Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987) Season 3 Review (Part Five)
18 Apr, 2013
Finally, we’ve reached the back nine of TMNT’s third season. Personally, I think this second half of the season is a lot stronger than the first half, at least in terms of notable character introductions and recurring villains/allies. In this particular batch of six episodes, we’ve got the return of Casey Jones (in his best episode), a cameo from the Rat King, the first appearance of Lotus Blossom and the first appearance of Leatherhead.
And a clip show, but nobody’s perfect.
Corporate Raiders from Dimension X (written by David Wise)
The Shredder has taken over the multinational corporation Octopus Inc. and is using them to brainwash all the most powerful corporate executives in New York. To stop him, the Turtles will need one of their human allies to infiltrate Octopus Inc. Unfortunately, the only human ally they have who can do it is… Casey Jones.
A couple years ago, when I wrote an article chronicling what were, in my opinion, the 25 Greatest Moments in TMNT History, I selected “Corporate Raiders from Dimension X” as #7. The reason is because I felt this episode best encapsulated all the great qualities of the Fred Wolf TMNT animated series. When it wanted to be, this show could be smart, funny, irreverent and just plain entertaining (but only when it wanted to be) and this episode is a perfect example.
The Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon was at its best when it anticipated and encouraged its own absurdity and in the earliest seasons David Wise was pretty great at hitting the mark. Casey Jones, my all-time favorite TMNT character in any incarnation, is given the spotlight for the second time this season and Wise writes some great moments around him. In this version, Casey was portrayed as a lunatic vigilante with a hyper-violent attitude toward crime… ANY crime. No matter how small. The Turtles lure him out of hiding in this episode by shaking a vending machine back and forth until he shows up and starts throwing playground equipment at them. They then use Casey to infiltrate Octopus Inc. and he does so while wearing a business suit… and his hockey mask and golf bag full of blunt instruments. Even better, every time Casey goes on a rampage and starts tearing up the offices with his bat, he gets a promotion!
It’s just really, really funny is what I’m saying.
And while the Fred Wolf series wasn’t known for its stunning social commentary, Wise actually works his opinions on Big Business into the script with an intuitive ease that facilitates all the gags. Octopus Inc. commits “hostile takeovers” on other corporations (given names like “The Incredibly Huge Corporation” and “The Itty Bitty Corporation”) by basically sending brainwashed executives in suits over to the office buildings with guns so they can kidnap everyone. The episode even ends with the freed president of Octopus Inc. swearing to use his power and influence to do business fairly, clean up the environment and encourage social unity regardless race, creed or color. After that saccharine speech, Raphael dead pans to the camera, “It may not be a realistic ending, but it’s an ending”.
It’s always nice when a cartoon show is honest enough to wink at the kids and say, “We know this lesson is bullshit and so do you.”
The Retro Catapult, a toyline tie-in, returns in this episode. The toy was introduced a couple episodes ago in a quick, awkward moment that had no bearing on the actual episode. Here, it’s used as a recurring gag as Don tries to get it to work right (and the gag in itself seems to mock the stupidity of the toy and the very fact that the characters/writers are obligated to advertise it). In a way, I guess you could chalk up its worthless appearance in a previous episode as “foreshadowing” for its greater use here, but I really don’t think the writers were thinking that far ahead.
There are some unfortunate setbacks to “Corporate Raiders from Dimension X”. Mainly, the animation can get pretty rough. There are recycled sequences used to fill time (the same footage of brainwashed executives walking up the front steps of a building is used twice in a row) and there’s one awful, awful moment where the characters are talking but nobody is moving and the camera pans across the frozen cel like an animatic. Some crude moments also mar the episode (the bit where the Turtles get tied up in Shredder’s office) and some plain ole animation errors don’t help (characters talking without their lips moving, Leo using Raph’s voice, etc.). The WHOLE episode isn’t animated that badly; it’s mostly competent. But when there are bad moments, they’re impossible to ignore.
Also, I feel compelled to point out that Wise recycled the basic conflict of this episode from a previous script he wrote for The Transformers; the episode “Auto-Bop”. In that one, the Decepticons used a dance club as a front for their evil scheme to brainwash New Yorkers into building their super weapon for them. Here, the Shredder uses a corporation as a front to brainwash New Yorkers into raising the Technodrome for him. Admittedly, it isn’t even close to the worst example of Wise’s shameless script recycling, as everything but the basic conflict outline is entirely original, but the similarities may stand out to you.
Pizza by the Shred (written by Michael and Mark Edens)
Hoping to make a few extra bucks, Michaelangelo takes a job as a pizza delivery boy for Weird Pizza To Go. What he doesn’t know is that the pizza parlor is operated by the Shredder, who hopes to use the TMNT’s love of pizza to track them to their secret lair.
