Season 3 is winding down, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time to wedge in a few more action figures from the Playmates toyline. Of special interest in this batch of episodes are both appearances of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, the first appearance of Metalhead and the first Rat King/Leatherhead team-up. There’s also the return of Don Turtelli and the first appearance of Agatha Marbles; two recurring characters created for the show who were never especially popular. And they get to share an episode! How exciting.
Michaelangelo’s Birthday (written by Bill Wolf and Eliot Daro)
When Michaelangelo thinks the other Turtles have forgotten his birthday, he runs away from home. This is especially bad news for him, as Shredder and Krang have concocted a new anti-mutagen and Michaelangelo is quickly captured.
So, a couple things about this episode.
First, how do they know Michaelangelo’s birthday? They were all ordinary turtles when they were born and I doubt had the faculties to recognize their date of birth. And if they’re celebrating the day they were mutated, shouldn’t they ALL have the same “birthday”?
Second, since when was anti-mutagen a brand new concept? When a Rock Soldier knocks a can of welding fuel into a pool of lava it creates anti-mutagen (don’t ask me how) and Krang reacts with shock and awe. But Shredder had an anti-mutagen ray gun back in the Season One episode “Shredder & Splintered” and Donatello even synthesized some in the Season 2 episode “Splinter No More.” And I doubt even the kids watching the show would have forgotten about the previous use of anti-mutagen, considering it was mentioned in the clip show “Blast from the Past” that aired a few episodes ago. And why does the anti-mutagen in this episode only work when applied to three mutants at a time?
It’s not worth expending the thought. At least now we know the origin of the Rock Soldiers (Krang tests the anti-mutagen on them and they devolve back into ordinary boulders, indicating they were all mutant rocks).
So far this season, we’ve seen a lot of toyline promotion, be it action figures, vehicles or playsets. They could get pretty weird and ridiculous, like the retro catapult or the Foot Knucklehead, but I think this episode takes the cake. The Flush-o-Matic torture device, everybody:
The script has to jump through hoops in order to promote this thing, which is a toilet transformed into a Chinese water torture platform (except with acidic ooze). It’s pretty ridiculous and probably the most amusing part of the whole episode.
But yeah, other than that, this one’s not very good. The animation is listless and choppy and the resolution (where Splinter tricks the Turtles into undoing the effects of the anti-mutagen by using mind over matter) is completely random and anticlimactic. There are a couple funny moments here and there (Shredder giving the Turtles a tour of his evil lair), but overall it’s an episode that recycles an old conflict done twice over already and tries to pass it off as brand new.
Usagi Yojimbo (written by David Wise)
While testing his new dimensional portal, Donatello accidentally transports the anthropomorphic ronin rabbit Usagi Yojimbo to Earth. While the Turtles help Usagi acclimate to New York City life, Shredder has his Foot Soldiers unleash a colossal dragon called Baby-san on Midtown Manhattan.
Much of this episode feels like a positive throwback to the first season. There’s the return of the TMNT’s “punk disguises”, acknowledgment of Shredder and Splinter’s Japanese roots, use of the Technodrome’s transdimensional portal, callbacks to the Neutrinos and even a very brief cameo from General Traag (who hasn’t been seen since Season Two, I think). Best of all is Shredder actually using the Foot Soldiers as a large invading army instead of laborers utilized in groups of three or four.
With so many nods to continuity, the guest star almost gets lost in the script. Usagi Yojimbo, as you most certainly know, was not created for the Playmates toyline and Fred Wolf cartoon, but is the show’s first (and only) crossover guest star. Usagi Yojimbo was created by Stan Sakai, a close friend of Peter Laird’s, and would also make appearances in the comic and even the 4Kids animated series.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that as a kid. I just had his action figure and thought his occasional appearances in the show were “neat”. I don’t think I found out he was a comic book character and his TMNT appearances were special crossovers until I was a teenager (likewise, I had no idea Panda Khan was created and owned by somebody else.)
David Wise writes a funny script, but you start to see a problem inherent with Wise’s writing that I mentioned way back when: He overloads the script with too many subplots. It isn’t quite so bad in this episode, but really, he could have cut out the whole “Usagi goes to work at a rabbit themed restaurant” bit and the episode would have felt less cluttered. As a result, the primary conflict of Baby-san rampaging through Midtown loses focus.
