In my previous review for the five-episode first season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I mentioned that it contained everything good about the 1987 series produced by Fred Wolf, omitting most of the bad. So, as we begin season two (which consisted of 13 episodes, which I’ll break up into two parts), you can immediately discern the downward trend the moment the (still bitchin’) title sequence completes itself.
That isn’t to say I dislike season two of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. On the contrary, it has many of my favorite episodes and introduces basically one awesome action figure-shilling character after another. Though not nearly as tight-knit as the first season, season two opens with a pretty solid story arc involving the Eye of Sarnath that runs through the first five episodes. Even after the ongoing narrative has been exhausted, there’s still a strong sense of continuity between the episodes and the actual overarching conflict of powering up the Technodrome still feels fresh and suspenseful (that would wear off quickly).
No, there’s plenty to like about season two. Unfortunately, it still qualifies as a step down from the previous year’s adventures.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the animation budget has been slashed. We were probably spoiled with the beautiful animation we received in season one, but these episodes are still a tad unsightly. For the most part, it’s a competently animated season, but “competent” is about as bare minimum as a compliment can get. Still, as utterly bland-looking as these episodes can be, I’ll still take them over the perplexingly hideous lows of season three.
The other thing you’ll notice right off the bat is the producer-enforced retooling inflicted upon many characters (mostly the villains). Bebop and Rocksteady are no longer psycho powerhouses and juggernauts, but ineffectual doofuses boasting a more childish innocence to explain their lack of intellect. Shredder, while still a skilled martial artist, has lost any ability to run a working criminal empire (the underworld crime scene he operated during season one has mysteriously vanished without a trace) and is reduced to intimidating others to do everything for him.
And the actors have begun modifying their performances; either settling into the characters or making concerted efforts to change aspects about them. Cam Clarke’s Leonardo now talks with a whinier, younger voice. If his season one Leo sounded closer to his performance as He-Man in the 2002 Masters of the Universe cartoon, his season two Leonardo treads closer to Prince Adam. Likewise, Clarke’s Rocksteady has taken on an equally whinier voice to match his new, less threatening disposition. Though not “whinier” per se, Barry Gordon’s Bebop undergoes a similar vocal transformation in regards to downplaying his violent outbursts. And on the topic of violent outburst, you’ll never again hear Rob Paulsen’s Raphael tell an enemy to “eat hot lead”. Those days are over, my friends.
Anyway, let’s take a look at the first half of season two, starting with…
Return of the Shredder (written by David Wise, Patti Howeth and Christy Marx)
The Shredder returns from Dimension X, though without the aid of Krang, the Foot Soldiers or Bebop and Rocksteady. Desperate to defeat the Turtles, he forms the Crooked Ninja Turtle Gang to frame them for various robberies and draw his foes out of hiding. The TMNT scramble to stop the imposters, and while they’re at it, Baxter Stockman captures Splinter with his Ultimate Rat-Catcher.
Taking over animation duties for this season is A-1 Productions out of South Korea. Like I said before, their work is competent but rarely ever flashy. The Turtles seldom look like they actually know martial arts, instead just doing generic flips and awkwardly animated jumps and swings. Still, it’s hardly the worst this show is going to look.
As the season opener, “Return of the Shredder” gets the ball rolling, reintroducing the cast and conflict via some clunky exposition and getting the characters where they need to be for the impending story arc (freeing Baxter, establishing Krang’s refusal to aid Shredder, etc). This is actually one of my favorite season two episodes for the ridiculous premise of the Crooked Ninja Turtle Gang; utterly self aware of its own lunacy. The visual of the thugs dressed in green paper grocery bags with bandanas is hilarious and you’ve got to love Peter “Optimus Prime” Cullen’s voice over as the one-shot villain Smash.
One thing you’ll notice as the series progresses, as a trademark of David Wise’s scripting, is that he likes to overload his episodes with multiple plots. Things are more balanced in this episode, as the two primary conflicts involving the Crooked Ninja Turtle Gang and Baxter Stockman’s Ultimate Rat-Catcher segue into each other rather well, while the subplot involving Burne and his turtle-hating arm candy, Tiffany, is pointless but unobtrusive. Wise would eventually lose his ability to maintain a balance between conflicting dilemmas as the series progressed (“Night of the Dark Turtle” is one of his worst in that regard).
And in terms of story editing, Baxter Stockman breaks into the Turtles’ secret lair to capture Splinter in this episode, then later in the season everyone just forgets where it’s located. The entire subplot involving Splinter’s capture probably could have been excised to no ill-effect. I mean, the guy was kidnapped twice in the last season, alone. “Master sensei”, indeed.
Also, I hope you like Burne, Vernon and Irma because you’re going to be seeing a LOT of them for the next hundred-something episodes. Even when I was six, I hated those three.
The Incredible Shrinking Turtles (written by Larry Parr)
After an alien spaceship crashes in Central Park, both the Turtles and Shredder race to collect the three fragments of its power source: The Eye of Sarnath. When united, the Eye can give the wielder unlimited power. Unfortunately, Shredder locates the first fragment and uses its strange radiation to shrink the Turtles. Now, only Splinter can rescue his students from the Shredder and Baxter Stockman.
