Last time I did a review of the 4Kids Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon from 2003, I had just gotten through the lengthy Triceraton invasion story arc. Now, we’ll be moving into some random one-shot adventures to give us all a break from the long-form serializations, with a few of these episodes being adaptations of Mirage comics.
…Admittedly, 4Kids had blown through most of the better Mirage TMNT stories by this point in the series, so get ready for a back-up strip from a role-playing game supplement’s instruction manual. Yes, it’s come to this.
“Nobody’s Fool” (written by Greg Johnson)
Michelangelo and Leonardo meet the vigilante hero Nobody and find themselves entangled in his latest case. It seems that the weapons manufacturer, Ruffington, is making arms deals with Hun and the Foot Clan. The Turtles team up with Nobody to stop their mutual foes, but things get complicated when Touch and Go show up.
This episode is a fairly accurate adaptation of Eastman, Laird and Lawson’s Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 1) #2, albeit writer Greg Johnson has to do a lot of boosting to meet 22 minutes-worth of content. The Mirage story, which introduced recurring ally Nobody, was very dry and by-the-numbers. I like Nobody, don’t get me wrong, but his debut was one of the blander entries in the Mirage TMNT canon and possibly the most forgettable installment in the original Tales of the TMNT volume.
What Johnson does is reinterpret the story to fit into the current continuity of the 4Kids cartoon and that offers him plenty of opportunities to bulk up the skinny source material. Rather than just generic arms dealers and thugs, we now have Hun, Baxter Stockman (still a brain in a jar, but now with a holographic projection of his face) and the Shredder getting involved, buying and selling reverse-engineered Triceraton weaponry. Touch and Go serve no substantial purpose to the plot, but they provide a more interesting fight than if the Turtles had just gone up against more faceless goons. And even if you don’t like Touch and Go, hey, you’ll never have to see them again after this. There’s also a brief throwback to “The Unconvincing Turtle Titan” that exists to remind us of that persona 4Kids Mikey is so proud of. And even if you don’t like the Turtle Titan, hey, they’ll be using the identity in several future episodes. Tough luck.
Even with those extra story elements added, you can still tell that this is a very thin premise. Nobody is, of course, a parody of Batman and the script tries to mine some humor from that. Your laughs may vary. Johnson modifies his origin a bit, making him an ex-cop (whereas in the Mirage series, being a cop was still his day job), and eliminates his willingness to kill (in the comic, he blows the helicopter containing the arms dealers up, while in this episode, he downs the chopper but saves the villain). In regards to that last part, it was toned down for content, sure, but made more sense in the context of the character. Being a Batman parody, of course he wouldn’t go around killing bad guys indiscriminately. In the Mirage comic, his killing the villains in the chopper wound up conflicting with his characterization later in the series, where he expresses zero tolerance for killing bad guys, even in self-defense. This is one of those cases where the adaptation actually fixes a problem from the source.
Sean Schemmel plays Nobody and will continue to voice him for the rest of the series. The problem with that is something I mentioned in my last review: Schemmel doesn’t have a whole lot of range. All his voices just sound like Goku from Dragon Ball Z. When you hear Nobody talk, all it’s going to sound like is Goku doing a Batman impression. Good luck ignoring it.
What this episode helps to compound are the further failures of Hun, which is its own story arc that will have payoff later this season. We get to see the Shredder losing his patience with Hun’s blunders, but more satisfying than that, we get to see Baxter smugly enjoying Hun’s dressing-down from Saki. Baxter’s a bad guy and you’re supposed to hate him, but you want him to get a little bit of revenge against the thug who systematically chopped off his body parts and reduced him to a brain in a jar.
“New Blood” (written by Marty Isenburg)
Utilizing salvaged Triceraton technology, new Foot scientist, Dr. Chaplin, has constructed his Amazonian Blade-bots: Robot warriors modeled after Karai. While the Turtles try to thwart the Shredder’s salvage operations, they come up against the Blade-bots and find them much tougher than the stupid name would suggest.
So, the “new blood” in which this episode is titled after would evidently be Dr. Chaplin, a somewhat minor new character who will be sticking around for a while. His deal is that he’s a young scientist who idolizes Baxter Stockman, has a thing for Karai and seems to have been dreamt up to provide a more youthful component to the Foot Clan rogues gallery. I never had much of an opinion about him the first time I watched through the series. We’ll see if that changes as I watch through it again for these reviews.
On the surface, this episode doesn’t seem to have much going for it. The Foot Clan salvaging Triceraton tech and rebuilding New York following the invasion has been its own arc over the past few episodes, though sort of on the fringes of other plots. While its central to this episode’s plot, we find out that the Blade-bots and the Triceraton Tri-Base which the Turtles are trying to destroy before the Foot can pilfer it, is all just a distraction. A distraction for what? We don’t know yet and I can’t remember. Still, if this episode feels like an inconsequential diversion, that’s because it is, which is sort of a clever ploy on writer Marty Isenburg’s part.