“Pizza by the Shred” is an unusual episode in that it has the characters, both heroes and villains, actually thinking proactively. Shredder’s plan to open a pizza delivery joint that specializes in weird toppings as a means to track the Turtles with a homing device once they order is pretty clever. He even advertises during April’s news report, when he knows they’re watching. The entire gag with Mike working for the Shredder and not knowing it, and Shredder having Mike as an employee and not knowing it, makes this one of the more amusing and inspired conflicts in any episode of the series.
In the last act, the Rat King steals the pizza with the tracking device meant for the Turtles and the Shredder sends his army of Foot Soldiers into the sewers for the big raid. The Turtles learn of Shredder’s scheme and could have easily just called it a night, as Shredder was on a wild Rat King chase and not in any way about to find their secret lair. Instead, they actually take the fight TO Shredder. They ambush the Foot Soldiers en route through the sewer tunnels and take them out one by one until the Shredder is cornered and outnumbered. I say this is unusual because the TMNT are almost always reactive in this series rather than proactive; they wait for Shredder to launch a scheme, beat him, then unconvincingly make up some bullshit excuse as to why they have to let him escape until next Saturday morning.
The episode also employs a LOT of vehicles and accessories from the Playmates toyline. The Starmobile that the Neutrinos left behind in the season 1 episode “Hot Rodding Teenagers from Dimension X” (and was last seen in inoperable condition in “Shredder & Splintered”) is suddenly dredged back into memory, as Don gets it working again (and Shredder steals it by the episode’s end). The Foot-Ski is introduced as Shredder uses it for the sewer assault and man, I love how literally the animators translate the actual toys into the show-itself. Every goofy detail, right down to the little flag. These things LOOK like toys, not like vehicles. Anyway, when the Turtles launch their ambush on the Foot Soldiers, they use the Retro Catapult, the Turtle Tube (last seen briefly in “20,000 Leaks Under the City”) and the Cheap Skates.
A whooooole lot of toys in this episode, but at least the writers are getting comfortable using them for a change.
This is another episode by the stretchy, weird animation studio I don’t know the identity of. I really want to say that they were based in the US, as the squash-and-stretch style of their animation is very Western (this doesn’t look anything like an Eastern production) and holy cow, do they butcher the “animation” wall scroll in the living room of the lair. At least the Korean and Filipino animators TRIED to mimic the katakana. These guys just make up weird symbols that don’t look even remotely Japanese.
Also, there’s the Rat King in a completely random, off-the-wall cameo. As in “Return of the Fly”, he’s decidedly neutral in this episode (though not necessarily helpful like he was last time). He’s just out for himself and isn’t on either Shredder’s or the TMNT’s side. I like this use of the Rat King, and while I enjoy most of his later super villainous appearances (especially his multiple team-ups with Leatherhead), I always found him more interesting as an unaligned party.
Super Bebop and Mighty Rocksteady (written by David Carren and Larry Carroll)
All Shredder and Krang want to do is install their Mesmerizer device onto the signal tower of the Channel 6 building and brainwash the city into their service. Unfortunately, Bebop and Rocksteady are too stupid to get the job done. To rectify that, they create Super Rocksteady and Mighty Bebop: Robot doppelgangers of their mutant henchmen who can actually follow orders.
An episode this stupid shouldn’t be this confusing.
So the episode is titled “Super Bebop and Mighty Rocksteady”, but the actual robot henchmen are called Super Rocksteady and Mighty Bebop in the episode. In 1993, Playmates gave both of them action figures, but they were named Robotic Rocksteady and Robotic Bebop. Playmates eventually made an action figure named Mighty Bebop, but it was actually an action figure for his Mighty Hog persona from the episode “The Adventures of Rhino Man”.
Because apparently everybody responsible for keeping proper nouns straight in the TMNT franchise were about as intelligent as Bebop and Rocksteady themselves.
Anyway, this episode is another evil scheme of the week, but it at least addresses the question of why Shredder and Krang keep Bebop and Rocksteady around if the two buffoons can’t do anything right. Even when they take measures to replace the pair of imbeciles, it still doesn’t work.
The episode is a mix of good and bad, as much of the bickering between the villains is really sharp (particularly Krang’s many assessments of Bebop and Rocksteady’s intellect), while other gags are annoying (everyone at Channel 6 acting like spoiled children when under the Mesmerizer’s control). The Eden’s brothers take the self awareness a little too far in this script, as both Shredder and Raph address the audience quite a few times. There’s an excessively cartoony bit at the end where Shredder, Bebop and Rocksteady fall off the roof of the Channel 6 Building and instead of dying when they hit the concrete, land in a comical pile of failure. Between the various writers assigned to this show, the Fred Wolf series had a tough time deciding just how cartoony it wanted to be; was there any actual threat of death or could the characters fall from a cliff Wile E. Coyote style and survive with just a big lump on their noggin? It’d take another couple of seasons for the writers to figure that part out.
