A long-running television series can do one of two things. It can “stay the course” and never take any risks, relying on a predictable formula from beginning to end. Or, it can take a gamble and try to change things up a bit. Sometimes, viewers welcome the new status quo with open arms. More often than not, they go straight to TV Tropes and add another title to the “Jumped the Shark” article.
Season 9 is considered to be the season where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles “jumped the shark”.
While season 8 eased us into the “red sky” era with familiar villains and a gradual change to the show’s setup, season 9 deliberately tries to be radically different. We’ve got a new main villain, a strictly serialized continuity and the Turtles… well, they’re going to change even more-so in a story arc that won’t end until partway through season 10.
Many fans hate these seasons. Personally, I can respect the episodes for doing something bold and new in a show that had playing it safe for way too long. If you can rewatch these last two seasons with an open mind, safely removed from their initial broadcast by two decades (and it HAS been two decades), there’s a chance you might enjoy them now.
Or you just think Lord Dregg sucks and that’s the end of that. Well, let’s find out if he actually sucks as much as his reputation would have you believe…
“The Unknown Ninja” (written by Mark Edens and Bob Forward)
The alien conqueror Lord Dregg and his minions, Hi-Tech and the Techno Gang, come to Earth to raid it of resources. At the same time, a teenage martial artist named Carter begins following the Turtles in hopes of convincing Hamato Yoshi to teach him the secrets of the Foot Clan. When Carter rushes into battle to save the Turtles from Dregg, he’s accidentally mutated into a hulking monster.
Forward and Edens (and most assuredly Wise, who is the story editor) try to deviate from the norm almost immediately with this episode. Lord Dregg shows up as the new main villain, Carter joins the team as their ninja-in-training to change the dynamic, the Turtle Blimp is destroyed in battle (a tragic casualty) and April now works as a freelance reporter (Channel 6 and its accompanying characters are gone forever).
It’s all perhaps a little disorienting. If season 8 was only a superficial change to the series, season 9 presents a more fundamental alteration.
The episode is in a RUSH to get all these pieces into place to set up the new story and character arcs for the season and the frenzied pace means things get resolved too conveniently. When Carter first appears, the Turtles can’t stand him. Five minutes later, they won’t shut up about how awesome he is. What phenomenal feat did Carter perform to change their minds about him? He shoved a desk into a robot. That’s all the convincing the Turtles need!
The unstable mutagen concept is also introduced in this episode, but it won’t really kick off until “The Wrath of Medusa”. For now, Donatello just foreshadows that the mutagen that created the Turtles was unstable and they may still be mutating. Carter gets a dose of it himself and turns into a huge yellow behemoth (though neither Carter nor the Turtles are aware of the yellow mutant monster’s identity). This arc is going to play out through to the rest of season 9 and partway through season 10, so I suggest you make your peace with it.
Carter is not as bad as everyone likes to make him out to be. Is he the Scrappy-Doo of the series? Well, I dunno. He’s the new character introduced in the last seasons to try and appeal to a fresh audience and he’s portrayed as extra tough and cool and smart and, okay. Yeah. Maybe he’s Scrappy-Doo. But only a little.
I’m just grateful that he’s something NEW in the show. Something DIFFERENT. And as far as Scrappy-Doos go, he isn’t the worst. He’s flawed in many ways (his ninja skills need polish and his whole unstable mutation thing gives him his own problems to work out), but he’s not worthless. He can fight and comes through in a pinch. In many ways, he plays the same role that Zach was set up to play way back in season 3, but he’s indescribably less annoying than that little fucker. Bumper Robinson’s voice for Carter is a tad generic and certainly not Robinson’s most memorable role (that goes to either Dwight from Futurama or Bumblebee from Transformers Animated), but he isn’t irritating.
