Saturday, September 21, 2013

Was the Zentradi Alliance Self-Destructive?: Part 1

In the anime Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Zentradi are a race of giant alien warriors, genetically identical to humans and capable of being reduced to human size. They function as proxy forces for the unseen and extinct “Protoculture” race; there are no civilians and the sexes work separately for the same military goals.

They attack Earth, but some find that exposure to Earth’s culture, (especially to the  music / persona of pop star Lynn Minmay), awakens repressed desires and causes them to question their system. A portion of Zentradi ally with humanity to gain these freedoms, and to save themselves from the authorities that now consider them contaminated. Following these events are a franchise of Macross series, in which internal unrest from allied Zentradi is a recurring plot point, due to a tension between the Zentradi past and their future.
Some fans have looked at these events and decided that humanity allying with the Zentradi was meant to be a fundamentally self-destructive move. “Self-destruction” can be defined in two ways.

1. The rebellions of allied Zentradi become intense and enough that the alliance becomes philosophically invalid.

2. Zentradi were emasculated by their choice of human contact, sacrificing their power and gaining nothing in return; other factions of Zentradi are even killed.

Either way, it suggests that the ultimate goal of the Macross plot was to undermine the alliance it set up, a cynical universe in which allies might destroy each other.

Yet the case for the this is not strong enough. The internal conflicts never lead to the destruction of the entire alliance, and there are positive Zentradi characters to counter them, not to mention the idealistic tone of the entire franchise.

Viewers confuse the presence of conflict with the rejection of previous ideals. Most stories don’t actually build sympathy for characters and then suddenly change their intentions without warning. The meme of the spiteful creator is largely false: with a decently-written story, any dark turns are foreshadowed to a degree.

In SDFM, the allied Zentradi the most prominent and sympathetic, with the antagonist Zentradi being the ones opposed to the values of the series. There is nothing which suggests conventional storytelling is not in play: the characters that we see the most of, and who enjoy the things the audience is taught to value, are the ones who represent the views of the series. In this case, the allied Zentradi are meant to be “right”.

Furthermore, the alliance provided humanity with a means of defense and ensured they were not wiped out. If the series was going to show the audience that everything was pointless, the peace between the races would not produce this huge benefit that was impossible to achieve otherwise.

Viewers’ pessimism probably starts with episodes 28-36, the “aftermath” episodes, in which viewers spend some time hanging around the post-war Earth. During these episodes, allied Zentradi rebel against humanity, Warera, Rori, and Konda have difficulty finding work, Exsedol loses faith in his people’s position, and all of this gets no resolution.

However, these episodes were hastily written, added when the series was suddenly extended after having its planned run whittled down multiple times, and so might not represent a breakdown that was planned from the start.

Even if you take the aftermath episodes as in synch with the rest of the story, they still don’t solidly prove that the Zentradi/human alliance is self-destructive, since the alliance still endures. It's just showing that things aren't always perfect. And it’s actually good to tell a story that doesn't have everything end flawlessly, because it means the work is not simplistic.

Aaron Sketchley translated this portion of the Macross Chronicle, a guide to the Macross Universe released as a magazine.

"Combat" is "life" for the Zentraadi, who have had their fighting instinct strengthened, and although they lost their creator, they continued to fight in the direction of their instincts. However, their meeting with the human race became a turning point, and some of the Zentraadi who were members of the Bodol Main Fleet knew of culture and chose the road where they walk together with mankind. The strong thought control by the Protoculture is likely to have been cancelled by the emotional stimulus awakened by "songs".

The proverb "yesterday's enemy is today's friend" appears to have been communicated at the galactic level, as mankind and the Zentraadi, despite having crossed swords with each other at one time, chose coexistence. For the human race that advanced into the unknown galaxy, there is no partner as reassuring as the Zentraadi, who stood nearby. At any rate, that reassurance is assuredly because the mythical giants are comrades. (

Though the article says that Zentradi have had their “fighting instincts” strengthened, it is also eloquently describes the alliance as a good thing, further supporting the idea that a positive view of the Zentradi/human alliance is the official Macross byline.

