Thursday, June 6, 2013

TMNT "Random" Reviews: "Enter: the Fly"

Fred Wolf Episode #12
Written by Michael Reaves and Brynn Stephens
Directed by Bill Wolf
Original Air Date: November 12, 1988.

--So, I picked out a couple Baxterfly episodes for myself to review, to round out a small and incomplete batch of FW Baxter Stockman episodes. I might pick out a few Splinter-centric episodes to do, since both are my favourite characters in the show, but Splinter is much harder to write about, since his episodes often involve things happening with him, and not to him, and Splinter is almost never not on top of things. That makes him an easy character for a child to admire, a hard character for an adult to write about
--And at the moment any review of my other favourite episodes of the old cartoon would involve a series of “wasn’t it funny when...” posts which just aren't that interesting. It’s sometimes hard for me to write about the old cartoon, which is in a weird zone between childhood and now.
--Anyway, turning into a fly seems to be considered the most interesting and memorable thing Baxter Stockman has ever done. Everybody keeps speculating on when new versions of the character are going to go Gregor Samsa (only to be disappointed), and fanart of the character largely consists of Baxterfly and nothing else.
--But to me, turning into a fly doesn't define Baxter Stockman. The character has been portrayed in different ways in different media, with only his profession and the Mousers being totally consistent. This particular transformation is confined to a single era of TMNT, and so is hardly defining when it’s a number’s game.
--Of course, I know Baxterfly became paramount because of how nostalgia-driven the TMNT fandom can be. Anything from the era of the initial media blitz is defined by childhood, where the old cartoon and original toyline were the only things one knew, and when mutants were always more interesting than human characters. Naturally, everyone is going to remember him as a fly first.
--Baxter's new personality also probably makes him a more appealing character, which I'll discuss below.
--Even so, I don’t think of ol' Cracker Stockman as a fly. The first reason is because, while I do like Baxterfly, he's the nadir, the absolute endpoint of the character's failure, with so much built up before that. He started out as a human character, and had an equal amount of screen time in both forms.
--Furthermore, I love broken, fucked-up characters, and it’s easier to get that vibe off human Baxter, that sense of failure beyond just being the "bad guy" and therefore doomed to lose. Baxterfly can also be seen this way, but is more your comical B-Movie villain swearing “Rrrevenge!” on those that wronged him, than that type of nebbish little wreck that I often enjoy in fiction.
--Okay, on with the real episode:
--I always liked that despite his goofiness, Baxter's inventions usually worked, because it's an engaging contrast. That the ray thingy doesn't work is for plot convenience, to directly motivate the Shredder throwing out Baxter. But it fits him, because Baxter is a failure.
--"[...] reverse the polarity"--David Wise didn't write this episode, but there's his standard Dr. Who reference. I wish I'd gotten into that franchise....
--Why does Splinter have a microwave in his meditation room, with a convenient pizza right next to his tatami mat? Not to mention that he is meditating in a different room than his usual one, but that is a standard cartoon inconsistency.
--Splinter looks perpetually sad for a good part of this episode, even before April’s collapse, which is interesting. I'm supposing it's to show that he's worried about the Shredder's scheme, even if said scheme is now relegated to the status of "decoy" plot. If that's true, points for consistency.
--I love Shredder's line while on the garbage barge, explaining why there are there: "Becasue this is the site [Krang] chose for the trans-dimensional convergence. I think he did it just to annoy me!" The writers really struck comedy gold with the Krang / Shredder dynamic.
--I know a lot of other viewers believe Baxter's fate was written by his actions in "Curse of the Evil Eye", but if it were, the Shredder would have had no reason to wait to act, especially not with "The Case of the Killer Pizzas" happening between these two episodes. The writers just didn’t care about following up on Baxter’s punishment.
--I'm not too agitated though: I’m very aware of the principle that even goofy cartoon villains should be held to standards, but I can make an exception just this once. I'd rather have Baxter around for a bit more rather than have FW Shredder actually do something proactive.
--Given the crazy science in this series, I also don't really care how little sense the convenient "fragile" inter-dimensional energy balance makes. Sure, whatever. It’s all SCIENCE!
--Shredder is very good at the henchman shot put.
--I understand why Baxter was mutated, I understand why Bebop and Rocksteady were kept around longer, and why the latter were brought back into the spotlight and might always have intended to be: mutant characters, and "manly" (speaking relatively) mutants, especially, would be more interesting to the target audience.
--The way the Shredder refers to April as the Turtles' "weakest point" means the writers aren't even trying to hide the fact that April is put down because of her gender.
--But the plan is sort of clever. It's like the Shredder knows the stupidity of everyone in this universe, so that April would not be at all suspicious of a mysterious package even though she's been a target of supervillains before.
--Not that fans ever need the fuel, but I wonder if the flower trap didn't endear at least some to the idea of Shredder x April.
--Splinter still looks sad when April opens the door. Then he has something else to be sad about.
--I actually like that April establishes herself as uninterested in a potential love affair with any of the Turtles, which is what she thinks the flowers represent. You so rarely see fantasy fiction consider the idea that hey, maybe a human woman wouldn't' be interested in the affections of a being that wasn't human. Which ties into lots of issues about double standards that I won't get into here.
--And hey, while I don't take back anything I've ever said against FW April, at least she is not relegated to the role of "love interest" because of this, which is also sadly rare.
--Also, "doku" is Japanese for "poison". How literal-minded.
