Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987) Season 3 Review (Part Three)
21 Mar, 2013
I’m back for another round of six episodes from the late ’80s/early ’90s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series produced by Fred Wolf.
In this batch of episodes we really get to start seeing the hectic production schedule play havoc with the voice actors, as several primary cast members are voiced by substitutes of varying degrees of quality. On the other hand, there’s some excellent animation quality to enjoy in one episode and some bizarre animation aesthetics to enjoy in another. Sadly, there are no memorable major villains introduced in this batch of stories, but Tiffany from season 2 makes a surprise reappearance! So there’s that.
The Ninja Sword of Nowhere (written by Michael Edens, Mark Edens)
When Shredder obtains an ancient ninja sword crafted from alien metal that can cut holes in reality, he uses it to trap Splinter in Limbo, the void between dimensions. To rescue their sensei, the Turtles have to devise an elaborate ruse to draw Shredder out and steal the sword.
This is one of my favorite season 3 episodes in terms of both story and animation. In regards to the latter, it appears to have been done by the same Japanese studio that did “Turtles on Trial” and “Zach, the Fifth Turtle” so it looks really sharp. There are lots of great little nuances, such as light from a computer consol reflecting off of Shredder’s helmet and some flashes of impressive visuals, such as the part near the end where Donatello hurls a grappling hook at an alien spaceship.
On the story side, the titular Ninja Sword of Nowhere is just a really cool weapon; a sword that can cut rifts between dimensions that the user can walk through to disappear and reappear from place to place. Both Krang and Splinter deliver exposition explaining its origin and the legend behind it, making the sword seem like a genuinely interesting artifact rather than just another doomsday device for the Shredder to set his sights on. It also helps break up the monotony of the last batch of episodes, as Shredder doesn’t steal the sword to try and repair the Technodrome, but so that he can directly confront and destroy the Turtles with it.
Unfortunately, the resolution is kind of a lot of bullcrap. A pair of inter-dimensional antique dealers randomly show up at the last minute to take the sword and safely usher it away from the story. I get that the ending was meant to be humorous in how random it was, but it still reeks of a contrived resolution to get a powerful weapon out of the picture.
The only other thing marring this episode is that Raphael is not voiced by Rob Paulsen, but his designated substitute for this season: Thom Pinto. And yikes, he’s not very good. While some of the other substitutes weren’t that bad, Pinto just doesn’t sound even remotely like Paulsen and it gets really distracting.
20,000 Leaks Under the City (written Bob Schooley, Mark McCorkle)
Using a new super pump, Krang drains the Atlantic Ocean and uses the water to flood New York City… and the sewers, too! As the Turtles struggle to stay afloat, Shredder unleashes a mind-controlled giant squid to finish them off.
Whew, this was an episode that really could’ve used another pass by the story editor (if it even got a first pass by him is debatable). At the beginning of the episode there’s an awkward bit of product placement for the Turtle Tube toy from Playmates, giving the impression that the new aquatically themed vehicle will come in handy later in the episode. It is never seen again. Instead, once the city is flooded, Donatello outfits the Turtle Van with a hovercraft mode. I get the impression the Turtle Tube was a late addition to the script but they didn’t make enough of an effort to rework the last two acts to make the addition meaningful.
The ending resolution comes out of the blue, as Krang randomly announces that the super pump is stuck in reverse, draining the city and restoring everything to normal. Why is it stuck in reverse? Why did he even shift it into reverse in the first place? These things are never explained, probably because there was only a minute left in the episode and they had to end it somehow.
My favorite bit of bad editing comes during the first commercial break. When the sewer is flooded, Splinter is sent screaming over a massive waterfall to his doom, shouting “Faaareweeeeeeeell!” as he plummets. Commercial break. When we return, Splinter is still heading toward the waterfall, this time screaming, “Remember all that I have taught youuuu!” Instead of going over the falls, though, Michaelangelo rescues him at the last second. I guess somebody called a do-over.
Tiffany, Burne’s ditzy arm candy from “Return of the Shredder” (a season 2 episode) makes a random cameo at the beginning of this episode (there’s a subplot about Burne celebrating his 50th birthday and trying to hide his age from Tiffany). She never appears again after this, so I guess the writers couldn’t think of anything funny for her to do anymore.
We get another cast substitution, as Barry Gordon’s characters (Donatello and Bebop) are voiced by Greg Berg (not to be confused with Greg Berger, the voice of Grimlock on “Transformers”). Berg does a good impression of Bebop, but his Donatello is way too soft-spoken and meek. Barry Gordon must have been hard to pin down during the recording schedule for this season, because he’s replaced by Greg Berg in quite a few episodes after this one.
