Over at my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles review site, TMNT Entity, I’ve made it a habit of summarizing every issue of the many TMNT comic books published over the years (or I’m getting there, anyway), with a bit of personal review tacked on at the end. Of course, the global entertainment juggernaut that is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles consists of a far greater deal than just the original comics or the various spin-offs and reboots. And so I’ve decided to step out of my comfort zone and, as a special series for Adventures in Poor Taste, take a look at the cartoons and films that are arguably more “important” than the funny books the franchise initially spawned from.
Like (what I’m assuming is) most of you, my very first encounter with the Ninja Turtles was none other than the 1987 animated series, produced by Fred Wolf. I was an early elementary schooler when TMNT became a sensation and it was the second cartoon and toyline I ritualistically followed (phasing out The Real Ghostbusters). I had as many toys as my parents would buy me and I watched as many episodes as I could catch between Saturday mornings and syndicated reruns. I was a card-carrying Ninja Turtle fanatic back in the early 90s and I owe my enduring love of the brand to the Fred Wolf animated series.
But, looking back through the sobering lens of adulthood at the long-lasting animated series that sparked my lifelong pastime, I can’t help but notice that…It’s kind of shit. And more often than not, particularly during the middle seasons, you can easily drop the “kind of” from that appraisal.
Adapted from the original Mirage comics by the animation industry’s most notorious writing hack, David Wise, the Fred Wolf series regularly suffered from embarrassingly low production values, scripts cloned a thousand times over from previous productions (a trademark of the patently slothful David Wise), a severely rushed quality on nearly all aspects and, as made-for-syndicated programming of the 80s typically encouraged, a value of quantity over quality.
And yet, despite so many, many failings, the original Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon offered a wealth of fresh ideas, forging a mythology wholly separate and unique from the adult-oriented source material crafted by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Enduring characters and concepts, like Krang, the Technodrome, Bebop and Rocksteady, Dimension X and so-on all sprang from this animated series and I’d be flat-out lying if I said I didn’t positively love most of them. So I guess David Wise had to be doing something right.
But while the TMNT cartoon would very quickly illustrate how quality-challenged it could be, this first season (initially a water-testing five-part miniseries) boasts none of the failings that would make the series a test of endurance to sit through as an adult. Essentially, these first five episodes are almost an antithesis of what would come afterward. Though some errors (mostly in the bandana-coloring department) rear their ugly heads, the overall animation in this season is exceptionally good (thanks go to Japan’s Toei Animation for that). The villains, while comical, are still menacing in their evildoings; making BS&P-approved death threats to our heroes and being moderately competent. There’s a strong continuity between stories, as the “miniseries” nature encourages a tight-knit story arc over the tedious episodic approach that would take a stranglehold for the bulk of the show’s run.
No, everything I just pissed and moaned about a couple paragraphs ago is conspicuously absent in this opening season, making these five episodes the proverbial “wheat” (leaving about 90% of the remainder of the series to be the “chaff”, but we’ll get to that in due time). Basically, if you’re feeling nostalgic for a dose of the 80s TMNT cartoon, then this season is what you’ll want to pick up; as it represents everything good about the show before things almost instantly began a downhill slope a season later.
Let’s get started with Episode 1, shall we?
Turtle Tracks (written by David Wise and Patti Howeth)
A ninja crimewave is sweeping New York and reporter April O’Neil is nearly killed while investigating the story. She’s rescued by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their master, Splinter, and together they decide to get to the bottom of things. Tailing the Foot Clan, led by the villainous Shredder, they eventually find themselves trapped in a skyscraper slowly filling with water.
This first episode, serving as a rapid introduction to most of the characters and the conflict, doesn’t have as defined a plot as later episodes. It’s really just a 22-minute string of gags and, you know, that’s okay; this is one of the funnier episodes of the series. As the show marched on and the syndication status demanded a faster production schedule, TMNT sort of stopped being…funny, offering a lot of bland “jokes” hammered out to meet an unflinching corporate demand for material. Being a miniseries, more attention is paid to everything in this episode; from the animation quality to the humor. Having watched the episode a thousand times, I still find myself smiling at the gun-toting granny or the expert deducing ninja involvement at a crime scene just because he found a rope with a “made in Japan” label on it.
