretty fun, barring Baxter's sorry state. I'm glad Donatello's mutation wasn't solved at the end of the first "Good Genes" episode, which makes the story stronger.

"Ninja Tribunal" was a dud to end this season on, I'm afraid. I've got that sinking feeling that we're going to head into more boring tournament fights. But I'm going to soldier on

Ancillary Turtles Stuff

Mark over at TMNT Entity reviewed an issue of the Mirage comics that had a special place in my heart: "Twilight of the Ring", issue #37, one of the many guest issues from the first volume of the comics.

I was six years old in June of 1991 when I read this issue, a comic that looked like a strange thing but was still labelled "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and so my parents bought it for me. I can't pretend I came out of the womb with all my tastes and facilities intact: this issue was incomprehensible, disturbing, and frightening, unlike anything I had seen before, used as I was to the old cartoon. It disappeared somewhere in my old house and I never missed it.

(I still wonder sometimes how Mirage TMNT comics made their way to the grocery store comic racks, which was where I got the issue from.)

Today, "Twilight of the Ring" is the opposite: an exciting story that is beyond even the dimensions of the original comic. It takes the modern fable of dinosaurian obsolescence into fantastical, surreal territory, and is just plain fun to watch unfold. The way the forest changes around them as the story goes on, and the suspense as each Turtle begins to disappear while Donatello grows more unhinged...what used to be terrifying is now right up my alley.

It proves one of the strengths of TMNT, that I can get a story like this, then go back to giggling over the 80s cartoon and still accept that I'm inside the same media franchise. Anything goes, as long as the separate universes don't contradict their own tone.

Sure, there are Unfortunate Implications arising from a story about a spiritual reptile/mammal conflict when the Turtles count three mammals as family, but that just gives the story a little spice. The reality is that Leo is only returning the world to its natural cycle, and that giant rat/possum that they fight is not Splinter. (Though that might have been part of what scared me at the time.)

However, being a dinosaur fan of small scientific knowledge, I couldn't accept the suggestion that the tiny mammals of the Mesozoic could form hordes enough to challenge dinosaurs. The declaration of "They ate my eggs!" is particularly bad, since I've actually seen it proposed in old children's books that mammals eating dinosaur eggs was one possible cause of extinction—which really gives the tiny prehistoric mammals too much credit, like it's put in there for humans to feel good about ourselves.

"It Came from the Depths" was the last Nicktoons Turtles that aired before the holiday hiatus, and I still found it more enjoyable than what had come before. Maybe I'm finally settling into a groove with this series, and it's finally found its land legs. However, I still don't take back any of my complaints about the previous episodes.

This is basically the same origin for Leatherhead that Mirage and 4Kids did; I like some parts of that origin and not others. I like the idea that Leatherhead's creators cared for him, which the Nick show changes, and that he can be intelligent and erudite, which the Nick show keeps. The "Hulk Out" aspect of Leatherhead was tedious from the start, and here it still is. Nothing new, nothing gained.

In short, I'm waiting to form an opinion of Leatherhead here. What I do know, however, is that his head looks more like a crocodile's than an alligator's, and that's going to be bugging me every time I see him.

What I did like about this episode was Michelangelo being useful. It's so perfect to cast him as the "heart" of the Turtles, but the Nick show has been missing out on this opportunity in favour of making him a pure joke. I'm glad to see they tried to treat him as a worthwhile character, an idealist who might keep the Turtles from getting too dark. Keep it up, okay?

Splinter also steps up to the plate, showing more sides to his personality than that of the stern taskmaster he was in every episode I've seen (note: I still haven't gone back and watched the pilot), making funny comments that seem to have some gentle humour beside them, and getting involved in physical combat.

That was pretty cool, though I didn't enjoy it as much as I would seeing a nostalgic Splinter fight. Once again, it seems an interest in Splinter is almost entirely dependent on nostalgia and is difficult to call up outside of that. I shouldn't see it as damming, really—I'll talk more about this when we get to Turtles Forever, and I promise I'll have something new to say.

(I honestly don't mind a tall Splinter, though, since a character's height usually has nothing to do with the emotional investment you have in them, and Archie Comics' Splinter eventually came to be tall anyway)

Because of this, I can't decide if it's more effective to have Splinter only fight when circumstances get the most intense, or if he should casually enter the battle when the writers feel like it, the way the Splinter of my childhood did.

I've also noticed that veteran male TMNT fans like to speculate that Donatello's crush on April in this series will draw in more female fans, which lead to a chain reaction of awful opinions about women expressed by the fandom.

