You have no idea how I labored over this review. And not the actual review part either, but just trying to wrap my ahead around how I was going to tackle the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon’s fourth season. You see, the way the fourth season episodes were broadcast in America was a hot freakin’ mess and I really wasn’t sure just how I should go about reviewing them. Let me break it down for you.
The fourth season of TMNT officially consists of 39 episodes. The story arc of season 4, however, consists of 52 episodes. Those 52 episodes were broken up and spread across three separate venues: 13 episodes aired in syndication in 1990, 26 episodes aired on CBS Saturday mornings in 1990, and 13 episodes aired on the USA network… in 1993. And those 13 episodes are officially considered part of the show’s seventh season.
Like I said, it’s a hot mess. The 52 episodes of the season 4 story arc actually do include genuine story arcs, which means a vague episode-to-episode continuity. The 13 episodes that aired on USA during season 7, for example, take place chronologically after the first syndicated episode of season 4 and constitute what’s known as the “European Tour” episodes (sometimes referred to as a “side season” or a “miniseries”). From what I understand, the “European Tour” episodes aired in places like the UK and Japan in proper order with the rest of the season 4 episodes; it was just America that got then shunted off to season 7 for whatever stupid reason. The breaking up of the remaining episodes between syndication and CBS Saturday mornings had its own share of problems, as the distribution of episodes didn’t pay heed to the internal chronology of the show’s storyline. So events (such as a volcano erupting and trapping the Technodrome in lava) are referenced before the episodes depicting those events had actually aired.
I thought about doing my review in narrative order, but despite all my searching, I couldn’t find a list online that assembled a proper viewing chronology for season 4. So in the end, I just decided “Fuck it”. I’m gonna go through the episodes in the official episode listing order, storyline coherency be damned.
Holy shit. I haven’t even watched the episodes yet and I’m already furious. We’re getting off to a great start, here.
“Plan 6 from Outer Space” (written by David Wise)
Once again, the Technodrome is trapped in Dimension X and in a state of disrepair. Shredder and Krang disguise Bebop and Rocksteady as their human selves and dispatch them to Earth to infiltrate Channel 6 and steal the entire building (for its advanced broadcasting equipment). Meanwhile, a robot called the Pretendocon, disguised as Splinter, goes bananas and the Turtles have to chase it around to fill 22 minutes.
We’re right back in the usual position for a TMNT season opener: the Shredder and Krang assess the damage of their latest predicament, the Turtles think they’re gone for good, and then we get the arc for the season established. We’ve been over this twice before, so you should all be familiar with the formula by now.
“Plan 6” looks to have been done by the Western squash and stretch studio (again, animation studios are not named in the credits, so they have to be identified by visual cues). While they’re sometimes capable of surprising bursts of inspiration (see my review of “Peking Turtle” in a minute), this episode was not one them. The puffy clouds of cotton ball smoke are pretty embarrassing to look at, as are their Hanna Barbera-esque two-dimensional, side-scrolling layouts.
Regarding incongruities, this episode is full of ’em. “The Big Blow Out” ended with the Technodrome crashing on a mechanical, Cybertron-like planetoid in Dimension X. “Plan 6” opens with the Technodrome having crashed into a lush, jungle-filled asteroid. Even more blatant a change, “Blow Out” had the Technodrome stationed outside the World Trade Center, using the broadcasting antennae to open the portal to Dimension X. “Plan 6” claims that the Technodrome was stationed outside the Channel 6 Building (even showing a smoking crater in the street next to the building) and that Krang had been using the news station’s broadcasting equipment to open the portal (hence why Krang wants it so bad in this episode). As you can see, this show was happy to rewrite its own history wherever convenient… even if said history was all of one episode ago.
I’ve mentioned in the past that David Wise had a habit of overloading his scripts with too many unnecessary plots and “Plan 6” is a prime example (though not the best example; that honor goes to “Night of the Dark Turtle”). The main plot of Bebop and Rocksteady blundering around the Channel 6 Building and inadvertently getting promoted at every turn is actually a lot of fun (at least until they resort to kidnapping April because god dammit). The problem is that this main plot has jack all to do with the Turtles. So a second plot involving a robot called the Pretendocon taking on Splinter’s likeness, getting robot-amnesia and trying to free animals from the zoo is a completely pointless diversion. It exists just to give the Turtles something to do. Even worse, the Pretendocon is a piece of redundant technology, basically exactly the same as the Turtle Terminator from last season (which disguised itself as Irma). Not only is it an unnecessary subplot, but it isn’t even original.
