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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, but...it 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.
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