Saints be praised! I’ve reached the end of season 3!
When I started my review of TMNT’s third season, I wasn’t particularly generous in my appraisal; citing badly fluctuating animation quality, re-re-recycled plots, a lack of story editing and annoying voice actor changes as reason for it being pretty terrible. While all those critiques weren’t dishonest (they happened; oh boy, how they happened), I CAN say that the season wasn’t as torturous as I recall it being.
There was some good stuff in this season that I was happy to discover whilst reevaluating the episodes. There was some heinous garbage, too, but not quite as much of it as I remember.
This final batch of five episodes are surprisingly all pretty good, so at least I’ll be ending things on a positive note. Up next is the lonesome death of Baxter Stockman (not really), a look at what would happen if Shredder actually won, and an epic 3-part finale. That’s right, an actual multi-episode story arc. Haven’t had one of those in while.
Shredderville (written by Francis Moss)
The Turtles wake up to find themselves in a post-apocalyptic world where they never existed and the Shredder rules all. Now trapped in “Shredderville”, the Turtles have to convince their former friends that they’re the good guys and defeat Shredder before the Technodrome explodes.
Yet another of those “every cartoon ever has done this plot” episodes, but for what it’s worth, writer Francis Moss throws a few curve balls and gets what he can out of it. The twisted “It’s a Wonderful Life” scenario isn’t anything new and even the 4Kids TMNT cartoon would take a swing at the “What if Shredder won?” storyline (in the episode “Same as it Never Was”). And even though the whole thing turns out to be a dream at the end (SPOILER ALERT!), the setting still provides some interesting tidbits.
For starters, General Traag returns after a lengthy absence and the Rock Soldiers have their biggest role all season. I swear, the writers practically forgot about those guys. Then there’s Bebop and Rocksteady, who were never mutated, so we get to see them again in their human forms. Moss actually seemed to pay attention to the older episodes of the series when writing this one, remembering things like the aforementioned Bebop and Rocksteady and how if the Turtles had never existed, they wouldn’t have been mutated. It may not sound like much, but in a show that had what can only charitably be described as “continuity Alzheimer’s”, any time they get story elements like that right is a cause for celebration.
Speaking of surprising details, there’s one very quick moment in the episode that made me stop and take pause. During “The Shredder Show”, when we’re treated to clips of the Shredder’s youth, they show him in high school… wearing a traditional Japanese high school uniform.
Look, it may not be a big deal to you or anybody else, but this was a show that regularly thought the Shredder’s last name was “Saki” because the writers weren’t familiar with the Japanese cultural tradition of “familial name first, given name last” (the 4Kids cartoon got this wrong, too). So to see this episode get something like a Japanese high school uniform right, and for such a brief throwaway gag, was downright perplexing. Where was this level of detail when Shredder’s mother and brother showed up with the last names “Saki”?
There’s a great twist at the end (before the “it was all a dream” part, I mean). The whole episode is spent watching the Turtles try to get to Shredder. Along the way, they encounter April and Irma (who have been turned into Bebop and Rocksteady’s harem girls, if you can believe they got away with that), Zach the Fifth Turtle (who is less annoying than usual), a distraught and resentful Krang and finally, in the last few minutes, Shredder-himself. And how is Shredder enjoying ruling the world? He hates it! Nothing but paperwork and responsibility, all day, every day.
“Shredderville” has its problems, such as the “it was a dream” framing device being rushed so we can get to the meat of the episode, and there’s a part where the Turtles recognize Shredder’s voice over a loud speaker… but Shredder is being played by his fill-in actor, Dorian Harewood, so it doesn’t even sound like him. Despite all that and the Cartoon 101 plot, it’s one of the better season 3 episodes and we get to see characters (Traag, the Rock Soldiers), or versions of some characters (human Bebop and Rocksteady), who made scarce appearances in the series.
Too bad the Lionsgate DVD release of the episode has this annoying VHS tracking error that constantly appears at the top of the screen.
