We’re about to hit a bunch of story arcs in rapid succession that resolve a few lingering plot threads (and introduce more).

Season 3 of the 4Kids Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon is winding down and we’re about to hit a bunch of story arcs in rapid succession that resolve a few lingering plot threads (and introduce more). Between this and the next review, we’re also about to see a ton of characters get stabbed.

Buckle up.

“Time Travails” (written by Bob Forward)

After a freak encounter with Renet, an Apprentice Timestress, the Turtles find themselves whisked away to the 15th century. There, they’ll have to deal with Savanti Romero, an evil sorcerer after Renet’s Time Scepter. But there may be an even more powerful villain waiting in the wings.

This episode adapts one of the more famous issues of the Mirage series, TMNT (Vol. 1) #8 by Eastman, Laird, Dave Sim and Gerhard. An important issue, it introduced Renet and Savanti Romero to the TMNT mythology and both characters would go on to play vital, continuous roles in the comic. The issue is also remembered for featuring a team-up with Dave Sim’s barbarian aardvark character, Cerebus. Obviously, licensing and rights issues prevented Cerebus from appearing in this episode, but he kinda-sorta gets an Easter egg reference:

On the topic of Cerebus and licensing rights, his inclusion in TMNT #8 would go on to cause Mirage a few problems down the line when it came time to reprint the issue in trade paperback collections. Apparently, relations between Peter Laird and Dave Sim were so strained by the ’00s, Laird actually commissioned a Cerebus-free remake of TMNT #8 from Mirage staffers Steve Murphy and Jim Lawson (though “remake” is a bit of a misnomer; it’s a fully original story that provides an alternate telling of how the Turtles met Renet). That Cerebus even got a wink-wink acknowledgement in this episode is a little surprising (Laird and Sim eventually worked reprint rights out, though).

Alright, so as for this episode, “Time Travails” is a good adaptation that could have been great had they made it a two-parter. As is, the script is RUSHED to move all the characters along, introduce their dynamics, get everyone from Point A to Point B, and even work in original plot elements that will set up a later arc in the season (more on that in a minute). Impressive as it is that writer Bob Forward was able to condense everything down to 22 minutes, you’re still left feeling that the episode has zero breathing room.

Renet is voiced by Liza Jacqueline who tries her best to channel the character’s stereotypical ’80s valley girl dialect (which is how she spoke in the comic), but seems to lack the energy to really pull it off. She doesn’t go all the way with the “ugh, like, gag me with a spoon and some junk” persona, and I wish she had, because the end result feels kinda listless and insincere. But lack of ’80s-isms aside, you can actually hear Jacqueline improving as the episode proceeds, if not in capturing the dialect then in finding her comfort zone and channeling it into a better performance. I recall her sounding better in later episodes.

David Zen Mansley plays Savanti Romero, and while it isn’t the most memorable of voices (he kinda sounds like a generic Power Rangers monster), he gets the characterization of Romero down. In the comics, Romero talks big and looks intimidating, but he’s actually a colossal doofus and the closest thing the Mirage series had to a recurring comedy relief villain. In that vein, Romero starts the episode off as this huge, looming threat, but is soon dethroned by his own pet dragon and gets an embarrassing comeuppance by the conclusion.

Speaking of Romero’s pet dragon, the big twist at the end is that Drako and the Ultimate Ninja survived their apparent demise from the end of season two, but were merged in the cosmic infinity into a single hideous creature. They steal the Time Scepter and make their escape in the final seconds, but we’ll be hearing from them again very shortly (as in, we’ll be hearing from them again in this article).

One thing you might notice about this episode is that it is extremely violent (by Saturday morning cartoon standards), but director Roy Burdine uses some tricks to get around censorship. The Turtles fight an army of corpses when they arrive in the 15th century; ones that still have rotting flesh on their bones. Rather than chop them up, there’s the catch that if the Turtles can knock them down to the ground, the earth will reclaim the dead and swallow them up. The effect is actually a little horrifying, as the screaming cadavers are devoured by rotten dirt and millions of worms.

There’s also a battle with some giant cockroach monsters. Raphael gets swallowed by one of the beasts and escapes by carving a hole in its stomach and bursting out like a Xenomorph. He comes out covered in blood, but so long as the fluid isn’t red, then no harm done. It’s still blood, though.

Burdine goes to town on this episode and on a visual level it’s one of the most impressive in the series. Small moments like when Romero is on his tower overlooking the battlefield are bathed in a flickering fiery glow. While I know it’s not the same backlighting technique that Don Bluth developed (since this show was done digitally), it has the same sort of visual and atmospheric technique and looks fantastic. There’s another little moment where the Turtles scale a wall into Romero’s stronghold and Burdine uses multiplane technique between the foreground, the wall, and a glowing moon backdrop. The animation, too, has a great sense of fluidity to it, but I found myself noticing all those smaller atmospheric touches and being truly impressed by them. A shame my DVD has all these awful scanline artifacts that keep popping up.

