Alright, I’m back with another batch of five episodes from the fourth season of Fred Wolf’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. This portion is decidedly more interesting to me, thanks in part to some of the recurring characters, action figure tie-ins and behind the scenes stories that go along with the episodes.
So I’m feelin’ pretty good about this one!
“Farewell Lotus Blossom” (written by David Wise)
When the Turtles take a job guarding the cursed Urn of Chakahachi, the Shredder tricks Lotus Blossom into stealing it for him. However, when the spirit of Chakahachi is freed from the Urn, he begins using his magical powers to transform New York into Feudal Japan.
This was a good episode that had so much potential to be a great episode, if only it had gone through a second draft or something. There are a lot of big ideas in this script and “Farewell Lotus Blossom” has one of the more unusual plots in the whole series. It’s especially refreshing coming after a slew of episodes that were retreads of older plots.
While I didn’t really care much for Lotus Blossom’s first appearance, and I really can’t stand Renee Jacobs’s voice for her, she benefits from this episode’s more elaborate story. The romantic relationship between her and Leo is done away with completely and it’s instead a story about how she, as a ninja, doesn’t feel like she “belongs” in the 20th century.
As I said earlier, there are a lot of big ideas in this episode and the lack of polish really squanders them. Lotus’s desire to find her place in the world is only briefly touched upon in the first act, where she has a prophetic dream of the Turtles and Chakahachi tugging her in two directions. It then sort of becomes background noise in the last two segments as she randomly jumps into unsolicited tangents about her place in the universe.
The ideas are all there, but they aren’t developed enough to feel organic to the conflict. I mean, you’ve got Lotus Blossom, feeling like she was born in the wrong century, and then you’ve got Chakahachi using his powers to turn the modern world into Feudal Japan so that he can feel at home. The script is TRYING to make a statement, but it’s really clumsy. In fact, I almost want to say that Wise was well aware of these shortcomings and put a lampshade on them in the final parting zinger before the credits. Michelangelo goes to the oven to pull out a pizza, pulls out a tire which is there FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER and then says to the audience that the moral of the episode is “Search for happiness and you find… an old… tire…?”
Chakahachi’s story is surprisingly interesting and, again, feels underdeveloped and rushed because there’s only 22 minutes to get this thing done. He was a great magician/shogun of Feudal Japan, but died while searching for his missing wife. His spirit recreated the world of Feudal Japan inside his urn so he could continue searching for her, but obviously he never found her because the world in his urn was just a fantasy. When he’s freed, he starts transforming New York into Feudal Japan so he can continue his search and keeps the Turtles busy by siccing the spirits of his samurai retainers on them. Eventually, we learn that Chakahachi’s wife was reincarnated as Lotus Blossom, hence her feelings of restlessness. Chakahachi frees Lotsu of the spirit of his wife and the two ghosts then go to live in the urn, restoring New York to normal.
For this show, those are some really elaborate concepts (especially considering we’d just come off of another fucking “shrinking episode”). Alas, Wise doesn’t divide his subplots up wisely and all of the backstory about Chakahachi is spewed out a mile a minute at the start of the third act. I think the bit with Shredder trying to steal the urn for himself could have been cut entirely (Shredder never even explains what he plans to with it) and Lotus, rather than be tricked into stealing the urn, could have been motivated to do it herself through her nightmares. It really would have improved the focus.
There are also… errors. Donatello claims there are no such things as ghosts, having apparently forgotten about the ghost he met in “Blast from the Past” (incidentally, a David Wise episode). Shredder orders Bebop to get “the 3D holographic camera” and Bebop proceeds to film him using a Channel 6 television camera (likely because that camera prop had already been prepared by the design artists and the animators just recycled it). There are coloring errors, including a protracted scene where Leo gives a speech while wearing a red bandana. And the animation overall is choppy and crude, from fight scenes devolving into sloppy clouds of dust to a really weird moment where Bebop shoots a giant staple at Lotus (yeah) and her flight path after getting carried away by it is just… bizarre.
“Farewell Lotus Blossom” earns points because it really IS trying, which is something this show was rarely motivated to do. However, it feels like there are a lot of wasted ideas that deserved so much better.