There are good and bad elements to the episode. To get past the bad: Isenburg makes a real rookie mistake in his script and one that I’m honestly shocked slipped past Peter Laird (who story edited all the scripts for this series). “Saki” is utilized as the Shredder’s last name, with reporters and the Mayor of New York referring to him as “Mr. Saki” during a press conference. So, as you certainly know, in Japan the familial name comes first and the given name comes second; from a Western point of view, “Saki” is actually his first name. The Fred Wolf TMNT cartoon made this mistake frequently, too, but I sort of expected better from the 4Kids series. They’ll screw this up a few more times, referring to Karai as “Ms. Saki” in later episodes.
As for the good, you’ll notice that the animation quality in this episode is excellent. To make up for the lack of plot substance, there are a LOT of fight scenes, and they all have a very fluid frame-rate. I detected some cheating here and there, as I think a few animation cycles for the Turtles flipping across rooftops and the Foot Soldiers launching attacks were reused from earlier episodes, but there’s a good chance no one else would notice. Oddly, there are a LOT of ninja chain weapons in this episode. You can call them “kusari-fundo”s if you want to be technical about it, but the point is that they’re used in almost every fight scene. I guess Isenburg just thought they were really cool.
Aside from introducing Chaplin and that whole bit at the end where Karai steals a “secret something” for Shredder, there’s another bit of plot seeding present in “New Blood”. It happens so quickly you almost don’t register it, but it’s the scene where Donatello answers his Shell Cell and gets a modem signal. There’ll be a point to that, later.
Man, this show really does reward you for staying awake, doesn’t it?
“The Lesson” (written by Michael Ryan)
When April asks the Turtles to help with her ninja training, they reluctantly tell her about the last time they tried to teach ninjutsu to anyone. In a flashback, we learn about the Turtles during their preteen days and how they attempted to help a dweeby kid name Arnold defend himself against bullies.
If “Nobody’s Fool” was a case of the writer taking a Mirage TMNT comic and improving it by reworking it to fit in the 4Kids TMNT continuity, “The Lesson” is the exact opposite.
“The Lesson” is an extremely loose adaptation of Eastman and Laird’s short strip, “New York Ninja”. It’s one of the more obscure Mirage TMNT comics, originally published in the Palladium TMNT & Other Strangeness supplementary instruction booklet “TMNT Adventures” (not to be confused with the Archie Comics series of the same name). The story has been reprinted here and there, but its hardly a classic.
“New York Ninja” had roughly the same plot as “The Lesson”, but some of the content wouldn’t be appropriate for a kid’s cartoon, requiring writer Michael Ryan to make a number of adjustments. In the comic, it’s Donatello who befriends an immigrant boy name Chang Lao who is constantly being beaten up by bullies. The impetus for the conflict isn’t that Chang is a coward or doesn’t want to fight, but that his non-descript religion forbids him from all forms of violence, including self-defense. The lesson Donnie teaches Chang at the conclusion of the story is that religion is all well and good, but sometimes you’ve got to be practical even if it makes you a heretic. And so Chang learns to put his scripture aside and punch people.
That moral was fine in the context of the comic, but you can probably see why it wouldn’t have flown in a Saturday morning cartoon. “The Lesson” has to jump through a lot of hoops to rework the plot, and while Ryan does change things up in some clever ways, his attempts to fit it into the narrative of the 4Kids series causes more harm than good.
Chang is replaced with Arnold, who in a shocking twist ending, is revealed to have been a young Casey Jones all along. So as a consequence, the Turtles and Casey actually met when they were kids, but none of them knew it at the time. It strains believability, even for a show like this, and the whole thing seems to just be an excuse to give Casey’s battlecry of “Goongala” its own origin (he misinterprets a Japanese phrase Michelangelo tries to teach him).
The interesting element to the adaptation comes in the way the Turtles try to teach Casey self-defense. They each take turns wearing the same disguise and pretending to be the same guy, but they each teach Casey a conflicting philosophy that ultimately gets him nowhere. In the end, Casey finds his own motivation to fight back when he sees a friend of his getting picked on and rises to the occasion.
This is the second “Turtle Tots” episode (following “Tales of Leo”) and it won’t be the last. They’re typically some of the least liked in the series, usually for good reason, because they either try to be cute or funny and ultimately succeed at neither. “The Lesson” ranks among the better Turtle Tots episodes, but that’s not saying much.
“The Darkness Within” (written by Ben Townsend)
When Angel’s brother goes missing while on a treasure hunt, she asks the Turtles to help find him in the catacombs beneath the Volpehart Building. What they find in the depths is an Eldritch horror that feeds on fear.
Talk about tonal whiplash, we just rebounded from that pile of saccharine mush to the freakin’ “Call of Cthulhu.”
