In my past reviews of the Fred Wolf TMNT animated series, I think I took a jab at season 3 at least once per article. If you’re reading these reviews sequentially, then you probably think I loathe the season with every fiber of my being.
Well, that’s only kind of true.
You see, some of my all-time favorite episodes of the Fred Wolf series are buried in the third season. It’s a great season for villains and supporting heroes, as the Rat King, Leatherhead, Casey Jones, Metalhead, Lotus Blossom and Usagi Yojimbo all make their first appearances, while Baxter-Fly makes a return in two of his better episodes. As a kid, I watched the show mainly for the characters more so than the stories, and as an adult, I can’t help but feel the same way as I slog through it. Though they didn’t get enough appearances and rarely met their potential, I really do like many of these incarnations of the well-known villains over their Mirage or 4Kids counterparts (Leatherhead especially).
The problem was that this season was commissioned to meet syndication demands. That means TMNT, so far only 18 episodes strong, had to have a grand total of 65 episodes by the end of season 3. For those of you without a calculator handy, season 3 consists of no fewer than 47 episodes. And they had to be produced in the same amount of time that it previously took to produce 13 episodes (and before that, 5 episodes).
While season 3 is impressive in terms of quantity, the same cannot be said in regards to the quality. Most of these episodes look like utter s--t. The animation duties had to be divvied up among a number of studios across Korea, the Philippines and Japan, and the episodes had to be out on time no matter what (and for as little cost as possible). Some of these episodes are nearly incomprehensible in their animation errors. The scripts, most of which had to be first drafts turned in without proper story-editing, are riddled with contradictions and nonsense. And the pace of production couldn’t even meet the schedules of the voice over cast. Main characters, and I’m talking headliners like Donatello, Raphael and Shredder, will randomly have different voices intermittently throughout the season because the actors weren’t available to record their lines and there was no time to have them come back and record them later.
This season is just a train-wreck of low quality and a shining example of how NOT to make a cartoon. Most shows nowadays are not made for syndication right out of the gate, and certainly not with 47 episodes churned out in a handful of months. Syndication is something you earn through longevity; a reward for quality and popularity. But the 80s were different and creating programs for syndication, as cheaply and as quickly as possible, was more the norm than the exception. And if the animation was terrible and the writing made no sense and the voices for the characters changed randomly from episode to episode… who cares? Children are stupid and they won’t even notice.
To their credit, the show continued for over a hundred more episodes despite this nosedive in quality… so what can I say to defend myself? The producers and Fred Wolf must have been right.
Anyhow, despite all THAT, as I said when I opened this intro, there are some great episodes that emerged despite the obstacles presented.
Beneath These Streets (written by Michael Reaves)
Believing the Shredder and Krang destroyed after the Technodrome sank to the Earth’s core, the Turtles have begun to slack in their ninja training. Our heroes have presumed too much, as not only has the Shredder survived, but he’s stolen a new medi-laser prototype which can repair the busted Technodrome. Thanks to the laziness of his students, Master Splinter is grievously injured in battle and the Turtles must steal back the medi-laser: the only thing that can save Splinter’s life.
For all of its crap, season 3 was probably the most iconic season of the whole series when I was a kid. It was when I began watching the show and I probably saw these episodes in reruns more than any other. So as monotonous as it’s going to get, I have a nostalgic love of this season’s set up: the Technodrome at the Earth’s core, the driller modules being used to taxi Shredder to the surface, the never-ending search for plot devices to refuel the Technodrome, etc.
“Beneath These Streets” isn’t the most epic season opener of the series, but Michael Reaves writes a pretty solid script that’s surprisingly free of contradictions and narrative hiccups. The overall lesson of the episode is a little confused, as Splinter reminds the Turtles that whether the Shredder is dead or not, they STILL have to keep training; there are other bad guys in the world than Oroku Saki, after all. But then, even after they spend six hours training and even longer patrolling the streets, they let their guard down just long enough to watch a movie and that, of course, is when Shredder steals the medi-laser and injures Splinter. So instead of a lesson about diligence and hard work, it becomes “never relax even for an hour or your dad will die and it’ll be all your fault”.
Watching the series as an adult, I think the part that’s held up the best is the relationship between Shredder, Krang, Bebop and Rocksteady. The verbal barbs traded amongst them are some of the show’s cleverest bits of writing and, even when the plots are at their weakest, there tend to be a few solid zingers amongst the villains. Shredder to Bebop: “I’d use this medi-laser on your brain if it weren’t such a small target!”
The overall plot, though, is one you’re going to get very tired of, very quickly as this season progresses. “Shredder comes to the surface to steal something to power the Technodrome. Something weird happens as a result. The Turtles defeat him, anyway.” It is utter monotony.
The only other thing I want to mention about this episode is that, despite being made years before pocket cell phones would become a reality, Donatello insists that they turn off their Turtlecoms before entering the movie so as not to disturb anybody else. God, they are true heroes.