When stories change what they first appear to be, they don’t suddenly crush what seemed like a completely earnest plot. Usually, the seeds of the story’s dissolution are planted early on. If Super Dimension Fortress Macross were that deeply cynical a series, it would have shown it long before the aftermath episodes.

Furthermore, good as it is, SDFM is an adventure-romance series designed partly to sell model kits. It's doubtful that it was intended to send audiences through a metal gauntlet, to present them with a sweet story and then violently overturn all their expectations. What we see at first is what we are meant to see. The allied Zentradi are meant to be sympathetic, their actions laudable and helpful, and there is nothing strong enough to invalidate this.

Internal conflict with allied Zentradi remains a common plot point in the Macross franchise, but it tends to be balanced out by positive examples in those same stories. It’s not a matter of a facade of positivity with the ugly truth being constant conflict: examples of positive Zentradi exist on the large and small scales both.

Yes, half-Zentradi Guld Goa Bowman of Macross Plus was an aggressive man who assaulted Myung and nearly killed Isamu, and one of his superiors attributes his actions to his heritage. However, the last thing could have been meant to be a discriminatory assumption and not to be taken literally by the audience.

Even if it was meant to be taken at face value, Guld is just one man, and the OVA/movie that also involves a celebration of the treaty, a thing to counteract Guld’s individual actions. Otherwise, this is still a world that has still benefitted from such contact. Guld could simply had bad genetic luck, and has the Zentradi equivalent of mental illness.

For the Temujin and his rebels, Macross Frontier also has the Folmo Mall and its happy Zentradi citizens, as well as Klan Klang (despite the unrelated issues with her character). Macross the Musiculture has Zentradi rebels, but things turn out to be more complicated than they first seem.

To have these conflicts constantly pop up without changing the status quo (in a good or bad way), is a little strange, but the writers are probably just repeating a motif as multimedia franchises always do. Macross in general has a problem with repeating motifs even when they might not make sense in context. That some allied Zentradi keep fighting humanity doesn’t seem to mean anything, including a degeneration.

Yet if the question of self-destruction comes up, the material that viewers get shows that the alliance was an ultimately positive thing. Yes, it hasn’t been completely perfect. But you know what? Good stories are told when freedom doesn’t come easily or without sacrifice. The story of the Zentradi is not perfectly written, but from what we do get, contact with humanity meant to be a net good, and not something that everyone would regret later.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

TMNT “Random” Reviews: “Insane in the Membrane”

Written by Matthew Drdeck, Michael Ryan (story editor)
Supervising Director Roy Burdine

--Once upon a time, I was working through some Baxter Stockman episodes to review for my blog. To try to jumpstart that same blog, it’s time to review the most infamous one: the “banned” 2003 series episode that was completed but never shown in U.S. TV. But it made it to other regions and to DVD, so that hopefully no one will have to miss it.

--I’m not being sarcastic here. While the episode isn’t important to the serial parts of the TV series’ story, “Insane in the Membrane” is great for what it allowed to be shown on kid’s TV, and what it did for Stockman’s character. The episode helps to enrich him and proves why he is the best version of Baxter Stockman, easily surpassing the Mirage version.

--Unlike many characters in the TMNT franchise (and in multimedia franchises in general), Baxter Stockman isn’t tied to one single character archetype. He’s been a different race, been an independent or attached to the Shredder. He’s been transformed voluntarily and involuntarily, into a fly and into...this.

--But the cartoons keep establishing a characterization for Baxter with surprising consistency: a character who is prideful and self-destructive, in a way that’s different from your usual supervillain, and also a put-upon henchman who is abused and transformed, but is also not innocent. It’s my favourite image for him, and what drew me to the character.

--There is a subtext of failure in this portrayal, one that’s usually not brought to the surface. But “Insane in the Membrane”, though only for a brief moment, actually makes this subtext overt as Stockman breaks down and admits his life has been wrecked. While the privilege of a viewer is to put emotions in a character that the writers did not intend, it’s still gratifying when your emotions align with the writers’. 4Kids Stockman is from a story where the writers can look at villains sympathetically, and that makes a story better.