Bye, Bye, Fly (written by David Wise)
When Baxter Stockman finds an ancient temple buried beneath New York, he learns that it’s actually a ship capable of traversing dimensions. Luring both Shredder and the TMNT to the temple, Baxter attempts to get his revenge on both parties by turning them into mutant flies and gerbils with the ship’s advanced technology.
Man, what did the writers of this show have against Baxter Stockman? Most villains were either allowed to escape at the end of each episode or at least be taken into police custody. But not Baxter.
A theme of his episodes was that they had to end with him being banished to some horrible, nightmarish dimension. This episode in particular ends with him getting launched to an unknown dimension and about to be eaten by a giant spider. When I was a kid, though, I never really followed the sequence of episodes as I watched them in reruns, so I always thought this was Baxter’s death. He’d survive the giant spider attack, but worse things await him (in one of his later appearances, he gets stuck in a coffin-sized void between dimensions).
That aside, this is one of my favorite Baxter-Fly episodes. He was a great third-party villain out to get both the Turtles and the Shredder, so it always felt like a “big” story whenever he showed up, at least when I was a kid. His intellect seems to have been diminished a bit, though. “Bye, Bye, Fly” introduces Baxter’s sentient computer sidekick, who’d appear in future episodes with him and become the brains of the duo. If one thing sticks out, it’s that Baxter desperately wants to become human again, but when offered a “muta-zoo” ray gun that can turn people and mutants into other animals, he never thinks to set it on “human” and cure himself. So the days of Baxter being a criminal genius are mostly behind us, now, but he’s still one of my favorite recurring villains.
There’s a rather clunky part near the start of the episode where the Turtles break out the new and improved Sewer Party Tubes and Combat Tubes to do battle with Shredder and his Foot-Skis. Raph even remarks bluntly to the camera, “Those Foot-Skis are AWESOME!” Toy marketing at its most subtle, everybody.
The animation for this one is pretty decent. Looks like it was done by the Japanese studio responsible for the prettier episodes of season 3, though it’s a far cry from their finest work. Dorian Harewood also fills in for James Avery as Shredder one final time. In fact, this is the last episode of season 3 to have any alternate voice actors in it. So we can be grateful for that.
The Big Rip Off (written by Michael Reaves)
To keep the Turtles preoccupied while Bebop and Rocksteady steal energy for the Technodrome, Shredder reprograms the defense system at Fort Charles to take April hostage.
It’s been a while since this show has had a multi-episode storyline. At the start of the season there was a bit of episode-to-episode continuity dealing with the Shredder stealing parts to repair the Technodrome’s refrigeration unit, but most of those episodes were aired out of order and it was a loose story arc at best. “The Big ___” trilogy is far more connected and offers some well-earned payoff for the tedium of season 3.
Incidentally, this isn’t really that good of an episode. Shredder already used the scheme of reprogramming a super computer to go nuts back in “Turtles, Turtles, Everywhere” and “The Mean Machines”, and the primary conflict is still April getting kidnapped yet again. BUT, while it’s pretty dull and by the numbers on the surface, the fact that the bad guys actually succeed in the end pushes it over the top. While the idea of distracting the Turtles so they can steal energy isn’t a brand new strategy (they used it in “Green With Jealousy”), it WORKS and that’s all that really matters. It’s just satisfying to see these incompetent villains come out on top for a change.
For the most part, “The Big Rip Off” is actually shown from the Shredder and Krang’s point of view and is more an episode surrounding the troubles of the villains than that of the heroes. Yeah, the Turtles have lots of screen time battling the defense robots and trying to save April, but Shredder’s shown to have his own problems. The Technodrome is now completely out of power, to the point where he and Krang have to illuminate the place with candles and lanterns. To make matters worse, the Technodrome is teetering on a ledge over a lava pit and if they don’t move it in a few hours, they’ll crash and burn. Writer Michael Reaves even recalls a bit of continuity, namely that the Technodrome can survive a lava bath (as seen in “Return of the Technodrome”), so he throws in a quick line about the refrigeration unit being depowered and thus there being nothing to protect them from the lava. It’s a small thing to include, but it’s nice to know someone writing this show cared.