It’s not one of the better-animated episodes, either. I get the feeling the overseas animators had never heard of a salad bar before, as one features prominently in several scenes (seriously) and I only recognize the stuff on the buffet as “salad” because the script said it was.
Take Me to Your Leader (written by David Wise)
After having a nightmare in which he fails as leader, Leonardo quits the team. When Shredder and Krang begin draining the sun of all its energy, plummeting the Earth into a new Ice Age, Donatello, Raphael and Michaelangelo each take turns as leader… with disastrous results.
Alright, alright. I hold David Wise accountable for a lot of the crap in this show (he was the series story editor, after all), but when that guy wrote a funny script, he wrote a FUNNY script. Like “The Maltese Hamster” from earlier this season, “Take me to Your Leader” is one of Wise’s best contributions and it’s really very clever. There’s some snappy dialogue in this one as the Turtles critique and cajole one another during their temporary stints as leaders. The opening of the episode takes its time letting you know that it’s a dream, making for a bizarre and funny segue that establishes the overall plot of the episode. It even ends on a good note: With less than a minute left in the story, the Turtles haven’t even reached Shredder yet. Raphael quips, “If we don’t get up there soon, this is gonna turn into a two-part episode.”
The self-aware jokes, when used strategically, were some of the funnier bits of the series and an element that really sets it apart from its successors. Granted, not all the fourth wall gags were great, but Wise seemed to have a good handle on when to use them for the best effect.
Up until now, we’ve had very few episodes that focus on a specific Turtle and not the group as a whole. While I wouldn’t categorize this one as “deep,” it’s refreshing to see one of the Turtles get the spotlight and carry the episode. While Leo got the focus, the others are sort of turned into self-parodies and lost all pretenses of common sense as they fail in their stints at leadership. But again, Wise puts a lampshade on the idea and rolls with it for the sake of keeping the humor as a top priority.
Leonardo quitting the team over a nightmare was rather weak, though. I’m conflicted, as the opening sequence was very amusing in its setup, but it didn’t offer a very convincing reason to make Leo run off. And even though Leo’s plight is ostensibly the heart of the story, more time is spent on the others trying their hands as leaders than Leo’s internal struggle (but to be fair, this was a series that put comedy before pathos).
The animation is consistent and competent (if not very flashy), but there are some serious oddities in the sound editing department. They recycle group screams made by the Turtles from previous episodes, but use them in scenes with only Mike, Don and Raph. As a result, Cam Clarke can be heard screaming prominently in his Leo voice even though Leo is supposed to be MIA.
Four Musketurtles (written by Doug Molitor)
After taking a blow to the head, Leonardo begins to think that he’s D’Artagnan and that the Turtles are his Three Musketeers. This couldn’t happen at a worse time, as the Shredder and Krang have just stolen the Star of Brazil: a gem of Impervium which can power an impenetrable force field generator.
In the cast interviews for the Lionsgate TMNT DVDs, Cam Clarke remarked that while he enjoyed playing Leonardo for ten seasons, he felt the character rarely got the good lines or had anything fun to say. Definitely true, as Leonardo more often than not go saddled with the generic leadership shout-outs like, “We have to save April!” and “April needs our help!” or “Release April, Shredder!” So I imagine episodes like this, where a contrived circumstance causes Leo to act out of character (there will be more variations of this same plot in later episodes) were probably a breath of fresh air for Clarke on recording day.
This one’s a pretty weak and typical episode (though it has a few good lines), but I did enjoy seeing Shredder and Krang actively trying to double-cross one another. Though they never really got along, they’ve been working together a little too well during this season (whereas when season 2 began, Shredder was Krang’s disgruntled underling). It’s good to see the underlying back-stabbing hatred for each other still present in the characters.
One major continuity error stands out: When Krang flashes back to the scientists of his unspecified race creating the Impervium in Dimension X, they’re all shown to be brain-like tentacle monsters in bubble-walkers the same as Krang. Krang’s appearance is supposed to be unique, as he lost his body when he was banished from Dimension X to Earth. One em even has a mustache on his brain-face:
Some pretty lousy animation, too, as the overseas studio kept screwing up when to draw the Impervium gem and when not to. April is shown doing a news report on the jewel and pointing to it through a showcase, but the pedestal the gem is supposed to be on is empty. Later, Shredder carries the force field generator to the surface so he can steal the gem to power it… but the gem is already drawn installed in the generator (complete with glinting effects).
Also, does New York City celebrate Mardi Gras with a parade? Does New Orleans know about this? Because that’s the setting for the episode: a costumed Mardi Gras parade in New York City. It facilitates a stupid gag where Irma thinks Shredder is just a guy in a Shredder costume and starts hitting on him, even after Bebop and Rocksteady show up and kidnap both her and April in a stolen helicopter.