It’s also amusing to see the Shredder played as an ominous threat, watching over the crimes of his minions like a menacing overlord. A far cry from the oaf he’d rapidly become in a season or two. Likewise, the Foot Soldiers provide a pretty good fight scene near the climax with their high tech weaponry; every time I watch this episode I just want to fire up my NES and play TMNT Arcade.
The Shredder’s criminal empire in New York would be oddly forgotten by the time we get to season 2 and he’s basically reduced to a whining hobo, begging for resources. Here, he not only has his own crooked businesses that operate out of skyscrapers, but he lords over an entire “ninja district” nestled in Manhattan where seemingly every resident is in his employ. Where did this vast underworld stranglehold and legion of thuggish followers disappear to, six episodes from now?
Coherent story editing never was TMNT‘s strong suit.
One last thing I want to comment on, which is an overall criticism of the series, is the bizarrely ugly character designs just about all the human characters (that aren’t in the main cast) have:
They look like caricature art; with weirdly proportioned features and oddly shaped craniums. I think art director Peter Chung (of Aeon Flux fame) is to blame for that one. That dude likes drawin’ em ugly (no wonder he used to work for Klasky Csupo).
Enter the Shredder (written by David Wise and Patti Howeth)
At the recommendation of the alien brain, Krang (the fiend from Dimension X who built the Technodrome and the robot Foot Soldiers), Shredder decides to enlist his own troop of nefarious mutants to take on Splinter and his Ninja Turtles. Luring his foes into the Technodrome by capturing Splinter, the Shredder first assaults them with an army of killer robots, then pits them against his own mutant monsters: Bebop and Rocksteady.
Have I mentioned how awesome this show’s original title sequence is? Because it’s one of the all-time best. The theme song is insanely catchy, as I’m sure you already know, and pretty much connected to the franchise at the hip. Trying to disconnect the Ninja Turtles from this theme song would be like trying to disconnect Transformers from its classic title tune. I really wish modern TMNT cartoons would just pony up the dough to license the damn thing instead of trying to come up with new jingles, as they all inevitably suck (as much as I enjoyed the 4Kids animated series, every single theme song it came up with was god awful).
Anyway, “Enter the Shredder” is a good showcase for Toei’s animation, which is really strong during the robot battle and the brief fight at the end with Bebop and Rocksteady. What I love most, though, is all the detail they put into Krang, from his mannerisms to his pulsating, gelatinous physique. His first appearance leaves a very strong impression, not just due to how bizarre and random the concept of a pink alien brain is (though he was inspired by the similar creatures from the Mirage comics: the Utroms), but because Toei knocks the visuals out of the park. Toei’s style in rendering the Turtles is also evolving quickly. They now have emotive brows molded into their bandanas (in the previous episode, they just had white circles for eyes that minimized their range of expression) and they’ve lost those ugly snout lines.
Susan Blu also deserves some praise for her voice direction and, as much as I’m going to criticize this show once I get to the later seasons, I won’t ever say that the cast was bad. Everyone does a great job with their characters and they’re probably the single consistent strength that this show can boast from start to finish (well, that is until James Avery and Rob Paulsen leave near the end). Being the first season, they haven’t all quite gotten comfortable with their roles and there’s still some experimenting going on. Cam Clarke’s Leonardo has a deeper, more authoritative tone while James Avery really tries to stress a Japanese accent with the Shredder (he’ll drop it almost before this season is up). And man, I love the Katherine Hepburn impression Pat Fraley uses for Krang; if it weren’t for the croaking, it would actually be pretty spot on.
A Thing About Rats (written by David Wise and Patti Howeth)
Seeking a more “advanced” means of destroying the Turtles, the Shredder enlists the aid of inventor Baxter Stockman, whose Mouser robots have the ability to track any rodent (including Splinter). As thousands of Mousers descend upon them, the Turtles track the Shredder back to his base of operations (and abandoned mansion) and Michaelangelo goes in alone to destroy the computer controlling the Mousers.
When I was a kid, I always thought the Mousers were a bigger deal than they ever really were. I’m not sure why; possibly because I had the old wind-up toy and played with it a lot, or possibly because I played the Nintendo game all the time, where the Mousers were persistent enemies. But, like most things from my youth, I completely misremembered their importance. They only appeared in one issue of the Mirage comic and one episode of the Fred Wolf cartoon. For such well-recollected foes, they amounted to little more than just another throwaway “evil scheme of the week”, right up there with those mutant cows or the Shredder’s antique magnet.
