So it’s come to this. The awkward hurdle between the long-running Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon of the 1980s and the long-running 4kids TMNT cartoon of the 2000s: That weird live-action Ninja Turtles show that got cancelled after a single season. Yes, I am of course speaking of the legendarily dreadful Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation.
To be perfectly honest, I haven’t watched an episode of this show since YouTube was a brand new thing. And prior to that, I’d only caught an episode here and there when it first ran on Fox. So is it REALLY as awful as its reputation insists, or is Next Mutation simply a virally misremembered, but ultimately benign footnote in TMNT history?
Sigh. Let’s find out.
Today I’m just going to run through the introductory 5-part miniseries, but before I do, you might want to check out an older research article I wrote: The 4th Live-Action TMNT Movie That Never Was. The Reader’s Digest version is that after TMNT III bombed in the theaters, the fourth film that was already in preproduction was immediately scrapped. The ideas for it got cannibalized; the Turtles gaining secondary mutation powers wound up in the ninth season of the Fred Wolf cartoon and the idea of a fifth Ninja Turtle, as well as the title “The Next Mutation”, found its way into this series.
Coming out only a year after the Fred Wolf cartoon ended, I think the intent of Next Mutation was to transition the kids who had outgrown the animated series into something newer and cooler but still TMNT. Saban, the production company behind Power Rangers, VR Troopers, Masked Rider and Beetleborgs, all live-action shows that appealed to older kids who were over cartoons, seemed like a natural fit to bring Next Mutation to life. The TV show was even a loose continuation of the live-action film series, which older kids were already enjoying (well, aside from that third one).
Unfortunately, something happened along the way. I don’t know when and I don’t know what, but it did. And Next Mutation wound up being considerably more juvenile than the last season of the Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon. So what we got was a show marketed toward older kids, made for little kids, and consequently appealing to positively no one.
“East Meets West, Episode 1” (written by Dan Clark)
Having found the lair of the Ninja Turtles, the Shredder sends his Foot Soldiers to confront them. The Turtles have bigger problems, as Master Splinter’s spirit becomes lost in the Dream Realm, captured by an ancient dragon. Splinter’s mystic contemporary in China, Chung I, is killed while trying to save him from the dragons, and sends his daughter, the shinobi Mei Pei Chi, to New York City to help. But Mei is… a mutant turtle?
As much as I would love to open my very first review of the series by calling the introductory episode “s--t” or something equally clever and colorful, the truth is that things actually start out pretty promising. The episode banks heavily on reminding audiences of the live-action films, not just in set design (the subway lair), but in character dynamics.
The very FIRST thing we see from the Turtles in this show is Leonardo and Raphael fighting and Raph storming out to cool off. We get callbacks to the first film beyond that, as Raph goes it alone against several Foot Soldiers and has to be rescued (this time by Splinter), and even a scene in the third act where the Foot invade the lair (though executed for more comedic effect). Next Mutation does very much want you to know right from the getgo that it’s a continuation of the movies, not the cartoon.
Unfortunately, while the show is certainly decided on its continuity, it actually isn’t so sure if it wants to be a cartoon or not. Though it isn’t drowning in the Hanna Barbera sound effect library yet, there is a weird disconnect between how serious and goofy it wants to be. At one point, Michelangelo suggests they all go out for pizza and the other Turtles tell him to “grow up”; an obvious dig at the cartoon series and a labored way of informing the audience that this show would be less juvenile. But then later, during the battle with the Foot in the lair, Michelangelo orders a sour cream and licorice pizza because hahaha weird pizza toppings are funny. So which is it? Are pizza jokes dumb and for babies or aren’t they?
Then there’s a pointless sequence where Mikey crashes his go-kart through a brick wall, leaving behind a perfect outline of himself but while otherwise being none the worse for wear.
It’s just… strange. At one moment, the episode will go for this melodramatic angle, reprising themes from the first live-action movie about angst and finding your place in the world… and then Michelangelo will pull some Bugs Bunny s--t and leave an outline of himself in a brick wall. Well, the good news is that the series will eventually figure out whether it wants to be silly or serious. Just be aware that it’s going to choose “silly”.
