Hey, I’m just two articles away from being done with season 4! Of course, by the time I’m done with this article I’ll only be halfway through the series as a whole. So I guess that makes this a phallic victory or a pyrrhic victory or whatever you call one of those things where you don’t actually win.
Well, this time around we’ll be introduced to three of the most lackluster recurring villains in the entire series, but more important than them, we’ll finally get to see how the Technodrome got stuck in that lava. At the start of the season. Hoo boy.
“What’s Michelangelo Good For?” (written by Ted Pederson and Francis Moss)
When Leonardo, Donatello and Raphael are kidnapped by the mad geneticist Doctor Lesseau, Michelangelo teams up with a zoologist named Dr. Goodfellow and a pigeon named Pete to save them.
The Japanese animators seemed to have a lot of trouble with this episode. There are cell overlay errors, bandana coloring errors and they really can’t seem to be able to keep Dr. Goodfellow’s face on model from one frame to the other (admittedly, her face is inhumanly lumpy).
But the absolute coup de grace comes with the Act 2 cliffhanger. Michelangelo gets swamped by explosive lily pads and heroically pushes Dr. Goodfellow out of the way as they begin to detonate. The act ends with Michelangelo exploding. No, not the lily pads exploding; *Michelangelo* exploding. He actually blows up. Of course, when Act 3 begins after the commercial break, Mikey pops out of the water none the worse for wear.
Spontaneous human/turtle combustion is only a momentary setback.
While it’s not the prettiest episode, there’s actually a lot I liked about this one. Dr. Goodfellow was a fun one-off supporting protagonist and I rather wish she’d have appeared again. She’s reluctant to accept that Mikey can talk to his pet pigeon, Pete, and they share a slightly antagonistic relationship when they first team up. But as the action gets going, she starts to loosen up and starts to get into blowing up stupid-looking robots.
While the episode’s conflict ostensibly revolves around a Dr. Moreau parody, the episode’s title implies some greater crisis for Michelangelo’s sense of self-worth. Mikey’s confidence troubles last for all of one brief conversation with Splinter before he sets out to save his comrades and then it pretty much never comes up again. It seemed like a rather tacked on moral.
That being said, I hate “special” episodes that feel they need to make a case for the continued existence of a comedy relief character. If your character is so routinely worthless that you need to set aside an entire episode just to “prove” their worth to the audience, then you’ve been writing them wrong this whole time. Michelangelo, at least in this incarnation, has never rubbed off like a character in need of justification. Yeah, he’s goofy and all, but he’s no better or worse in a scrap than the other Turtles.
The “prove the sidekick’s value” episodes should be reserved for genuine pieces of shit like Orko or Snarf or Slimer.
“The Dimension X Story” (written by David Wise)
In an attempt to teleport the Turtles to Dimension X, the Shredder accidentally abducts April, Irma and Vernon, too. While the Turtles team up with the Neutrinos to find a way home, Vernon strikes out on his own to get the scoop of the century.
So yeah, this episode is coming in pretty late. Right off the bat, you can tell it was meant to air near the beginning of season 4, most likely as the season premier after the show moved from syndication to CBS Saturday mornings. There’s a lot of exposition to setup the status quo of season 4, with the Turtles beginning the episode absolutely, positively sure that they’ve seen the last of Shredder now that he’s trapped in Dimension X. You know, ignoring all those other times they fought Shredder since the end of season 3 in the syndicated season 4 episodes.
The Technodrome is also in a state of major disrepair, as it was near the beginning of season 4. Then there’s Krang, who mentions that his Rock Soldiers are scattered all over Dimension X. He dispatched them to gather materials to fix the Technodrome in “Plan Z from Outer Space” and they were shown to be out conquering other planets in “Four Turtles and a Baby”; both episodes from the start of the season. Michelangelo also uses his nunchakus in a scene, which he stopped doing early in the season. So yeah, this thing got held up big time.
Why “The Dimension X Story” got delayed to near the end of season 4, I don’t know. There are conflicting airdates between different online guides and none of them cite sources, though one guide does place it as airing earlier in the season. However, the official episode numbering places “The Dimension X Story” right here near the end of season 4, so I’m inclined to go with the airdates that reflect the official order.
