The third season of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series by Fred Wolf keeps on keepin’ on. In this batch of 6 episodes, we’re introduced to one of my all-time favorite recurring antagonists (the Rat King) and one of my all-time least favorite recurring protagonists (Zach, the Fifth Turtle). So it’s all a matter of give and take, you see. Cameos also abound, from Don Turtelli (who’ll take a larger role later in the series) and Ace Duck (for all of five seconds).
So let’s get started.
Burne’s Blues (written by Bill Wolf and Gordon Bressack)
Hoping to cool the overheating Technodrome down, Shredder and Krang steal all the Freon in New York while under the guise of air conditioner repairmen. The Turtles intervene. Meanwhile, Burne, wanting to relive his glory days as a sleuthing journalist, scours the underworld for a scoop on the Ninja Turtles.
I get the feeling this episode was supposed to air before “Turtles on Trial” from a chronological point of view. This episode initiates the “Technodrome is too hot” subplot that sees Shredder and Krang trying to steal stuff to cool it down, while “Turtles on Trial” ended it. In regards to that part of the episode, just the use of the word “Freon” takes me back. I remember my first car had a Freon air conditioner and when it broke down I had a hell of a time finding a mechanic who could refill it. I don’t think anybody uses Freon anymore, right?
With two writers involved (Bill Wolf wrote the story, Gordon Bressack wrote the script), “Burne’s Blues” feels like two completely different episodes sewn together. What makes it work is that even though the two plots are wholly separate, the script makes light of that fact and proceeds to just go bonkers. As a result, the B plot (Burne’s sleuthing) becomes more entertaining than the A plot (another generic Shredder scheme and April kidnapping). Over the course of his story, Burne’s circumstances become increasingly more bizarre (as he’s first taken hostage by German spies, then Italian mobsters) until it finally just says “screw it” and has him get randomly abducted by aliens that all look like Elvis. In fact, I remember this episode vividly from when I was a kid, but only the Burne subplot. The actual meat of the story involving the Turtles is entirely forgettable.
Like “The Maltese Hamster”, this is another episode that plays to the show’s strengths as a self-aware parody and lets itself cut loose with the weirdness. The dialogue is really snappy with some great exchanges and the animation, which looks to have been done by a Japanese studio, is pretty competent, too. The ending comedy beat (Burne going on a live broadcast to tell everyone “Elvis clones from Mars are invading the Earth! Keep watching the skies!”) is pretty damn funny, too.
As it happens, we’re seven episodes into the season and you can already begin to see the censorship of Michaelangelo’s nunchakus take place. While he’s shown wearing them on his belt, they’ve been removed from all the scenes where the Turtles brandish their weapons in group shots:
It ends up looking really weird, as you can tell that the animators drew him holding his weapons and then removed them at the last minute. We can all thank Europe for that one (the UK and German broadcasts of the show had to edit out Mikey’s nunchakus because the weapons were illegal over there). Incidentally, in the same scene where Mike’s ‘chuks are removed, there are robbers shown brandishing actual guns (not ray guns), which was a rare sight in this show (later on in this episode, the mobsters are shown using ray guns). The deletion of Mike’s nunchakus in this lone episode is made even more perplexing, considering he continues to use them prominently in episodes after it.
The Fifth Turtle (written by Francis Moss)
The Turtles attempt to stop Shredder from stealing crystals that can repower the Technodrome, but they’re constantly thwarted by the 13 year-old Zach. Zach’s just wants to prove himself as their “Fifth Turtle”, but his antics may lead to the Shredder’s ultimate victory.
Writer J. Michael Straczynski once made a pretty solid observation about “kid identification” archetypes like Zach. To paraphrase, he said that when he was a kid, he saw Batman doing all sorts of things he couldn’t do and wanted to grow up to be Batman. However, when he saw Robin, a character his age doing all sorts of things he couldn’t do, he realized he could *never* be Robin because it was already too late.
A fairly astute observation about the “kid identification” archetype, as instead of “identifying” with someone like Zach, kids are more likely to detest him. I know I sure did.
Even forgoing the “kid appeal” gimmick, it’s hard to like Zach. He’s a bumbling nuisance that gets in the way of the Turtles and his voice (provided by Rob Paulsen) just makes you want to break things. The episode says he’s 13, but I get the feeling Paulsen was playing him much younger. In the end, it still sounds like a grown man trying to sound like a snot-nosed kid and damn is it obnoxious.