Turtles on Trial (written by Michael Reaves)
Hoping to prove how easy destroying the Turtles really is, Krang decides to beat Shredder at his own game by doing the job himself. Traveling to the surface, Krang hijacks a military robot capable of massive destruction. Meanwhile, the Turtles reluctantly agree to appear to the TV interview program “On Trial”, to prove to host Clayton Kellerman that they aren’t a menace to society.
One of the more annoying things about made-for-syndication animation from the 80s is that rarely did they ever list the overseas animation studios in the credits. The first two seasons of TMNT listed them (Toei for season 1, A-1 Productions for season 2), but once the show as greenlit for syndication, the end credits dropped the acknowledgement.
That really bugs me because, well, “Turtles on Trial” has the best animation not only since season 1, but the best animation you’re going to see for the rest of the series. Why this one, seemingly random episode got such high-end animation quality is beyond me, but “Turtles on Trial” looks fantastic and it especially stands out considering how downright ugly most of the other season 3 episodes are.
I can’t be sure which studio did this episode, but the style is very clearly Japanese. A gut reaction would be to credit Toei, the Japanese studio that did season 1, but according to an archive of Toei’s outsourcing resume, they claim to have only animated the first 5-episode season of TMNT and nothing more. That makes it rather difficult to guess who did “Turtles on Trial”, but the second most prolific Japanese animation studio utilized by American production companies during the 80s was Tokyo Movie Shinsha (and their secondary studio, Telecom). The high quality of the animation would lead me to guess TMS’s involvement, but I’ve no means of proving it. The situation sort of reminds me of “Call of the Primitives”, an episode in the third season of Transformers recognized for its amazing animation quality and presumably the only episode of the series done by TMS, too.
The episode is full of great little nuances and details, like Bebop and Rocksteady coughing up globs of spit when jump-kicked in the stomach, or the way Donatello trips up a bank robber with his bo staff. The action is very fluid and there’s just so much extra oomph to even the most meaningless moments (there’s a flash of energy whenever the Turtles open up their Turtlecoms, for instance). It’s a very stylish episode, but does it have any substance?
A few overarching plot points are initiated in this episode, the least of which is that the Turtles obtain their ugly people masks (which was a pretty funny scene; “Where did you GET these? Freddy’s garage sale?”). The more important plot point is that the Turtles are branded as a public menace by Channel 6, a label they struggle with until the final episode of the season (where they’ll be exonerated and hailed as heroes by the public). So in that regard, “Turtles on Trial” is actually an important episode for the overall arc of the season. The way Reaves works the idea of news pundits out to sensationalize and rile up the masses was a nice touch, too, and one that’s perhaps more topical now than it was in 1989.
Attack of the 50-Foot Irma (written by Rowby Goren)
After a misfire with his enlarging ray, Krang mistakenly blasts Irma and causes her to grow fifty feet. As the clutzy secretary bumbles her away around Manhattan, causing all sorts of destruction, the Turtles have to find an antidote before the National Guard blows her to smithereens.
Hey, just what this show needed: An Irma episode. We’ll be getting a lot of them, too. Even as a kid, I couldn’t stand the Channel 6 crew; their departure is one of the better things about the Red Sky seasons. Of course, we’re more than a hundred episodes away from seeing those, so we’ll just have to put up with her.
The episode is your pretty typical stock cartoon plot and one TMNT has not only done before (“Shredder & Splintered”), but one we’ll be seeing again (“Turtles of the Jungle”). There’s lots of weirdly manufactured drama that comes completely out of nowhere, strictly to create a crude action sequence. As the Turtles are driving down the street, Irma accidentally causes two power cables to snap, putting a pair of livewires in front of the Turtle Van. For no reason whatsoever, the brakes on the van stop working and Don has to slow the vehicle down with a grappling hook. Then the Turtles spend the next few minutes scaling a building so they can shut down the live wires… which were not in danger of harming anyone because the streets of New York City are always completely devoid of life in this show. It’s just bizarre filler that exists solely to help the script fill 22 minutes.
And what did Shredder hope to gain by growing 50 feet tall, anyway? Are you suddenly immune to missiles once you reach a certain height? Irma sure wasn’t. And at the end of the episode, Krang still has his fully functional enlarging ray down in the Technodrome. He just never uses it again because, as a rule for 80s cartoon villains, once a doomsday device fails you are forbidden from ever resorting back to it in a future episode.
The Maltese Hamster (written by David Wise)
With high tech weapons acquired from the Shredder, mobster Tony “The Butcher” Vivaldi has subjected New York City to an unprecedented crime wave. The object of his larceny, however, appears to be an antique Maltese hamster which April happens to have purchased. When the other Turtles and Splinter are kidnapped by the Butcher, Donatello has to figure out how to get them back without letting the Shredder have the hamster.
I give David Wise a lot of s--t in these reviews, but when the guy actually TRIES he can be a pretty damn amusing writer. “The Maltese Hamster” is one of his funniest scripts due in large part to the film noir parody nature and an overall embracing of absurdity. For those with vague memories, this is the episode that featured the magnet that attracts antiques. Think about that for a minute.
Donatello, being the star of the episode, spews a nonstop monologue humorously describing everything that happens (with Barry Gordon doing a pretty good Bogart impression). Wise slips in lots of subtle gags, like Don describing the Butcher’s goons as using “weapons straight out of Star Wars” just before a ray gun makes a Tie Fighter sound effect. I really love the scene where Don (hiding himself inside a TV like Butch the Bulldog in that old MGM cartoon) tells the Butcher to explain the entire point of the Maltese Hamster plot device, and the villain immediately and complacently says “okay” and then very slowly and deliberately tells the story in detail. The episode is self aware of its own clichés and insanity and revels in it, which escalates it over the more paint-by-numbers cliché episodes.
We get our first taste of the voice actor flipflopping that’d plague the season, unfortunately. Pat Fraley wasn’t available to voice Burne in this episode, so Townsend Coleman does his best to fill in. He’s certainly not the worst alternate for a character this season and it isn’t quite so noticeable on a minor supporting character, but just wait until one of the Turtles suddenly has a different actor.
Sky Turtles (written by Reed and Bruce Shelly)
The Shredder activates a gravity machine that either causes everything in New York City to become weightless or so heavy it cannot move. The Turtles do stuff.
Another “evil device of the week” episode. People tend to disparage the Fred Wolf cartoon for being a “mutant of the week” series (Laird said this about the show while explaining what we WOULDN’T be doing with the 4Kids series), but the reality is that it honestly didn’t feature all that many new mutants (or at least not on a frequent basis). Far more often, it was Shredder and Krang using some new doomsday device each week and it could be boring as s--t.
“Sky Turtles” is a case where the episode isn’t outwardly unwatchably terrible, but just utterly forgettable and dull. Shredder has a doomsday device. The Turtles destroy it. No bells or whistles or anything worth mentioning. Just that. There’ll be a lot of episodes like this once we get into the tedious fourth and fifth seasons, when the writers were really running on empty but still had to produce 30-something episodes for the season.
The only part of “Sky Turtles” that really struck me as funny (aside from the single purpose of this episode seemingly being a means to justify the existence of the Turtle Blimp) is the fact that Bebop, despite wearing the Shredder’s anti-gravity boots, goes floating off into the sky when Rocksteady does. Why? Because those two really are attached at the hip, I guess.
The Old Switcheroo (written by Michael Reaves)
During a battle at Cybertech Labs, an equipment malfunction causes Shredder and Splinter to switch bodies. As Shredder plots to destroy the Turtles when they least suspect it, Splinter must find a way to convince his pupils of his true identity.
Another old cartoon standby: The body swap episode. You can count on it every time; right up there with the “shrinking episode”. While Michael Reaves generally put more care into his scripts in the 80s than other animation writers, even he wasn’t immune to phoning it in every now and again.
Not all “body swap” episodes are terrible. Justice League Unlimited had a pretty good one, where the Flash and Lex Luthor change places, and Teen Titans got some extra mileage out of the cliché by showcasing just how good Hynden Walch and Tara Strong were at impersonating one another. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? This one’s pretty much your generic “body swap” story.
If there’s anything of interest in “The Old Switcheroo”, I suppose it’s that you get to hear James Avery do his best Splinter impression and Peter Reneday do his best Shredder impression. I was grateful they didn’t make the typical mistake of having the characters’ voices change places along with their minds; a habit of the “body swap” scenario I can’t stand. So there’s at least some amusement to be had in hearing Splinter say, “Bebop, you idiot!” or Shredder deliver some gentle, rambling advice… but aside from that?
There are some weird artifacts of discontinuity, too, as Donatello acts like he’s never seen one of the driller modules before (he clumsily describes it to the audience as if it were a brand new sight), Shredder is shown to be fond of pizza which he typically hates and Splinter claims that the location of the Technodrome is a mystery (when they’ve known since the beginning of the season that it was at the Earth’s core). To keep Shredder from learning the location of the lair, they have him wear a hot towel over his face while going down there, but they give no explanation for how they kept him from getting his bearings when he left at the end. Again, just one of those things a proper story editor would have caught… if this show had had one.
And that’s the first six episodes of season 3. There’s gonna be seven more of these installments before we can get to season 4, because this season is so ridiculously long, but at least next time we can look forward to meeting the Rat King (and to a lesser extent, returning human characters Don Turtelli and Zach the Fifth Turtle).
You can find these episodes on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Original Series (Volume 3) DVD which is about $10 right now on Amazon.