But that’s enough about continuity, what about the story? Well, Wise writes another funny script with a surprisingly focused plot, at least as far as his style of writing is concerned. I thought that Vernon running off to find a story in Dimension X was going to be another distracting excess plot typical of Wise scripts, but it actually turned out to be a good source of suspense. Donatello uses his portal generator from season 3 to resolve the whole “lost in Dimension X” conflict midway through the second act, but the characters can’t go home until they rein Vernon in. It was a nice fakeout, as the resolution is dangled in front of the protagonists but ultimately kept out of their reach for another act.
The conflict of Shredder and Krang trying to cause a volcano to erupt, thus blasting the Technodrome free, does actually feel like a late addition to the script. Krang doesn’t hatch his plan until over halfway through the episode and the purpose of the dilemma doesn’t seem to make much sense. Krang wants to “blast the Technodrome loose”, meaning it was already embedded in the asteroid to begin with. So what was the point in burying the Technodrome in solidified lava at the end, anyway? To make it… *more* stuck?
And since when was the Technodrome physically trapped on the asteroid, anyway? When season 4 began, the problem was that the Technodrome was in shambles and needed to be repaired before they could send it back to Earth. Burying it in lava certainly worked to detain the Technodrome for the rest of the season even after its systems were repaired, but Wise writes that it was already stuck on the surface (needing to be “blasted free”).
I don’t want to think about it anymore. At least now we know how that “stuck in lava” subplot that’s been going on all season started.
“Donatello’s Degree” (written by Jack Mendelsohn)
Due to a typographical error, Donatello must accept his degree from Sopho University as Ms. Donna Tello. He convinces Irma to go for him, but she winds up embroiled in the evil scheme of Professor Sopho, who plans to spin the Earth so fast every living creature flies off of it.
Holy Hell, the animation quality in this episode is positively amazing! For the first ten minutes, anyway.
Seriously, for whatever reason, the first act and some change has shockingly fluid animation quality with a high frame rate and lavish attention to expression and body language. It looks really, really good…
…Unfortunately, I think midway through the episode the animators realized they were spending too much time on the details and the animation suddenly slips back into “competent but no big deal” quality. The excessive frames and dynamic fluidity disappears and it looks pretty average. Still, there are no major errors from what I could see and it looks decent. The first half is just a lot prettier than the second half.
As for the story, Professor Sopho is one more in the obnoxious parade of generic mad scientists that have been plaguing season 4. It’s ridiculous how many of them we’ve been getting this season. I’ll never understand why the writers didn’t just designate a single mad scientist character and then use them in all the mad scientist episodes. These doctors and professors have all pretty much acted exactly the same in every episode, so we could have at least gotten one recurring villain to invest in instead of a string of boring one-offs. Well, Sopho is a two-off, I guess; he’ll show up one more time in the series.
So far as Irma-centric episodes go, this one wasn’t especially annoying and Mendelsohn writes a pretty great script. Sopho’s plot is absurd (he wants to make the Earth as bald as his own head) and the predicament that gets Donatello and Irma into the whole mess was so random you can’t help but snicker. There are some great Fourth Wall gags and the two henchmen characters that Sopho keeps around are more entertaining than the mad scientist himself.
But despite the villain being utterly forgettable (though Rob Paulson’s French accent is pretty amusing to listen to), the humor of the script and the inexplicably high animation quality of the first half make this a standout episode.
“The Big Cufflink Caper!” (written by David Wise)
The Shredder hires Big Louie and his gang to steal the Cufflinks of Café (secretly a powerful explosive gem). To get to the bottom of all the cufflink crimes plaguing Manhattan, the Turtles go undercover as mobsters.
This episode was David Wise in rare form, calling back to the hilarious absurdity of “The Maltese Hamster” (one of his best season 3 scripts). The plot of the episode is positively insane and all the characters are fully aware of this reality, deadpanning their commentary on the adventure’s stupidity at every available opportunity.
And for a guy notorious for recycling ideas and writing via rigid, worn-out formulas, Wise throws a few decent curveballs for the sake of humor. I especially liked the ending, where the Shredder actually SUCCEEDS in stealing the cufflink, but is so positively sure that he couldn’t possibly have won (because he NEVER wins) that he callously throws the cufflink away, thinking it a decoy.