There isn’t much else going for this episode. The animation budget for the season is practically as empty as the Technodrome’s fuel tanks and we’re about to bear witness to some UGLY stuff. This one was by the Japanese studio, who usually turned in some palatable work for season 3, but it’s still nothing pretty to look at.
The Big Break In (written by David Wise)
As the Technodrome works its way to the surface, Krang unleashes a machine called the Minimizer to shrink and abduct Earth’s military bases. The Turtles react accordingly.
“The Big Break In” has even worse animation than the previous episode, but I really enjoy it for some reason. I think because it reminds me so much of TMNT Arcade or TMNT III: The Manhattan Project. The Turtles invade the Technodrome and they have to fight their way through traps, armies of disposable Foot Soldiers and one boss battle after another. It’s a bland script, but fun to watch.
Krang actually engages the Turtles in combat, something he very rarely does. He even uses his ability to transform his robot body’s arms into various weapons; a power I thought the writers had all but forgotten about. Heck, author David Wise seemed to forget about it at the start of the fight and then remember it halfway through. When Krang leaves to confront Don and Mike, he physically removes his regular arms and attaches a pair of morning stars into the sockets. Then, during the fight, he transforms the morning stars into pile drivers, then a walkie-talkie, then back to his regular arms. Ah well, at least Wise remembered at some point during the script-writing process and didn’t forget entirely.
You can tell that despite being a three-parter, they still had to write these things as three unique episodes. There are awkward recaps (where Raph forgets Bebop and Rocksteady stole enough energy to repower the Technodrome last episode and had to be reminded by Leo) and the resolution that waylays the Technodrome is done just so the episode can have an ending without a cliffhanger.
Ah, back in the days when television executives were convinced that children were unable to follow cartoons with a serialized pace…
The Big Blow Out (written by David Wise)
Despite the TMNT’s best efforts, the Technodrome makes it to Manhattan where Krang uses the antennae of the World’s Trade Center to open a massive portal to Dimension X. The villains plan on sending the entire Earth through the portal, leaving the Turtles little time to come up with a strategy to stop them.
So… can you drive from Manhattan to Mt. Rushmore and back again in an afternoon? My geography isn’t so good, but I don’t think so.
The Turtles do, however! The first half of this episode is spent at the national landmark where, for some inexplicable reason, a broadcast energy transmitter is being stored by the military. Why Mt. Rushmore? I do not know. I guess because it was a good setting for an action sequence?
“The Big Blow Out” does finally give us something we’d all been wanting to see since this cartoon began: The Technodrome laying waste to cities and wreaking untold destruction upon the Earth. For 65 episodes they’ve gone on and on and on about how powerful and unstoppable and horrifying the Technodrome is, but every time the damn thing gets its batteries charged, the Turtles find some way to put it out of commission. I’d like to think Wise realized that by this point, as he doesn’t shy away from the Technodrome jacking New York up. Numerous skyscrapers take a dive as it rolls over the city. Even the military unleashes missiles on it, to no effect. This is one of the few times, if not the only time, the Technodrome is actually shown living up to its advertised potential.
Too bad the animation is so awful all that destruction looks hilariously awkward.
In a lot of ways, though, this finale to season 3 feels like a repeat of much we’ve seen already. The Turtles and Splinter invade the Technodrome again. Splinter and Shredder have “the final battle” again. The Technodrome is left stranded in Dimension X at the last second again. …It’s all very familiar.
And this won’t be the last time we go through the same song and dance, either. By the season 7 finale, “Shredder Triumphant!”, even the characters will start to address the predictability of these Technodrome encounters.
Looking back over all season 3, I don’t think it was as painful as I made it out to be when I began, but still. It’s incredibly bloated and directionless with animation and writing quality that never evens out. Some of the best episodes of the series are in this season, and I think this last batch of five episodes was pretty good. But so many terrible or truly forgettable episodes make up the bulk of this run and it can be a real chore. When it comes to the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon, you’re almost better off abridging the thing to just watch the episodes that either matter to the ongoing plot or just the episodes that are good. And even if you dropped 93 episodes from this show, you’d still have 100 to sit through, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Anyhow, season 3 is finally over. Too bad season 4 is even worse.