April being a freelance reporter leaves some unspoken continuity to fill in. Season 8 saw her relationship with Burne Thompson and Channel 6 begin to unravel as Burne initiated his anti-mutant campaign. Throughout that season, Burne proceeded to demote and punish April for supporting the TMNT and at times she threatened to strike out on her own and do an independent expose’ exonerating the Turtles. So it seems that she either got fired or quit for good, though the audience is invited to make that connection on their own. Channel 6 will never be seen or mentioned again.
Then there’s Lord Dregg. So far as introductions go, he is a rather typical space alien warlord character. He doesn’t make much of a first impression, but his schemes will get more elaborate as the season progresses and he’ll present a viable threat later on. His situation is that his ship, the Dreggnaut, was damaged while escaping from the Galactic Patrol and he needs to steal resources to repair it before he can conquer Earth. So, essentially, he’s in the same boat as Krang and the Technodrome. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
What gives Dregg some extra pep is that he’s voiced by Tony Jay. Tony Jay was THE evil overlord voice of ‘90s animation. Hell, I think he even played a villain named Overlord in the Savage Dragon cartoon (but the less said about that show, the better). He gives Dregg a sense of suave, calculating menace, even when the actual writing pegs him as no better than your typical Megatron or Cobra Commander. He’s a good example of the kind of difference a good voice actor can make.
Dregg’s right-hand henchman, Hi-Tech, fares much worse than his boss. He’s competent, but has no personality to speak of and talks in a robotic monotone. It’s like the writers wanted to create a henchman that was the exact opposite of Bebop and Rocksteady, but went too far in the other direction. We’ll only have to tolerate him for this season, though.
You might also notice that this episode uses a different animation studio from the previous season. In fact, it looks a LOT like the unnamed squash-and-stretch studio that was so prevalent in the third season of the series. The credits have finally begun to list the names of the overseas studios (a practice that became common in the ‘90s, but was rare in the ‘80s) and they claim that Shanghai Morning Sun Animation animated this episode.
On one last weird note of continuity, the episode opens with the Turtles battling Megavolt’s ninja gang from “State of Shock”. Megavolt is neither seen nor mentioned and the ninjas go unidentified, but that’s who they are. I guess Megavolt is still out there? Or maybe the animators were just recycling available character models for a throwaway battle. The latter seems like a safe bet.
“Dregg of the Earth” (written by Mark Edens and David Wise)
Lord Dregg reveals himself to humanity, not as a warlord but as a philanthropic savior. The Turtles see through his ruse, but their attempts to expose Dregg and uncover his true motives may be thwarted when Carter betrays them and joins the alien warlord.
Oh god, Shanghai Morning Sun is going to animate this whole season, aren’t they? While they aren’t supremely awful, a little of their style goes a long way. The elastic, spastic movements of the characters look clumsy and awkward, especially with the show’s new ultra-serious aesthetic. Squash-and-stretch just doesn’t work when the show is trying to be dark and gritty. Shanghai Morning Sun also animated several episodes of Gargoyles, the really, really awkward-looking ones, so some of you might have a good idea of how well their style fits action cartoons. They should’ve stuck to Life With Louie.
This episode offers something to set Dregg apart from his predecessors, having him hide behind the guise of an alien philanthropist out to save humanity from itself. It allows him to hide in plain sight, making it that much harder for the Turtles to fight him without looking like the bad guys themselves. It also gives April something to do this season, and she tries to gather evidence to expose Dregg.
Again, it gives Dregg an element to differentiate him from Krang and Shredder, but there’s a problem. The guy does not look heroic or philanthropic. He is a giant, fanged insect-monster with glowing red eyes. The fact that humanity immediately rallies behind him is a stretch even by the logic standards of this show (and that’s saying something).
I will say that this season is actually progressing its arcs in a steady fashion. The Turtles are still uneasy about Carter working with them and he in turn learns to stop being a rebel and follow orders with this episode. His apparent betrayal is a deception, of course; a rather stock cartoon plot, but it works okay since this was only Carter’s second appearance.
