Mark continues to explore Season 3 of the 4Kids’ 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon.

After an extended absence, I’m back in the saddle with these season 3 reviews of the 4Kids Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. When we last left off, the Turtles had just thwarted an alien invasion. Only not really, because that was merely a halfway point for the storyline. We’ll be getting the rest of that arc out of our systems in this batch of episodes, as well as a couple Mirage comic adaptations, for better or worse.

“Worlds Collide, Part I” (written by Ben Townsend)

No sooner have the Triceratons withdrawn from Earth, the Fugitoid has arrived on the planet, drawing them back. The Fugitoid, having wiped his memory clean of all Teleportal knowledge, wants to surrender himself to the Triceratons and end the conflict, but the Turtles won’t let him sacrifice himself without a fight.Fugitoid and Turtles sittingFollowing up on the “Space Invaders” three-parter, “Worlds Collide” forms the other half of the Triceraton invasion storyline. Basically, the writers cut a six-parter into a pair of three-parters so it would seem less cumbersome to the viewer. Last thing we need is a situation like the ’90s Spider-Man cartoon: “Sins of the Fathers, Part XXXVIII: We’re Not Even Halfway Finished.”

“Worlds Collide” does set itself apart from “Space Invaders,” though. Whereas that story was about an all-out assault on the Earth, this one is smaller time, as the Triceratons send commando units to hunt down the Turtles and the Fugitoid using a tracking device. While the first half of the arc had more scope and bigger stakes, the Turtles kind of got lost in the size of the crisis. This half gives them a tighter focus and is honestly better for it.Turtles with severed Fugitoid headThe Fugitoid basically trying to commit suicide by surrendering himself to the Triceratons for dissection is pretty bleak, but writer Ben Townsend manages to pep it up with some dark humor. The first act consists of the Fugitoid trying to get away from the Turtles and begging the Triceratons to capture him and kill him; the Turtles essentially reduced to an exhausted suicide watch. The way they stop him from getting himself killed almost seems counterintuitive, as they dismantle the Fugitoid… so that the Triceratons can’t dismantle him? It leads to a pretty good chase, as each Turtle takes a body part and lures the Triceratons in four different directions, at least until Donatello can find a way to jam the tracking signal.

But that’s what most of the episode amounts to: A chase scene. It can be fun and very well animated in brief spurts (Michelangelo in the sewer tunnel, knocking a Triceraton off his hover-skiff is a glorious couple of seconds of visuals), but it is just a 20-minute chase scene. The episode also features a bunch of continuity callbacks, as is this show’s way. The bums from “Garbageman” make another appearance, which leads to a reveal of where the Turtles had hidden the Foot helicopter they stole way, way back in “Return to New York, Part 3.” We also get a return appearance of Michelangelo’s hoverboard from “Return of Nano.” I’m surprised the show is still using that thing since it never got a toy.Raphael on shellcycle chased by TriceratonWhile the episode is just one long chase, it does end on a strong cliffhanger that finally, FINALLY leads us into the full-blown reveal of one of the 4Kids TMNT cartoon’s best villains…

“Worlds Collide, Part II” (written by Marty Isenberg)

The Turtles and the Fugitoid are captured by Agent Bishop and the Earth Protection Force, leaving Splinter, April and Casey to try and save them. Meanwhile, General Blanque and the Federation reveal their presence, and their alliance with Bishop, initiating a full-scale battle with the Triceratons above New York.Turtles in Bishop labThis episode is such a mix of excellent and frustrating, it makes me kind of mad. To get the excellent out of the way, we receive the true introduction of Agent Bishop, who will prove to be (in my expert opinion) the best original villain of the 4Kids series. He’s been lurking in the shadows throughout season 3, standing on the sidelines in places of power such as the United Nations and talking to unseen individuals, making shady deals. He steps into the light with this episode and he doesn’t disappoint.