The production values of the show are actually pretty high; contrary to popular belief, this was NOT a cheap show to produce. The problem is that it still looks really awkward and clumsy. The fight scene with the Foot Soldiers in the lair is stiff and static. Shaky camerawork tries to cover up the fact that the Turtles can barely move, but still can’t convince you that spastic flailing is a form of martial arts.
You’ll also probably notice that all the actors who don’t appear masked or in prosthetic costumes are dubbed. I’ve read a few theories about this; one had to do with Unions and that you only get Union benefits if you appear AND speak on screen, so by dubbing actors Saban circumvented having to pay them Union wages. I’m not so sure I buy that, but then, Saban wound up moving production to New Zealand just a few years after this series in order to save costs because… Unions were too expensive! So maybe there’s some truth to it.
The other theory I’ve read is that the animatronics and hydraulics used on the prosthetic characters were too noisy, drowning out the audio recorded on set and thus requiring new dialogue tracks to be looped in. This seems a bit more realistic and in later episodes we’ll see actors dubbing themselves, which sort of puts a lid on the “dub an actor with another actor to save Union costs” suggestion.
Whatever the case, a lot of the audio looping is really bad. I can understand the Turtles and Splinter having poor lip syncing because their animatronic faces couldn’t lip sync PERIOD, but why do Chung I and the Foot Soldiers have to look/sound so bad?
And yet, in spite of all my criticisms, there’s still something entertaining about the episode and the episodes that follow; even when the show goes off the rails and gets obnoxious. Maybe what helps is that I have context on my side; I know what a bad live-action TMNT production REALLY looks like. It looks something like this. Watch one or two of those videos and THEN try to tell me that Next Mutation is the worst thing you’ve ever seen.
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
“East Meets West, Episode 2” (written by Dan Clark)
Mei Pei Chi, now going by the name Venus de Milo, arrives in New York to help the Turtles rescue Splinter from the Dream Realm. However, before they can do that, they must coordinate a counterattack against the Foot Clan. With Venus’ help, the Turtles will defeat the Shredder once and for all.
There is a big change from the first to second episode of Next Mutation; one you can’t see but you can DEFINITELY hear. Those Hanna Barbera sound effects I joked about earlier begin being implemented with this episode and they’re very distracting.
I mean, they’re used for EVERYTHING, not just to add whimsical levity to punches and kicks. When Raph drops a slice of pizza it makes a KERSPLAT! sound. Whenever anyone gestures with their hands, there are bicycle bell rings or horn honks or AOOGAH! noises. I mean, even the opening credit overlays make these weird sounds when they appear on screen. But they make those noises while the characters are talking and you can actually miss what’s been said because the f-----g “Written by Dan Clark” credit is making ambulance siren noises at you!
It’s obvious that these sound effects were added in post, and rather hastily, too. Maybe someone along the way thought the show was too violent and needed the cartoony racket to take the edge off; but honestly, Next Mutation’s action sequences weren’t any grittier than those seen in the Saban shows with footage imported from Japan, yet those show didn’t get the BEEP BEEP HONK HONK SPLAT BANG BOOM bullshit treatment.
Lots of lighthearted trash talk is also looped into the fight scenes, again, to add levity. Venus does battle with the Foot Soldiers at a playground and she’s dropping puns left and right. It’s wildly out of character for her, especially this early into the series, when she’s otherwise shown to take everything literally (she refers to the sewer lair as “the toilet” because she doesn’t understand the difference).
Then there’s the weird catchphrases they dub in for no other reason than to eliminate silence, I guess. So Raph is driving his motorcycle down the road and is screaming things like “CERTIFIED TURTLEFIED!” and “NINJA TIME!” and “RAPH ‘N ROLL!” for no discernable reason.
That was a good live-action Ninja Turtles show we had there. For one episode.