--But we start with Stockman’s opening monologue, recapping the destruction of his physical form, until he became a brain/spine/eyeball in a tube. But no matter what else he is, 4Kids Stockman maintains his carefully-manicured pride. He refers to The Shredder and Hun as “cruel-minded brutes”, implicitly placing himself as their intellectual superior; Stockman also seems to skip over his own moments of fear in their presence. In part it’s a display of strength, but Stockman also does little to back up that pride, making the same mistakes over and over again.

--Yet Stockman also used to be on top of the science community. By giving him some period of success (detailed in the same monologue) before his fall, it makes things all the more painful and easier for the audience to empathize with him.

--There’s not much to say about the opening segments with the Turtles chasing down monsters in the sewers, except that they serve as a reminder that Stockman is far from perfect because these monsters are all a result of his mistakes. There’s also nothing to say about the discover of a new van, but good on the Turtles.

--Stockman’s spider-centaur robot body looks cool, but also really awkward, taking up a lot space and sporting many limbs. It seems to have been changed for no reason, when there were no problems with his simpler, humanoid robot form. Perhaps they were intending to get a toy out of it? Or they felt the design would become stale? Or somebody figured Stockman’s body designs just had to keep changing.

--Nerds traditionally take glee in creepy shit appearing in children’s cartoons, and that’s another part of the appeal of “Insane in the Membrane”. However, by thinning the boundaries of “child-friendly” entertainment, “Insane in the Membrane”, also makes Stockman’s pain more intense and improves the story. Children’s entertainment shouldn't shy away from that kind of visceral intensity.

--While I consider 4Kids Stockman the best version of Baxter, that doesn't mean he's a strong person in comparison to other characters. He's a weak man and an ultimately ineffective villain, sometimes even comic relief. But as long as he’s an interesting character, that’s what counts.

--As proof of this, the horrible events of "Insane in the Membrane" are partially Stockman's fault. He wanted a human body so badly that he was willing to go through a process that has been proven unstable. It's credible that he'd be this impatient, and it's good for stories to allow characters to make huge mistakes.

--So this doesn't make that a bad episode, but his impatience is both a new, fitting weakness, and shows Stockman's chief weakness: his pride. Stockman thinks he would be immune to whatever complications befell a clone body. Because he's better than everybody.

--But he wasn’t always that way. L’il Stockman is adorable, and it’s heavily implied that his mother was a stabilizing influence on him. In the first flashback, Stockman was ready to use his homemade corrosive on a bug he’d captured. After his mother comes home, Stockman lets the bug go outside instead.

--That’s a bit of a worrying cliche, that a woman was needed to give positive influence, and he might have crumbled without his mother, but it also shows how far down Stockman has gone from the child that he used to be.

--I didn’t notice this until the second viewing, even though it was obvious: Stockman notes that his clone body has been enhanced, and we can also see that he doesn’t wear glasses and is notably more muscular. Which is noticeable when he’s walking around with nothing but his modesty metal briefs from the cloning tank. But you can’t blame him for not covering up.

--It doesn't go without notice that there's a scary subtext in those certain versions of Baxter Stockman: that he's also got no allies, no ties to anyone, and is completely alone. Up until "Head of State" (which will be my next episode review) that is true of 4Kids Stockman. He works with Bishop, and Bishop isn't as grotesquely abusive as the Shredder, but he’s not Stockman’s friend.

--Here, Bishop's warnings are perfunctory, and he leaves Stockman alone through most of his degeneration, except the very start and finish. It is only what you can expect from a business relationship, but it's disturbing all the same. Nobody gives a damn about this guy.

--As the degeneration starts, Stockman puts his glasses back on, as well as his signature lab coat, representing that his body is more vulnerable than he thought. The crude way that he tries to hold his body together (nails! industrial staples!) is a more dramatic show of that loss of control and strength.

--“Why am I a failure? My whole life! Oh, Mama, I started with such promise. Where did it all go wrong?” There we are--there’s the payoff. Stockman’s failure is acknowledged and the character is at the most open and self-aware that we’ve seen him. It’s a punch in the gut every time.

--It’s difficult to put myself in the shoes of the many people who have said they never liked Stockman until this episode. I already thought he was likeable, but if someone finds his failures and arrogance tedious, then I suppose this episode would help make him sympathetic.