With the Turtles strapped to dissection tables, he sums up his role quickly and succinctly, explaining that he’s a government agent who does all the black-ops and top secret stuff that conspiracy theorists have long suspected. He takes the Turtles out in an efficient scene at the very start of the episode and then spends the rest of it gloating over them with a buzz saw and a laser scalpel to build tension (and delay long enough for Splinter to come to the rescue in the nick of time, of course). We also learn that he recovered Leatherhead after the events of “What a Croc” and has been performing nasty experiments on him ever since. We get a good sense of just how EVIL this guy is, thanks in no small part to the voice performance from David Zen Mansley, who sounds so damn smug and spooky.Bishop with LeatherheadNext to Hun, Agent Bishop will end up being the biggest character export from the 4Kids series, popping up in the IDW TMNT comics and the 2012 Nickelodeon TMNT cartoon (with varying degrees of faithfulness to his 4Kids portrayal). While the character template of “mysterious government agent” isn’t exactly a fresh idea, it’s a fairly unique role when applied to the TMNT mythology, whose rogues gallery has mostly consisted of the Foot Clan, mad scientists, aliens or random mutants and monsters. A government-appointed adversary fills a niche and offers a foe fully sanctioned by the law, who can pursue them with impunity. There’s always the possibility of sending the Shredder to prison, but not Agent Bishop. Likewise, the Turtles might feel guiltless about mowing down aliens and Foot Soldiers, but a bunch of army soldiers just doing their jobs? Bishop puts them in a tighter spot than practically any other foe.

And that’s another thing this “Space Invaders/Worlds Collide” arc does so well: Raising the stakes. It starts out with a Triceraton invasion, which is bad, but then it gets worse and worse as the EPF and the Federation all join in the hunt for the Turtles. Even with the breathing room between arcs, there’s a steady build in tension.Casey April Splinter stealthNow, as to what I hate about this episode? Casey Jones. I’ve mentioned before, but for whatever reason a decision was made to make Casey the worthless bumbling comic relief for seasons 2 and 3. He’ll get his dignity back in season 4, but for now he’s positively obnoxious. Splinter decides to use the infiltration of the EPF bunker as a means to train April and Casey in ninjutsu on the fly and, of course, April takes to it like a duck to water while Casey screws everything up every step of the way. He nearly blows their cover for some Triceratons, he nearly drowns while they cross the East River, and he sets off the alarms in the bunker because MAN, his worthlessness is overbearing in this episode.

The other issue is April suddenly being a ninja, beginning with this episode. She mentions that behind the scenes, Splinter has been teaching her martial arts and now she’s a better fighter than Casey (who has been training all his life). In terms of character progression, this is basically akin to cheating. We never SEE April training to become a fighter on par with the Turtles, she just suddenly IS with a flimsy excuse that it all happened off-camera. Meanwhile, a character who had been previously established as a solid fighter, Casey, is regressed into a bumbling simpleton April has to constantly rescue just to prove how good she is. C’mon, 4Kids TMNT. You do so much else right in this series, but you really f----d this part up.

“Worlds Collide, Part III” (written by Eric Luke)

The Turtles and Leatherhead escape from Agent Bishop’s lab, though not in time to save the Fugitoid from General Blanque’s dissection table. But the Fugitoid may have one last trick up his sleeve to end the hostilities between the Triceratons and the Federation for good.General Balnque with FugitoidBishop lets loose with his martial arts moves in this episode and he’s pretty much going to get the best fight scenes for the remainder of the series. His look (black trench coat and sunglasses), name (“Agent”) and overblown martial arts choreography certainly do age this early ’00s cartoon, because damn, it’s pretty Matrix up in here. What works is that his gimmick as a government “man in black” and the explanation for his exaggerated fighting ability (to come later) are woven into the mythology of the series, so you can watch the show divorced from the pop culture trends of when it was produced and not even realize Bishop is a gag on a movie character. Much like how the Turtles began as parodies of Marvel’s Daredevil and then evolved into their own unique thing, Agent Bishop may have begun as a parody of Agent Smith from The Matrix, but he’s since gone on to be a legit personality and worthy part of the TMNT universe.

He also sort of wins his first encounter with the Turtles, escaping with samples of their DNA for his future projects. It’s always great when the bad guys pull one off in a kid’s cartoon.Agent Bishop with swordBishop is removed from the episode in the first act and the rest is spent on a race to tie up the storyline. The Fugitoid sacrifices himself to upload a virus to the Triceraton and Federation fleets, disabling their weapons but erasing his own program in the process. One of the things the 4Kids cartoon has struggled with so far has been ending episodes quietly; it either has to be a suspenseful cliffhanger or a cornball joke. This episode at last finds the courage to end on a bitter note, as the Turtles attend the Fugitoid’s funeral and Donnie thanks him for all he’s done before they give him a Spock-like burial-at-space.