But there are moments in the episode that stick out as being very funny in spite of the sloppy writing. Krang struggling with all the broken technology in the Technodrome (a great performance from Pat Fraley as he mutters in annoyance when a sliding door won’t open) or the matter-of-fact lunacy of Bebop dialing the operator, saying “Dimension X, please” and getting connected to the Technodrome… It’s pretty funny, I can’t deny.
Throughout the episode, Raphael endlessly fantasizes about a European vacation. “Plan 6” even ends with Michelangelo winning a contest from “Vacations ‘R Us” with a convenient grand prize: A tour of Europe. This is all setup for the 13 episode European tour story arc which I mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this article. Well, I hope you can wait until season 7 to see how that turned out (spoiler alert: it’s tedious bullcrap).
“Turtles of the Jungle” (written by Misty Taggart)
When Dr. Willard accidentally zaps his pet monkey Jocko with his molecular intensifier, the primate grows 30 feet tall. The Turtles mobilize to reverse the effects, but have to deal with the Shredder, who has designs on stealing the intensifier for himself.
Not that this would have been a very good script either way, but “Turtles of the Jungle” probably would have worked a lot better as a non-Shredder and Krang episode. The conflict of Jocko traipsing around the city would have been more than enough and Shredder’s evil doing just distracts the story. Author Misty Taggart has so much trouble fitting Shredder into the plot that there’s actually a moment where he defeats and subdues Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael all at once… completely off screen. Seriously, there’s a wipe and all of a sudden the Turtles are tied up in a corner with Leonardo is whining, “I can’t believe we let Shredder get the drop on us!” It reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons; the one with the Radioactive Man movie. There’s this scene where Radioactive Man and Fallout Boy are hanging upside down in a cage and Radioactive Man crudely exposits, “I can’t believe Silly Sailor beat us both up and imprisoned us in his floating Aqua World!” Except when The Simpsons did it, it was satire.
And why the hell do Shredder and Krang need the molecular intensifier, anyway? Krang has a chip in his robot body that lets him change shape and grow at will (and it was shown to still be working as recently as “The Big Break In”). Hell, Krang even has his own enlarging ray, used back in “Attack of the 50-Foot Irma”. They really don’t need to steal this one. Were they just bored or something?
At the end of the episode, Donatello gets zapped with the intensifier so he can battle Jocko and rescue April (because of course). Oddly, the intensifier doesn’t just make him 30 feet tall, but also makes him obese. Why his proportions changed so drastically, I don’t know. There’s also a scene where Donatello and Jocko are throwing each other through buildings and Don deadpans to the audience, “Boy, they must have spent the whole budget on this one episode”. A pretty funny line, considering how ugly and cheap the animation for this episode is. We’re talking badly cropped cell overlays, awkwardly long blackout wipes to shave valuable seconds off the animation and even a weird moment where Jocko picks up Michelangelo, creating two Michelangelos on screen at once because the photographer forgot to remove one of the previous cells.
If this episode blew all of season 4’s budget then we are in for some serious Roger Ramjet-looking shit for the next seven articles.
“Michelangelo Toys Around” (written by Ted Pederson and Francis Moss)
While sneaking into a toy fair, Michelangelo uncovers a plot by toymaker Wilbur Weasel to take over the Tyler Toy company with an army of laser-blasting Tyranno Toys.
I don’t think the TMNT have ever had to foil a scheme as small-time as this. There is no fate of the world involved or anything as melodramatic as that, just a jerk trying to frame his boss by releasing dangerous toys to stores so he can gain control of the company. It’s really hard to wring suspense out of a conflict that pedestrian. “Michelangelo Toys Around” is one of those episodes where you’re constantly looking at the clock. “Oh god, there’s still eight minutes left? When will it end!?”