There are a couple funny bits in the script, though it’s overall another typical “Shredder steals stuff for the Technodrome” episode. One plot point I question is the bit where Shredder uses a license plate on Zach’s bicycle to get his name and address. Are bicycles in New York City registered with state license plates? Is that a thing?
The animation looked to be by the same Japanese studio (you can tell they’re Japanese because they spelled the “animation” wall scroll in the sewer lair right) that was responsible for “Turtles on Trial”. The animation isn’t quite on that level, but it’s really very good. A shame it got wasted on this script.
Enter the Rat King (written by Buzz Dixon)
A new villain calling himself the Rat King has surfaced in the sewers of New York. With the power to command all rats, including Splinter, the Rat King takes April O’Neil hostage to force the Ninja Turtles into a showdown.
The Rat King is an interesting case of cross-media pollination. He was created in the Mirage TMNT comic (Tales of the TMNT Vol. 1 #4) as a one-shot villain. He was revived for the Fred Wolf animated series and Playmates toyline where he became very popular (save Baxter-Fly, I believe he has more appearances than any other recurring villain). As a result, Mirage brought him back in the main TMNT book where he menaced Splinter during the “City at War” arc. So although he was a Mirage creation, the Rat King’s popularity stems primarily from this cartoon.
Buzz Dixon was a very prolific writer and story editor during the ‘80s, with perhaps his best known work being on the Hasbro cartoons produced by Marvel/Sunbow (G.I. Joe, Transformers, Inhumanoids, Jem). This probably wasn’t one of his better scripts, though, mostly because the stakes seem so low. The conflict of the episode is that April has been kidnapped and the Turtles must rescue her. That’s a conflict in nearly EVERY episode and it has gotten old fast. Splinter’s hypnosis is very brief and I think it would have made a better A-plot than another dull April hostage scenario.
Incidentally, this is the very first episode of the series to not feature the Shredder and Krang whatsoever. As a result, despite the overall dilemma being pretty weak, it still feels like a long overdue change of pace. While Shredder and Krang would still be the primary villains through season 8, “Enter the Rat King” represents a point where the series began to branch out and show that other unrelated villains are out there. Leo remarks “It’s a small sewer” toward the end of the episode, showing how close to home the Rat King is for them, making his (admittedly comical) threat seem a bit more menacing.
And just in case you forgot that this show was a self-aware parody, Don laments while scaling the Channel 6 Building, “I wish we had those anti-gravity boots from episode 6”. Presumably he’s referring to “Sky Turtles”, which was the *fifth* episode of season 3. Of course, those weren’t “anti gravity” boots in the context of the episode, but “gravity” boots (used to counteract an anti-gravity device).
I hate it when I pay more attention to this s--t than the story editor.
Turtles at the Earth’s Core (written by Michael Reaves)
When the Turtles follow “Dippy the Diplodocus” through a hole in the ground, they find themselves in the hollow Earth where dinosaurs still roam. The prehistoric paradise is under siege by Shredder, of course, as he has his sights set on stealing a powerful crystal that can refuel the Technodrome.
Hey, dinosaurs. That’s always a crowd-pleaser when it comes to kids.
I think I finally get what bugs the hell out of me in regards to the endless “Shredder and Krang steal crap to repower the Technodrome” plots that make up this season. Shredder and Krang aren’t implementing schemes to conquer the world or destroy the Turtles, they’re committing petty thefts that will *eventually* allow them to commit schemes to conquer the world and destroy the Turtles. This is second rate villainy.
When Megatron or Cobra Commander stole gizmos from scientists or artifacts from museums in their respective shows, it was so they could use them to destroy their enemies and conquer the world. When Shredder and Krang steal something it’s so they can use them to repair their doomsday fortress and THEN get the show on the road. In these episodes, they’re not just failing to conquer the world, they’re failing at the basic steps necessary to GET to the part where they attempt to conquer the world.