As the last episode of the series to focus on the Shredder, he isn’t treated with the most dignity. The writers and designers continue to stress the connection with the live-action films: The Foot Clan operates out of a warehouse full of stolen electronics, Shredder mentions how he chopped off part of Splinter’s ear, He also has a scarred face, the Foot Soldiers all wear their movie costumes, and Leonardo gives a stirring speech to the disenchanted Foot Soldiers about how the Shredder was never their family and was only using them (Shredder as a surrogate father to the Foot Soldiers was an idea exclusive to the first movie).
I mean, all the callbacks to the movies are certainly neat, although they never address how the Shredder survived a pier falling on him, to say nothing of why he isn’t Super Shredder anymore. So let’s just call it “selective continuity” and table this line of discussion for the rest of these reviews.
The fight at Foot HQ, sound effects notwithstanding, is actually pretty good. Much better choreographed than the fight in the lair from the first episode. While some of the goofy play-fighting looks clumsy (Donatello spinning on his shell with his staff sticking out, clobbering Foot Soldiers like a propeller), there are a few standout bits of suit-acting. Raph gets grabbed from behind by one Foot Soldier then does a really sweet backflip, kicking the Foot Soldier trying to sucker punch him in the face while spinning over the shoulders of the Foot Soldier who had grabbed him.
Alas, the Shredder doesn’t fight anyone. When he finally enters the fray, he’s immediately felled by Venus, who uses her shinobi powers to eliminate the Shredder persona and give Oroku Saki a second chance to make amends for his evil ways. It’s dumb and a pretty lackluster end to the villain. Of course, having the new character show how awesome she is by easily defeating the most powerful/popular villain of the series is a cheap trope, but they REALLY needed to sell the idea of Girl Turtle to the audience so I can’t blame them.
Venus, as a character… Look, she isn’t that bad, okay? She really isn’t. She isn’t their sister, she’s just another mutant Turtle (she explains as much in this episode), so she isn’t altering any family dynamic. Her being present when the Turtles mutated but found by another person (Chung I) isn’t unprecedented, either; that was Mondo Gecko’s origin from the Fred Wolf cartoon. And her being another mutant Turtle was already well-trodden territory by 1997, lest we forget about Slash and Tokka.
But I’m not going to convince anyone that she’s a worthwhile character; her reputation is so bad that I’d have a better chance at getting people to join the Zach the Fifth Turtle fan club. Peter Laird, co-creator of the TMNT, has been notoriously vociferous over the decades about how much he hated her and cites her as his reasoning for wanting nothing to do with The Next Mutation. Kevin Eastman, on the other hand, was totally down with the idea and happily promoted the series:
Her sing-songy, stereotypical “Confucius say” Chinese accent is really bad and late-90s TV-budget CG effects were NOT up to the task of bringing her Shinobi magic powers to life, but FUNDAMENTALLY she isn’t the god awful Scrappy-Doo of a character she’s made out to be.
Or maybe she is. I’m only two episodes in. What the f--k do I know.
But whether you hate Venus or not, I think what’s more agreeable is that how the other Turtles react to her is much more irritating than anything she actually does. They all immediately start lusting after her in their own ways (Mikey most obnoxiously so) and man does the joke run out of steam quickly. I mean, yeah, these are four 17 year-olds suddenly seeing a girl they’re anatomically compatible with for the first time, so it makes sense that their libidos would go into overdrive. But I don’t want to watch that for 20 minutes (actually 19 minutes; these episodes are short).
“East Meets West, Episode 3” (written by Dan Clark)
Venus teaches the Turtles how to enter the Dream Realm and together they rescue Splinter. However, it was all a trick by the Dragon Lord, who uses the doorway they created to free himself and his army of dragon ninja.
The primary antagonist of the series, the Dragon Lord, gets his full debut in this episode. He isn’t as underwhelming as I thought he’d be; the costume looks good even if the animatronic lip sync is way off. Christopher Gaze plays him as the exact opposite of Doug Parker’s Shredder. Where Shredder was a screaming lunatic, Dragon Lord is very eloquent and devious. In a way, it reminds me of the transition from Shredder to Lord Dregg at the end of the Fred Wolf cartoon.