While the idea of the TMNT battling killer robot T-Rexes might sound entertaining, the majority of the episode is spent on idiotic shtick as Leo, Don and Raph have a really hard time bettering Weasel’s two dim-witted thugs. A secondary plot sees Mike team-up with the spoiled son of Mr. Tyler to teach him not to act like a brat. The kid is played by Susan Blu (who also voice directed the show) using the same voice that she used for Flim-Flam on “The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo”. And if you’ve ever seen “The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo”, then you’ll understand why that’s horrible.
As with the last two episodes, this one was animated by the same studio, so it’s full of errors and choppy sequences. They’ve taken a liking to long black-out wipes to transition from scene to scene. Now, the thing about those sorts of transitions is that when the animation freezes, the screen slowly fades to black, the black lingers for a second, then slowly fades into a new freeze framed image before the animation resumes… that typically implies a considerable length of time has passed. Quick transitions mean that we’re just jumping to the next setting, not the future. A slow fade means we’re skipping ahead by minutes or hours. But these black-out wipes are used constantly, likely to save on animation costs, even when we’re just jumping from one setting to another and not ahead in time. It further confuses an already senseless plot.
“Peking Turtle” (written by Antonio Ortiz and Carmela Ortiz)
Bringing General Chen Chang’s ancient army of marble warriors to life, Shredder sends them to destroy the Turtles.
For the record, Michelangelo started using his grappling hook as a full-time replacement for the ‘chucks last episode, I think (despite the ‘chucks still being on his belt). He only used it once in that episode, so I almost didn’t notice, but in “Peking Turtle” he’s using it on a regular basis. Since I can’t think of a better time to drop my two cents on the subject, I’ll just say that I think the grappling hook kind of sucked. I get why they chose that as a replacement weapon, since it was kinda-sorta like the nunchakus in that he had something to swing around, but when the other three Turtles all have the same weapon in their arsenal, it doesn’t feel very unique. Back in the first season, Mike used a manriki-gussari on a one-off occasion; that might have been a better choice. Heck, I even kind of like the tonfa he used in the Next Mutation TV series. Anything but a wimply grappling hook. But eh. What’s done is done.
So far, I’ve been coming down pretty hard on season 4, but never let it be said I am a completely joyless individual. “Peking Turtle” is actually really well scripted. It’s paced nicely with a single focused conflict and subplots that seemed meaningless at first (the TMNT’s newfound obsession with basketball) actually come into play at the conclusion. And on top of all those fundamentals of cartoon scripting, “Peking Turtle” is actually drowning in jokes; just one after another in machinegun succession. Some are dumb, some are chuckle-worthy and some are really, really funny; but the episode fires so many at you that the bad ones don’t have time to linger.
Authors Antonio and Carmela Ortiz also take a few self-aware jabs at the repetitive nature of the show’s formula, which is a welcomed bit of refreshment. When Krang orders Shredder to kidnap April, Shredder deadpans to the camera, “Not a bad idea. We’ve done it about thirty or so times already, but hey, who’s counting?” I think “thirty or so” times is a rather conservative estimate, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
The Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon was a self-aware show with no regard for the fourth wall, but far too often it didn’t utilize that quality to its full extent or just didn’t handle it well. “Peking Turtle” is an example of the fourth wall-breaking done right.
As for the plot, well, this is another example of a well-written episode disguising a questionable conflict. I mean, why would Krang want to take control of General Chang’s marble warriors? He has his own army of rock soldiers right there in Dimension X. It’s just like him stealing the growth ray in “Turtles of the Jungle”, except the constant barrage of genuinely funny jokes doesn’t give the viewer time to think about any of that.
And on top of that, the squash and stretch animation studio seems to have been having one of their better days when they did this one. It isn’t riddled with the same technical errors that have plagued the previous episodes this season and there are a few brief, impressive little moments (Donatello jump-kicking the General Chang marble soldier, Leonardo deflecting arrows with his sword). While the studio isn’t named in the credits, it does list all the animators by name, and they’re all Western names. So it looks like I was right last season when I said these guys weren’t from Korea or the Philippines. There’s a production card for a Murakami-Wolf-Swenson (Dublin) division, but I don’t want to say they’re necessarily the animation studio. Production studios and animation studios aren’t always one in the same.