“Hun on the Run” (written by Michael Ryan)

When Karai is captured by Agent Bishop, the Shredder gives Hun one final opportunity to redeem himself by rescuing her. Baxter Stockman is interested in seeing both Hun and Karai out of the picture and strategically maneuvers the Turtles into interfering with the rescue mission.

One of the background story arcs for this season has been Hun’s fall from grace, losing ground within the Foot Clan hierarchy to Karai. His failures have been piling up all season long and this is the culmination of that plot thread. Admittedly, Hun’s decline began as early as the first season, where he was introduced as an unstoppable bruiser, only to become easy pickings for the Turtles as time went on. This season has been where the Shredder truly starts to notice and take action against him for his shortcomings, which says so much about the 4Kids incarnation of the Shredder, who genuinely does not tolerate failure even from his most loyal subordinates.

Hun is sort of redeemed with this episode, which is really HIS episode with the Turtles only along for the ride (and not exactly crucial to the plot). We get a return to form for the villain, as we see everything unfold from his perspective and get a look at how he problem solves under extreme pressure. Bishop gives Shredder a 45-minute window of opportunity to turn over all his stolen Triceraton technology in exchange for Karai’s life, and with the clock ticking, you can tell that Shredder chose to give Hun one final opportunity because his smash-and-grab style is best suited to such a hasty mission.

And Hun truly does shine throughout this episode; it’s the best he’s every been. He’s still a brute who overcomes all of the obstacles Bishop throws at him with force, but it’s the WAY he uses that force which says so much about his character. Like when Bishop attempts to escape on a subway car, Hun immediately yanks a steam pipe off the wall and uses it to jam the wheels on the rail, delaying the car long enough for him to smash a window and force his way in. There’s a whole lot of “THINK FAST” going on, as Hun solves problems with his muscles, but he comes up with the solutions so quickly. It fulfills that promise from the earliest episodes that portrayed Hun as an intelligent villain and not just a pair of biceps. The implied death toll is rather severe, too, as we see Hun shoot down an EPF helicopter into a blazing fireball and even use a gatling gun to mow down an entire room of EPF soldiers (done off-screen, but the results are made evident when we cut back to Hun). This episode makes Hun INTERESTING again and sets him up for his own unique role in the subsequent seasons where we can take him seriously as a threat again.

Agent Bishop shines as much as Hun does in this episode and, I’ve got to say, the fight scene between him, Hun, Karai and the Turtles in this episode is THE BEST fight scene in the entire series. There are bigger moments, encounters with more gravitas, but the amount of creativity and nuance used in the furious subway car brawl is unmatched by anything else the series could come up with.

The first fight is a one-on-one between Hun and Bishop and you get to see the two different styles of the characters as they go at it. Hun uses his muscles exclusively and tries to force a victory, grabbing Bishop in full nelsons and even trying to snap his neck in one sequence. Bishop, on the other hand, is tactical and precise, going for calculated strikes and utilizing the environment in a Jackie Chan sort of way to surprise his opponent. While Bishop is portrayed as the superior fighter, both approaches are shown to have their advantages; even Hun’s brutish techniques have their deliberate moves and tactical advantages.

It was the one-on-one part of the fight I liked most, but the free-for-all was no sloucher, either. If anything, this was the moment that showed Bishop was a villain to be seriously considered and he counters every strike with such an infuriating smugness you both hate him and respect him at the same time. He’s so much fun to watch as he works, doing everything from flicking his sunglasses into his enemy’s face to startle them or a prolonged sequence where he fights only with his necktie and it WORKS. The Shredder is going to get phased out at the end of this season and after seeing this fight with Bishop, you can tell why they had no choice but to do so. He really upped the game beyond anything the Shredder could have done.

“Hun on the Run” is one of my favorite episodes and a contender for the best single episode in the series (excluding multi-parters). It builds off of ongoing continuity, course-corrects a character who had been eroding for a while, sets up the threat level of a new villain, and overall features a unique perspective that’s uncommon in most Saturday morning cartoons (a villain POV episode). I suppose the only bummer is that Karai is a prop throughout the entire story; a damsel the characters have to rescue. And even when she’s sprung from her cell, she gets grabbed by Bishop and used as a human shield. Not her best work.

“Reality Check” (written by Christopher Yost)

Drako and the Ultimate Ninja return for revenge and scatter the Turtles and Splinter across time and space. Michelangelo finds himself in another universe where his counterparts are the Super Turtles: Graviturtle, Shellectro, Blobboid, and Griddex. Before Mikey can find his way back to his universe, he’ll have to help them stop their arch-nemesis, the evil overlord known as the Sliver.