The Dragon Lord costume has a good look to it, though the ornaments on his helmet are oddly Shredder-like. When he confronts the Turtles at the park, he breathes fire in a short but cool sequence. They literally crammed a flamethrower in the costume’s mouth, so the shot doesn’t linger long enough for anyone to see how dodgy the execution probably was.
His forces (called the Rank) are the real disappointment. In the past two episodes, Chung I went on about how an army of “dragons” were banished to the Dream Realm, so I was expected an army of freakin’ dragons. Instead, they’re all hooded and masked ninja who make growly noises to intimate monstrous features underneath without actually showing us those features. Some “dragons”.
The comedy relief henchman is Wick, a tiny puppet dragon voiced by Lee Tockar (Bling-Bling Boy from Johnny Test and god help you if you get that reference). He’s an insanely obvious puppet, as his lower half is always obscured behind a table or a wall; he looks like something out of Dinosaurs if you can remember that show. Luckily, his lack of mobility keeps him from absorbing too much screen time, so he isn’t so overbearing as a comedy relief character.
This episode was only 16 minutes long, credits included, so I don’t know if the version I have is edited or what. I recall many episodes of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers being that brisk, so I wouldn’t put it past Saban to shortchange an episode by 6 or 7 minutes. But whether I have an incomplete copy or not, the episode is brief and so there isn’t much plot to discuss.
Instead, I’ll bring up the voice actors for the Turtles. If you ever watched any cartoons in the ‘90s, you probably recognize these people. They’re “the Canadian voice actors”. Even if you don’t know their names, you’ll know them when you hear them; that same small clique of voices who always seemed to work together in every cartoon they appeared in. I’m not saying the Canadian voice acting industry is bad, I’m just saying it has a small pool of talent to fish from.
While none of the casting is particularly bad so far, some of the actors feel like they were assigned to the wrong characters. Take Matt Hill, for example. He plays Raph, and an alright one, but he sounds like he’d make a much BETTER Michelangelo. The guy has played a billion “surfer dudes” and immature teenagers over his career, and it’s one of the character types he’s best at, so the decision to put him on Raph and not Mikey is just bewildering.
Then again, Matt Hill was Raphael’s suit actor (but not voice actor) in TMNT III, so maybe that had something to do with the casting (he isn’t Raph’s suit actor in this show, fyi).
Kirby Morrow’s Michelangelo is an alright radical youth. The surfer dude aspect is downplayed to almost being nonexistent, and instead he plays Mikey as being frustratingly horny. Admittedly, that’s probably the scriptwriter’s fault, but Morrow’s Mikey just wants to get laid SO BAD YOU GUYS.
Michael Dobson’s Leo is boring, but that’s Leo, so go figure. Not his fault.
Jason Gray-Stanford’s Donatello is interesting. He almost sounds like he’s going for the raspy Corey Feldman approach, but subdued with a shyer voice to befit Donnie’s nerdiness. I’ve had very little to say About Donnie as a character so far because three episodes in, he’s hardly done anything. He seems to clash the most with Venus (while everyone else just wants to f--k her), primarily because she uses magic and he’s a scientific skeptic. Guess Donnie forgot about that time he and his brothers used a magic scepter to travel back in time, but what did I say earlier? “Selective continuity”? My bad.
“East Meets West, Episode 4” (written by Dan Clark & Michael Mayhew)
Wick concocts a potion to make the Rank Soldiers invincible, but they need to collect the bones of rare animals to make it. The Turtles head to the zoo to stop them, but not before the Rank Lieutenant is injected with the potion.
Instead of feeling like the fourth part of a five-part miniseries, this feels more like the first part of a two-part storyline. “East Meets West” 1 thru 3 introduced Venus, the Dragon Lord and established the new status quo. “East Meets West” 4 thru 5 are a separate story about a super power potion. See what I mean?
Anyway, the humor in this episode hits the mark much better than in the first three episodes. Since the only change in the writing is the inclusion of Michael Mayhew, I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest we have him to thank for the funnier script.
First and foremost, this Splinter cracks me up. He mingles his ponderous zen master routine with a lot of asides and contradictions; he almost feels like a prototype of the Nickelodeon cartoon’s Splinter. There’s a lengthy sequence where he tells his sons that true warriors fight defensively and that they must not go looking for trouble. When he changes his mind and tells his sons to go kick ass, he doesn’t bother with any sort of guru bullshit to justify the hypocrisy.