Now, not to be a spoiler or anything, but the Fugitoid is going to come back later in the series, undercutting the emotional impact of his sacrifice in this episode. It bugged me, but I can’t help but feel that the writers planned it that way. Like I said, his funeral is a straight-up riff on Spock’s funeral from the end of Star Trek II and we all know exactly how long Spock stayed dead, right? I think they did it on purpose as a subtle hint that the Fugitoid wouldn’t be pushing up space-daisies for very long.TMNT fugitoid funeralCommander Mozar gets some inexplicable character development in this episode, turning on Prime Leader Zanramon and helping Traximus’s rebellion overthrow the Triceraton Empire. He’d been taking it on the chin from Zanramon’s incompetent leadership throughout this storyline (even undergoing the threat of a firing squad), so maybe it isn’t THAT inexplicable a change of heart, but they could have hinted at Mozar’s dissatisfaction an episode or two ago. His about-face ends up being a little too convenient for the plot’s resolution.

The “Space Invaders/World’s Collide” arc wasn’t without it’s shortcomings here and there–some padding in episodes and a lame use of Casey Jones–but it did more things right than wrong. The stakes felt bigger than anything else we’d gotten in the series, it was built on a solid foundation of past storylines, lingering conflicts were resolved while new ones were introduced, and it had the balls to end on a sad note for an established character. While I don’t normally like all the outer space and alien stuff in TMNT, I think this arc handled it all very well.

That said, after six episodes of aliens, I’m ready for some ninjas and mutants and s--t.

“Touch and Go” (written by Michael Ryan)

Michelangelo and Splinter are on the run from Touch and Go, a pair of superpowered mercenaries hired by Hun to assassinate the Turtles. Meanwhile, in the wake of the alien invasion, Raphael is mistaken for an extraterrestrial by a gang of New Yorkers who force him to seek sanctuary in the home of a little old blind lady.TMNT touch and goTouch and Go are the epitome of disposable villains; they’re defined by their gimmicks more so than their potential for contributing to stories. That isn’t the worst thing in the world, as not ALL villains can or should be headliners like Shredder or Bishop. Sometimes you need disposable muscle. The problem is that they’re the stars of the episode and there isn’t anything to them but their ability to give the heroes a good fight.

So, the deal with these two (the origins of which are never explained) is that when they fist-bump, they gain superpowers for a limited time: Touch gets super strong and Go gets super fast. And that’s ALL there is to them, save for some of the worst “French” accents you are ever likely to hear outside Looney Tunes. They’re the kind of bad guys that don’t even deserve lines, much less starring roles in their very own episode. Their presence as mercenaries hired by Hun does bring the Foot Clan back into the plot after sitting out the first chunk of the season, but there’s little more of merit than that. And if Hun seems to have fallen from grace, having to hire goons to do his fighting for him, that’s actually an important plot point for his arc later this season.Michelangelo fighting touchLuckily, this episode was self-aware enough to know that it wasn’t going to hold anyone’s attention with its plot or characters. So how does it compensate? Good animation. Like, holy crap, REALLY good animation. The fight scene in the subway tunnel is gorgeous, with Go’s lightning-quick moves having so many frames, you can barely keep up. And it goes on for a minute or two at this high quality. The final battle in the hotel room is likewise animated lavishly, with dollar bills from a burst briefcase appropriately raining down during the whole altercation (as if to let the audience know how much 4Kids had to pay Dong Woo to make the scene look this good).

There’s a B-plot to try and pad the episode out, but it’s as paper-thin as the A-plot. Raph’s friendship with the little old lady is saccharine and tries to deliver a moral about looking past appearances and seeing the person within, but it’s handled in as boring a way as possible. Funny, it’s the exact OPPOSITE kind of boring as the A-plot, which is just mindless action. The B-plot amounts to Raph moving boxes, petting a cat and sipping tea with a sweet old lady.Raphael and blind ladyBelieve it or not, but the B-plot is adapted from a Mirage TMNT comic (and an obscure one, at that). It’s taken from Raphael’s chapter in TMNT: Challenges, a 1991 graphic novel written and drawn by Michael Dooney. “Challenges” consisted of a series of character vignettes, mostly low stakes stuff, that explored the personalities of each Turtle. The only significant change for the adaptation was the reason for Raph hiding out at Mrs. Morrison’s place: In the comic, he was being chased by Foot Soldiers. Changing it to xenophobic New Yorkers in the wake of the alien invasion was an intuitive alteration, knitting the story into the overarching narrative while establishing a small plot line that will play out this season (humans getting paranoid about aliens on Earth).