As for anything else to do with this episode, if you recall in my intro for the first part of season 3, I mentioned that this season had to be produced so quickly, primary cast members had to have substitute actors record their lines when they weren’t available for a recording session. But as we see in this episode, not only was there no time to reschedule actors to complete their lines for an episode if they missed a session, there was no time to bring them in to fix a line they messed up when they already recorded an episode! One of Shredder’s lines in this episode (“I’m still not certain why you drove us up to this subterranean prehistoria.”) is voiced not by Uncle Phil, but by what sounds like Peter Renaday. That might give you an idea of just how rushed this season was. And heck, if they were rerecording botched lines, they could have at least fixed the part where Raphael identifies a bunch of Foot Soldiers as Rock Soldiers.
April Fool (written by Michael Reaves and Brynne Stephens)
Mistaking April for the Princess of Malicuria at a masquerade ball, the Shredder takes her hostage in hopes of ransoming her for the rare element Lydium 90. The Turtles rescue her.
April. Kidnapped. AGAIN.
The TV movie Turtles Forever really was on the ball when it cracked that you could set your watch by April getting kidnapped. That’s all she was good for throughout much of this show. To make matters more tiring, the bulk of the episode revolves around Shredder trying to find his way out of the Malcurian Embassy after kidnapping her. “April Fool” already relied on a paper-thin concept (“Prince and the Pauper”-style mistaken identity), making the whole scenario of the characters getting lost in a mansion all the more obvious as padding.
This episode appears to have been animated by a totally new studio (animation studios went unnamed in the credits) with a style unlike what we’ve seen before from the Japanese and Korean productions. There’s a great deal of detail applied to facial expressions, which appear very elastic and exaggerated. It’s a neat change of pace, but the framerate from this studio is really choppy, so those elastic expressions never run smoothly and the lip sync is always off.
The funniest part of “April Fool” was completely unintentional, too. When the Malcurian guards have the Turtles surrounded, they draw their swords and tell the TMNT to surrender or else they’ll “Open fire”. What?
Continuing the weird jumble of episode-to-episode continuity, this one seems to open with a reference to “Turtles on Trial” (Krang using the stolen solobenite to repair the Technodrome’s refrigeration system), indicating it takes place right after that story. I won’t blame the story editor for that one, as jumbled storylines were a typical epidemic of syndicated animation during the era (the third season of Transformers is practically incomprehensible in its broadcast order).
Attack of Big MACC (written Francis Moss)
MACC, a warrior robot from either the future or another dimension (they can’t make up their mind) travels to New York because he hates violence. Both the military and the Shredder become intent on capturing MACC and obtaining his vast array of advanced weaponry, but the Turtles are determined to protect their new buddy.
Hmmm, a robot friend of the TMNT that travels through a time-space warp and is menaced by the military who want to obtain his advanced technology? Well, that’s awfully familiar.
I wonder if this episode was originally intended to feature the Fugitoid, a character that originated from the Mirage comics and got an action figure in the Playmates toyline (but never appeared in the Fred Wolf cartoon). It could be that Peter Laird objected to his portrayal in the episode and had him replaced with MACC (similar to how Ryan Brown objected to the use of Man Ray in “Rebel Without a Fin” resulting in the character being substituted with “Ray”). Or it could be a total coincidence. I dunno.
Like most of the best episodes from this point in the series, “Attack of Big MACC” plays with its own plot contrivances and has no qualms about winking at the audience. When Krang pulls a plot device out of his pocket and hands it to Shredder, Shredder asks why he would be carrying something so specific to the situation on his person. Krang tells him that he’s just trying to move the story along.
Ace Duck makes a brief cameo in this episode as a movie character. Ace had a toy in the Playmates toyline and appeared infrequently in the Archie TMNT Adventures comic. Why they chose to utilize him in this manner is strange and he’s never seen again. His bio card says that he’s the pilot of the Turtle Blimp whose services the Turtles have to pay for. Since the Turtles have been shown to be fully capable of flying the blimp on their own in this series, I guess the writers had no room for him.
Also, Rock Soldiers are killed in this episode. When MACC shoots them, they shatter into a million pieces. Unlike the Foot Soldiers, the Rock Soldiers are living creatures and not robots. I guess the writers forgot that? This is the first time they’re ever been shown to be destructible.
Anyway, that caps off another 6 episodes of season 3. Still a long, long way to go before we’re through it. As it happens, this batch wasn’t so bad. There are more nods to internal continuity than I remember seeing, even if the episodes were aired out of chronological order. Overall, the real issue crippling these episodes is a reliance on the same formula over and over again (Shredder committing theft, April getting kidnapped). The best episodes deviate from that rut or at least put a lampshade on it.