Also, the Turtles’ unstable mutations get a preview as their arms transform momentarily. It’s some nice build up, actually; the first episode suggests the mutations, this episode gives us a glimpse of them, and next episode we’ll see them full on. The exercise will get old fast, but the piecemeal introduction is a nice gesture.
“The Wrath of Medusa” (written by Mark Edens and David Wise)
To keep the Turtles from interfering with his neutronium mining operation, Lord Dregg hires the alien mercenary Medusa to keep them busy. Carter’s unstable mutation makes him as much a threat to the Turtles as Medusa, but soon the TMNT won’t be able to point fingers, as their own unstable mutations begin to take over.
This episode finally introduces the TMNT’s unstable mutations, albeit only for a minute. But don’t worry, you’ll be seeing more of them later this season. LOTS more of them.
At first glance, you might think that the Turtles transforming into powerful new mutant forms to better fight their enemies would be a toyline tie-in. Believe it or not, the unstable mutated TMNT never received action figures.
As it so happens, this was an idea that got cannibalized from the fourth live-action TMNT film that never got made, but the idea for the movie was that the TMNT would undergo unstable mutations that gave them new appearances and abilities. Mikey would be able to assume a human form, Leo would get armored skin, Donnie would have telekinetic powers that made him go blind (countered by vision-enhancing goggles), and Raph would turn into a hulking monster with big claws.
For the show, all four Turtles wound up with Raph’s hulking monster mutation. You don’t see it in this episode, but later on the Turtles will acquire unique aspects in their unstable mutations that mimic the special powers they would have received in the movie (Raph gets big claws, Leo gets armor, Don gets a cybernetic eye-piece, Mikey gets… nothing). Further ideas from the aborted fourth live-action film would also be cannibalized for The Next Mutation TV series, but you can read the article I linked to for more details on that.
As for this episode, I’m rather liking Dregg’s guise as an alien savior to hide his evil schemes. When the Turtles destroy the space station he was using to control Earth’s military defense computers, he manages to manipulate it into making the Turtles look like terrorists. It segues out of season 8’s storyline in which Burne turned humanity against the TMNT rather nicely, with Dregg now taking the baton and further making them out to be evildoers shunned by the public.
As a guest villain, Medusa puts up a good fight. Contrary to what her name might imply, her power is nothing hair-related, but rather that she’s a weapons expert. Carter ultimately saves the day when he learns to control his unstable mutation and ceases to be a liability in battle. This is the third episode in a row where Carter proves his worth by saving the Turtles at the climax. So yeah, it’s getting a little annoying.
The sooner you accept him as the new member of the team, the sooner the writers can stop pushing him so hard as a worthwhile inclusion. Your resistance is only making things worse.
“The New Mutation” (written by David Wise)
With the military siding with Lord Dregg, the Turtles find their attempts to thwart the evil alien’s schemes are now against the law. Frustrated, they attempt to use their unstable mutations to defeat Dregg with brute force, but their recklessness accidentally unleashes a monster called the Slorr on the city.
The Turtles get their unique abilities via their unstable mutations in this episode. It’s a nice gesture, but neither the writers nor the animators seem to give a s--t. Leonardo uses his armor to deflect laser blasts and Donatello uses his eye-scope for some x-ray vision in one scene, but Raphael never utilizes his claws and Michelangelo never makes good use of his absolutely nothing. The special powers fall pretty flat in their introductory episode.
Worse yet is that the animation studio can’t keep track of the visual details. So Donatello’s eye-piece is missing most of the time, as are Raphael’s claws and spikes. The special powers might have been a neat inclusion if only the people making the show explored them to their full potential.
The theme of this episode revolves around brains over brawn, that standby cartoon morality play. The Turtles and Carter each undergo a conflict that conveniently requires them to think their way through when their attempts to muscle the enemy to death fails. Don and Leo have to carefully move some volatile jet fuel without making it explode, Mike and Raph have to defeat a robot called the Replicon that clones itself whenever its destroyed, and Carter has to figure out how to stop a giant monster that only gets more powerful the more he fights it. Meanwhile, Lord Dregg tries to build a death ray and ultimately gets his comeuppance when the Turtles use their brains to stop his powerful new weapon.