“Rebel Without a Fin” (written by Michael Reaves)
The mad scientist Dr. Polidorius and his mutant fish-man Ray have designs on sinking New York and mutating all its inhabitants into fish-people. While the Turtles race to disarm the bombs Ray has placed throughout the sewers, Polidorius mutates April into a fish-woman.
So there’s an actual honest-to-God behind the scenes story attached to this episode. Haven’t had many of those in these reviews.
For anyone who collected the old Playmates toys or read the TMNT Adventures comic published by Archie, you were probably familiar with the heroic manta ray mutant Ray Fillet (or Man Ray, as he was called in the comics). As originally written, “Rebel Without a Fin” was intended to include him as Polidorius’s hench-mutant. However, Ray Fillet’s creators Steve Murphy and Ryan Brown, who had script approval through their employment at Mirage, objected to the heroic character being portrayed as a villain and rejected the script. So Ray Fillet was hastily rewritten into the generic mutant Ray and given a new design.
Ryan Brown, over at his now-defunct blog Cowabunga Cartoon Classics, discussed the situation in the comments section (under the username “Cowabunga Dude”). Here’s the story in his own words:
“The episode ‘Rebel Without A Fin’ was originally written to feature Ray Fillet, but when the script came in to the studio, Ray was a bad guy and resembled the Man Ray character in appearance only. I explained the situation to Fred (Wolf) on the phone and he refused to make any changes. (Steve) Murph(y) and I rejected the script and Fred had the character redesigned so as to not resemble Ray Fillet in any way. To this day neither Murph or myself has seen the episode.”
So if you were ever curious as to why Ray Fillet never appeared in the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon, he actually sorta-kinda did.
I’ve read TMNT Adventures and I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I think Ray’s personality in this lone episode is leagues more entertaining than Ray Fillet’s/Man Ray’s in the Archie comic. Ray in the cartoon is really unmotivated and uninterested in his “master’s” scheme and just sort of follows orders with an attitude of annoyance and exasperation. He’s really funny, thanks in large part to Rob Paulson’s voice over. There’s even a brief moment in the script where Ray questions whether what he’s doing is right or not and exposits that he just wants to be left alone; it almost seems like a small change meant to appease Brown and Murphy by taking the edge off of Ray’s villainy (and he was never really that into being a bad guy in the first place).
Compare him to Man Ray (the name that Ray Fillet used in the comics). Man Ray’s whole deal was that he wanted to save the Earth from pollution, deforestation and whaling. His every appearance was a Captain Planet-esque public service announcement about the environment and the ecosystem. He was never a fun character, he was never an interesting character and he functioned as little more than Steve Murphy’s personal mouthpiece for expressing his opinion on topical situations. He was like the Lisa Simpson of TMNT Adventures.
That and Ray actually has a pretty cool set of mutant powers. He can channel electricity like an electric eel, launch spines like a quill fish, eject clouds of ink like a squid and inflate his size like a puffer fish. What could Man Ray do? Well, he could swim really fast and he was sort of super strong. Oh, and in those minicomics packaged with TMNT Cereal, he could fly.
Ray may be the knockoff character, but I found him more entertaining than Ray Fillet ever was.
As for the episode, “Rebel Without a Fin” is actually one of Michael Reaves’s funnier scripts. It opens on a pretty strong note, including a rare moment of Splinter losing his shit and screaming at the Turtles to piss off. There’s also a lot of witty banter and wordplay and Polidorius is one of the better one-shot mad scientist villains in the show (who were all as interchangeable as they were abundant). He sort of looks like Mung Daal from “Chowder”, doesn’t he?
The episode also includes the final appearance of Morgan Lofty, an incredibly boring recurring character who showed up in three episodes this season. I’ve still yet to figure out if the writers were going anywhere with that guy.
“Rhino-Man” (written by David Wise)
Shredder and Krang need a diamond to focus their heat ray, but the only way to get it is to win a superhero contest. Bebop and Rocksteady take on the identities of Rhino-Man and Mighty Hog to win the gem, but the real villain is billionaire J. Gordon Hungerdunger, who plans to turn everyone in New York into mindless zombies.