Anyway, I still think they’re cool. The incidental music in this opening miniseries is really strong and the Mousers have a great theme, which might be why they remain more memorable than any of the blander death devices the Shredder would employ throughout the course of the series.
You’ll notice a harder edge in this miniseries absent from the later, more sanitized seasons. The Mouser Stockman uses to show off his machine’s capabilities kills a rat on-screen (there’s an audible “splat” as it bites into the poor little guy), Shredder orders his Foot Soldiers to execute Stockman (not the last time he’ll face potential execution in this series, by the way) and Raph even interrogates the mad scientist by putting a sai to his throat. BS&P would pretty much eliminate all these more violent aspects by the start of season 2, so enjoy them while you can.
On the subject of Baxter, I always felt really sorry for the guy. He’s a pitiable character in this introduction; just wanting to find a business willing to produce his invention and getting duped by the Shredder into siding with him. Even by season 2, when he becomes a “real” villain, he’s established as having lost his mind in a sanitarium and can’t really be held responsible for his evildoings. And ultimately he gets mutated into a fly-monster and banished to another dimension by the end of the series.
Poor dude really drew the short straw.
One last thing worth mentioning about this episode is that it carries on a brief plot point from the previous installment. In “Enter the Shredder”, there’s a scene at the beginning where, after a training session, Splinter chastises Michaleangelo for his lack of patience in battle. The matter is never brought up again in the episode. At the conclusion of “A Thing About Rats”, ostensibly a Mikey spotlight, the party dude chooses to trick the Shredder into destroying his own control panel rather than blindly and impatiently attack him one-on-one (where he wouldn’t have stood a chance). Though they each boast their own isolated stories, this first season does do a great job of flowing on a narrative level and following up on even more subtle plot points from episode to episode. Again, enjoy it while you can.
Hot Rodding Teenagers from Dimension X (written by David Wise and Patti Howeth)
Desperate for new weapons to defeat the Turtles, the Shredder opens a portal to Dimension X, where Krang had been banished from in the first place. Instead of getting weapons, he gets the Neutrinos: a trio of teenagers in hotrods called Starmobiles that only want to have fun (and make Krang look like a fool in the process). Incensed, Krang sends his two most trustworthy Stone Warriors, Traag and Granitor, to track down and destroy the Neutrinos. The Turtles, as it happens, have a run in with the inter-dimensional teens as well as the Stone Warriors and their Weather Controller.
God, I hate the Neutrinos. It may be their clownish character designs, or their obnoxious faux-beatnik lingo, or their irritating vocal performances from Pat Fraley and Tress MacNeille, but I just cannot stand those guys.
On the other hand, I do like the way they open up the mythology of the Fred Wolf universe by fleshing out the conflict in Dimension X, showing just who Krang is warring against. Of course, when they’re this annoying, you might find yourself wishing Krang would just wipe them out already. The Dimension X conflict wouldn’t get a great amount of detail in the cartoon, despite its length and number of episodes taking place in that ill-defined universe where everything’s pink for some reason, but you’re left with the impression that there’s this whole other side of the story we never got to see. The Japanese manga actually did an okay job of filling in some of the Neutrinos’s history and background, and at the very least showed that they don’t all talk like stupid beatniks.
What “Hod Rodding Teenagers from Dimension X” really has going for it, though, is some of the better animation from the miniseries. The same team at Toei that did the first episode appears to have done this one, as the brows on the Turtles devolve and become less expressive and they now have those ugly snout lines again. Regardless, the action sequences sport a tremendous level of detail and high frame-rates; take the scene where Traag and Granitor fire missiles into the pizza parlor as an example.
And man, isn’t it great seeing the Technodrome up and running for five whole episodes? The whole “we must steal energy to power the Technodrome for ten minutes before it gets stuck in a mud puddle for another season” thing that would fuel the so-called plot of seasons 2 through 8 would be one of the most tedious aspects of the Fred Wolf series. So with that in mind, it’s very gratifying to see the Technodrome rolling around and doing its thing like it’s supposed to.