This episode is actually a stealth crossover with the Mirage TMNT comic, predating the Turtles Forever TV movie by several seasons. Problem is that it’s a version of the Mirage TMNT nobody really cares about.

Created by Laird and Lawson, the Super Turtles first appeared in TMNT (Vol. 4) #7 as a brief gag in which an Utrom looks in on alternate universe counterparts of the TMNT. This episode is sort of a sequel to that, with the “Danger Room” style battle against the Terrorkinetics actually being a recreation of that scene from the comic. The Super Turtles and the Sliver would go on to have their origin told in Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 2) #47, by Jake Black and Lawson. In case you were curious, they were created by the villain “Dr. Shreddarius”. Yeah, that’s the caliber of source material we’re dealing with, here.

The problem I have with the Super Turtles is that, at least so far, every story that has utilized them has been done in a cheeky parody fashion, lambasting the tropes of Silver Age superhero comic books. The end result is a lot of bland dialogue and zero-effort plotting. A villain boasts his evil scheme, the Super Turtles attack his fortress, they fight, and then all is resolved with a self-destruct switch and a “NOOOOOO!” I don’t care if it’s a parody or not, that sort of thing is boring to sit through even when you’re a kid.

As the start of a five-part storyline, “Reality Check” is the weakest link in the chain. The plot is exactly as I described it in the paragraph above, simply going through the motions of every bottom rung superhero stereotype you can think of. The only real attraction comes in seeing the Super Turtles utilize their powers in animation, and admittedly, Dong Woo studios does some fun visuals with what they can do (especially Blobboid).

The Sliver, an evil version of Splinter, is maybe a little interesting as you get to hear Darren Dunstan hamming it up as a scenery-chewing diabolical overlord with a strained Japanese accent. When he goes all Super Skrull during the finale, we do get a pretty interesting fight out of him, but it’s nothing to write home about. This is a case where the parody gag ends up making for one of the blandest episodes of the series.

“Across the Universe” (written by Greg Johnson)

Transported across time and space, Raphael finds himself linking up with Falcon and the Planet Racers on a distant world. Winning the race won’t be easy, as a corrupt commissioner has seen to it that the route they take is as perilous as possible.

The first thing you might notice about this multi-parter is that every segment opens up with a repeat of Drako and the Ultimate Ninja scattering the Turtles and Splinter across time and space. Not a “recap.” A “repeat.” They play the same scene over again at the start of each episode and it’s several minutes long. Some good comes from the approach, though, as we get something new in each version, showing what each Turtle was doing the moment “Ultimate Drako” arrived. Usually, it’s something that coincidentally aligns with the ironic location they’re being banished to. Mikey was reading comic books, so he got sent to Comic Book Land, and Raph was working on his motorcycle with Casey, so he gets sent to Motorcycle Land.

This “Return of the Ultimate Ninja” arc (as the DVD titled it) gets off to a pretty rough start, now that I rewatch it, as I feel just as lukewarm about this episode as I did the previous. While it’s fun to see Raph pitted in a Speed Racer scenario, where he has to overcome crazy environmental hazards all while trying to win a cross-country race, nothing particularly clever is done with the setup. Same as Michelangelo running down all the superhero cliches in a bulletted list in “Reality Check”, Raph just goes through the motions in this one.

So Raph’s arrival on the planet accidentally causes Falcon to crash his bike and to make up for it, Raph has to help him win the race. There’s a boring villain in the race commissioner, who purposefully pits all the Planet Racers against the most dangerous hazards to improve ratings. Naturally, he’s exposed at the end when one of Falcon’s teammates tricks him into confessing his nefarious plot whilst being secretly videotaped. Then, at the 11th hour, the episode remembers it doesn’t have a lesson, so they throw in an inexplicable moment where Raph has to teach Falcon how to win with honor.

I dunno, man. It’s not like this episode was 22 minutes of unwatchable tripe or anything. It’s just that it was really boring and I found myself frequently thinking about my laundry instead of the plot.

Worth noting is that this episode is actually a crossover with another comic. Planet Racers by Jim Lawson and Peter Laird ran for three volumes back in the ’00s, published by Zeromayo Studios and Empty Sky Productions. Oddly, it wasn’t technically a Mirage comic, as at the time, Laird was trying to reconfigure Mirage as being TMNT-only whilst putting his other comic projects under different imprints (all staffed by Mirage employees).