The moral is overdone and boring, but it does say something about the direction of the show that might be a little reassuring. The Turtles spend the whole season hulking out and turning into big monsters, but this episode assures audiences that growing big and strong won’t be the answer to all their problems. They’ll still have to think their way through challenges to find a solution.
While that’s certainly a relief, it presents its own setback. The unstable mutations now become an annoying inconvenience. Every time the Turtles are about to solve a problem: “Oh no! Our unstable mutations are activating! Not now!” By the end of the season, this song and dance is going to get pretty tiresome.
The good news is that we’re now halfway through the season. Yep, only 8 episodes again. So it’s hard to say the plot thread REALLY overstayed its welcome when the seasons are so damn short.
“The Showdown” (written by David Wise)
Carter’s old martial arts rival, Jet McCabe, steals a power-boosting suit to get revenge for getting kicked out of their dojo. At the same time, Lord Dregg hires the alien slaver Sleazebug to kidnap Leonardo, Michelangelo, Carter and Jet, forcing them to fight in an outer space tournament. With the team split up, Raphael and Donatello are captured so that Dregg can replicate their unstable mutagen.
Jet McCabe is not a very good character. He comes out of nowhere in the first few minutes of the episode and proceeds to cajole and harass Carter throughout the duration of the story. He steals a power-boosting set of armor that Carter had built (before he got his own power-boosting mutation) and uses it to bully and beat-up his former dojo classmate. His motivations are pretty rushed and weak.
HOWEVER, you know who voices him? Robbie Rist! Michelangelo from the live-action movies (and, more recently, Mondo Gecko in the Nickelodeon TMNT cartoon). So hiring a familiar TMNT voice from the movies to play the character gives Jet a leg up that he otherwise doesn’t deserve. Rist plays him using his Michelangelo voice, so it ends up sounding like a really mean Movie Michelangelo if you close your eyes.
I guess if I had to say something nice about Jet’s character, and not his voice actor, I suppose it’s that the script makes no attempt to redeem him by the end of the episode. He’s a violent, cheating jerk and he never changes. He chooses to stay in the alien tournament at the end of the episode rather than escape with the rest of the characters because he enjoys beating people up too much. What’s nice is that the characters don’t dwell on it, either. There’s no, “I’m sorry Carter, but some people just can’t be helped” lesson summary at the end or anything like that. Jet’s just a dick and that’s all there is to it.
The other plot of the episode sees Dregg and Sleazebug capture Raph and Donnie to steal the secret of their unstable mutations. Sleazebug gets a mutation enhancement, but the bad guys ultimately lose the data when the laboratory explodes. Raph and Don mostly get the short end of the stick with this episode and Dregg is foiled in the frenzied seconds before the credits roll. Leo suggests they’ll meet the new and improved Sleazebug again someday. They never do and that’s just fine.
“Split-Second” (written by David Wise)
Winston Frip, a petty thief whom the Turtles caught years ago, returns as the criminal mastermind Chronos. Using his intimate knowledge of timing and schedules, Chronos pits the Turtles against numerous challenges to get his revenge.
Wise has been really good these past couple of seasons, but with “Split-Second” he momentarily resorts to one of his greatest professional sins: Script recycling. While “Split-Second” isn’t as grievous a duplication as “Poor Little Rich Turtle” or “The Big Zipp Attack”, it is still a rather obviously recycled story. And what script did he recycle “Split-Second” from? “The Clock King”, an episode of Batman: The Animated Series he’d written three years earlier.
It’s fitting, I guess, since the “red sky” seasons of TMNT were deliberately trying to ape the aesthetic of Batman: The Animated Series, but that’s all the justification I can offer such self-plagiarizing. All the hallmarks of “The Clock King” are present in “Split-Second”: A villain who was obsessed with scheduling wanting revenge, a time-based challenge involving a train crash in the subway, and even a grand finale inside a clock tower.
