Well, we’ve reached the end of season 4. I’ll say that there are some good episodes in here, featuring popular returning characters (two of my favorites, in fact) and at least one of the hands down funniest scripts in the whole run. Unfortunately, it’s also the first of a few “non-finales” as TMNT’s seasons begin to just end without any fanfare or narrative payoff.
With that out of the way, this batch starts out strong with…
“Splinter Vanishes” (written by Francis Moss and Ted Pederson)
When Splinter tells the Turtles that they have learned all he has to teach and leaves them, the TMNT breakup and go their separate ways. This only makes them easier to pick off for Leatherhead and the Rat King.
This is the way I like to remember the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon: All my favorite colorful plastic villains mixing and matching and teaming up to constantly menace the Ninja Turtles. Basically, I like to remember the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon as being like my action figure playtime. The sad reality is that this show was more often than not preoccupied with generic mad scientists, gangsters or just using Shredder and Krang to the exclusion of all other threats; those colorful villains you collected in toy form rarely got invited to the party.
That’s why episodes such as “Splinter Vanishes” stick out to me as actually living up to my rose-tinted memories. This isn’t the way the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon always was, but this was definitely when the show was at its best. (It helps that Leatherhead and the Rat King are two of my favorite villains in this show and every other incarnation of the franchise.)
But more than just the combination of two great villains, the conflict is excellently paced. The two dilemmas complement one another, as first the Turtles are forced to go their separate ways and take demeaning jobs (which is mined for comedy) and then they’re subsequently targeted by Leatherhead and the Rat King, who pick them off one-by-one.
Of course, at the end we learn that it was all part of a lesson from Splinter, to teach his pupils the value of togetherness. It’ll actually pay off in the series finally several years later, when Splinter tells them that he is no longer their sensei and they’ve learned all he has to teach… for real, this time!
The downside with this episode is that Moss and Pederson felt that there needed to be a “fate of the world” conflict to up the stakes, so Leatherhead and the Rat King also steal tech from laboratories to construct a robot army. It’s one problem too many and gets shortchanged at the end; the villains picking off the heroes one at a time would have been enough.
That aside, this is one of my all-time favorites. It’s the second Leatherhead/Rat King team-up and they’ll appear together again for a third and final time in season 7 (albeit as part of a larger collection of villains). And if I’m not mistaken, this is the last time Jim Cummings voices Leatherhead, too (which is a shame, as his Leatherhead voice is so good).
“Raphael Drives ‘em Wild” (written by Misty Taggart)
After getting entangled on the evil scheme of the gangster Mr. Big, Raphael winds up switching bodies with an obnoxious cabbie named Oscar. Also, everything will explode for no reason if they don’t get back to normal in under 22 minutes.
It’s bad enough they recycled the shrinking episode, but now they’re recycling the body-swap episode, too? For those who don’t remember, we witnessed this song and dance back in season 3, in the episode “The Old Switcheroo”. Granted, it was Splinter and Shredder who swapped bodies in that one, but these writers are still going back to the same well with these run of the mill Cartoon 101 plots.
To make matters worse, the villain who causes the swap (by stealing a device called a transmogrifier and leaving it in the backseat of a cab) is yet another generic mobster. This time, he’s a one-shot foe named Mr. Big: A diminutive crime lord with a bad Peter Lorre impression. Well, maybe calling Barry Gordon’s impression “bad” is a little overly critical, but it’s just that at his very best he still sounds like a Mexican Donatello with something stuck in his throat.
About the only comedy to come out of this episode isn’t even on purpose. You can tell that each act was animated by a different team at the overseas studio. How can you tell? Well, the team that did Act 1 clearly didn’t know what a pizza box looks like, so a big stack of pizza boxes are consistently drawn to look like birthday presents (complete with colorful ribbon on top). When Act 2 commences, that team seemed to know what pizza boxes were and suddenly they’re drawn correctly.
“Beyond the Donatello Nebula” (written by Dennis O’Flaherty)
While trying to contact the Turtle Nebula, Donatello accidentally flags down an alien chameleon named Algae. Meanwhile, a crooked corporate businessman named Hostile Hiram Grelch steals Algae’s spaceship and plans to use it to conquer Earth.
Wow, what a freakin’ mess of an episode. Let’s start with the story. It begins with Don trying to send a message to the newly discovered Turtle nebula because he wants to know if there are other intelligent turtle lifeforms out there in the universe. But he already knows that there ARE because he met some earlier this season in the episode “Planet of the Turtles” (and he’ll meet even more in the two-parter “Planet of the Turtleoids” next season). So the plot hinges on Donatello forgetting something he already did this season.