--But his ultimate conclusion is to shift the blame to April. Eroding sanity plays a part in this, but it seems in-character for Stockman to never blame himself for anything, because of his pride.

--His mother dying is a little cliche, too, but oh goddamn it tugs at the heartstrings.

--I don’t expect the Turtles to show any concern for Stockman when they see his state, but their total lack of reaction to the sight is a bit surprising.

--I’m not sure what’s the most shocking thing: Stockman’s finger falling off, Stockman nailing himself together, or his damn jaw falling off on strings. Either way, I’m surprised at the moxie that the 4Kids crew had  in producing scenes like that.

--Once again, Stockman is not an innocent victim. Though insane, though pained, he seems to be enjoying his attack on April a little too much.

--“Can’t you remember when your work helped people? When it was about the science?” Now, April’s quote is interesting. We never really saw this benevolent side to Stockman in the series. It would have been interesting for him to have started out good, to further show that fall.

--There were limits on the time frame, of course, but if there was never any time to show what April meant--I know it’s to set up April and Baxter’s mother both saying, “The sky’s the limit”, and to show that not all might be lost for Stockman, rings a little hollow if we never saw the adult Stockman being a stand-up guy.

--It is unfortunate that the things revealed in this episode don’t actually change much about Stockman. When he’s brought back after this, Stockman is far more melancholy than before, but it gradually fades into his usual arrogance, and he never seems to change otherwise.

--To be fair, Stockman doesn’t have much of a role in the 4Kids series after “Insane in the Membrane”, but if we’re going to judge him based on what we’re given, then the repercussions of this episode are lacking.

--That doesn’t mean those flashbacks and realizations are worthless. Stories aren’t simply about The Plot; you need to take time to explore the characters and show us more about them. Simply providing this knowledge is reason enough for such scenes to exist.

--For a while, TMNT co-creator Peter Laird has been posting transcripts of the e-mails he had with the 4Kids production staff, suggesting changes to their scrips. It’s a fascinating look into the production of the 2003 series, and into how much Peter Laird was responsible for whipping it into shape.

Here are the links to his notes on “Insane in the Membrane” (some of which are appropriately dated for October)

“Insane in the Membrane” was also going to be a Justice Force episode, with nothing to do with Baxter.

One interesting note is that Baxter was originally going to have an abusive father, which Peter Laird pointed out had Unfortunate Implications and this is apparently the reason it was nixed. It didn’t add anything to the story anyway.

There were also cut scenes showing Bishop and other members of his agency talking about where Stockman is going, which might have been cut for time. These scenes would have shown that the agency was watching Stockman, but offered no clue as to why they did not intervene. It doesn’t alleviate the bleakness of Stockman’s lack of allies, though.

--This episode is overall excellent. It redeemed the character for a lot of people, but if you’re already on board with Baxter Stockman, “Insane in the Membrane” tells you a lot of new things about him while enforcing what you already know. The infamous goriness is also key to emphasizing Stockman’s hardship, so it’s not there without reason. The episode deserves to be remembered for all of these things.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Legend of Korra: Spirits

I saw the Legend of Korra premiere, and was happy with it. Not pushed into throes of ecstasy, but I'm very interested to see where it goes next.

Starting out with a new direction was inevitable, since the series wrapped up its conflicts in the first season.  Parts of that were unsatisfying: I was fine with Korra regaining bending so quickly, and gaining Airbending, but her romance with Mako had no chemistry, and Asami had to be dumped to do it. Furthermore, Amon was a great idea and a great villain, but we never saw exactly *how* Benders were oppressing non-Benders. It's easy to imagine how it could happen, but remember the golden rule is still show, don't tell.

Now we have a story where the plot and the new characters are more interesting than the current characters. I still want to like Korra, but she doesn't seem to have been changed by her experiences. You can see what they're *trying* to do with her character, but it's not fleshed out enough.

Korra's problem (from an in-universe viewpoint) is that she's too concerned with the physical side of her powers and her world. The crux is that she has to learn to be in touch with the spiritual aspects of it, and by association, be less hot-headed.