The episode, despite its overall prettiness, has some weird story editing artifacts. The phone booth elevator sure is random as all hell and the Turtles just drive the Party Wagon down to the Technodrome like it ain’t no thang. A bit sloppy, but by this show’s standards it’s not something to really dwell on. Just be grateful there’s at least some story editing going on; it won’t last.
Shredder & Splintered (written by David Wise and Patti Howeth)
After much whining from Krang, Shredder concedes to build him a new body so long as he vows to use it to destroy the Turtles. Meanwhile, Splinter attempts to infiltrate the Technodrome and steal the Shredder’s Retro-Mutagen Ray Gun: a device with the power to turn him back into Hamato Yoshi. The Turtles also have their hands full, as Krang, now a hundred feet tall, attacks New York in his new robot body.
Fucking one-hit kills! That Retro Mutagen Ray Gun was BULLSHIT.
Or, rather, I’m still thinking of the Konami video game; that final boss battle against Shredder was always a pain in the ass.
Anyway, this is my favorite episode of the opening miniseries, in part due to its having the highest animation quality of all five parts (this thing is gorgeous), but also for having some of the better fight scenes in the series (before the violence was neutered and the Turtles spent the next few years throwing trashcans at their enemies). There are great showdowns with Bebop and Rocksteady, Krang and Shredder, as well as the impending suspense of Traag and the Stone Warriors storming in from Dimension X. It’s a very action-packed episode that moves at a mile a minute, firing on all cylinders.
As I said, the animation is superb. Toei throws in so many great details in body language that you know couldn’t have been in the storyboards. The way Michaelangelo swings his nunchakus and tucks them under his arms, or the way Leonardo moves his body while swinging his katana really sells that these Turtles know martial arts; cruder animators simply having them flailing their weapons like clubs. There’s this tiny detail, when Donatello smashes the molecular transformation chip out of its housing; the way his fingers slightly lift up as he finishes the blow. All these little extras come together to make a fantastic whole and you can tell the animators are enjoying what they’re drawing (or at least exerting serious effort into it). You won’t see animation this good again until the season 3 episode “Turtles on Trial” (which has inexplicably good animation in the midst of one of the ugliest seasons).
So are those Krang’s cigarettes or the Shredder’s…?
Sadly, the animation quality isn’t the only thing we’ll be bidding farewell to following this episode. You’ll notice in this season that Raphael sports a more hot-headed disposition slightly reminiscent of his comic book counterpart; angrily shouting things like “Get outta my face!” and “Eat hot lead, turkeys!” That aspect of his characterization will promptly vanish and he’ll be nothing more than a fountain of sarcastic quips for the remainder of the series. Still “cool but rude”, sure, but the fiery temper will have been permanently cooled.
Likewise, Bebop and Rocksteady will never be dangerous, powerhouse enemies again. Though braindead, they’re presented as unstoppable juggernauts in these episodes; this one in particular, as they choke and throttle the Turtles, leaving them to realize they’ll never wear their foes down in a straight fight. People tend to hate on Bebop and Rocksteady, recalling their characterization as bumbling mongoloids in the subsequent seasons, but I think they were the right mix of “absurdly powerful yet absurdly stupid” in these episodes. I’d certainly like to see this version of Bebop and Rocksteady make a comeback.
The episode still has some plot contrivances to it, like Baxter Stockman just happening to have been building a blimp in his lab because WHY? Why would he be building a blimp in his lab!?
And on a related note, the Turtles have spent the past two episodes basically squatting in Baxter’s apartment, now that he’s been arrested. Not only that, but they’ve pretty much cleaned him out of all his property, from his van to his blimp to his equipment. Our heroes, everybody.
“Shredder & Splintered” is a strong finish to the miniseries/season, even if the title doesn’t make any sense. It may actually be my favorite episode of the whole series (gotta love that image of the Technodrome sucking itself inside-out).
Overall, though, the entire first season is a pretty solid watch and definitely the best the Fred Wolf show had to offer. That isn’t to say that later seasons lacked quality episodes. I do enjoy quite a bit of season 2 and the middle seasons would have their occasional high points. The series would eventually get back on track during the “Red Sky” seasons (seasons 8-10) and those hold up pretty well.
This first season, however, contains essentially everything good about the Fred Wolf TMNT series in one convenient five-episode package. If you aren’t willing to go whole hog and buy the entire run, you’d do well to just pick up the DVD containing these episodes and get your nostalgia fix.