Then there’s the animation and it is positively baffling. The background artists can’t decide whether Donatello should be on a rooftop or a sidewalk, so he switches back and forth between cuts. Police cars are represented by taxi cabs with lightbars on the roof. For an entire chase sequence, Donatello is sitting in the back of a cab with Algae except for one moment where he’s inexplicably Michelangelo (orange bandana, “M” initial belt buckle, the whole shebang, but with Don’s voice). When April is tied to a chair in Grelch’s penthouse (because of course she got kidnapped, did I really need to mention it beforehand?), there are spaceships hovering outside the window. This won’t make any sense for another five minutes, when the hologram spaceships are actually supposed to first show up.
This episode is… is… actually, it’s one of the more entertaining episodes BECAUSE of the multitude of confusing visual and storytelling errors. It certainly isn’t interesting because of the villain (crooked businessmen are almost as plentiful in this show as mad scientists and gangsters), it certainly isn’t suspenseful because of the conflict (I forgot to mention that Algae’s spaceship is going to explode because… You know, they never say; it just is), and it certainly isn’t entertaining because of the jokes (April fires a glue gun at Grelch with the oneliner, “Why don’t you STICK around!”). If you get any entertainment out of this episode, it’s because it doesn’t make any fucking sense.
Greg Berger (TV’s Grimlock) provides a guest voice, playing both Algae and Grelch. I like Berger’s voice, it’s very distinct, though neither of these characters represent his best stuff. Algae can’t decide whether he’s supposed to sound like a British uppercrust (using limey-isms such as “old bean” and “chap”) or if he’s supposed to sound like a college intellectual (his backstory being that he’s an intergalactic tiddlywinks professor). Grelch comes off a bit better, with Berger offering his best Sydney Greenstreet impression, but it doesn’t save a thoroughly forgettable bad guy who looks like Hoggish Greedly from Captain Planet and the Planeteers.
“Big Bug Blunder” (written by Michael Reaves)
Shredder and Krang use a new strain of mutagen to create giant insects and release them upon New York. At the same time, Genghis Frog comes visiting from Florida, looking for adventure.
Like “Splinter Vanishes”, this episode was a pleasant trip down “forgotten supporting action figure-based character” lane, and for that reason I also remember it pretty well from 20 years ago. However, writer Michael Reaves doesn’t really utilize the two returning characters (Metalhead and Genghis Frog) with any semblance of strategy.
The entire opening scene is a total non sequitor, as Splinter orders the Turtles to clean the living room and Donatello tries to get the job done fast by programming Metalhead to do it. This inevitably leads to disaster. I was expecting this scene to pay off, like maybe Metalhead was going to be reactivated later to help save the day or maybe the Turtles would learn some lesson about cleanliness that tied into the opening scene… but nah. Nothin’. It was entirely pointless save to remind us that Metalhead still exists (this would ultimately be his final appearance, too).
Genghis fares a little better. His antics don’t really contribute much to resolving the conflict of the giant bugs, he’s sort of just along for the ride and Donatello comes up with all the bright ideas, but he gets his licks in. With only one Punk Frog to draw the character focus, his voice is much stronger here than in his previous appearances. Reaves pens him as a Southern gentleman with a flowery vocabulary, albeit one that’s hard to appreciate when spoken through his Dixie accent (on that note, Jim Cummings offers another great performance). His whole point for showing up was that he wanted to get out of the sticks and come to the big city for adventure. I was expecting some sort of lesson at the end, like he’d come to the conclusion that “Aw shucks, this big city life ain’t fer me, I’m-a headin’ back to the swamp” or what the hell ever. But nah, he doesn’t learn a thing.
Overall, the plot is just a retread of stuff we’ve gotten before, particularly the season 3 episode “Mutagen Monster” (where Shredder uses a new strain of mutagen to create a giant bull that terrorizes New York). While the threat is a snooze and the script is extremely random, it’s still memorable for dredging up these characters that never got used enough (even if they wasted Metalhead on maid duties).
“The Foot Soldiers Are Revolting” (written by Michael Reaves)
When a Foot Soldier designated Alpha-1 has his intelligence boosted, he incites a Foot Soldier uprising and banishes Shredder and Krang into deep space. That leaves Bebop and Rocksteady to team up with the Turtles to stop Alpha-1.
