I won’t waste too much time introducing this next batch of episodes from Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show. (Check out part one of our Nickelodeon TMNT Season 1 Review first if you haven’t already.)
We’re still hip-deep in the establishing stage, as primary villains and plot threads are introduced in rapid succession. Regardless, I can’t fault the pacing, as I prefer one-shots that contribute to a larger overarching narrative to endless serialization.
So, let’s dive in.
“New Friend, Old Enemy” (written by Joshua Hamilton)
Michelangelo befriends celebrity martial artist Chris Bradford, unaware that he’s an officer in the Foot Clan. Under the Shredder’s orders, Bradford lays a trap for the Turtles using Mikey as bait.
With the first three episodes centering around the Kraang, this one is essentially the show’s big introduction to the Foot Clan and the Shredder (Shredder having only made a brief, ominous cameo in the second episode). For something so “big”, the writers wrap it up in what sounds like a pretty unassuming plot synopsis.
Michelangelo desiring to be “where the people are” is one of the basics of his character. He’s the party dude and in order to party you’ve got to have more than just your three brothers and your dad around. That means making friends with humans and being outward and social. I think it’s one of the most compelling aspects of Mikey’s personality in any continuity and different writers have exploited it in different ways. Joshua Hamilton uses this quality of Mikey’s to illustrate his inherent gentleness and naïveté which naturally leads to trouble.
It’s a good setup, though Hamilton cranks Mikey’s obnoxiousness levels to 11 for this one. Nickelodeon Mikey is on a 24/7 sugar rush and his zany antics are fun in measured doses, but when he has to carry an entire episode? It can wear on you.
The real star of this episode is Chris Bradford, voiced by Clancy Brown. What’s funny is that in his Foot Clan uniform, Bradford wears a modified version of the Shredder’s armor from the original Mirage comics; a fitting Easter Egg, as I always thought Brown would make a perfect voice for the Shredder. Out of his armor, Bradford is this weird fusion of Classic G.I. Joe and Chuck Norris which is pretty hilarious, but not in a way that makes Bradford feel like less of a threat. His partner/rival Xever also makes his first appearance in this episode, but he mostly plays second fiddle (he’ll get his spotlight in a few episodes).
I contemplated saving these thoughts until I got to “The Gauntlet”, but I’ll just go ahead and lay them out now. Bradford and Xever were much, much cooler enemies before they got mutated into Dogpound and Fishface. They had great designs, a great relationship and were overall more skilled and threatening as human agents than as action figur— I mean, mutants.
Bradford in particular got the short end of the stick upon mutation. His dynamic of changing between Discount Chuck Norris to Discount Shredder was a memorable visual, and his identity as a celebrity martial artist who used his clout to recruit his best pupils into the Foot Clan was a fascinating idea (never mentioned or utilized again after his mutation). And he was a really good martial artist, too (this episode showcasing his secret kata, the Death Dragon). But when he became Dogpound? Bradford turned into lumbering muscle and little more. He lost more than he gained. I mean, at least when Xever became Fishface, he got to keep his leg-fighting style. Bradford became a dull-witted, hulking brute and there’s nothing more boring than that.
But I’m looking too far ahead here, forgive me. “New Friend, Old Enemy” is a solid episode. Even when Mikey is going overboard on his goofiness, the jokes from other characters are really snappy and take the edge off (“Too bad there’s no place for freaks to meet people where no one can see how hideous they are.” “Wait, there is! The internet!”). I’m starting to love Donatello’s habit of correcting his brothers on matters of spelling, grammar, definition and so on. You wouldn’t think a gag like that would be funny, but as with all jokes, it’s the timing and execution that pulls it off.
“I Think His Name is Baxter Stockman” (written by Joshua Sternin and J.R. Ventimilia)
After an encounter with downtrodden mad scientist Baxter Stockman, Donatello accidentally loses a new MP3 player of his made from advanced military hardware. Stockman finds it and uses the technology to create an unstoppable suit of battle armor called the Stockman Pod.
Nickelodeon’s Baxter Stockman is pretty different from the 4Kids incarnation, yet all the elements inherent in the character are still present. He’s a mechanical genius out for revenge, but gone are his megalomania and insufferable ego. Instead of craving world domination, he’s now carrying pettier grudges (chiefly, against the company that fired him for breaking the copier).