Another trip down action figure memory lane: Rhino-Man and Mighty Hog, the “superhero” personas of Rocksteady and Bebop in this episode, received toys from Playmates. Of course, those toys were called “Rhinoman” and “Mighty Bebop”. The hyphen in “Rhino-Man” isn’t a big deal, but “Mighty Bebop” was a different character altogether (who got a toy in the line called “Robotic Bebop”, if you aren’t confused enough).
Also, the toys only barely looked like the cartoon versions, but that was par for the course when it came to Playmates and Fred Wolf’s synergy.
“Rhino-Man” isn’t a particularly memorable episode beyond “hey, toys”, but it did make me start to notice a trend in this season. For a while now, whenever Shredder and Krang actually engage in some form of villainy, it’s been as second fiddle to other menaces. Here, they’re sort of blundering around while J. Gordon Hungerdunger rolls out his insidious scheme. In “Farewell Lotus Blossom”, Shredder just sort of sat around twiddling his fingers while Chakahachi turned New York into Feudal Japan. In “The Big Zipp Attack”, the Turtles find the menace of the Zipp more threatening than whatever Shredder was up to. And on and on and on backward through the season.
Shredder has dropped from the lead villain of the show to a guy who just sort of shows up by accident while another villain makes the real trouble for the Turtles. Heck, so far, Shredder has only even been in half of these CBS Saturday morning episodes. I get the feeling the writers, even David Wise, had gotten really bored with him.
“Michelangelo Meets Bugman” (written by Dennis Marks)
When the super villain known as the Electrozapper attacks a power plant, Michelangelo teams up with his favorite superhero, Bugman, to thwart the fiend.
Dennis Marks pens a script that’s pretty much just a nonstop barrage of superhero parodies, pastiches and references until the credits roll. While the overall plot is fairly shallow, anybody with an affinity for comic books might enjoy some of the gags in this one, which range from obvious to surprisingly obscure.
Bugman is himself a pastiche of Spider-Man (whose preliminary name was “Bug-Man”, according to Stan Lee), the Incredible Hulk (in terms of origin and anger being the catalyst for his transformation) and Superman (he loses all power when exposed to “leastonite”). To add an extra layer to all the referencing, Susan Blu cast veteran voice actor Dan Gilvezan as Bugman. If his voice sounds familiar, it’s because he played Spider-Man on Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. It’s always amusing when actors play parodies of their own performances.
The whole episode is littered with other references to superhero comic stereotypes, from the onslaught of bad puns while hero and foe trade banter to dropping popular comic book slogans, such as “Because YOU demanded it!” There’s even an extended sequence where the Party Wagon is launched from the sewers in what I’ll just assume was an homage to the ’60s Batman series.
If you sweep up all the superhero trivia, there isn’t much left to talk about for “Michelangelo Meets Bugman”. Michelangelo teams up with Bugman, they fight the Electrozapper, they win. But it’s all in the presentation and in addition to Marks’s clever script, the animation (which looks to be from the Japanese studio) is really slick. There are only a couple standout errors (Mikey being drawn as Don while practicing, Leo talking to April while his lips don’t move) and everything else is very fluid with the action sequences are being laid out really well. I didn’t like the Electrozapper’s design one bit, but he got a lot of good energy and lighting effects.
This episode also features what I can only assume are a bunch of coincidences between it and various Mirage comics. At the start of the episode, Mikey is reading a Bugman comic where he fights “Dr. Dome”. Peter Laird actually introduced an aged super villain character named “Dr. Dome” in TMNT #15 and he functioned in much the same way as the Electrozapper (everyone begins the story thinking he’s just a comic book character and are amazed to find out he’s real about halfway through). Also, “Bugman” was the nickname of Mirage artist Michael Dooney and he’d often slip the name into the pages of his art. I doubt the Fred Wolf Bugman was named in honor of Dooney since, as I mentioned, it was likely a reference to Spider-Man’s preliminary name.
Also, the 4Kids TMNT episode “The Unconvincing Turtle Titan” is almost pretty much a remake of this episode. And once again, I want to chalk that up to being a coincidence, seeing as how this was a very simple plot.
Bugman is only going to make one more appearance and then he’ll go the way of most recurring characters in this show. I’m sure I’ve expressed this opinion before, but I always hated how the show would introduce these interesting new allies and enemies and then proceed to use them once or maybe (MAYBE) twice, afterward.