TMNT’s attempt at adapting “A Death in the Family” didn’t go over very well.
Ahh, that old standby of the animation industry: The god damned shrinking episode.
While this episode won’t win any points for originality, it does boast a few of my favorite moments. Chief of which is the scene where Shredder fights the Turtles for the fragment at the pier. While A-1 Productions wasn’t the greatest, they ratcheted up their game for this sequence and the movements of the characters are very fluid during the battle. Best of all, though, it shows that even as a whiney knucklehead, the Shredder is still a formidable foe and defeats the Turtles in battle with relative ease. As time goes on, he’ll lose even this advantage over his foes, but for now it’s gratifying to see the villain get the better of his enemies in physical combat. He’s a master and the Turtles are still just teenage students, after all.
Trace elements of the first season’s harder edge can be glimpsed in this episode, as the alien that warns the Turtles of the Eye of Sarnath dies in the first few minutes (his corpse vaporizing upon drawing his final breath) and the fight between Shredder and Splinter during the climax actually involves them punching each other. Again, as time goes on, characters will lose the ability to actually hit one another and most fights will involve using the environment to convenient effect (so many chandeliers, trashcans and radial tires).
The antics of the shrunken Turtles are probably the least of the episode, hitting pretty much all the points you’d expect from a typical “shrinking episode”. I’ll admit to enjoying the occasional shrinking episode (“Short Stuff” is a favorite Real Ghostbusters episode of mine), but this doesn’t rank among them. And they never address whether all the skyscrapers Shredder shrunk ever got turned back to normal, either (the Empire State Building included among them). Shredder escapes at the end with the fragment, meaning the Turtles couldn’t have returned them to normal, so…
One last thing worth mentioning is that I do dig how this season focuses on Krang as an actual warlord with a busy schedule. Shredder and his preoccupation with defeating the Turtles is only one minor bullet point on his agenda, as his real goal is in conquering Dimension X; Earth’s just one of many worlds he wants under his command and not worthy of his full attention. Once again, you get the feeling that there was an entirely separate and possibly more interesting story going on in Dimension X that we rarely got to see (“Four Turtles and a Baby” was one of the few episodes from the later seasons to show us the continuing war in Dimension X) and Krang is presented as a real warlord whom Shredder reports to, not his equal. Later seasons would reduce Krang to Shredder’s partner at best and personal mad scientist at worst, which often made me wish they’d never written Baxter out of the dynamic so as to keep Krang from being thusly diluted.
It Came from Beneath the Sewers (written by Larry Parr)
After accidentally misplacing the first fragment of Sarnath, Shredder and Baxter have to hunt it down all over again. Inspecting the fragment at greater length, they learn it also has the weird ability to cause plants to grow into giant, man-eating monsters. Shredder unleashes his killer plant into the sewers, hoping it will devour the Turtles.
I think Larry Parr’s mindset while penning this script was something along the lines of “how much can I delay the plot before the kids catch on?”
There’s a concerted effort to waste as much time as possible in this episode, as Shredder and Baxter actually lose the fragment they found in the previous episode off-screen and have to go find it all over again. This takes 11 minutes. And part of that 11 minutes involves various antics at a carnival, as the Turtles are unwittingly cast as clowns because shit, I dunno. “11 minutes down, 11 to go”, I guess.
Even after they get the fragment back, the killer plant conflict is subdued until about the last two or three minutes of the episode. The bulk of the second half revolves around Shredder kidnapping April for no readily apparent reason and the Turtles saving her by throwing pizzas at him. In the end, the man-eating shrub is defeated by Michaelangelo after he dresses up in plant-drag and distracts it long enough for Leo to stab it to death.
In a way, I kind of like the unfocused pace of the episode, as it feels insanely “stream-of-consciousness”. As though Parr was sitting at his typewriter, hammering away and thinking, “You know what would be great? A carnival setting! Yeah! And the Turtles have to pretend to be clowns! Wait! I’ve got a better idea! A man-eating plant! Somehow! Yeah! Yeah! And then, April gets kidnapped! Because that has to happen once per episode, according to the Story Bible! Oh, and then… and then… Michaelangelo in drag! Aaaaaaaaand DONE.”
To Parr’s credit, he seems to enjoy his Budweiser jokes; he makes two of them in this episode, alone. While hurling his bo staff at the Shredder, Don shouts, “This BO’S for you!” Later, when stabbing the plant to death, Leo declares, “This one’s for you, BUD!”
Clearly, Parr was drinking a LOT of Bud while conceiving this script.
The Mean Machines (written by Michael Reaves)
Locating the second fragment of the Eye of Sarnath, Shredder and Baxter learn that it has the ability to control all machines. Using it to power a supercomputer called OMNIS, they seize control of every scrap of electronics in New York City. Ever the reactionaries, the Turtles decide to do something about it.