“Shredder’s Mom” (written by Ted Pederson and Francis Moss)
When Shredder launches a global warming scheme to fry Earth into submission, his mother decides to come out of retirement and take control of the operation. Meanwhile, the Turtles have to find a way to get to Dimension X and destroy the satellite that’s baking the Earth.
Some while ago, when I reviewed G.I. Joe Series 2 Season 1, I remarked that “villain’s mom comes by for a visit and hilarity ensues” is one of those stock, standby animation plots. And guess what? It really is. I’m just surprised it took TMNT until season 4 to resort to it.
That being said, “Shredder’s Mom” isn’t a particularly awful episode, either. Pederson and Moss offer a pretty good string of running gags, my favorite of which being the low rent booby traps littered about the Technodrome (such as writing “main computer room in here” in crayon on a sheet of paper, taping it to a door and the Turtles falling for it). The problem isn’t so much the jokes, but the feeling that they don’t get enough out of the situation. Shredder’s mom should be much funnier than she winds up being and she spends more time playing off of Krang (whom she gets along with swimmingly) than pestering her son. Still, the idea that there’s a retirement home for geriatric supervillains is pretty great. So great, in fact, that both The Tick and Powerpuff Girls would swipe the idea.
Pederson and Moss also struggle to try and cram in a “moral” to the episode and it is really awkward. They forego the obvious lesson of global warming (an environmental message) and instead try to work in a subplot about simple tools (an abacus) being more reliable than high tech equipment (a space shuttle’s onboard computer). It serves no purpose whatsoever.
And I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the writers (and the story editor) didn’t catch an annoying mistake: Thinking that Shredder’s last name is “Saki” and his first name is “Oroku”. In Japanese, the familial name comes first and the given name comes second. So Oroku is actually Shredder’s last name from a Western perspective. The writers messed that up, however, and Shredder’s mom is named Miyoko Saki (and she addresses Shredder as Oroku). If it’s any consolation, the writers would stay consistent with that screw-up; when Shredder’s brother shows up next season, he’ll be named Kazuo Saki.
On one last note, this is the first episode of the season to be animated by whatever Japanese studio Fred Wolf had employed. The animation is more polished than in the episodes by the squash and stretch studio, though even the Japanese studio has its setbacks; namely a lot of talking head shots, a low framerate and minimal lip syncing. Still, it’s a pretty good-looking episode (at least compared to the company it keeps).
“Four Turtles and a Baby” (written by Misty Taggart)
When General Traag invades the Neutrino capital, King Zenter and Queen Gizzla send their daughter, Princess Tribble, to the Turtles for safekeeping. Shredder needs the infant as a hostage so he can conquer the Neutrinos and fights the Turtles for her.
Another plot retread. Can you believe the series isn’t even halfway finished and already the writers are going back to the same wells? In the case of “Four Turtles and a Baby”, it’s a general plot outline we already suffered through in “The Grybyx” and “Mr. Ogg Goes to Town”. Basically, a being from another Dimension lands in the TMNT’s lap and uses weird powers to make their lives miserable. Been there, done that. But this time it’s a baby!
The shtick in this episode isn’t so good and a lot of the humor falls flat. I’ll give it credit for having one of the Shredder’s funniest lines, though. While searching baby buggies for Tribble, he looks at one of the babies, winces, turns to the mother and says, “What an ugly child. My condolences.”
Still, it’s not a bad episode in that it shows us the Neutrinos beyond the three hot rodding teenagers we’ve already met (odd that they’re completely absent from this episode). The whole retro ‘50s motif of Zott, the Neutrino capital, is a pretty neat bit of background design (the government building is a giant vinyl-spinning jukebox). In regards to the Neutrino royal family, they won’t appear in the cartoon again, but they’ll make a couple appearances elsewhere. They’ll show up in the Super Turtles manga by Hidemaki Idemitsu and, more recently, in the TMNT comic published by IDW.
IDW gave Princess Tribble an ever-so-subtle age boost.
For whatever reason, the syndicated episodes of season 4 are more or less pretty lousy. CBS got the better selection of stories, with episodes featuring popular characters like Slash, Lotus, Rat King, Mona Lisa and others. The syndicated episodes drew mostly short straws. I say this because while this batch of episodes had a couple gems mixed in with the debris, the last half of the syndicated episodes are even worse. But we’ll get to them in due time.