It's narrow to think that romantic stories (if you can call Donny's manic but silent crush on April "romantic") are the only kind women would be interested in. The worst example is referring to Donatello as being like the "Edward Cullen" to female fans, as if the only comparison they can make is to use the most alien example of mainstream female culture that they still know.

I don't doubt there are differences between the ways men and women "do" fandom, but that doesn't mean casting female fans as strange creatures is right. It's no chore to treat any new female fans as people. To not think of them as simply creepy weirdos, or be only able to view female interest in Turtles through the lens of mainstream female culture.

Yeah, I personally find attraction to any Turtles character who isn't a young, fit human to be a little disturbing (I'm not into guys who are older than me, crazier than me, or who might carry the Plague, in other words), but that's my cross to bear. There's a definite double standard in calling out female fans on their weird sexual obsessions while continuing to drool over April O'Neil.

Anyway, after thinking it over further, I would prefer if the Nicktoons series does something distinct with Baxter Stockman, even though I'm interested in him because he's heading towards that "mad scientist failure" quasi-archetype. He can still be that, but still be unique, too. At the moment, I don't believe he'll actually transform into anything.

Oh, and I feel sorry for those fans who keep insisting that calling the alien species "The Kraang" doesn't mean the appearance of a Krang character is impossible, and keep combing through the series for evidence that there is a Krang proper.

I'm reading the Archie comics again, which are a forgotten gem once you get past the terribly-drawn, terribly-written TV adaptations that start off the run. It's hard for me to be objective about them, but they seem better than the old cartoon, with the early issues having a spirit of cheerful childishness but never leading to the feeling like my brain is being crushed like a paper cup. It builds up continuity with care, and becomes stronger as time goes on.

The environmentalism is still grating, but less than I think it would be without the nostalgia filter. I can't say I actually like any character that I used to, except for my nostalgia-powered Splinter obsession. That's not surprising, when my reason for liking most characters was at the time, "turns into an animal I like". Characters like most of the Mutanimals have personalities, but just not ones I get into.

I did receive the Turtle Van box set for Christmas, and I intended to watch more Fred Wolf Turtles, but I kept getting sidetracked. I think I just need to prep myself any OT episode viewing that doesn't feature my favourite characters, Splinter in the spotlight, and Baxter simply being there. What the heck is wrong with me?

Till next time.


  1. Season 4 alternates with 3 as my favorite of the series. Everything just clicks: the writers have enough confidence in themselves and the audience to be able to play with established continuity (the resolution to “The Trouble With Augie”, for example, demands knowledge of “April's Artifact” to work, yet the later episode barely references the earlier one) the S&P standards have gotten relaxed enough so that they can do stories that wouldn't have worked in previous seasons (“Insane in the Membrane” being a prime example) and the looser structure allows them to do new types of stories. I only wish the animation hadn't taken a hit—one of the subtler changes in this season is that the split screens have largely been done away with, and it heralds some of the issues the series will have later on.

    “Sons of the Silent Age” is a weird episode, because it feels like a case where the original material wasn't enough to fill an episode, so the writer (who is Steve Murphy in this case—HEY!) to improvise. In retrospect, I feel this was the sort of comic that they shouldn't have attempted to adapt, as its tone is mainly contemplative (or so I've heard—I haven't read it myself), and this series doesn't usually do contemplative. I don't hate the episode the way some people do, but it doesn't do much for me, either.

    I'm not sure whether The Slayer/Rat King can control rats, and I don't think the episode settles it one way or another--it certainly didn't suggest anything on the level of the Archie version's direct manipulation of Splinter. The impression I got of this version is that his Splinter DNA allowed him to obtain a very basic rapport with them, the way some people are naturally dog people: they'll sense whenever he feeling hostility towards a person and respond accordingly, but he'd have a heck of a time asking them to fetch him a book.

    As right as you are, in retrospect, I never actually saw the Foot Mystics' plan as one where they'd outwitted Karai, (assuming that's what you mean by “played her like a harp”) : not only were the measures they were overcoming in place before her tenure as Shredder, it always seemed to me that Bishop came off much worse, given that he was the one that the mystics were actually directly manipulating. And as much as I like her, I'm not particularly dissatisfied with her role here, and I'm not sure what could be added were she more prominent.

    (Although I wouldn't have minded a “day in the life” episode starring her. I love “day in the life” episodes.)

    Now, if anybody feels underused, it's Hun, who simply disappears after the second Nobody episode. And even then, it feels like the creators have said what they needed to say about them.

    Still, even that I consider a point in the series' favor. There are tons of characters I wish we'd seen more of, while only a handful characters that I feel were overused. The former I find much more preferable to the latter.