It’s funny stuff and an active improvement to the character, if you ask me. Even going back to his original Mirage comic incarnation, he was little more than a shallow supervillain. Nick’s Baxter has a pitiable aspect to him that’s ratcheted up for humor (his lengthy soliloquies about how society has stepped on him will only increase as the show progresses) and sort of endears him to the audience. I think much of the credit should also go to Phil Lamarr, who plays him as a pathetic dork with delusions of grandeur.
What’s interesting about Nick’s Baxter Stockman is that he’s not as conveniently brilliant as past versions. He isn’t very good at coming up with creations from scratch, but his true talent lies in adapting the designs of others for his own nefarious ends. In this episode, he takes control of Don’s T-Pod and turns it into the Stockman Pod. Later on, he’ll begin reverse engineering Kraang tech. While it does make him seem less intelligent, it narrows his area of expertise down to a niche and I prefer that over “can design and build anything no matter how ludicrous at the drop of a hat”. I kind of wish that level of restraint would be applied to Donatello every once in a while.
One of the other great things about this episode, and the Nick series in general, is that it actually remembers the “Teenage” part of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Turtles behave immaturely and Splinter grounds them. TMNT media where the Turtles are all treated like adults by their peers and authority figures always sticks in my craw, as it feels like it’s wasting the youthful aspect at the core of the concept. They’re 15; the Turtles aren’t adults yet. I don’t think that it’s immature storytelling to portray them as kids; I think it’s just being honest.
“Metalhead” (written by Tom Alvarado)
Wanting to bring ninjutsu into the 21st century, Donatello creates a remote controlled combat drone called Metalhead. Unfortunately, on its inaugural mission, the heavily armed robot is seized by the Kraang and turned against the Turtles.
These first bunch of episodes have been really good at each showcasing an individual Turtle. The “Rise of the Turtles” 2-parter, among other things, established Leo as the leader of the group. “Turtle Temper” got us through Raph’s anger management issues. “New Friend, Old Enemy” was a crash course in Mikey. And with “Metalhead” we finally get our focus on Donnie.
I’ve said it before, but the Nick writers have really excelled at showcasing each Turtle and their unique character niche and doing so without pigeon-holing them into a two-dimensional template. In Donnie’s case, he’s still the super nerd and tech guru, but he’s got other things going on beside his one most notable trait.
His crush on April is definitely something new, and I was all set to loathe it before I started the series, but it’s actually been handled really well. He’s awkward and dorky around her at times, but his hots for April don’t absorb all his motivation and screen time. And even more than that, he can actually be around April and talk to her without trying to hit on her or impress her. The writers have been careful to avoid all the clichés involved with cartoon crushes in order to keep the subplot from getting obnoxious.
And at any rate, the overall plot of this episode hasn’t anything to do with Donnie’s thing for April (though there are a few jokes about that), it’s more Donnie’s frustration with having such a wild imagination and being forced to fight with a wooden stick. There’s a lesson in there along the lines of “it’s not the weapon that makes the warrior”, but they don’t lay it on very thick. A part of me wants to say that with Metalhead being a remote controlled drone and several instances where they liken combat to a video game, this episode is trying to make some sort of statement about the US military using drones in the Middle East… but I’d prefer not to inject political metaphor into my Saturday morning cartoons.
As for Metalhead, this new version is more a weapon than a character, losing all autonomy to a remote control. It works for the story and I’m surprised what similarities to the original Fred Wolf Metalhead this version retained (having been built by the enemy, reprogrammed by the Turtles, then re-reprogrammed by the enemy, then re-re-reprogrammed by the Turtles in the end). I like his/its new design, particularly the manhole cover for a turtle shell.
This episode has a solid three act structure and it’s peppered with a ton of snappy jokes, both in terms of visuals and dialogue. My favorite bit had to do with the Kraang-possessed Metalhead declaring rambling threats and Mikey’s response: “I was really afraid at the beginning of the sentence, but then I just sort of lost interest.”
I guess if anything holds the episode back it’s that the big conflict involving the Kraang planning to pour mutagen into the city water supply feels really tacked on. If that entire subplot had been omitted, I don’t think there would have been a difference. The Turtles only encounter the Kraang after following April to a place where she thinks there might be a lead on her father’s whereabouts. I had completely forgotten about the reservoir-poisoning scheme until it was mentioned in passing in the final minutes of the episode.