As a villain, Chronos goes for this sort of Joker thing, or maybe something closer to Frank Gorshin’s Riddler (who is essentially how the Joker is portrayed now, anyway). He’s voiced by Maurice LaMarche, but his attempt at a Joker-style voice actually sounds closer to a Weird Al Yankovic impression. LaMarche is probably the greatest celebrity impressionist who has ever lived (and I say that with respect to Rich Little) and I’ve seen a LOT of cartoons with the guy, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard him do a Weird Al impression before now. It’s an unusual performance on his part and you might not even recognize him until he starts screaming and sounds a bit like Yosemite Sam.
While most of this episode is a copy of a much, MUCH better Batman episode, there’s a nice fake-out at the end that I think is worth talking about. Dregg is absent through most of the episode and it’s only at the tail of the third act that we learn he was financing Chronos’ schemes the whole time. When Chronos is defeated and left for the police, Dregg swoops in and takes the credit for capturing the madman, further solidifying his reputation as a hero to the public (and further sullying the TMNT’s good name).
The episode gives us a break from Dregg for the most part while still tying the story into his overarching plotline for the season. So it’s got that going for it.
Also, Raphael breaks the Fourth Wall a couple of times this episode, addressing the audience and even acknowledging an oncoming flashback. This is the first time the Fourth Wall has been broken all season and only the second time since the “red sky” era began. These seasons have been deliberately trying to avoid such things, but it looks like a few self-aware gags managed to slip through by accident.
“Carter, the Enforcer” (written by David Wise)
Dregg plans to launch the Starshield, a space station that will give him dominance over the Earth, and it appears that Carter has joined him. The Turtles can’t stand against the combined might of Dregg, Carter and the Earth authorities, but are taken to the future by time travelers Landor and Merrick. There, they’ll learn what really happened.
Landor and Merrick. We’ll be seeing them again, though they’ll never amount to the most robust characters. They come from a future where the Turtles are defeated by Dregg and humanity is enslaved. It’s one of those Terminator or “Days of Future Past” type futures; nothing we haven’t seen before.
The episode, while it plays it close to the clichés, is pretty dark for this series. When Landor and Merrick send the Turtles back to the present to undo Dregg’s future, the last we see of them is their holding hands as members of the Techno Gang bear down on them with a barrage of laserfire. The episode ends with April finding the present day versions of Landor and Merrick, still toddlers playing in a sandbox, and the Turtles vow to make sure they defeat Dregg so the future where they die never comes to pass.
Yeah, I mean, for the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon? That’s some pretty bleak stuff.
The rest of the episode centers around Carter’s robot duplicate making trouble. The Turtles have to first learn that the duplicate isn’t actually Carter, then defeat it in the future, then defeat it again in the present. All this was shown to the viewer at the very beginning of the episode (that Carter was duplicated and hadn’t actually gone bad), so the “mystery” the protagonists are left to unravel isn’t a mystery to the audience.
The first act is an almost entirely different plot from the time travel and robot Carter stuff, too. It features April finally getting proof that Dregg is evil, but when she shows it to the news networks, all the executives accuse her of faking the footage and refuse to broadcast it. As the penultimate episode of the season, “Carter, the Enforcer” does a pretty good job of putting the TMNT between a rock and a hard place. Humanity doesn’t WANT to believe them, even when there’s proof, but they HAVE to defeat Dregg or countless people will die, including their new friends.
While this was a rather by-the-numbers sort of story, it works really well in the ongoing storyline.
“Doomquest” (written by David Wise)
Lord Dregg acquires the Vortex Crystal, an artifact that can warp space and time and bring his scattered armada to Earth. He’s soon challenged by his rival, the warlord Doomquest, for possession of the Crystal. The Turtles are caught in the middle and their problems are only compounded when their unstable mutations begin to erode their intelligence.
