After distracting myself with reviews for the 1975 Ghost Busters TV series, the 1978 Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon, and the recent San Diego Comic Con TMNT animated shorts, I now return with the penultimate review of Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation. It’s almost like I’ve been putting it off or something.

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In this chunk, we’ll get to experience the glory of a Wick-centric episode (Heaven help us), an episode that tries to give some of the Rank Soldiers personality (or one of them, anyway), a clip show, and the highly anticipated return of a fan-favorite character who hasn’t been seen since the opening 5-part miniseries.

I speak, of course, of Andre.

“Enemy of my Enemy” (written by Michael Mayhew)

After saving a bum from some thugs, Splinter is surprised to find that he’s actually rescued Oroku Saki! Splinter invites the former Shredder to the lair in the hopes of rehabilitating him, and Saki has little choice since he now owes Splinter for saving his life. Meanwhile, the Dragon Lord and the Rank are looking for Saki so they can take from him the Golden Shuriken, a powerful artifact Saki had stolen from Hamato Yoshi.

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I had vaguely recalled Oroku Saki appearing as a bum in a later episode of Next Mutation, but I’d forgotten what a large role he played in the episode. It’s good to see some stronger ties back to the Shredder’s brief part in the opening miniseries, where he was flippantly written out as an antagonist by the second episode. Unfortunately, this will also be his last appearance in the series, setting up a season two storyline that never happened.

This is one of the better scripted and more ambitious episodes of the series, deliberately referencing much of the TMNT back story from the feature films (which Next Mutation was a sequel to) without shortchanging any of the darker elements. When Splinter first announces his intentions to make peace with Oroku Saki, you might think the writers had forgotten about the time Splinter was hellbent on killing him in TMNT: The Movie. Later, though, when Splinter and Saki are sharing a conversation, Saki actually asks why he isn’t trying to kill him anymore. Splinter acknowledge their old blood feud, the death of Hamato Yoshi included, but suggests that perhaps reconciliation is a better alternative to revenge.

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Of course, there’s still some fudging going on in spite of all the direct references to past continuity. When Splinter and Saki have a friendly sparring match, they comment on the “hundreds” of times they have done battle in the past. Well, with Next Mutation being a sequel to the movies, we’re talking about considerably less than “hundreds” of encounters between the Turtles and the Shredder. We’re talking about a number closer to two.

Patrick Pon returns to play Oroku Saki (who appears out of costume through the whole episode, obviously). He doesn’t appear to be dubbed by voice actor Doug Parker anymore and seems to be looping in his own dialogue. It’s a very hammy performance and even if it is Pon’s own voice, the dialogue is still dubbed in so it looks and sounds like a bad kung fu movie. In a way, that kind of works when you consider the material we’re dealing with.

Unfortunately, the episode is brought down by the inclusion of the Rank. The Dragon Lord and Wick want to get the Golden Shuriken from Saki (and it is implied that Saki stole it from Hamato Yoshi when he murdered him) and so they intrude upon the story. The climax of the episode is an epic battle in a fuckin’ laundry room and it’s filled with gags too juvenile even for this show (the Turtles humiliate the Rank Soldiers by dressing them in diapers and the fearsome Dragon Lord is sent into retreat when Venus de Milo coats him in itching powder). The episode would have been stronger if the Rank had been kept out of it and the whole story could have focused on Saki and Splinter.

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In the end, Saki refuses Splinter’s invitation of peace and re-steals the Golden Shuriken (by blasting the Turtles with a freakin’ Kamehameha which was a cool surprise). He’s last seen laughing maniacally as storm clouds gather overhead, intimating that the Shredder would one day return, more powerful than ever.

Still waiting on that season two.

“King Wick” (written by Alan Swayze)

While trying to make a headache remedy for the Dragon Lord, Wick accidentally brews a potion that gives himself superpowers. Now going by King Wick, he quickly usurps leadership of the Rank from the Dragon Lord and initiates an all-out assault on the sewers to destroy the Turtles.

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Oh boy, it’s a Wick episode. Set your fuckin’ VCRs.

It’s not a rule set in stone that the comedy relief characters have to be annoying. For some reason, they just always seem to turn out that way. And Wick, the comedy relief member of the Rank (who are already played for laughs) has been 31 flavors of annoying since the first day a puppeteer stuck their arm up his ass.

This is also a very stock sort of plot we saw frequently in the less inspired cartoons of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Hey, did you guess that Wick lost his superpowers by the end of the episode and was left to be comically disciplined by the Dragon Lord? Of course you did. And this script plays it by the numbers all the way through, so we’ve got a boring plot and an annoying starring character. I think I’ll go stick my head in a bucket of chlorine, now.