Despite that shortcoming and some crude animation (you can start to see the budget for this season running out), it’s a fun episode. Enjoy it for all the callbacks to past episodes or for the cameo from Stan Sakai’s ronin rabbit. Either way, it’s a pretty good one (though Usagi’s second episode was better, I think).
Case of the Hot Kimono (written by David Bennett Carren and J. Larry Carroll)
Mob boss Don Turtelli has stolen all the kimonos in New York City, including Splinter’s. To get to the bottom of this baffling crime, April enlists the aid or her aunt, the great Detective Agatha Marbles.
In case you don’t remember, Don Turtelli was introduced earlier this season in the episode “Burne’s Blues”, though it was more of a cameo than a starring role. He returns here with his same interrogation M.O., tickling people’s feet with feathers. Sadly, the internet has disintegrated my youthful innocence, so now all it looks like to me is weird fetish fuel for Deviant Art. Gross.
Agatha Marbles, one of the more annoying recurring characters in this show, also makes her first appearance. She’s sort of a combination of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, but her various deductions add little to the plot and don’t seem like anything the Turtles couldn’t have figured out without her.
But who cares about her? We’ve got toys! Toys! Toys!
The Turtle Tube makes a comeback, as does the retro catapult (erroneously referred to as the Pizza Thrower, which was a different toy). We also get the first use of the Turtlecycle, though it appears unnamed and without an introduction for a short scene.
Man, the second half of this season was nuts about introducing those toys.
Usagi Come Home (written by David Wise)
After being defeated in a duel with the Shredder, Usagi Yojimbo becomes honor-bound to do his bidding. Shredder takes advantage of this by ordering the ronin rabbit to destroy the Ninja Turtles.
Usagi’s second and, unfortunately, final episode. You won’t be seeing him in animation again until Season Two of the 4Kids cartoon. This second episode has something of a misleading title, as Usagi doesn’t in fact return to his home dimension by the conclusion. Rather, the “come home” is in regards to getting him back on the side of the Turtles. I guess we can all assume he eventually made it back.
The A-plot of “Usagi Come Home” is basically a big long fight between the Turtles and Usagi as he chases them through the sewers, across the streets and into a shopping mall. Sadly, we’re mostly denied a legitimate showdown, as the Turtles pull their punches throughout the battle in fear of hurting their friend. Still, it’s amusing see Usagi going nuts and wildly trying to murder the TMNT for 22 minutes.
The B-plot shows a more cunning side to the Shredder, as the enlistment of Usagi was just a distraction to keep the Turtles occupied. While they’re busy running for their lives, he sends Bebop and Rocksteady out to gather fuel for the Technodrome. It doesn’t work, of course, but at least he’s starting to realize that unless he keeps the Turtles busy, they’ll always foil his fuel-thieving schemes. Watching Bebop and Rocksteady run amuck across New York and hold up gas stations and mini marts is almost more entertaining than what’s going on with Usagi and the Turtles.
As to why Usagi never appeared again, I assume it may have had to do with Mirage not owning him, making his licensing more complicated than other characters. The show would even introduce a new anthropomorphic rabbit from another dimension in later episodes, Hokum Hare, who sort of takes Usagi’s place (and does a crappy job of it).
The Making of Metalhead (written by Michael Reaves)
Krang creates a robot doppelganger of the Turtles called Metalhead, outfitted with all of their ninja skills as well as extreme firepower. The Turtles are in no condition to face the psycho robot, either, as they’ve all been stricken with the turtle pox and can barely get out of bed.
Metalhead is just one of many characters who really should have appeared in the show more often (I think he’s in one more episode before being forgotten about). As the first of many “Evil Turtles” (there’ll be two more in this show alone), he presents an interesting challenge for our heroes, as he contains all of their abilities as well as various gadgets and laser weapons. The Turtles would have trouble beating him on one of their best days, so making them all sick with a debilitating illness only stacks the odds.
