Starting with these episodes, the fourth season of the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon moved out of syndication and onto CBS Saturday mornings. The series would remain on CBS until the end of its run (save for those “European Vacation” episodes which somehow wound up on the USA Network during season 7). The CBS episodes represent the better portion of season 4, featuring a good number of popular returning villains and allies. The episodes still suffer from all the same faults that have plagued the series since the beginning (poor story editing, fluctuating animation quality, flagrant script recycling), but at least now we’ve got characters like Slash and Mona Lisa to momentarily take the edge off because TOYS!
The CBS part of season 4 also did away with the original title sequence that was so freakin’ awesome. This one uses the same theme song, but features new animation that is quite a downgrade from the original. I dunno, it looked like it had some ambitious storyboarding, but whatever low rent overseas animation studio Fred Wolf contracted to draw the thing just wasn’t up to the task. It’s really stiff and awkward. Get used to it, though, because it’s not going away until season 8.
“Son of Return of the Fly II” (written by David Wise)
Escaping from the dimension they were banished to, Baxter and his alien computer friend decide to get revenge on both the Shredder and the Turtles by taking over the Channel 6 Building.
Hey, a Baxter Stockman episode! I always liked these as a kid even though I can’t recollect a single reason why Baxter was one of my favorite villains. Wise plays up Baxter’s brain damage pretty heavily, as he now has the attention span of an actual fly. The alien computer (from “Bye, Bye, Fly”) becomes the brains of the operation, with Baxter turning into a mindless brute. It’s kind of strange to see him being portrayed as so physically powerful (he beats up Shredder, Bebop and Rocksteady single-handedly!), but Wise wrings a lot of humor out of it. Baxter pretty much spends the majority of the episode stomping around the Channel 6 Building, crashing through walls and kidnapping Vernon over and over because he keeps forgetting he already did that.
As the initial CBS episode, it actually makes a pretty good first impression. Wise’s jokes are pretty good even if the plotting is a little weak (a wormhole shows up without explanation to free Baxter from the other dimension, and neither Baxter nor the alien computer ever elaborate on how they plan to eliminate Shredder once he arrives at Channel 6). My favorite running gag in the episode has to do with Donatello trying to give a morality lesson to Raphael about respecting other people’s property and not breaking down doors even in life-or-death situations. By the third go at this, Raph finally screams “SHUT UP!” and starts breaking shit. It was a pleasant throwback to Raph’s “violent guy” attitude that had a glimmer in the first season, but was replaced wholesale with sarcasm shortly afterward.
The animation is really impressive, looking to have been done by the squash-and-stretch studio (daily reminder that the credits didn’t identify overseas animation studios). There’s a dark feel to it as the entire episode takes place at night as well as some really surprising visual effects (the hologram when the alien computer creates a weapon for Baxter, all the glow effects on the energy ropes). And some really fluid character animation, too, particularly during the fight at the clock tower once Leonardo gets free from the energy ropes and the “this is going to be awesome” background music starts playing. There’s one weird, dodgy moment during the first act when the animators forgot to draw Leonardo and so Raph takes on all his lines in addition to his own, but that’s the only animation blunder that sticks out.
From a continuity standpoint, this episode seems to take place immediately after “The Dimension X Story”, which got shunted off to near the end of season 4 for whatever reason. I say this because this episode has Krang and Shredder dealing with the damage done by the volcanic eruption on the Dimension X asteroid and that doesn’t happen until “The Dimension X Story”. There are also references to Leatherhead and the Rat King living in the sewers of New York. That’s true of the Rat King, but didn’t Leatherhead swim back to the Bayou after his last appearance?
Aw, it doesn’t matter. This is still one of the better season 4 episodes. Poor Baxter, though; he and the alien computer wind up trapped in a tiny, featureless gap between dimensions at the end of this episode. And I thought being left at the mercy of a giant spider in “Bye, Bye, Fly” was a nightmarish predicament.
“Raphael Knocks ‘em Dead” (written by Jack Mendelsohn)
Mobster Pinky McFingers and mad scientist Barney Stockman (twin brother of Baxter) are kidnapping standup comics and hooking them up to their gag-o-magnifier machine, a device which can amplify jokes and render populaces paralyzed with laughter. Unfortunately for Raphael, he chose a poor time to begin his standup career and gets himself captured.
There’s just something weird about the villains in this episode. Like, why did they even bother with them?