“I have changed by mind!”
“But Master, you can’t do that!”
“Yes I can, I am old!”
And I think the looped dialogue added in post has gotten more self-aware. There’s still all the random one-liners the characters spew out for no reason, but at times they actually make fun of the footage or the context.
As the Turtles drive off in a custom hummer with a “TRTLPWR” license plate while screaming catchphrases, Splinter calls out, “And be stealthy!” They also make fun of what looks like a genuine error when the muffler falls off of Raph’s motorcycle.
It feels like the show is laughing WITH itself in this episode and that’s an attitude I can appreciate.
“East Meets West, Episode 5” (written by Michael Mayhew)
The Dragon Lord has all the ingredients he needs for his invincibility potion except one: Endangered turtle eggs to give it an everlasting effect. The Turtles head to the aquarium to stop the Dragon Lord, but with the Rank already powered up by the temporary potion, they’ll have to think outside of the box to stop them.
Did YOU expect a scathing commentary on traditional Chinese pharmaceutical practices in this episode of Next Mutation? Because I sure didn’t.
Mayhew writes a pretty clever script that manages to neutralize the threat of the invincibility potion without coming across as a copout. The theme of the episode revolves around using a new perspective to find a solution and it actually delivers.
Basically, Wick is using ancient Chinese medicine making techniques to create his potion, and that means grinding the bones of endangered animals into powder. This is an actual thing that persists in China and the Chinese black market is the primary reason poaching still exists in Africa and other parts of the world (they really, REALLY want that black rhino horn). Of course, we all know that powdered animal bones won’t grant you magic powers, and guess what? THAT’S the solution to the problem in this episode! It’s all bullshit!
Donatello tries to analyze the potion and can’t figure out how the random ingredients make warriors more powerful. Likewise, Venus tries to focus her chi and read the energies from the potion and comes up with zilch. Finally, Leonardo figures it out during the climax: The invincibility potion is just a placebo and the Rank are only fighting better because they THINK they’re unstoppable. After the kids watching learn a new ten dollar word (“psychosomatic”), the Turtles stomp the Rank and the Dragon Lord retreats.
Honestly, the plot was pretty great and Mayhew invigorated the script with his funny dialogue and looped in observations. A solid finish to this two-parter that’s actually the backend of a five-parter.
Speaking of the whole “five-parter” thing, there’s this weird endcap narration from Leo where he randomly waxes on about all the differences between the Turtles being their true strength. Aside from Leo and Raph bickering via their usual shtick, that wasn’t really a theme that ran through any of these episodes. The ending monologue is sort of tacked on to give this five-parter a sense of closure, even though it was really just two separate story arcs glued together.
As enjoyable as this one was, I’ve noticed that the pacing of episodes in this show is spontaneous and hyper. To save money, they need any excuse they can find to recycle stock footage. And right now, the only stock footage that exists is of the Turtles deploying their vehicles from the lair and onto the streets. So in order to fill time, Raph decides to “get some air so he can think” and that just HAPPENS to involve him taking his motorcycle for a spin (via stock footage).
I guess I’ll take bloating the episode with recycled bits and pieces over ending it at 16 minutes.
Anyway, that concludes the opening miniseries for Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation. Is this show as bad as people make it out to be?
Objectively, this is not a good show. But subjectively? It’s actually pretty entertaining. You can laugh AT it, you can laugh WITH it, but you can at least LAUGH and there’s something to be said for that. The weird, spastic editing makes this show feel like the creators all had ADHD, or at least the target audience was expected to have it, and so the end result is very flash and quick quick QUICK. You hardly get a moment to blink with this show.
I dunno, maybe it’ll get worse as I go along, but so far I’m actually enjoying this s--t. Perhaps I set the bar too low and it couldn’t help but exceed my expectations. Let’s just say I’m RELIEVED and that’s about the kindest reaction I think anyone has ever had to Next Mutation.