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There’s a lesson in the episode that sees Leonardo endeavoring to become a better leader through self-help books, working the other Turtles to the bone and trying to make them all think and act like him. He eventually learns that teamwork based on different strengths is the better method. It’s supposed to mirror what’s going on simultaneously with the Rank, as King Wick seizes control and tries to do everything himself by blasting the Turtles with his laser eyes.

Except in the end, the Turtles only win when they go into battle unprepared and Leo uses a strategy (reflecting Wick’s eye beams back at him) that wins the day singlehandedly. So the lesson doesn’t even fit the narrative.

I guess if there’s one upside, when Wick becomes King Wick, voice actor Lee Tockar goes for a deeper sound for the character (while maintaining whatever the hell accent that’s supposed to be). So Wick doesn’t SOUND as annoying as he usually does through most of this episode. I’m counting my blessings.

“The Good Dragon” (written by Rhonda Smiley)

After being cornered by the Rank Lieutenant, Venus De Milo finds herself rescued by an unlikely ally: A Good Dragon. The other Turtles aren’t so sure that one of the Rank Soldiers would ever willingly defect, but Venus believes that the Good Dragon is being honest about his desire to make peace. The Dragon Lord, meanwhile, wants the Good Dragon captured and thrown back into the Mirror Prison.

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This is another one of those stock plots, but at least it doesn’t end the way they usually do. In most cartoon circumstances when they do a “maybe the bad guy’s henchman isn’t so bad after all” plot, the henchman reverts to type in the final minutes and then it’s like it never happened through the rest of the series.

In this episode, the titular Good Dragon is sincere throughout, though they still find a way to write him out at the end of the episode. Evidently, there are still more Dragons inside the Mirror Prison; pacifist Dragons who want nothing to do with the Dragon Lord or the Rank. The Good Dragon willingly allows himself to be re-imprisoned so that he can rally the other Dragons in the Mirror into taking down the Rank.

Again, no season 2. So I guess he’s still stuck in there and the other Dragons aren’t interested.

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Venus gets to be the central focus of the episode, and she’d been needing a spotlight for a while. I think “The Staff of Bu-Ki” was the last time she had a plot all to herself; she’s spent the stretch since then as a nearly silent background extra. I said it before, but Venus is one of those characters who isn’t nearly as bad as the reputation surrounding her would have you think, but she is really boring and spends most of the series scarcely saying or doing anything.

She butts heads with Raphael in this episode, as he’s constantly following her around and trying to protect her from the Good Dragon whom he doesn’t trust (and repeatedly sabotaging her attempts to make peace with him). It’s done to labor a “girl power” routine, as Venus emasculates Raph and insists that she doesn’t need to be rescued and can take care of herself. The problem with that old line is that she delivers it minutes after the Rank Lieutenant got the drop on her and she had to be rescued by the Good Dragon. The “girl power” thing only works when the girl actually does something empowering, ya know.

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Her distinct relationships with the other Turtles have been getting some development over these past few episodes, even with her minimal dialogue. Initially, Venus regarded Michelangelo with disgust, at least when his horn-dog persona was in full swing. Now that he’s stopped macking on her, she seems to instead regard him with belittling contempt. She butts heads with Donnie most frequently, usually in little spats of dialogue and minor confrontations (particularly in “Enemy of my Enemy”), as Donnie refuses to believe in magic and that’s sort of her entire deal. And I already went over how she doesn’t like Raph’s macho shtick and takes every opportunity to knock him down a peg in battle.

Leonardo seems to be the only one of them she gets along with and she does treat him with respect. It’s a bland relationship and probably why the two of them always seem to be pegged as a romantic pairing, even if they’re never shown engaging in anything romantic throughout the series. Hmm, thinking about it, I guess if Venus IS guilty of anything overtly irritating, it’s that she doesn’t seem to get along with the other Turtles (besides Leo) and is always undermining them or getting catty with them.

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Anyway, this episode opens with a laser tag tournament, just in case you forgot Next Mutation was made in the ‘90s. And man, I loved me some laser tag back when I was a preteen. I remember there was this totally sick (totally, bro) two-story laser tag arena on the Ocean City, Maryland boardwalk. You wanted to be on the orange team because the green team’s base was harder to protect.

Consider that insider tip worthless because I’m pretty sure that laser tag arena got turned into a Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum.

“The Guest” (written by Todd Swift)

When Splinter’s blind friend Andre is evicted from his apartment, Splinter invites him to stay in the lair until he can find a new place. His clumsy antics soon stifle the Turtles, but there’s a bigger threat just under their noses. After a run-in with Dr. Quease, Andre unknowingly winds up with Quease’s bio-disruptor rod, a stick that can immolate a person on contact.

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Andre was introduced way back in the opening miniseries as a kind old man who plays chess with Splinter. It was a neat idea for a character, but the writers at Saban didn’t do a thing with him until now. While I’m sure Andre as a character didn’t have a lot of room to grow or do anything substantial, it is nice to see the supporting cast expanded to any degree (in lieu of the conspicuously absent April and Casey, we take what we can get).