Also, you’ll probably notice that at least two different studios animated this one. Most of the animation is the usual Korean stuff, with stiff movements, minimal lip sync and a lot of freezing on key animations. But suddenly, BAM, a scene will be animated by a very clearly Western (maybe even American) studio with a TON of frames, exaggerated lip syncing and a very elastic overall sense of body language. And they render the character models slightly differently, too (the Western studio employs big, bright irises), as well as the overall brightness of the color pallets. The two studios don’t blend well at all… Especially when one studio draws the Mesmerizer falling to the ground and exploding into a million pieces, then the next studio shows it completely intact and in Shredder’s possession because, shit, were they working from different scripts or something?
Beware the Lotus (written by Doug Molitor)
When Krang fires Shredder, he replaces him with Lotus, a female ninja mercenary. Immediately, Lotus proves far more competent than Shredder ever was, but her sudden infatuation with Leonardo turns her into a liability.
TMNT was a cartoon aimed primarily at young boys (though that’s not to say it didn’t have its female fans), so whenever the cartoon dabbled in romance it seemed to be doing so more out of obligation than an actual interest in pursuing developing romance. Mike’s infatuation with Kala the Neutrino never amounted to more than a couple flirty remarks while Raph’s relationship with Mona Lisa spanned a whole one episode. Leo’s romance with Lotus Blossom got the most attention, I suppose, if you consider two episodes to be a lot of attention.
Still, whether you buy the romance between Leo and Lotus or not, this episode works well on the premise of Krang firing Shredder. In the first two seasons, Shredder was Krang’s hired underling and took orders, whereas in this season he seems to have been promoted to an equal partner. We get a reminder of Shredder’s true place in this episode, as Krang kicks him to the curb and replaces him with a more skilled ninja. Shredder eventually reestablishes his role as Krang’s right-hand ninja not through ability, but because his demeanor of pure evil makes him more reliable than an underling capable of compassion and remorse.
Alas, it’s not all good, as we’re reminded how far Shredder has fallen as an opponent to be feared. Even in the second season when the show was being tamed by Broadcast Standards & Practices, Shredder was still shown to be a skilled warrior that was a match for all four Turtles in a straight fight. Now, he doesn’t even rank as one of the best ninja in the world, as Lotus defeats him with relative ease.
As for Lotus, I think my only problem with her comes down to Renae Jacobs’s performance. She has a really labored, sing-songy, stereotypical Japanese accent that just sounds awful. Even Karen Neil’s performance as Karai in the 4Kids TMNT cartoon was more authentic-sounding than this (and it wasn’t very authentic at all).
Also, for anyone who has seen Turtles Forever you know the part where Bebop and Rocksteady find the lair of the 4Kids TMNT by using a weird machine with a human nose attached to a vacuum cleaner hose? Yeah, that was a reference to the “scent analyzer” machine used by Lotus in this episode to track down the lair. The more you know.
Blast from the Past (written by David Wise)
Shredder summons the spirit of Lord Shibano, the legendary founder of the Foot Clan, to transform Bebop and Rocksteady into powerful ninja. To keep Splinter from interfering, Shredder hits him with an amnesia powder that causes him to forget he ever led the Foot. Using clips from season 1, the Turtles have to remind Splinter of his past.
A clip show. There’s no escaping them.
Admittedly, Wise writes a decent wraparound segment to facilitate all the clips, reminding the viewers that the Foot Clan were originally an honorable group until the Shredder got his blades in them. Unfortunately, what “Blast from the Past” really reminds us of is how much cooler the first season of this show was than what we’re watching now.
The only clips used are from season 1 (namely “Turtle Tracks”, “Enter the Shredder” and “Shredder & Splintered”) and everything from the animation quality to the action to the characterizations were just so much stronger back then. Back when Bebop and Rocksteady were juggernauts that could actually hurt the Turtles, back when Mike could use his nunchakus, back when Shredder was an ominous overlord, back when they could say things like “death” and “dead” in a threatening manner, back when Krang would refer to Shredder as “Saki” just to annoy him…
We’re basically reminder of how much promise this show had in its first season before BS&P got the jitters and had the show neutered. It’s all just a little depressing.
Though not all of the reminders are necessarily a bad thing. I bet you forgot that Bebop used to be a black guy, didn’t you? And it’s always refreshing to hear the names “Hamato Yoshi” and “Oroku Saki”, as the show had pretty much given up on using them in as frequent a manner as in the early days. So at least the show hadn’t forgotten.
Though one thing David Wise WOULD forget is just who founded the Foot Clan. In this episode, he claims that it’s Lord Shibano. However, in an episode he wrote for season 7, “The Legend of Koji”, he says that the Clan was founded by Hamato Koji. Wise was the series story editor, which means he was in charge of keeping everybody’s scripts together. By season 7, he lost the ability to keep track of even his own writing.