In the case of Pinky McFingers, he’s a clichéd pastiche of Edward G. Robinson and he’ll make an appearance or two after this episode. Peter Renaday does a decent Robinson impression, but his take is really subdued. None of that “Nyeh, I was framed, see! Nyeh!” stuff you get with most Robinson impressions. Now, what I don’t understand is why they even bothered creating Pinky McFingers in the first place. The show already had a generic mob boss character named Don Turtelli who appeared throughout season 3. Heck, his gimmick was tickling people and causing them to laugh, so doesn’t it seem like this episode with its laughing machine would have been a good fit for him?
Then there’s Barney Stockman, the twin brother of Baxter Stockman who can’t stand people mistaking him for his failure of a sibling. This is his only appearance and, again, I sort of wonder why they even bothered. I guess with Baxter now running around as a mutant fly, they still wanted to use the original mad scientist incarnation in some capacity, so we wound up with Barney. Or maybe the production team just figured they could save money by recycling Baxter’s old season 2 character model instead of drawing up a new one, or getting Pat Fraley to do his Baxter voice instead of hiring another actor to create a voice for a new character. But nahhhh, they’d never cut corners like that.
“Raphael Knocks ‘em Dead” is full of really lame, corny jokes and they’ll have you more in agony than in stitches. I won’t hold it against the episode, though, since the bad jokes are kind of the point. There are some weird parodies of famous standup comics in this episode, including Bill Cosby, Ed McMahon and Andrew Dice Clay, which at a glance kind of dates the whole story, but if you’re not from the era I doubt you’ll even recognize them (the caricatures and impressions aren’t especially good).
One other oddity is that James Avery plays two bit parts: the Bill Cosby pastiche (in which Avery doesn’t even attempt a Cosby impression) and a police sergeant. It just seemed strange to me, as Avery almost never played incidentals, likely because his voice is so instantly recognizable.
“Bebop and Rocksteady Conquer the Universe” (written by David Wise)
Bebop and Rocksteady steal a device called the anxietron, which cripples everyone it zaps with fear, and use it to overthrow Shredder and Krang. After the Turtles get zapped with the ray, only Zach can save the day and reverse the effects.
Oh, that’s just what season 4 was missing: a Zach the Fifth Turtle episode. Well, I’m sick and tired of complaining about that little shit, so let’s talk about something else.
This episode is a bit cluttered with just a whole lot of… stuff. You’ve got Bebop and Rocksteady wreaking havoc on the city, Krang and Shredder trying to summon up the courage to reverse the anxietron’s effects, the Turtles getting scared but braving danger anyway, Splinter getting tied to some train tracks with impending doom careening his way, Zach determining to prove to some schoolyard bullies wrong that he really is the Fifth Turtle, and April getting swallowed by a giant dinosaur robot that goes haywire and rampages through the city.
There is just way, WAY too much going on in this one and every conflict ends up getting shortchanged in order to make room for the others. The last 2 minutes are basically a mad dash to wrap everything up before the credits roll and I’ll admit I’m impressed that Wise somehow managed to pull it off. It wasn’t pretty, but he did it.
Of the numerous subplots in this episode, the best bits come from Shredder and Krang cowering in the Technodrome. Even in the worst of scripts, their banter tends to be a highlight and Avery and Fraley were just a great comedic duo. A lesser moment of acting, though, occurs during the first act, when Zach is getting bullied on the playground by another kid. It comes down to Rob Paulsen and Pat Fraley trying their best to sound like elementary schoolers and man, I haven’t heard anything less convincing in my life.
“Raphael Meets His Match” (written by Charles M. Howell IV)
After winning a contest to take a luxury cruise, Raphael encounters a mutant salamander girl named Mona Lisa. After the pirate Captain Filch raids the cruise ship and takes hostages, Raphael suspects Mona Lisa might be in cahoots with the villain.
I know they wanted to go with the classic Renaissance art theme for her name, but wouldn’t “Mona Lizard” have been a little bit cleverer? Just a suggestion.
Anyway, I’m surprised how many people recall Mona Lisa at all. I mean, she was only in one episode and never appeared in Archie’s TMNT Adventures comic (where her spot as Raph’s arm candy was taken by fox-woman Ninjara). I guess it was the fact that she had a toy?
Howell (the episode’s scriptwriter) seemed to think he really had something going with her and this whole episode is just one long promotion for her character. There are extended stretches where she has solo adventures fighting Captain Flich’s mutant sea anemones (yeah, forgot to mention those) and characters are endlessly going on about how great she is. Even the parting gag before the credits, in which April shows Mona down to the lair to reunite with Raphael, seemed intended to assure the kids that she’d be sticking around as a recurring character.