Michael Reaves was one of the better animation writers of the 80s and 90s, penning many of the most memorable episodes of The Real Ghostbusters, Batman: The Animated Series and Disney’s Gargoyles. Unfortunately, his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles efforts aren’t the strongest accomplishments filling out his resume. “The Mean Machines” boasts another of those go-to animation scripting plots: the evil super computer that takes control of machines and menaces our heroes. Complete with a virtual villain that consists of a vector-animated face on a computer monitor, no less. For more of this trope, try the Transformers episode “Day of the Machines” or the G.I. Joe episode “BIOK” (both cited examples even have the “computer monitor face” villain with a name that’s in all caps).
“The Mean Machines” is probably the best paced of all the episodes so far this season, but the plot is so ho-hum it’s actually a little boring to sit through. Even the shrinking episode tried a little harder than this.
If anything about this one surprises you, though, it might be the fact that the bank robbers at the beginning use guns that fire actual bullets. Even in the first season, the police were shown using laser guns and nearly every instance of a firearm in TMNT would follow suit (and criminals rarely used guns, anyway). Unfortunately, that’s about the most interesting thing this episode has going for it.
Curse of the Evil Eye (written by Martin Pasko)
Collecting the third and final fragment, Shredder finally constructs the Eye of Sarnath. Fusing it to his helmet, he gains the power to mentally transmute matter into anything he can think of. Having endured enough mistreatment, Baxter Stockman hatches a scheme to steal the Eye, while a down-on-his-luck news van driver, Blodget, sets his sights on the Eye, too. And in the middle of it all are the Turtles; the only ones who know that the Eye will self-destruct in only a matter of hours.
Hey, the Shredder takes off his helmet in this episode!
Looking back, he actually took his helmet and faceplate off once or twice a season, but when I was a kid, I always got excited when he unmasked because it felt “special”. Like how they’d take Jason’s hockey mask off at the end of each Friday the 13th movie and make a big dramatic deal about it.
Anyway, the Eye of Sarnath story arc comes to a conclusion. Funny thing about this four episode arc: animation writer Jeffrey Scott would pretty much gank it for a four episode arc in Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. While here, the Shredder is in a race to find three gems that can be united into a fourth, all-powerful gem, the Sonic cartoon saw the villain Dr. Robotnik racing to collect the four Chaos Emeralds, the last of which granted the wearer supreme power. In both cases, the concluding chapter saw the villains obtaining a gem that allowed them to bring inanimate objects to life.
If the “shrinking episode” and “evil computer” episode didn’t tip you off, the animation writers of the 80s and 90s basically just passed their ideas and scripts in a circle between one-another with the end result being a lot of interchangeable programming.
What a time to be alive.
“Curse of the Evil Eye” is still a satisfactory conclusion to the Sarnath arc, though the resolution is a fairly sloppy one. Donatello just pulls a “by the way, the Eye is gonna blow up because I just remembered” right in time for the end credits. The subplot with Blodget (spelling mine) seems a little needless, but so what else is new?
More important about this episode is Baxter taking some initiative and betraying Shredder. After five episodes of his whimpering sycophancy, it’s good to see him go for a little revenge. I greatly preferred Baxter as a subordinate over the pitiable fly-monster he’d later become, so it’s good to see him take a swing at the spotlight before his time runs out.
While “Curse of the Evil Eye” marks the end of this season’s main story arc (and the last story arc we’d see until the three-episode finale of season three), there’s still a consistent continuity between the remaining episodes of season two, even if they lack an overarching focus.
The Case of the Killer Pizzas (written by Douglas Booth)
Obtaining monster eggs native to Dimension X, Shredder and Baxter disguise them as meatball pizza toppings and serve them to the Turtles. The eggs eventually hatch and the Alien-like creatures quickly grow to humongous sizes.
You see this? This is what happens when you write a TMNT episode and focus on a single plot instead of juggling two or three separate conflicts alongside who knows how many tedious subplots involving the Channel 6 crew. As a result, this is one of my all-time favorites thanks to its focus and rather creative scheme on part of the villains.
As an anecdote, I used to eat microwave Swedish meatballs all the time as a kid until I saw this episode. It grossed me out toward meatballs for a long time. Then, right as I got over it, I saw “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4” and that set my meatball consumption back a few more years.
But I’m over it, now!
If there’s one folly to this episode, it’s that Baxter is back as Shredder’s henchman after betraying him in the previous episode. In the episode following this one, Baxter meets his undoing at the hands of Shredder and Krang, making this episode feel like an awkward fit in the flow of the season.
Anyway, the 13 episodes of season 2 can actually be bisected fairly evenly, with the first half focusing on Shredder trying to go it alone (with the help of Baxter Stockman), while the second half sees him joined by Bebop and Rocksteady with the newer purpose of returning the Technodrome to Earth. While the narrative of the season is certainly crude by today’s standards of animation storytelling, it’s actually more focused than just about anything you’ll see again in TMNT until season eight.
Next time, we’ll reevaluate the latter half of season two in all its action figure advertising glory.
Also, Amazon’s got Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Original Series – Volume Two available for pretty cheap (around the price of a Happy Meal — and healthier for you), so feel free to snatch it up.