Oh yeah, and Greg Berg substitutes for Donatello and Bebop once again. So get ready for that.
Turtles, Turtles, Everywhere (written by David Bennett Carren, J. Larry Carroll)
When the Shredder reprograms New York’s new sanitation mainframe, Dump 1000, he orders it to collect turtles instead of garbage. Due to the lack of a “teenage mutant ninja” specification, it ends up collecting every turtle in town, including some endangered species. The Ninja Turtles race to save their distant cousins.
While the self-aware humor is one of my favorite aspects of the Fred Wolf TMNT series, there is such a thing as moderation. Writers Carren and Carroll overdo the fourth wall gags, with the Turtles referencing everything from the theme song to the background music to the commercial break cliffhangers to the dialogue in their scripts. There’s even a bit where the Turtles suspend themselves in midair after having their grappling ropes cut and don’t fall until they look down; a gag too cartoony even for the likes of this show.
I think the main problem with “Turtles, Turtles, Everywhere” is that it takes way too long to figure out just what the conflict is supposed to be. At first it seems that all the turtles in town getting kidnapped is the main dilemma, but then it switches gears to April being taken hostage (again). Then even that is disregarded as a source of suspense when they bring in the endangered sea turtle who only has until sundown to lay her eggs on the beach or her species will go extinct. That particular crisis isn’t made relevant until the last four or five minutes of the episode.
The script lacks polish and could have benefitted from another draft. To their credit, the writers remembered that the Turtle Van has a laser gun turret mounted on the side door:
The Turtles hardly ever used that damn thing.
We’re also starting to see some recycled villain gimmicks. The Turtles already encountered a sentient machine that could control lesser electronics in “The Mean Machines”. They’ll meet a similar plot yet again in “Bye, Bye, Fly”. The third season isn’t over and already the writers are running out of ammo. Bear in mind that there’s still seven more seasons after this one.
Cowabunga Shredhead (written by Duane Capizzi, Steve Roberts)
When the Shredder’s attempt to create a holographic clone of Michaelangelo backfires, the machine brainwashes him into thinking that he’s the notorious Party Dude. The Turtles reluctantly put up with Shredderangelo, hoping to get to the bottom of his evil scheme.
This was a favorite episode of mine when I was a kid, mostly because we had it on a Beta tape and I watched it countless times. Seeing it again as an adult, I think it holds up well even beyond the rose tinting of my nostalgia goggles.
The most enjoyable part of this episode is hearing James Avery do his best impression of Townsend Coleman’s Michaelangelo. It’s jarring at first, but can be pretty fun to listen to. And speaking of Townsend Coleman, he fills in for Pat Fraley as the voice of Krang in this episode. He does his best, but Fraley’s Krang is just too unique of a performance for anyone to match (though Braford Cameron managed a decent approximation in Turtles Forever.
Unlike lesser episodes, the conflict in “Cowabunga Shredhead” is clearly defined as the Turtles are forced to endure the weirdness of Shredder acting like Michaelangelo for as long as it takes to deduce his plot for the week (which involves a holographic clone of Ronald Reagan). There’s a B-plot involving Splinter using the ancient art of Kung Pao to force the real Michaelangelo into disliking pizza, but it isn’t developed very well. I get the reason for it, as they try to make Mike’s and Shredder’s situations mirror each other (both acting out of character due to extenuating circumstances), so I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a waste.
I think the only glaring error in the script is that Shredder, after getting brainwashed, finds his way down to the sewer lair using “all the data they’ve collected about Michaelangelo.” The idea is that he got the directions from the disk containing Mike’s data, but how could Krang have input that data onto the disk if he doesn’t know where the lair is?
“Cowabunga Shredhead” looks to have been animated by the same studio that did “April Fool,” so we see a return of the highly elastic and expressive style. Well, sort of. It actually looks like two different studios animated this one, with the framerates and use of expression fluctuating from scene to scene. When it’s done right, I actually really like the exaggerated reactions. There’s a great amount of detail put into the lip sync and the body language; an animating philosophy that seems accutely western as opposed to the more sterile and clinical animating philosophies from the Korean and Japanese studios (which favored utilizing higher framerates and detail on action sequences). Other scenes, though, look really bland and sluggish and the character models are rendered slightly differently, hence my guess that two studios worked on this one episode. It’s not an unheard of practice; Tiny Toon Adventures often employed a Korean studio to do certain scenes while also employing American studios like Startoons to focus on scenes that centered around facial expression and body language.
Well, season 3 is still young and there’re still five more of these articles to go before it’s done. I look forward to the next batch as we’ll get to the return of Baxter-Fly and the introduction of Casey Jones, whose Fred Wolf persona I think is absolutely awesome. There’s also Frip the Polarisoid, but fuck him.