And speaking of the final minutes of the episode, it also suffers from one problem that has always plagued American animation: An inability to end an episode quietly. There always has to be a dumb last-second joke or some sort of corny, artificial zinger. In this case, Donnie straps a rocket onto his staff with hilaaaaarious results. I dunno, this sort of thing shouldn’t bother me, but when the writing in the episode is so good, I just think it ought to be better than this sort of cliché.
“Monkey Brains” (written by Russ Carney and Ron Corcillo)
When a mutant simian escapes from the lab of Doctors Rockwell and Falco, the Turtles have to corral the powerful monkey before it can tear apart the city. But is all as it seems or is Dr. Falco hiding something?
Aw man, the Ninja Turtles pulling an homage to Re-Animator, complete with Jeffrey Combs as a mad scientist wielding a syringe full of glowing chemicals? Sometimes I feel like this show was made especially for me.
This episode is a good highlight on how well the writers work their lessons and morals into the plots of each story. The “what we learned today” aspect never feels half-baked or forced, but rolls off fluidly in the end as a sum of all the parts that came before it. In “Monkey Brains”, Donatello has to learn to not over-think everything in his life and try to act on instinct and intuition every once in a while. So far as lessons go, that’s a pretty offbeat one and certainly not as trite and obvious as the usual “don’t be a bully”, “drugs are bad” or “don’t drink shit you find under the sink” stuff we’re used to getting in Saturday morning cartoons.
Carney and Corcillo work the nugget of wisdom into the story naturally, as Don tries to come up with a plan to get April to hang out with him by factoring in every potential variable of rejection. This coincides with a lesson from Splinter about the way in which Don fights; thinking about his moves instead of responding impulsively and in the moment. And it all wraps up nicely in the final battle with Dr. Falco, who gains psychic powers that allow him to see every move the TMNT makes before they make them, forcing Donnie to fight without thinking.
Honestly, it’s just a really well-written script, as are most of the scripts in this series, and I find myself appreciating the level of craftsmanship that goes into the plotting of this show.
That said, the character work for Donnie is a bit stronger than the overall conflict presented by Dr. Falco and the Rockwell monkey-mutant (is his name supposed to BE “Monkey Brains”?). The “mystery” is telegraphed because, I mean, even if you aren’t familiar with Jeffrey Combs, the guy’s voice just oozes insidious intent. The big “twist” at the end won’t come as a surprise to anyone. But while on the surface the villains of this piece don’t seem like much, well, this is actually a setup episode for a bigger villain introduction down the road. As a matter of fact, this show is really good at introducing villains in piecemeal fashion. Typically, the human fiend makes their debut in an episode and then a second or third appearance will transform them into the more action figure-friendly foe that’ll linger for the remainder of the series. While some of the humans are cooler than the mutants they’re turned into (again, Bradford and Xever), it’s still nice to see this level of forward thinking and story arc planning. It’s a nice compromise between wholly episodic “villain of the week” stuff and painful decompression across whole stretches of multi-parters.
The animation in this one has a couple dodgy moments, like the way Monkey Brains’ eyes bulge out of his head. The effect reminds me of the CG animation on the old Donkey Kong Country cartoon and that’s never a good thing. They also resort to “character getting beaten up off camera as the actor makes humorous screams” twice, which I’m sure saved a lot of time and expense, but it’s a cheap copout nevertheless. On the other hand, the way the animators visually render Falco’s psychic abilities during the final battle is really cool; blue shades of the characters preceding their movements so Falco can effortlessly dodge their attacks.
On top of all that, Splinter takes April in for kunoichi training because there’s something intangibly “special” about her, and everyone gets a T-Phone (an update of the Shell Cell, which in itself was an update of the Turtlecom). And hey, Frank Welker as the Rockwell mutant! I think he’s the second TMNT alumni to appear in this show (Welker voiced Tokka and Rahzar in Secret of the Ooze).
Anyhow, this edition is getting pretty lengthy, so I’m wrapping things up. I seem to be covering fewer episodes-per-article on my Nick TMNT reviews than on my Fred Wolf TMNT reviews. Honestly, I think it’s just because I really enjoy talking about this series. The characters and stories are strong and it’s just a lot of fun overall.