This looks to be a key point in the upcoming season, but her spiritual experience in the first season finale doesn't seem to have rubbed off on her yet. Her first impulse on meeting hostile spirits even in the sacred forest is to cold-clock 'em, even after everything Unlaq has been telling her. I hope Korra's character development will actually start to happen, instead of being promised.

Mako is still bland, Bolin is simplistic comic relief. Being that this is the second season, I'm still hoping Bolin will be more fleshed out, the way that Sokka was.

Asami continues to be dynamite, wasting no time in trying to get the family business back in full swing, and investigating new technologies to do it. This time, we see the beginnings of movies in the Avatar world, which is wonderful because unlike many fantasy worlds, that of AtLA is looking towards the future and embracing progress.

I still enjoy the characters of Tenzin and his nuclear family, though. Too often in children's entertainment, families and parents are regarded as un-fun, not deserving of attention, but LoK fleshes out them into real characters instead of props, proving that a character can be a parent and still have a personality, and also without idealizing what families go through. Tenzin’s kids can still be total brats.

We meet Tenzin's other siblings, and Bumi and Kya look like fun characters with a lot of potential. The way they play off Tenzin is great, and they are all distinct from each other, which is the best way to create a family of characters.

The expanding on Korra's family, however, makes me wish that the writers knew more about what they were going to get in terms of episodes, so that matters could have flowed better. As it is, it comes off as, "Remember the uncle and cousins you had that we never mentioned before?"

Other viewers say they called Unalaq as a villain, but he's really more nuanced than most "evil uncles". At this point, he comes off more as a corrupt extremist with a valid point, rather than out-and-out evil. Hopefully he isn't lying about the anger of the spirits or faking something for his own gain, because that would be lazy and predictable.. By having a core of truth to his beliefs, Unalaq would become more credible as a villain.

However, it's also good that in defiance of fantasy conventions, Unalaq, the character who looks to the past, is cast as evil and misguided. It connects nicely with Asami's interest in upcoming technologies, forming a larger contrast to stereotypical fantasy.

Despite how useful a character Unalaq could be to the plot, the conflict that leads up to Korra deciding to be Unlaq's protege is very stereotypical and insincere, and with a lot of talking heads. A teenage girl shouting at her father and father figures about how she wants something more and to make her own choices is morally correct but also overdone. Compared to how real the relationships among the other characters can feel, including previous interaction between Korra and Tenzin, this is a disappointment.

But I want to see more. I’m still hopeful that the good parts of this series will come to overshadow the issues, that the potential will come out as LoK grows more comfortable in its skin.

As always for the Avatar series, everything looks gorgeous, with a cinematic quality to it.
The modernized setting is still one of the best parts of Legend of Korra, and it would be great to see more television fantasy embrace such settings. Some have expressed disappointment with the lack of traditional fantasy grandeur in the Korra universe, but it’s not the setting that creates or destroys grandeur, but the writing. And Korra isn't trying for that traditional grandeur. It's creating its own sort of world.

Friday, September 13, 2013

True Confessions


Deep breath.

I know that this blog doesn't have much traffic, which is one reason that I let myself go, and go so long without saying anything. But that's no excuse: I should keep to principles even when nobody's watching.

So, this blog isn't dead yet, but I'm struggling with it. I have a lot of ideas for posts, including ones that I've promised since forever, but I've somehow lost the blogging mojo. For some reason, I keep finding other things to do, and the blog posts move to the bottom of the pile and never get touched. The main culprits:

1. I'm working on a novel. I have been for a while, but really trying to get the lead out for it, to this time produce something intelligble. Because of this, I have less time for other writing.

2. I'm also trying ever harder to find a job. This also takes up some of my time.

3. Tumblr. I've done a few blog-worthy posts to Tumblr, and am trying to keep the meta flowing instead of just posting pictures, but the format is easier for me to handle, since ittakes less time. But I also know this wouldn't be a problem if I had the energy for blog posts.

4. I'm making tiny steps towards trying to become a professional writer (while searching for a steady job), so my thoughts are turning to articles that might be publishable, instead of minutae that only I care about.

I'm not calling this the end, though. I'm still going to give it a try.