Anyway, here’s a scene from the comic version that didn’t make it into the Saturday morning cartoon:Raphael from challenges comic“Touch and Go” doesn’t rank among what I’d consider the bad episodes of the early seasons of this show, it just lingers somewhere in the mediocre range. Both the A- and B-plots are boring for different reasons, but they at least pep things up with some really nice animation on the fight scenes. It also contributes to a few plot lines (Leatherhead is seen hanging out in the lair, assisting Donatello with his tech work), so I wouldn’t call it skippable. Touch and Go will make at least one more appearance in the series, too.

“Hunted” (written by Ben Townsend)

While recovering in the lair from the injuries he sustained as Bishop’s captive, Leatherhead has lost control of his animal-side. The Turtles have resolved to help him find balance, but it won’t be easy, as the big game hunter Marlin has come to New York in search of his next trophy: Leatherhead. Leatherhead defeats MichelangeloBefore I get to the meat of the episode, I do want to point out a bit of foreshadowing for future storylines that appears at the beginning. As Splinter watches the news, he sees coverage of Oroku Saki receiving the key to the city as thanks for his relief efforts in the wake of the invasion. The series has established Saki as a Legitimate Businessman since the beginning, but thus far has never done anything with the idea beyond him having a big skyscraper with a pagoda on top that nobody suspects is a villainous lair. So far, the Shredder has been sitting this season out, but it’s good that the writers are exploring new angles to use with him. Oroku Saki receives key to New York CityMoving past all that, this episode is an adaptation of Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 1) #6 by Ryan Brown and Jim Lawson, which was actually the first appearance of Leatherhead in the comics. For whatever reason, probably because it better suited their overarching narrative, the 4Kids writers chose to adapt Leatherhead’s first two comic appearances in reverse: They adapted his second appearance first and his first appearance second. The good news is that if you aren’t acquainted with the comics, you wouldn’t know any better.

As an adaptation, “Hunted” isn’t particularly strict. It’s more a character exploration of Leatherhead and the trauma he’s working through after being experimented on by Bishop. Marlin (with an R2-D2 knock-off assistant) enters the story early on as an ominous threat, but doesn’t directly challenge the Turtles until the very end; they spend most of the episode navigating his booby-traps. There’s a really good scene where Leo steps on a landmine and Donnie has to disarm it, and they work it out with surprisingly accurate landmine mechanics. Not so good is the scene where the Turtles use their weapons to block lasers from sentry devices. The Turtles literally have faster-than-light reflexes if they can do that.Leatherhead meets MarlinOn the topic of Marlin, I talked about him briefly back when I reviewed the season one episode “The Monster Hunter.” That episode introduced a big game hunter with an unconvincing accent and a robot sidekick who was obsessed with trying to kill cryptids as the ultimate prey. Her name was Abigail Finn and she was essentially an exact duplicate of Marlin. They either should have used Marlin back in that episode or brought back Abigail for this episode, because as it is, we wind up with two identical characters discernible only by their genders and how horrendous their fake accents are.

Anyway, Marlin’s not a great villain and he almost seems to get in the way of a more interesting story about the Turtles helping Leatherhead overcome his inner demons that are making him a threat to himself and all those around him. Marlin interacts with the protagonists so briefly, you don’t get the impression that he’s more than a nuisance. To my surprise, the episode adapts his death scene, as he plummets off a ledge (this time adding an explosion to better sell his demise). In the comics, he would eventually return and prove to be something of a recurring nemesis for Leatherhead. For the 4Kids cartoon, he’s worm-food. And that’s okay.Turtles confront MarlinThe episode ends with the Turtles finding Leatherhead a new home in an abandoned subway station (or maybe a pneumatic transit station; those things were real). Leatherhead will stick around as a recurring ally, which is probably the best use of the character. His Jekyll/Hyde thing gets old fast, be it in the Mirage comics, this cartoon or the 2012 cartoon; retaining him as a Big Gun the Turtles can call on when the s--t hits the fans helps to keep his appearances feeling like exciting special occasions.