    What did you think about the way the season outlines Bishop's history? I thought it was a really clever use of the established intro narrations.

    As you've probably found out by now, Season 5 is not actually another tournament arc. What it is is pretty interesting from a production standpoint, but how interesting it actually is from a story standpoint has been the source of some debate.

    Re: Baxter, I thought it was interesting how his story beat after “Insane in the Membrane” was basically “dammit, I wish I were dead (again)” and felt it was a natural next step for him after what happened to him there.


    [To Be Continued]

  2. As for the latest episode of the new cartoon, I was rather surprised that I had little complain about except for the things which I've grown to consider part of the package—mainly, the way the turtles' personalities are taken to unappealing extremes. Plus, in the “congratulations on surpassing the incredibly low standards you'd set for yourself, show!” department, we get proof that April isn't the only person with XX chromosomes in New York. While I'm not sure the show has what it takes to help me overcome the bad taste of the last few episodes, I'm glad things are looking better.

    I'm fairly certain that I know which TMNT fans you're referring to, and yeah... I keep vacillating between becoming more involved and trying to make the fandom spaces less toxic (which would require more energy and willpower than I currently possess) or retreat and try to make better spaces elsewhere. Myself, I'm rather particular in my preferences, but I also feel that some of the stuff I find ickier stuff, is if not wholly unproblematic (seriously, people, it is possible to have meaningful, intimate non-sexual relationships), mostly harmless.

    A lot of the Archie comics, to me, occupy that particular headspace of stuff that is more interesting than actually good. The stuff I tended to remember most, in particular—the future stuff—in particular, is rather incoherently plotted, while still managing to include some of my favorite TMNT moments and concepts ever—Selling dreams! Hitler and Hitler! Married Raph! Adult Turtles! April meets an Angel! It's a stark contrast to the IDW series, which manages to feel sterile and timid and joyless.

    I hope you had good holidays, and happy new year.

    1. And a happy post-holidays to you, too.

      If I could characterize season four in a nutshell, it would be that it felt like it was "growing the beard", as TVTropes says. The other three seasons were far from *bad*, it's just that this one felt notable, for all the reasons you've said.

      "Sons of the Silent Age", well, it never occurred to me that the rewrite might just have been to extend the plot enough to fill a half-hour episode; I must have been too laser-focused on the loss of what I felt was a really poignant ending, the right way to do bleakness.

      To say I "hate" the episode would be too much, but my disappointment's there.

      I was also unsure of how the Rat King managed to be involved with so many hordes of rats: at the time of that writing, I had forgotten about Splinter's DNA even being there, and in any case, the idea that he was controlling them wasn't that specific, compared to other Rat Kings out there. Still, a good episode.

      I agree that Bishop was also played, but he's arguably had more time to establish himself as a villain with some credibility. Karai has cred, certainly, but in this new role she had so much potential to shine, and it turns out she barely appears, and is so easily manipulated, that it's a disappointment.

      The way Bishop's history was outlined was cleverly done, I agree. It's one of those times that proves you just take some time to flesh out a character, and it's not obligated to be a Big Plot Thing. It helps enrich the world, even if it has no effect on the larger story. It also helps to frame Bishop as a man driven. He's been at this a *long* time, but never wavers. A man like that is dangerous.

      Baxter's reaction makes perfect sense, but it also makes sense that he gradually puts it aside and still shows his ego, but, like I said, it comes off as defensive now.

      And yes, I am into season five and realize it's not a tournament show...but it's still not my cup of tea yet. It's just not engaging, and I haven't seen them return to the real world yet, though based on YouTube windows, I know it's coming.

      It's also odd that Hun has disappeared. I can't say I miss him, but I can't say I actively wanted him gone, either.

      When it comes to the Nicktoons Turtles, yes, one more female character, a newscaster--sigh.

      As you'll probably soon notice, I've joined the Technodrome forums, because I want to talk to other fans, even though I know it'll be hard to fit in and I likely won't post much. I'll respond to any perceptions I might disagree with, but in a casual manner, and I won't bring up topics like that on my own. I don't think that's the morally superior position, just the lazier one.

      I haven't reached the meatier Archie stuff yet, and when I do, I'll probably agree with the critiques I've heard, but it will be muted. I just can't stay mad at those comics for long.

      Also, I'd like the record to show that I am a Robotech fan. It's true you've seen me only write about Macross--or more accurately, my Zentradi obsession--but that's only because I exhausted my Robotech writing inspiration a couple years ago. I realize the franchise has a lot of problems from an ethical and artistic standpoint, but I still like it.