This has got to be one of the funniest scripts in the entire run. I’ve said before that the best running gag in the series was Krang and Shredder’s “old married couple” routine. Even when everything else in an episode sucks, those two and their antagonistic sniping stand a chance of elevating things. And they’re an absolute riot once Alpha-1 loads them into an escape pod and launches them into space (“Why don’t you jettison your android body so we’ll have more room?” “Why don’t you jettison your head? It’s the most useless object in here!” or even better “Of course, there’s a far greater chance that we’ll simply be fried to a cinder.” “I hope you go first so I can watch.”)
But Reaves’s script has more going for it than just Krang and Shredder’s bickering. It makes good use of the Foot Soldiers, who haven’t been deployed in any meaningful capacity since the start of the series. Despite what this show’s title sequence might have told you, Shredder rarely used the Foot Soldiers as some massive conquering army charging the streets by the thousands. In reality, they’ve spent most of the season shambling about the Technodrome and maybe coming to Earth in groups of two or three.
Rewatching the show for these articles, I’m surprised at how judiciously the Foot Soldiers have been utilized. You’d think the writers would have made better use of them, what with their being robots and all which would allow the Turtles to actually USE their weapons on a foe for a change. It’s why I’ve never had a problem with robot Foot Soldiers in any incarnation of the TMNT cartoons. I mean, these are kid’s shows and the Turtles can’t go around stabbing and bludgeoning people all the time, so robots seem like a reasonable compromise so the Turtles can use their weapons for something other than deflecting laser blasts, flinging radial tires and cutting down chandeliers.
One of the subplots involves Bebop and Rocksteady getting fired and having to team up with the Turtles to overthrow Alpha-1 and convince Shredder and Krang to rehire them. The “team up” doesn’t get enough focus and the two goons hardly offer anything meaningful to the resolution (Rocksteady has one shining moment before he and Bebop go back to being worthless). Reaves mines it for some comedy and it’s a perfectly organic subplot, but it kind of gets shortchanged.
Anyway, “The Foot Soldiers Are Revolting” is one of my favorites. It could have made for a decent season finale, but unfortunately, the season finale wound up being…
“Unidentified Flying Leonardo” (written by Sean Roche)
When April and Leo investigate UFO sightings in a small town, Leo is mistaken for an alien and hunted by the townsfolk. The real culprit is actually Doc Davens, a mad scientist with a vegetable growth ray.
So what the fuck kind of season finale is this? Where’s the payoff for the entire season-long story arc about trying to get the Technodrome free from the Dimension X asteroid? Where’s the Technodrome getting waylaid in some weird new locale like in every other season finale? This is just another run of the mill story featuring a forgettable mad scientist!
So yeah, this was a non-finale of a season finale; another typical episode that doesn’t connect to the overarching story we’ve been following and doesn’t offer any reward for your patience. While most of the script and animation is competent, it isn’t especially funny and none of it is even remotely memorable. It’s just a boring, plodding episode and a terrible way to conclude a season.
I mean, I’ll give them a little credit in that Doc Davens is different from all the previous mad scientists from the season. Instead of a bespectacled poindexter in a lab coat, he’s an effeminate French cowboy in a pink getup with a handlebar moustache. So as far as this show’s forgettable mad scientists go, he was one of the most original.
The big flaw in this episode is Davens’s “evil” scheme. When he kidnaps April (oh for the love of–), he gives her the typical sinister bad guy monologue. His nefarious plot? To use his vita-ray to enlarge all his crops so he can solve world hunger and become obscenely wealthy. April responds with disgust, telling him that by cornering the agricultural market by solving world hunger, he’ll put other farmers out of business and that’s not fair. So April and the Turtles spend the whole episode endeavoring to destroy the most humanitarian “doomsday device” I’ve ever heard of all because they… don’t want him to have a lot of money? Our heroes, everybody.
There are dumb subplots dotting the script, such as April meeting a Podunk reporter named Scoop who thinks tractor-theft is a bigger story than aliens, or Leo teaming up with a hayseed imbecile named Billy Jim-Bob McJames who has seen “E.T.” one too many times (he references it endlessly). What a stupid episode.
With that, season 4 ends on a whimper. If they’d just gone with “The Foot Soldiers Are Revolting” I might not be ending this review on such a sour note; at least that episode was Technodrome-centric and felt “big” enough to function as a grand sendoff for the season. Too bad. We’ll be jumping into season 5 next time, opening with an Easter-themed two-parter. We’ll also get some action figure characters you may remember, such as Mondo Gecko and Mutagen Man, as well as an interesting one-shot character, Kazuo Saki (Shredder’s brother). Oh yeah, and the Badd Family because not all the episodes can be interesting.