“H.A.T.E.” (written by Marty Isenberg)

While taking a break at the farmhouse in Northampton, the Turtles stumble across a paramilitary group known as the Humans Against The Extraterrestrials (H.A.T.E.). Believing that following the invasion, aliens are still rooted in the heart of New York City, H.A.T.E. plans to blow the whole city up with a thermonuclear device. Meanwhile, Casey tries to introduce April to his irritable mother.Turtles Skonk from cartoonWhile “Hunted” was a case where the comic adaptation elements got in the way of a more interesting original story, “H.A.T.E.” is a case where the writers not only adapted the source material faithfully, but proceeded to make some improvements. This episode is based on TMNT (Vol. 1) #12 by Peter Laird, “The Survivalists”, which took place during the Exile to Northampton storyline of the series. Marty Isenberg reworks the story to fit in the context of the 4Kids narrative, and that new context actually gives it a deeper plot that ties into the ongoing saga (as opposed to the randomness of the comic version).

Changing the motivations of the paramilitary group was one of the adaptation’s other improvements, too. In the comic, they were a group of survival nuts who thought the Cold War was taking too long and wanted to kickstart a nuclear war so they could exercise the survival techniques they were obsessed with. It was kind of dumb and mostly just an excuse for Laird to vent his commentary on gun-enthusiast culture he dislikes so much. Turning the group into xenophobes who went bonkers in the wake of an alien invasion was an intuitive alteration. Isenberg also changes the name of the group from the Committee to Rebuild American Patriotism, and if you can puzzle out that acronym you can probably guess why Broadcast Standards & Practices wouldn’t let him keep it.

One of the more notable alterations from the comic is the main villain, Skonk. So, here’s what he looked like in the comic compared to what he looked like in the cartoon. Can YOU spot the difference?Turtles Skonk from comic

Turtles Skonk addresses HATEYeah, I know, right? They gave him a goatee. What were they thinking?

Many of the smaller moments from the comic make their way into this version, like Michelangelo getting giddy when one of the H.A.T.E. members tries to attack him with a pair of nunchakus. The only significant deviation is in the fate of Skonk, who gets blown up with his own bomb in the comic (after Donnie removes the plutonium core, shrinking the explosion), but is permitted to survive and get handed over to the cops in the cartoon (though Donnie does the same core-removal trick for suspense). It’s kind of better this way, as Skonk’s death was played as a tragedy that ate Donatello up inside because “why oh why couldn’t I SAVE him?” or whatever. Which never made much sense in the context of the Mirage series, where Donnie was always killin’ dudes left and right without the consequence of melodramatic soliloquies.

The subplot about Casey’s mom getting on April’s nerves is corny. Really, really corny. But it was further progress for the April/Casey romance, which has been moving forward at a steady rate since the first season and will payoff big time by the end of the series. I approve of the subplot in principle, even if nothing about it was funny except the gag at the very end (I won’t ruin it).Turtles April and Casey momIf there’s anything else to say about this episode, I suppose it’s that 4Kids sure tried to get their mileage out of Sean Schemmel in the dialogue recording booth; he does most of the guest or incidental characters in this episode. Look, I know Schemmel is capable of some alright range as a voice actor, but man, he sure wasn’t putting any of that range on display in this episode. There’s a renegade survivalist named Michael who just sounds like Goku. Then there’s Skonk, who just sounds like Redneck Goku. And there’s a bit part for a doctor, who just sounds like Dr. Goku. Next episode, Schemmel will return to voice the vigilante hero Nobody, who will just sound like Batman Goku. But at least he doesn’t do that annoying “eh heh heh heh” laugh.

Aside from the irritating mischaracterization of Casey Jones that I’ve been whining about for a while, season 3 opened with a bang. Watching the series in order rather than in the random assortment of episodes that were released on DVD (which is how I watched the series the first time), I’m really digging the strict attention to detail and seeding of future plot threads. The 4Kids writers weren’t perfect in every regard, no, but they can’t be accused of half-assing the continuity or ongoing storylines.Raphael catches arrowNext time, we’ll try to take the aforementioned Batman Goku seriously, meet lovable new villain Dr. Chaplin, witness an adaptation of one of the most obscure Mirage TMNT comics the show has ever resorted to, and experience the bottomless terror of a genuine Lovecraftian abomination. Man, this cartoon had variety.