--I don't take FW Baxter's life and fate 100% earnestly as something sad and terrible, but in this happy little cartoon universe, Krang was going to kill him in cold blood. That’s pretty fucked up.
--(And then part of me finds that incongruity hilarious)
---I always think it a little ridiculous when Shredder and Krang refer to themselves as "scientists" at various points. They never show much evidence of these skills, and it's overkill to think they would have these specializations on top of being supervillain leaders.
--While I love David Cronenberg's "The Fly" preceding and independent of any interest in Baxter Stockman, I’m certain Baxterfly draws more on the original 1958 "The Fly". It’s the TMNT cartoon's parodies of older monster movies, the running gag of Baxter squealing "Help me!", the classic Fly having human clothing, and that the teleportation device in the original film was called the "disintegrator-integrator" which is probably reflected in the name of the Technodrome's disintegrator unit. All of it adds up, but I can’t help associating him with Cronenberg’s version anyway. “Baxterfly” is a play on “Brundlefly”, after all.
--I also like Baxterfly's cartoon design, because it's accidentally adorable/goofy-looking, and bright and colourful. I prefer it over the visual experiments to create a "darker" Baxterfly, or even the look of the toy.
--In the scene where the Turtles enter and first see April in the sickbed, Splinter is drawn with very strange, deer-like ears.
--"And you let [Baxter] escape through the portal? Brilliant!" / "I didn't have to warn you, you know." More great stuff from Shredder and Krang.
--Now, as to why viewers might prefer Baxtefly beyond "mutants are cool", well, the contrast between the weak and passive Baxter and the angry and active Baxterfly is amusing, and could also get viewers' attention. He blows away two Rock Soldiers, and zips right towards his former employers, ready to attack. Even later, when the computer is the one leading him, Baxter still finds time to be an active threat. That probably makes him a more "worthwhile" villain to viewers.
--However, we can already see the other ways Baxter's personality will alter, as he's easily duped by the Shredder, and points out, "You always liked these mutants better!". He gets even dumber, acts more like a child, etc. But other viewers might actually like it more when Baxter becomes even sillier, but without being as whiny as before. Together, this makes the character more interesting.
--But I always go back to the 4Kids Stockman, who is the best version of Baxter Stockman and who has a lot of traits in common with FW Baxter. Stockman’s personality was kept consistent with his transformation, and that's the personal ideal for me, because it builds a stronger character arc.
--However, it’s still good to pre-establish a human character before he mutates so that his transformation can have some impact on the character if not the plot. I understand why that's usually not feasible for a TMNT show--gotta get those toys on the shelves!--but I'm glad it happened here.
--Insect eyes don't see in individual facets.
--Lest we forget, "the bughouse" is also slang for an insane asylum.
--"Enter the Fly" is one of the old cartoon's better attempts to pull off having an A and B plot, but despite that, and despite the need to be strapped for time, the fact that the plant is right where they thought it would be is a little annoying.
--The Knucklehead's controls look like an adding machine, which is pretty funny, though maybe whoever desiged the props was just lazy. Because Shredder also has a laser-shooting device that looks like a camera.
--There are some nice fight sequences scattered through this episode, though it starts to get less interesting near the end, when it’s just a bunch of fight scenes.
--Shredder makes a slight "^_^" face when he realizes he still has the gazai plant. Actually, he makes that face several times in this episode.
--Splinter establishes a message of perseverance, and the Turtles vow to leave no stone unturned in their search, but Shredder conveniently shows up to give them a way to go. Uhmm...the principle is still valuable?
--I love what a cynical bastard Fred Wolf Raphael is. If Raphael’s sarcasm and sassiness wasn't just a Fred Wolf invention, he might have had a chance at becoming my favourite Turtle. As it is, I still don't have one, and it's not for lack of trying.
--Yes, I suppose Shredder doesn't have to sacrifice all his strategic thinking in the name of goofiness, but I'm not all that invested in seeing this balance kept. Lord knows I didn't come here
--Splinter showing up in the Turtle Van is great. Like I said, I love it when the secondary characters and "sidekicks" show up to help the main heroes instead of passively sitting around. Also, my inner child loves seeing Splinter get into the fray.
--And Splinter blushing is super-adorable. I can guess that Mirage purists probably at one point screamed at seeing Splinter described as "someone who doesn't believe in violence". Cry more!
--Ah jeez, another episode that ends with the apparent return of a threat, only for it to be something completely harmless. Somebody, somewhere, must have a tally of how many times the Fred Wolf show did this.
--I know some would have preferred Baxter remain one of the Shredder's minions, but I disagree for a bunch of reasons.
--First, it’s pointless to change a character’s form and personality but not his role. I know it was all predestined for marketing purposes, but even so....
--Second, some fun stories are told with Baxter as a wild card, working against both the heroes and the villains. I especially love his relationship with the alien computer, because of how bizarre and ambiguous (by this series' standards) it is. That’s better than his just being a henchman.
--It might also have been awkward for Baxter to keep hanging around the people who kicked his ass on a daily basis and then tried to kill him, but it’s easy to imagine Baxter being permanently lured into service with the promise of becoming human again, episode after episode, since he constantly gets fooled already.
--Not that a few more episodes with Baxter Stockman wouldn’t have been welcome, but he’s better as a recurring character than a regular.
--(And I never expected true closure for him, by the way. Or a return to human form.)
--So, while I like White Baxter a little more as a human, Baxterfly is still fun, and this is a good episode. It uses an A and B plot to mostly good effect, has some nice pacing and action sequences, and yeah, it’s pretty fun.

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