The initial fight with Metalhead is rather short and since he was marketed as an ally of the TMNT and not an enemy, writer Michael Reaves has to turn him to the side of good early on. Reaves could have just had Metalhead attack the Turtles throughout the episode and then get reprogrammed to be their friend in the last few minutes, but he has a bit more fun with the setup. The Turtles reprogram Metalhead near the start, but he proceeds to malfunction and spends the rest of the episode bouncing back and forth between ally and foe. My favorite moment is when he finally decides “the heck with it” and starts shooting at everybody.
While I wouldn’t say Metalhead is one of the era’s most popular characters, he’s far more popular than others. I’d chalk it up to his couple of appearances in the Fred Wolf cartoon, his awesome action figure, and perhaps most of all, his status as a boss in the Konami video game TMNT IV: Turtles in Time.
All those appearances and fond memories are probably why he’s had such surprising longevity. He appeared in one episode of the 4Kids animated series under the name Turtlebot and I believe also received an action figure in that show’s toyline and appeared in one of the tie-in video games as a boss. If you’re curious why the change to “Turtlebot”, it’s because the 4Kids series also featured the Mirage character named Metalhead, who was completely different from the robot Turtle.
And if I’m not mistaken, Metalhead has already appeared in the Nickelodeon TMNT cartoon, right? I’ve really got to watch that show. Maybe once I’m done with Season Three of the Fred Wolf cartoon I’ll start on the Nick show.
Anyway, not only does “The Making of Metalhead” feature one of the more popular recurring characters of the franchise, but it also has some pretty good animation! This one looks to have been done by the Japanese studio that’s done the better-looking episodes of season 3. While it doesn’t have a lot of flashy moments, there’s more nuance to the character expressions and body language and a greater fluidity and competency in the animation in general. The scene where Shredder, riding a Foot-Ski, is being chased and attacked by Metalhead actually looks pretty impressive, to boot.
All in all, this one’s probably the best episode of this batch. Yeah, Dorian Harewood fills in for Uncle Phil as Shredder, but you know what? Of all the substitutes in season 3, he’s easily the best. And when Shredder would start having many different substitute voice actors toward the end of the show’s run, you’ll find out what a bad James Avery impression truly sounds like.
Leatherhead Meets the Rat King (written by David Wise)
Leatherhead comes to New York seeking revenge against the Turtles, but what he finds instead is the Rat King. As the two villains duke it out, April gets caught in the middle, leaving the Turtles to enter the fray to rescue her.
Now this was one of my favorite episodes when I was a kid and going back to it as an adult, I still find it to be one of the stronger stories in this series. What really makes the episode work is that the point of view is primarily seen from the side of the villains. Leatherhead and the Rat King have their own stories going on as they wage war against one another and the Turtles don’t even find out about the dilemma until the 17 minute mark. That’s right, 17 minutes. The Turtles spend most of the episode training at a garbage dump and being entirely inconsequential to the plot. This episode is really The Leatherhead and Rat King Show and the villain focus really allows it to stand out. Kind of reminds me of that episode of The Transformers, “Webworld”, which was focused entirely on the Decepticons, told from their point of view, and only featured the Autobots in a brief, token appearance near the start.
It also helps that Leatherhead and Rat King are two of my favorite villains from this series, so an episode that’s centered almost exclusively on them is all the more entrancing. Apparently Wise and the other writers liked the pairing of these two villains, as they’d team up a couple more times in the series after this.
I think the only thing really bringing this one down, besides April getting captured AGAIN, is that Wise still felt it necessary to include a large scale conflict for the Turtles to resolve. There’s a side plot about the Rat King creating a toxic formula that will turn all of humanity into mindless zombies, but it’s really superfluous to the actual conflict of the episode: Leatherhead and Rat King feuding amongst themselves. I take it Wise needed something to get the Turtles involved in the plot beyond just rescuing April, otherwise they’d have no need to care and could have left Leatherhead and Rat King to eliminate each other.
Oh, and it’s just nice to get a break from Shredder and Krang every once in a while, isn’t it?
So that’s it for this chunk, and a pretty good batch of episodes it was, wasn’t it? The next six aren’t quite so positive, though. We’ve got two more Zach the Fifth Turtle episodes, the final appearance of Don Turtelli, one more Rat King appearance, a reminder that the Neutrinos exist and s--t like Mr. Ogg. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
You can find most of the episodes from this review installment on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Original Series (Volume 5) DVD.