Nope! Never heard from ever again.
I did like how writer Charles M. Howell IV (jeez, does that sound like the name of a cartoon millionaire to anybody?) built up Raph and Mona’s romance; it’s probably the best of all the hookups in the show. Raph spends the first act suspicious of her and her connection to Captain Filch, the second act fighting alongside her and getting to know her, and the third act developing affection for her (which is surprisingly restrained from any mushy stuff). Compare that to the stuff between Mike and Kala or Leo and Lotus, which was really sloppy “love at first sight” shtick. I’m not saying Mona Lisa was a great character or anything (her head looks like one of the Turtles wearing false eyelashes and a wig), but the foundation was set fairly well for her, even if they kind of force how great she is upon the audience.
Mona’s origin doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, though. She was a college student working on her physics degree when she got kidnapped by Filch and forced to work in his submarine, the Cleptofoil. While sabotaging the lab, a tank of irradiated water from the nuclear engine room burst and washed over her, mutating her into a salamander. For some reason. I mean, I can accept the idea that radioactive water works the same as mutagen on face value, but where did the salamander DNA come from? And how come she knows karate?
Whatever. I’d still have preferred to see more of her than Zach.
“Slash – The Evil Turtle from Dimension X” (written by David Wise)
Bebop and Rocksteady mutate their pet turtle, Slash, into a rampaging henchman, but he escapes to Earth. There, he’s manipulated by a greedy industrialist to frame the Ninja Turtles.
Man, ask just about anybody who was caught up in Turtlemania back in the day and they’ll tell you how awesome Slash was. Which is weird, because I guarantee you most of them never read the TMNT Adventures comic where Slash actually WAS awesome. Most of them probably recall him from this cartoon where he was decidedly not so awesome.
Fred Wolf Slash has one of the worst designs compared to his Playmates and Archie counterparts, with that weird metal headband and dorky overbite. Beyond those questionable aesthetic choices, Slash isn’t all that different from his comic book incarnation. He’s still a psychotic powerhouse obsessed with palm trees (a trait I actually like) and suffers from a noticeable lack of intelligence. I guess it’s more that writer David Wise doesn’t get a whole lot out of him. The basis of this episode is that Slash is easily manipulated by others into doing what they want, be it Bebop and Rocksteady forcing him to do their chores or industrialist Hackensaw employing him to destroy property and frame the TMNT. Despite what the title assures you, he’s less evil than he is pitiable.
So if most fans of Slash only know him from this cartoon, where he appeared in all of 3 episodes and kinda sucked, why was he so popular? Well, his toy was pretty sweet (featuring a much more menacing design) and he was a cool boss character in the Konami video games (I loved his special move, where he’d ball up in his shell then spin all over the screen). And while most Turtle fans didn’t read the comic back in the day, I’m sure the majority of them collected the toys and played the video games.
And yet, I dunno, I still kinda like Fred Wolf Slash even if he’s shallower than his other incarnations (and stupider looking). He’s referred to as a “Super Mutant”, as opposed to a regular mutant, and easily out-muscles the Turtles at every turn. If he weren’t so braindead, he’d be a force to be reckoned with (as a matter of fact, that’s the plot of his second episode).
There’s some cheapness to this episode, unfortunately. After Bebop and Rocksteady are sent by Shredder to clean the lower decks of the Technodrome, the camera operator completely misreads how to pan across the background painting. It’s a cutaway of the Technodrome’s many levels (from the portal room at the top to the lower decks at the bottom). The camera operator mistakenly laid it on its side then not only panned across it horizontally, but in the wrong direction (going from the lower decks to the portal room rather than the other way around). It is really, really confusing to look at.
David Wise also does some of his more minor script recycling. The ending sequence where Mike and Don board the space-scow midflight was ripped directly from an episode of The Transformers that Wise wrote, “Attack of the Autobots”. At the very least, this was just Wise copying one scene from an earlier script and not a whole episode. He’ll pull that shit later.
Anyhow, that’s enough TMNT for this round. This was quite a collection of recurring or popular characters, wasn’t it? Baxter Stockman, Barney Stockman, Pinky McFingers, Mona Lisa, Zach the Little Shit, and Slash to top it all off. What have we got for the next batch? Another Rat King episode (hooray!), another shrinking episode (not again) and one of the most unapologetic examples of Wise recycling his own scripts (aw jeez).