As a season finale, this is probably one of the more forgettable ones (excluding those non-finale finales for seasons 4 and 6). Ultimately, there’s no feeling of resolution or faux-resolution and the stakes aren’t any higher than the threats we’ve been seeing all season long.
Basically, Doomquest steals the Vortex Crystal from Lord Dregg and uses it to open dimensional portals to the Dark Realm. Dregg wants the Crystal back so he can power the Dreggnaut and conquer Earth, while the Turtles want it so they can use its unique energies to stabilize their mutations. In the end, nobody gets the crystal as Leonardo is forced to destroy it in order to send Doomquest and his minions back to the Dark Realm.
The Technodrome getting revived and waylaid in 22 minutes may have gotten old fast, but at least it always felt like a solid punctuation between seasons. “Doomquest” does very little to define a break between seasons 9 and 10.
The only subplot that is resolved with this finale is Dregg’s heroic deception. April finally gets irrefutable proof of Dregg’s evildoing and the president of Channel 8 (yes, Channel EIGHT) agrees to broadcast it. So in the final seconds, Dregg is revealed to the world as a villain and the Turtles are exonerated of all wrongdoing. It’s the only thing that separates this season from the next, so it’s as close to a season’s worth of closure as we’re going to get.
The unstable mutations are still a thing. Carter manages to save some residue from the Vortex Crystal and the Turtles hope to use it to cure themselves, but the story arc is still left up in the air. It’s going to continue for two more episodes next season, making me wish they’d just solved the problem in this episode and let that plot thread die.
Doomquest is presented as the biggest and baddest of all the intergalactic, interdimensional warlords we’ve seen on this show. If Dregg was a greater threat than Krang, then Doomquest is intended to be a greater threat than Dregg (who regards him with simpering fear). Doomquest has a cool voice, though it’s essentially just Jim Cummings doing his Dr. Robotnik voice from Sonic the Hedgehog. His look is gnarly and they go out of the way to portray him as the embodiment of pure demonic evil. He makes for a good one-shot villain even if he only proves as competent as the usual bad guys who show up in this cartoon.
We’re going to have to bid a few more goodbyes with this episode. David Wise will step down as story editor and lead writer; this was his last episode. It’s a shame he didn’t get the final word on the series, seeing as how he saw things through this far. I gave him a lot of crap throughout these reviews, not without justification, but when he wanted to he could write some great scripts. And he most certainly was responsible for molding the humor and tone of the series which we all associate so fondly with the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon.
Another farewell will be extended to Rob Paulsen, voice of Raphael. He will depart from the series with this episode and we won’t get to hear all four original cast members together again until 2014, when they cameoed in an episode of the Nickelodeon TMNT cartoon.
From what I’ve read, Paulsen left over a pay dispute; after 9 seasons, he wanted a raise, Fred Wolf wasn’t going to give it to him, so he walked. While an unfortunate way to end a near decade-long relationship, Paulsen has evidently held no ill will toward the Ninja Turtle brand; he came back in 2012 to voice Donatello in the Nick show, after all. From Fred Wolf’s point of view, as producer he probably knew that the TMNT cartoon was a season away from ending and likely couldn’t justify spending any additional money on the show.
Season 9, overall, I’d say was pretty good. It had an interesting arc that put the Turtles in a new situation they couldn’t easily get out of, and Dregg proved to be a far more cunning villain that Krang and Shredder were (he basically convinced humanity that they WANTED to be conquered and the Turtles had to save everyone from themselves). The unstable mutations, well, that arc did overextend itself, featuring prominently in 6 of the 8 episodes this season and it’s still not quite over with. So yeah, I can see how people might have gotten sick of it. Carter, though, isn’t nearly as bad as he’s made out to be.
Season 10 is much better than season 9, if you ask me. The animation studio will be switched back to Dai Won in Korea and their work looks much, much better than Shangahi Morning Sun’s. While Dregg without his “savior of the Earth” routine won’t be quite as interesting, we’ll get a pretty sweet three-parter involving the return of Shredder and Krang. I can’t believe it, but we’re almost done.