“Poor Little Rich Turtle” (written by David Wise)
Michelangelo becomes infatuated with a teenage heiress of a chemical company named Buffy Shellhammer only to find out that she’s a spoiled rotten little brat. Meanwhile, the Shredder wants to kidnap Buffy so she’ll tell him her company’s secret rocket formula, forcing Michelangelo to play bodyguard.
Up until now, I had thought that “The Big Zipp Attack” was David Wise’s most obscene example of script recycling between shows. While that one was pretty bad, “Poor Little Rich Turtle” might actually take the cake. This episode is practically a scene-by-scene, note-by-note recreation of a Transformers episode Wise wrote called “The Girl Who Loved Powerglide”.
If you’ve seen that episode, EVERYTHING from it is in here.
The spoiled heiress to a technology company who knows a secret formula the bad guys want (Astoria Carlton-Ritz, Buffy Shellhammer),
A protagonist who hates the bratty girl but eventually develops affection for her after being forced to protect her (Powerglide, Michelangelo):
The dimwitted stooges who chase her all over a major metropolitan city (the Decepticon “Conehead” jets, Bebop & Rocksteady):
The girl forcing the protagonists to take her to an amusement park in spite of all the danger (both of which have scenes focusing on the heroes being embarrassed to ride the merry-go-round):
The bad guys trying to extract the formula from the girl’s brain using a mind-reading device, which backfires when she overloads it (the psycho-probe, the brain-alyzer):
And an ending where the formula proves to be the villain’s undoing and comically disables their base (the Decepticon undersea HQ getting crushed, the asteroid the Technodrome is trapped on getting spun helplessly through Dimension X):
IT’S ALL EXACTLY THE SAME. Except this one has a subplot involving a shrink ray because really? We’re doing the shrinking thing again already? Man, fuck this show. Fuck it.
Wise pretty much just replaced all of the proper nouns on his Transformers script and then submitted it as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles script… to himself. Because he was the story editor on this series. I don’t think the concept of integrity existed in the world of ’80s cartoon script writing.
Now, if you aren’t familiar with the Transformers episode this one’s a clone of? Well, it has some funny banter in it, I’ll admit, and this episode contains a few of Wise’s better fourth wall-breaking gags. There’s a funny moment where Bebop and Rocksteady drive a Technorover through the wall of April’s upper story apartment and when the Turtles ask how they got it up there, Rocksteady replies “We took the stairs”. Unfortunately, any genuine comedy in this episode is drowned out by Jennifer Darling’s obnoxious performance as Buffy. Now, I get that Buffy was supposed to be an irritating brat and Darling just played the part like she was supposed to… but dear God, her voice just makes you want to stick my head in a pizza oven.
The most amusing part of the episode for me came at the very end. Michelangelo decides that he’s over Buffy and runs into the kitchen to retrieve his one true love: a couple of pizzas. Except he comes running out holding a couple of pies. Not pizza pies; PIES. What likely happened was the storyboard artist wrote something vague like, “Michelangelo comes running out of kitchen carrying a pie in each hand”. Then the animators in Korea or the Philippines or whatever didn’t make the connection that the board artist meant “PIZZA pies” and here we are.
This sort of international communication breakdown was pretty common in outsourced animation of the day; the special features on Time Life’s DVD sets of The Real Ghostbusters include some great tales from the storyboard artists (in one instance, the board artist wrote “the Ghostbusters haul ass out of the Firehouse” and the animation came back with the Ghostbusters running out of the Firehouse whilst gripping their own buttocks). Usually these things were sent back to be redone so the scene would make sense. But not this show. Never this show.
Anyway, that’s enough bad ’80s animation for now. Most of these episodes were surprisingly good, though, and left me with more to talk about than usual. The next batch of five episodes will burden us with some of the most utterly forgettable recurring villains in the series: Tempestra, Big Louie and Professor Sopho. Why those losers got more than one appearance, I’ll never know. Also, we’ll finally, FINALLY get to see “The Dimension X Story” and learn how all that lava encased the Technodrome… at the beginning of the fucking season.
Crave more of Mark’s TMNT sagacity? Browse through the Adventures in Poor Taste Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle category for Fred Wolf episode reviews and other Ninja Turtle musings.