“The Big Cufflink Caper” is just full of so many bizarre twists and turns, like a thoroughly random detour during Act 2 where the Turtles (undercover as hitmen for the mob) break up a gang run by parodies of the Beaver and Wally from Leave it to Beaver. Seriously, just… what the fuck? Then there are these ludicrous settings for action sequences, like a pizza-obsessed millionaire’s booby-trapped mansion or a freakin’ taffy factory, of all places. This is such a weird episode it remains one of the most memorable, right up there with the insanity of “Burnes’ Blues” from season 3.
Much like the deluge of mad scientists, this show was constantly introducing mobster characters who would stick around for one or two appearances, tops. Big Louie is the next in that line of disposable wise guys, and just like Professor Sopho, I don’t understand why they even bothered. Earlier this season they introduced a new mobster villain, Pinky McFingers, and now we’ve got another one. Even weirder, the Turtles mention that this isn’t their first encounter with Big Louie, implying they’d fought him before. This isn’t a case of episodes airing out of order either, as Big Louie won’t make his second appearance until season 6. I’ve got a hunch Wise originally wrote this script to feature one of the other mob boss villains and then inexplicably rewrote it to include a new one.
The animation’s pretty solid, too. There are some nice action sequences on an indoor ice rink and especially the final showdown at the taffy factory. You’ll notice one ugly moment where the camera pans across the factory to establish April and Irma dangling over a vat, but the characters and the molten taffy aren’t animated. The moment wouldn’t be so obvious if the shot didn’t linger for so long (characters deliver complete sentence as the shot essentially stalls on a freeze frame). Other than that, though, it’s one of the handsomer episodes.
“Leonardo Versus Tempestra” (written by Misty Taggart)
When Leonardo can’t beat a new arcade game called “Tempestra’s Revenge”, he begins to obsess over it. Then, after sneaking into the arcade to play the game after hours, a freak lightning bolt brings the game’s evil sorceress to life.
This is actually one of the best, if not THE best, Leonardo spotlight episodes of the whole series. Leonardo is such a drag, being the milquetoast leader character and all, so he rarely gets the opportunity to be fun and silly. Most episodes that let Leonardo get goofy, like “The Four Musketurtles” and “Leonardo Lightens Up”, require some circumstance involving brain trauma to contrive a means for Leonardo to have a personality for 22 minutes. “Leonardo Versus Tempestra” doesn’t need amnesia or a personality reprogramming ray gun to get Leonardo to act entertaining. Instead, author Misty Taggart mines one of his character flaws (his competitive desire to be the best at everything) to facilitate a really fun script.
Leo refuses to let something like a video game “beat” him and starts to obsess over the arcade cabinet; and ultimately his obsession provides the means for the episode’s villain to become tangible (or maybe she escaped from another dimension; the script kinda can’t make up its mind). As Leo starts going bonkers, those moments of him behaving out of character while still technically IN character can be really, really funny. My favorite moment is when, right after Tempestra manifests, Leo calls up the Turtles on his Turtlecom. They don’t believe him and Leo gradually starts to lose his shit as he urges them to come to his rescue. Cam Clarke’s delivery on those lines is hysterical.
Also, the final battle with Tempestra and her minions at the nuclear power plant looks really damn good. The animators put a lot of extra oomph into that action sequence and the posing of the monsters looks suitably imposing (and really Japanese, with lots of “speed lines” in the backgrounds and so on).
Ultimately, this episode shines because it’s rare; if Leo was acting goofy in his obsessions all the time, it wouldn’t be so amusing. So moments like this are a welcomed surprise. Tempestra wasn’t one of the best villains in this show (she won’t appear again until season 7), but this was still one of the best episodes.
Anyway, this bunch of season 4 episodes were actually pretty good, but almost in spite of themselves. Most of the original villains were lousy or forgettable, but either the humor of the scripts or the unexpected quality of the animation miraculously saved their episodes. This show seems to be good on accident at least half the time, but hey, you can’t argue with results.
Next time, we’ll be closing out season 4 and, whoah, there’s some good shit to look forward to. There’s the second Leatherhead/Rat King team-up, the return of Metalhead and a positively hilarious episode starring a bunch of rogue Foot Soldiers. There’s also another “body swap” episode (WE DID THAT ALREADY) and the most unenthusiastic season finale in the show’s history, but let’s not let that get us down.