But to Wise’s credit, the “Kur-Li Maneuver” gag was pretty funny.
And because I’m keeping track of this stuff, Krang is once more voiced by his substitute, Townsend Coleman, rather than his regular, Pat Fraley.
Leatherhead Terror of the Swamp (written by Michael Reaves)
Back when Shredder used mutagen to create the Punk Frogs, he unknowingly created a mutant far more powerful and sinister: Leatherhead. After Leatherhead enslaves the Punk Frogs, the Turtles rush to Florida to save their friends. Shredder, meanwhile, seeks to recruit Leatherhead into his services.
It may not be a very popular opinion, but the Fred Wolf incarnation of Leatherhead is my favorite version of the character.
In the original Mirage comics, and subsequently the 4Kids animated series, Leatherhead was sort of a pastiche of the Incredible Hulk; a brilliant mind trapped in a powerful body and prone to berserker rages of mindless destruction. While such a portrayal seemingly gives Leatherhead a bit more depth than just a generic villain, it’s ultimately just as limited. All Leatherhead ever does in the Mirage comics is go crazy and apologize, go crazy and apologize, go crazy and apologize… it’s a monotonous gimmick. At least when he’s unrepentantly evil, there’s a sort of consistency. The Archie TMNT Adventures comic could have been my favorite version of the character, as he began life as a villain and eventually saw the error of his ways… but the Archie comic made one fatal mistake: They dropped his Cajun trappings after his first appearance.
And I think that’s the real reason why I like Fred Wolf Leatherhead so much. The Cajun gimmick is just a lot of fun and his voice-over from Jim Cummings is fantastic. All the little Cajun nuances from double negatives to nonsense asides are expertly performed; believe it or not, his “Cajun” dialect, overblown and stereotypical as it was, consisted of more than just sayings like “great gumbo!” and “I guar-ahn-tee!” I also really like the Cajun swamp trapper look that he’s got going on, with the hat and the jacket and so forth. Admittedly, the Fred Wolf version of Leatherhead was my first encounter with the character, but I’ve always found his unclothed designs to be so much blander in comparison. He’s too… naked.
Once again, we’re gypped when it comes to Shredder recruiting a new mutant henchman into his forces. I’ve ragged on it in the past, but Shredder and Krang having only Bebop and Rocksteady to rely on is one of the most tedious aspects of this show and a rotating cast of mutant underlings would have really spiced things up. Shredder creating or trying to recruit new mutant henchman has been and will continue to be a recurring plot element and every time it will end with the new mutants abandoning him. Baxter-Fly, Leatherhead, Slash, Mutagen Man, Tattoo, Dirtbag and Groundchuck will all be recruited and promptly removed from duty as the show progresses. But imagine if they’d been kept around to swap out with Bebop and Rocksteady every now and again?
To keep going off on this tangent, there’s a season 7 episode called “Night of the Rouges” where Shredder recruits a gaggle of recurring villains from earlier seasons to defeat the Turtles and it’s treated like a big deal. Rather than a one-off special occasion, that could have been every episode.
To put it another way, try to imagine The Transformers except Megatron’s only underlings are Starscream and Soundwave. Or try to imagine Masters of the Universe but with only Clawful and Whiplash working for Skeletor. Or G.I. Joe if Cobra Commander’s only soldiers were Zartan and Firefly. I could go on with such examples, but the point is that it sounds pretty monotonous, doesn’t it?
Anyway, my appreciation for the Cajun Leatherhead is probably the only reason I like this episode, too (though it has some decent animation). It’s really not a very good script, as the Turtles, April and the Punk Frogs spend the episode’s entirety blundering around a swamp and encountering every cliché imaginable, from quicksand to a mutagen-enriched Fountain of Youth. To Reaves’ credit, he at least concocts an explanation as to why Leatherhead, who was mutated in Florida, would have a Cajun accent and attitude (he took on the traits of a vacationing Cajun gatorman that touched him before he mutated). The ending with Shredder getting turned into a baby in the Fountain of Youth was pretty dumb, though.
As for the Punk Frogs, it was cool seeing them again even if they’re a bunch of morons. Really, though, it’s just kind of nice when ANY guest character makes a reappearance in this show, as there just weren’t a lot of character callbacks at all across TMNT’s 193 episodes.
By the way, both Shredder and Don/Bebop have their substitutes in this episode: Greg Berg for Don/Bebop and Dorian Harewood for the Shredder. Incidentally, this wouldn’t be the last time Harewood would substitute for James Avery. When Avery left the early ‘90s “Iron Man” cartoon after the first season, Harewood replaced him as War Machine.
Next time, we’ll get to see the origin of Metalhead, the first Leatherhead/Rat King team-up, the first appearance of (ugh) Agatha Marbles and two, yes TWO guest appearances from Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo.