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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003) Season 1, Part 4 Review

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003) Season 1, Part 4 Review

Alright, in this batch of episodes from the 4Kids Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, we leap right into the “exile to Northampton” arc. For the cartoon, that’ll only last two episodes, but in the Mirage comics it was a period that stretched for a much longer span of time.

The exile started in TMNT (Vol. 1) #11 and lasted until they decided to go back in the “Return to New York” saga (also adapted in this show) in TMNT (Vol. 1) #19. Doesn’t sound like much, but since the Mirage comics tried to operate in “real time” and used hard dates, that meant the Turtles were exiled for two years. It was a LONG road to recovery for them. The 4Kids cartoon, on the other hand, cuts it down to two episodes.

They rebound quickly in this universe.

“Tales of Leo” (written by Marty Isenberg)

Escaping the destruction of the Second Time Around shop, the Turtles, Splinter, April and Casey retreat to the Jones family farm in Northampton. Leonardo is still unconscious and the Turtles take turns telling stories to try and bring him back. Meanwhile, the Shredder sends Baxter Stockman to the ruins of the antique shop to find evidence that the Turtles died.001This is probably the most dramatic episode of the 4Kids series, forgoing just about any sort of action-adventure sequences to focus more on the mortal peril that Leonardo is in. While there are some brief moments of fighting and levity in the flashback stories, this is primarily a buffer episode that takes things very slow. It’s unique in that respect and I don’t think the series will do anything quite like this ever again. So enjoy it for the novelty.

“Tales of Leo” isn’t a direct adaptation of TMNT (Vol. 1) #11, which was the issue that showed the Turtles escaping to the farmhouse and recovering from their defeat. Leo regained consciousness between issues, so there was never any suspense as to whether he’d survive his injuries or not. If anything, the “will Leo wake up?” plot is taken from the first live-action TMNT movie; albeit in that version it was Raphael who was in a coma, not Leo. Still, the themes of the stories are the same, even if this episode doesn’t qualify as a direct adaptation.002The episode consists of four short stories about Leonardo as a kid and situations he shared with his brothers and Splinter. There’s also a B-plot about Baxter faking DNA evidence to fool the Shredder into thinking the Turtles are dead (and in return, getting full access to the alien technology recovered from the East River near the start of the season). This episode introduces the “Turtle Tots,” as they’re sometimes called, and we’re unfortunately going to be seeing them infrequently throughout the series. Hell, before they settled on the “Back to the Sewers” theme for season 7, we nearly got a season where the TMNT team up with their toddler counterparts due to time-travel hijinks.003

Point is, 4Kids and Playmates fucking LOVED the Turtle Tots for some strange reason. They got toys and lots of repeat performances. I was starting college when this episode aired, so I’ve always been outside of the target demographic, but I just don’t see even elementary schoolers being too enamored with these characters. As they appear in “Tales of Leo,” they’re perfectly harmless, but good gravy, their juvenile antics are going to get obnoxious in later episodes.

The Turtle Tots stories in this episode are half interesting and half forgettable. Donatello and Michelangelo spin yarns that are pretty dull (Leo saving Don from drowning, Mikey annoying Leo while he’s training), but the Raphael and Splinter stories are alright. The Splinter one features his attempts to help Leo overcome a fear of heights and the story isn’t so much interesting as it is well-delivered (the training exercises with the bamboo poles being a neat idea). Raph’s has the most action of the episode, as he and Leo wrestle a giant alligator. The giant gator isn’t Leatherhead, but when Leatherhead DOES show up in the second season, the Turtles will mention their encounter with the gator and how it established a gator population in the New York sewers. An interesting bit of smalltime world-building.

And I guess because I keep track of this stuff, Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 2) #38, by Ryan Brown, Dario Brizuela and Steve Murphy, seems to have taken some inspiration from this episode. It’s a flashback story where the Turtle Tots encounter Leatherhead in the sewers. It’s a thin connection, but worth mentioning.004The Foot Clan segments with Shredder and Baxter (now missing an arm and confined to a wheelchair) are perhaps a bit more exciting. In the comic, the Shredder seemed aware that the Turtles were alive and maintained sewer patrols of Foot Soldiers to ensure they never returned to New York. This episode has Baxter tricking Shredder into thinking they’re dead, allowing Shredder to let his guard down and give the Turtles an advantage. It’s a small distinction, but with this Shredder being so much more powerful than the one from the Mirage comics, the Turtles certainly needed the minor advantage to stand a chance at payback.

Also, I love that one Mouser that finds Raphael’s bandana, brings it to Baxter to wags his tail.005And people wonder why I like the Mousers so much.

“The Monster Hunter” (written by Michael Ryan)

After Mikey is accidentally caught on camera, TV monster hunter Abigail Finn shows up to capture “the Green Man of the Woods.” While Mikey and Donnie figure out a way to get rid of her, Raph helps Leo get his confidence back by forging new swords.006This episode contains some forward thinking and some not-so-forward thinking on behalf of the 4Kids writers. It introduces the Sasquatch-like race of Green Men, and they’ll later be incorporated into the ancient civilization mythology established back in “Notes from the Underground.” So this episode is one more little bit of ground-laying for that story arc.

The not-so-forward thinking aspect comes in the inclusion of Abigail Finn. This could have been the perfect opportunity to include recurring Mirage villain and monster hunter Jack Marlin, best known for constantly harassing Leatherhead. Marlin WILL be introduced into the series later on when they get around to adapting his issue of the comic, but that comes at the cost of character redundancy. So as it ends up, the 4Kids cartoon will have two famous monster hunter villains with (bad) Australian accents and robot sidekicks. Either Abigail should’ve been Marlin or Marlin should’ve been Abigail.007A missed opportunity, but I’m sure by the time we get to Marlin’s cartoon debut in season 3, you’ll have forgotten Abigail Finn even existed. And that brings us to the fact that this episode is kind of “meh” all around. The villain isn’t much of a menace and the Turtles don’t trouble themselves too severely when it comes to besting her. The plot tries to do a little too much, introducing Abigail Finn, getting Mikey in trouble, revealing that the Green Man is real in the final minutes, AND try to include a subplot about Leo getting his groove back. The episode isn’t THAT badly paced, but it could have used more breathing room.

What’s funny is that you actually have a good comparison point for this episode in the 2012 Nickelodeon TMNT cartoon. When they did their version of the “exile to Northampton” storyline (and stretched it to 8 episodes), they ALSO had an episode where the Turtles meet a Sasquatch and have to protect it from an obsessed monster hunter (season 3, “A Foot too Big”). Both episodes even reveal partway through that the Sasquatch they all assumed to be male was in fact female. You can watch both and decide which you think was better, but I’m loathe to choose because, if I’m to be honest, I don’t care for either episode.008Casey is played as a doofus in this episode and consider it a sneak peek at how he’ll be portrayed in seasons 2 and 3. April and Abigail emasculate him at every turn, he’s defeated in the first few seconds of the showdown with the villain, and everyone makes fun of how stupid and useless he is. Casey’s character won’t be assassinated this badly in the remaining season 1 episode, but I get the feeling someone at 4Kids read this script and said to themselves, “THIS is how Casey should be written!” and we wound up with his character being treated like this all the time in later episodes.

Raph helping Leo get his confidence back and forging new swords is the B-plot, though I wish it had gotten some more time. Like I said, this episode was too packed for its own good, so the most potentially interesting element gets shortchanged. It’s funny that Leo is the one who declares that they need to go back to New York and defeat the Shredder in the final seconds. Compare it to the comic, in TMNT (Vol. 1) #19, when Leo was dead-set against the idea of going back and got into a fight with Raph about it.

“Return to New York, Part 1” (written by Marty Isenberg)

The Turtles go on offense, returning to New York and attacking Foot Clan HQ. If they want their rematch with the Shredder, they’ll have to fight their way up his skyscraper, one floor at a time.009Both the comic and cartoon versions of “Return to New York” are three-parters, but the pacing and much of the actual story content is very different. This episode takes next to nothing from TMNT (Vol. 1) #19, which was the first part of Mirage’s “Return to New York.” That issue mostly consisted of the Turtles actually, uh, returning to New York and not their attack on the Foot. That’s all pretty much skipped and the 4Kids Turtles leap right into their assault of the Foot Clan.

Instead, you could say that this episode has more in common with TMNT (Vol. 1) #20, the second part of the “Return to New York” trilogy. But even though that issue and this episode both feature the Turtles beginning their attack on the Foot, nothing else is especially similar. The way they get into the building and the obstacles they face are all different. Also, their Triceraton ally Zog is omitted from this adaptation since the Turtles haven’t gone to space yet (but Zog will appear later in the series).

Looking at this as a mostly original story, it takes the idea of “Return to New York” and has a lot of fun spinning new sequences out of it. The way the Turtles get into Foot HQ is much more involved and requires them to sacrifice the Battle Shell in the process. April also contributes, acting as their computer intel operative working remotely from the lair (Casey, unfortunately, is reduced to a hanger-on). The Turtles fight their way past Foot Soldiers and eventually work their way toward the Foot Tech Ninja in an armory near the end of the episode.010The invisible antics of the Foot Tech Ninja are getting a little tired by this point in the series, but that’s fine since I don’t think they’re used much after this. What I do like is that the Turtles have to use different methods to beat them in each encounter. In “The Way of Invisibility,” Donatello bests them by cheating (using infra-red goggles). In “The Shredder Strikes Back, Part One,” Leonardo blindfolds himself and uses his training to sense their presence without his eyes. And in this episode, Raphael just muscles the hell out of them, commandeering a Foot Razor Jet (available at finer toy stores!) and blasting lasers indiscriminately until he hits them. While I am a little sick of the guys, I appreciate that the writers have been making an effort to render each defeat in a unique way.

Where this episode and TMNT #20 really intersect is the cliffhanger ending; both teasing the reveal of the Mutant Shredder Clones. This version ties them in nicely with the Foot genetics lab seen in “Notes from the Underground,” giving this version of the characters just cause to exist. Since the whole thing with the regeneration worms is not yet applicable to the 4Kids series (though they’ll show up briefly in season two), the Shredder Clones needed a new origin that made sense to this universe. Unfortunately, we don’t really learn more about them. Are they hapless victims mutated into monsters like the underground mutants? Or were they just grown in those tanks? And how can they be “clones” of the Shredder if… Well, we haven’t gotten there yet.

“Return to New York, Part 2” (written by Marty Isenberg)

The Turtles have almost made it to the Shredder, but some very powerful enemies still stand in their way. First, they’ll have to contend with the Mutant Shredder Clones. And if they make it past them, the Foot Mystics are waiting.011Man, I love the Mutant Shredder Clones. They’ve appeared in nearly every major continuity (Mirage, 4Kids, Nickelodeon, IDW) and I never get tired of them, probably because they’re utilized in such small doses. They’re always portrayed more or less the same, as mindless bruisers, but they’ve got a visual weirdness to them I can’t get enough of. This was their first time appearing in animation (and their first time appearing outside of the Mirage comics) and I was stoked to see them pop up. With the 4Kids version of “Return to New York” changing so much from the comic version, I wasn’t sure if they’d be left behind or not.

They get a good fight in for the first act or so and the Turtles have a pretty challenging time getting away from them. What’s weird is that their fates are left a little open; none of them succumb to anything overtly fatal. Alas, they don’t make any repeat performances. Also, in case you care, but even if you don’t, the bouncy midget one is my favorite.012After the Turtles escape from the Shredder Clones, they face the Foot Mystics, and if you want to talk about writers playing the long game, let’s talk about THESE assholes. When I first saw this episode, I was like “What the hell ARE these guys?” And we aren’t going to find THAT out until season five. Season FIVE! So until then, we’re just left wondering who these weird magical creatures with elemental powers lurking in the Foot Clan HQ are.

The Foot Mystics have designs I’ve always liked and the bizarre clamshell basket-head look wound up making its way into the Mirage comics when they got around to incorporating the Mystics into their plots. So like Hun, the Foot Mystics are part of the 4Kids continuity that found their way into the source material retroactively (albeit without any of the elemental ability stuff). Their battle gives Splinter his big moment to shine, as he wields the Sword of Tengu and uses the elemental powers of each Mystic to defeat the other. If you’ve played Pokemon you can probably guess which Mystic is weak to the other.013The Turtles finally make it to Shredder’s throne room in the final minutes and duke it out with the Elite Guard and Hun. I like Leo’s shell shock (so to speak) upon seeing the Guard again, remembering that it was THEM who beat him senseless and left him for dead. It’s a short fight, however, as Baxter Stockman arrives in his new robot body to get revenge on everybody. Incidentally, Baxter becoming a cyborg is taken from TMNT (Vol. 2) #3 and he’d stay that way for the rest of his Mirage appearances.

Ultimately, this episode is a lot of fighting and some of the opponents they face make no sense. By that I mean, some that make sense at the time, won’t make sense later (the Shredder Clones), and some that make no sense at the time, will kind of make sense later (the Mystics). It’s all a lot of spontaneous weirdness, but it keeps you on your toes and creates a very engaging episode. The “Return to New York” three-parter is one of those arcs that legitimately ramps up with each installment and only gets better along the way.

“Return to New York, Part 3” (written by Michael Ryan)

Baxter Stockman is the only thing standing between the Turtles and Shredder. But even if the Turtles can get past Stockman’s new cyborg armaments, they may not stand a chance against the Shredder without help from the Guardians.014This episode adapts Leonardo’s big confrontation with the Shredder from TMNT (Vol. 1) #21 and, much to my surprise, doesn’t change how it ends. But first we have to get to the stuff preceding the big showdown.

Baxter is removed by about the end of the first act, but his habit of coming back over and over again every time the Shredder and the Turtles think he’s defeated will presage his routine in the following seasons of the show. There’s no getting rid of this guy. A part of you enjoys seeing him get revenge on Hun and everyone else, especially considering how badly he’d been mutilated throughout this season, but he’s such a conceited prick about it you don’t want him to get the last word, either.015The stuff between Baxter’s defeat and the final battle with the Shredder does come across a bit like filler. The Turtles fight the Elite Guard again and the Shredder keeps throwing more and more and more Foot Soldiers at them, and that’s getting tiresome by this point. When the Guardians finally show up to remove all distractions so the Turtles can AT LAST take on the Shredder, you’ll be extremely grateful.

What’s great about this third encounter with the Shredder is that it stands apart from the first two. In “The Shredder Strikes,” the Turtles were unprepared to fight him and basically ran away at the end. In “The Shredder Strikes Back,” the Turtles lost and barely managed to sneak away with their lives. But in “Return to New York,” the Turtles take the fight TO Shredder for a change and don’t back down until it’s all over. They get their hits in on him for the first time in the series and it doesn’t feel like the Shredder is decaying as an adversary, but that the Turtles are just improving at fighting. They’re much more ferocious in this encounter and unlike the past fights, they AREN’T going to run away this time.

What’s amazing is what it all leads into. Going into this arc, you know that the Turtles are trying to end their feud with the Foot Clan once and for all, but with this being a Saturday morning cartoon, I just assumed that meant the Turtles were trying to put Shredder in jail or something. But then, no, Leonardo straight up chops Shredder’s head off just like he did in the Mirage comic.016Even knowing how “Return to New York” ended in the source material, I did NOT expect that. Not in a kid’s cartoon. But no, it turns out that the Turtles attacked Foot HQ with the intent of KILLING the Shredder. And, so far as they know, they KILL the Shredder at the end of this episode. It’s pretty intense, all things considered.

Of course, in the final seconds we see the Shredder’s headless body stand up and stumble away into the flames after plucking up his own severed head, but we won’t understand the meaning behind that until partway through the next season. And anyway, the Turtles didn’t know that Shredder could survive decapitation. They wanted to kill him and did everything they could TO kill him. His survival diminishes none of the intent.017In the end, the Turtles win but Splinter gets injured and vanishes. Another lingering mystery that won’t be resolved until partway through season two. “Return to New York” feels like it ought to be the season one finale, but can you believe we’ve still got three more episodes? Kind of strange that the season doesn’t end on the big showdown with the Shredder.

We’ll cover those last three episodes next time, as well as a handful of bonus material to fill out the article. Regarding this bunch of episodes, though, while I did feel that the “exile to Northampton” arc got shortchanged a bit, I was completely satisfied with “Return to New York.” They change almost all of it from the comics, but the moments they decide to keep are some of the most surprising and the stuff they added was really cool.

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