This is another one of those “cheap” episodes, sort of like “Going Ape”, and the penny-pinching seams show. There’s stock footage of the Dragon Lord eating a ham (did Saban have a shelf of tapes with one of them labeled “Dragon Lord: Ham-Eating Sequence”?) and a LOT of the locations consist of the characters walking around open sidewalks, performing pratfalls in what I can only guess took two or fewer takes. But there is an okay-ish fight between Raph and a bunch of Rank Soldiers in an alley after dark where the gimmick of “using the environment instead of weapons” actually wound up looking pretty good in the performances.

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Dr. Quease doesn’t put in his best showing in this episode, basically playing the hapless antagonist of a Mr. Magoo short. But while blundering and tripping and whiffing through the air while trying to tackle a blind guy might work alright in animation, it’s far less convincing in live-action.

If there’s anything else worth saying, I suppose it’s that Len Gibson (who plays Andre) is very good at looping his dialogue over the footage. I mentioned in the first review that all the actors had to rerecord their dialogue because the suit animatronics made it impossible to record audio on set, but even some of the actors who voiced themselves (and weren’t dubbed by other voice actors) weren’t always good at matching the lip sync. Gibson does a superb job, on the other hand.

“Like Brothers” (written by Rhonda Smiley)

When a sparring match between Leo and Raph gets out of hand, the two rivals begin reminding each other of all their failures. The other Turtles try to remind them of their successes to defuse the situation, but can even the mighty Clip Show restore their fractured relationship?

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Suddenly I feel silly for complaining about the stock footage that was used in the previous episode. I could have always added, “Well, at least it isn’t a clip show”. Because here we are: A clip show.

The theme of “Like Brothers” isn’t so much to recap any of the story so far (many clips are used from the opening miniseries, but never in a chronological sequence to summarize the storyline), but rather to highlight the rivalry between Leo and Raph. The problem is that they don’t seem to have enough footage of Leo and Raph bickering, so sometimes the editor has to resort to using existing footage out of context. Michelangelo sets up a reference to how Leonardo is always throwing insults at Raph even in the most inappropriate of situations, but the following clip is of Leonardo making a quip that involves all four brothers (about “landing on their heads”), not Raph specifically.

The Leo vs. Raph thing played a little, a LITTLE, into the opening miniseries. But for, like, 5 seconds. Leo and Raph just haven’t been at each other’s throats throughout Next Mutation like this clip show would have you believe. It’s almost as if this thing was tenuously thrown together at the last minute in order to save money. But enough with my conspiracy theories, forgive me.

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Regarding the clips, the music and sound effects are completely rerecorded (though the dialogue audio remains the same). As a result, the silly music and cartoon sound effects are removed and replaced with normal sounds and this dramatic, orchestral score. It completely alters the tone of the scenes which were previously cartoonish, but now bafflingly serious. Like the scene where Silver steals the lottery ticket from Leo in “Windfall”. There’s this slow musical dirge as Leo writhes on the ground, then everything is reduced to slow-motion, followed by a black and white filter as it transitions back to the framing device. The point is, it makes that scene look like a major, life-shattering failure on behalf of Leonardo. But it was actually just a dumb bit of slapstick.

The original footage consists of the Turtles storming around the lair set, referencing previous episodes. Mikey and Donnie eventually start arguing over whether Leo or Raph started the fight and it comes down to Venus to cool everybody off. She plays the whole thing up with an “Ugh, MEN!” sort of attitude, because as we all know, women never, EVER fight amongst themselves.

But if that bothers you for any unhinged reason, rest assured that Venus will get hers. The series finale will be a clip show dedicated entirely to how much Venus sucks; an episode entitled “Who Needs Her?” Ouch.

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Well, this wasn’t a very good stretch of episodes, and I’m going by the grading curve exclusive to Next Mutation. The last third of the series suffers from some serious budget cutbacks, with multiple clip shows, bottle episodes and episodes that aren’t clip shows but certainly seem to enjoy utilizing stock footage. On the bright side, there’ll be a four-parter next time that tries to bring a sense of epic drama back to the series, which had lost it after the opening miniseries.

Join us next time as we finish up Next Mutation. And before you ask, yes. I’m doing the Power Rangers crossover.

  • Woo-hoo! Go go Power Rangers!

    …wait, you’re not much a Power Rangers fan, are you?

    If I might make a suggestion, hunt down the first… three, I think? …episodes of Power Rangers in Space, which lead in to the crossover. I think there’s a bit of tonal disparity between the two series — with Rangers being the serious one, believe it or not — that the series began taking on with that season, and it might be good to be familiar (or refamiliarize yourself) with it before the crossover.