Be that as it may, I’ve never read Planet Racers and I doubt most of you out there have read it, either. Is it good? Maybe. I dunno. But it does make a point that this “Return of the Ultimate Ninja” arc is the 4Kids series’ first foray into marathon fanwank. Nearly every installment is a crossover with something obscure that only the devoted fans of TMNT and Mirage would catch, like the Super Turtles, the Planet Racers, and next episode, which is a love letter to the Archie TMNT Adventures comic…

“Same as it Never Was” (written by Michael Ryan)

Donatello is banished to an alternate future where the Shredder has taken over the Earth and his brothers have gone their separate ways. To stop the Shredder and hopefully make it back to his own time, Donnie must reunited what remains of his family.

“The heroes go to a future where the bad guy won and have to undo it” is a story so cliche’ that even the ’80s TMNT cartoon did it. But as with any stock plot, if you do it well it can easily become a classic. “Same as it Never Was” is one of the classic episodes of the 4Kids series and you’ll usually find it ranked among the best in the series.

Being an alternate future story where nothing that happens here “counts,” the episode is free to get every bit as dark as it wants to, as we all know going in that everything is reversible. Writer Michael Ryan revels in that caveat and exploits it to the utmost, giving us an episode where all the heroes and villains die. And they don’t die well. That universe’s Donatello died as a teenager (or “disappeared”) and his absence, along with the many other losses (such as Casey and Splinter), is what caused the Turtles to break up. Donnie reunites them for a final siege on Foot Clan HQ, and naturally, they all get hacked to pieces in the attempt. Michelangelo gets sliced up by a gang of Karai-bots, and Karai-herself amasses a bodycount, delivering deathblows to both Leonardo and Raphael. April gets a kill in, taking Karai out with a missile-launcher. And Donatello gets to tally one on the scoreboard, impaling the Shredder on the drill of the Turtle Tunneler.

The final act is a nonstop slaughterfest, but done in a bloodless fashion to get past Broadcast Standards & Practices. But the lack of blood doesn’t change the brutal implications of many of these deaths. Take Hun and Baxter Stockman, for example. As a final punishment for their failures, the Shredder had Stockman’s brain grafted to Hun’s shoulder (pretty gruesome) and then ordered their execution (only for them to be saved by April and her resistance). Hun, now confined to a wheelchair, begs Shredder to take him back in a final, pathetic display.  And, as you can predict, the Shredder steps on them, smiling as he squishes their remains between the toes of his new exo-suit.

I supposed the question is whether being more gratuitously violent somehow makes this a substantially good episode, or if I and many fans are just being distracted by the shock value. There’s some truth to that assertion, I suppose; as violent as the 4Kids cartoon could get, some of these deaths are straight up Real Adventures of Jonny Quest stuff, and the show rarely got that severe. It’s hard not to be surprised and forgo a deeper evaluation. But there is a solid story at the episode’s core, one that is built upon what we’ve seen so far (many callbacks to plot lines like Karai’s moral ambiguity or Hun and Stockman’s rivalry) while also sowing the seeds for the season finale (much of which will be an intentional repeat of what was seen in this episode). Taken in a vacuum, “Same as it Never Was” might feel like shock over substance, but it ultimately serves a valuable purpose in the ongoing storyline and, as mentioned, is a vital prelude to the season 3 conclusion.

“Same as it Never Was” is the first of three banned episodes. It was originally broadcast on Fox in the United States, but was pulled from reruns. When the 4Kids TMNT series ran on Cartoon Network, for example, this episode was skipped entirely. It’s the first time the show went far enough to make BS&P have second thoughts about the series’ content, and the other two banned episodes would receive harsher penalties (“Insane in the Membrane” never being broadcast in the US and “Nightmares Recycled” being canned mid-production).

This episode is mostly original in its plot and isn’t a crossover like the other installments in the “Return of the Ultimate Ninja” arc, but it does throw in some fanwank to the Archie TMNT Adventures comic book. That series frequently visited a post-apocalyptic future where the Earth is in ruins (credited to global warming rather than the Shredder) and it became a running narrative. The Archie comic was also the first TMNT incarnation to popularize the idea of an older Raphael losing an eyeball; something that would be adopted by nearly every other TMNT series going forward. Low and behold, Future-Raph as seen in this episode is missing an eye.

The middle-part of this arc, I wish “Same as it Never Was” had gotten to be two episodes instead of crammed into one. It has to move at breakneck speed to get everyone in place for the climax, with the repeated establishing sequence at the start of the episode shrinking the real estate even further. It’s impressive how Ryan is able to pace everything as well as he does, and though there are many conveniences to the plot (the way Donnie and the resistance “sneak” into Foot HQ, for example), he gets the most he can out of 22 minutes.

Next time we’ll sew up this arc with a two-part crossover with Usagi Yojimbo, followed by a Bishop-centric story that sets up a classic Mirage villain’s season 4 debut, and then the two-part conclusion of the Shredder’s storyline. I’m looking forward to diving into those episodes, as I recall them ALL being extremely good.

 

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