This episode mines most of its influence from H.P. Lovecraft and wears that inspiration on its sleeve (the character C.F. Volpehart’s name is an anagram for guess who). The Necro Monster (as its called on the model sheet, but unnamed in the episode) is basically what Cthulhu would look like if it crossbred with a scorpion. Likewise, the elements about coming from space centuries ago and influencing men as its pawns are all traits of Lovecraftian horror, to say nothing of all the tentacles.
Townsend works in some other horror elements into the episode to veer away from strictly being a Lovecraft knock-off. The Volpehart Building, located on Wall Street, is decorated in Masonic imagery, intimating secret societies like the Illuminati. When the Turtles venture into the basement, they’re immediately besieged by zombified skeletons… literal skull ‘n bones, like the society of the same name. And to get a bit of Christian spookiness in the mix, the gate leading to the catacombs has “abandon all hope ye who enter here” inscribed above it, for those of you familiar with Dante’s Inferno.
“The Darkness Within” tries very hard to be scary and comes pretty close for a kid’s show. The 4Kids series wasn’t especially good at expressing different moods most of the time. The library track music, the storyboarding, the voice direction… whether a scene was meant to be exciting, heartwarming or terrifying, it all ended up coming off with the same identical attitude. While I do prefer the 4Kids TMNT series over the subsequent Nickelodeon cartoon, I will concede that the Nick series was MUCH better at doing horror riffs and making them feel tonally appropriate (which would explain why they did so many of them).
But this episode certainly tries and the attempts momentarily overcome the atmospheric blandness. I like the way the skeletons scream; it reminds me of Raiders of the Lost Arc or maybe the mummy portion of Faces of Death. And the episode gets downright violent in places, even beyond the sorts of things we’ve seen in the 4Kids series thus far. When the elderly C.F. Voplehart recounts the origin of the Necro Monster to the protagonists, it includes a scene where his “ancestor” impales an American-Indian to death with a spear. When the Turtles have their various fear hallucinations, they included numerous deaths, from Angel falling to her doom off a cliff to Leonardo impaling Master Splinter. Volpehart’s demise at the conclusion of the episode, though bloodless, still counts as an on-screen death. And it’s rather gruesome for what it is.
This is a dark episode and it doesn’t make any concessions, which I can respect. If anything, you can almost count “The Darkness Within” as something of a threshold for the series, because beginning here, the show is going to get very violent all the way to the end of season 4. Expect more on-screen impalements, stab wounds and horrible deaths from here on out. Some of these will ultimately test the patience of Broadcast Standards & Practices, resulting in a pulled episode, an unaired episode, and eventually an episode that had to be halted mid-production.
Lastly, the episode works in one minor Easter egg to the comics. Raphael’s fear hallucination involves him battling a duplicate of himself who has become the Shredder. In case you haven’t read it, Raph actually became the Shredder during the TMNT Volume 3 series published by Image. Nothing will come of the idea in the 4Kids cartoon, but it was cool for Image fans to get that bone thrown their way, even if it was just a wink and a nudge.
“Mission of Gravity” (written by Marty Isenburg)
Utilizing the Triceraton forcefield bypass tech Karai recovered, the Shredder orders Stockman and Hun to infiltrate the still-floating city of Beijing and steal the Triceraton anti-gravity generator keeping it up in the air. As this will kill millions of people, Karai goes behind the Shredder’s back to recruit the Turtles to help thwart the mission. The Turtles receive even more unexpected help when the Fugitoid returns from the dead, albeit as a disembodied computer program.
We’re still working our way through this “invasion aftermath” storyline and I’m actually rather glad the season is taking its time with it. The Triceraton invasion was a pretty big event, so selling the repercussions short and flipping the “status quo” switch would have done it a disservice. It’s also been giving the Shredder a new angle on his character arc, returning him from the direct combat antagonist he’d become to more of the evil overlord he was in the early days of the series.
On that note, it’s almost hard to believe that we haven’t seen the Shredder put on his armor and menace the Turtles at all this season, even though his scheming menace has been ever-present. I mentioned it back during my review of “Rogue in the House”, but all the encounters with the Shredder had begun to diminish his presence a bit. When the Turtles began fighting him all the time, it didn’t feel like such a big deal anymore when he put on the armor and got down to business. So season 3 has taken a conservative approach with him, focusing on his public identity as a legitimate businessman and philanthropist (something implied in the first two seasons but never shown) whilst showing his underhanded scheming throughout several plots. When he finally does put the armor on and take on the Turtles in the finale, it WILL feel appropriately dramatic. But we aren’t there, yet.
“Mission of Gravity” is a decently tense episode with a lot of plot threads going on. The Turtles have to make a fresh alliance with Karai to get to Beijing in time, then they have to reach the gravity generator before the Foot, then they have to stop the Foot from shutting it off, but before they can do THAT, they have to fight their way through a horde of Dr. Chaplin’s upgraded Mouser 2.0 robots. While that’s going on, Hun and Stockman are coordinating their own scheme to eliminate Karai and Chaplin to ensure their place among the Foot hierarchy. And to top all that off, we’ve got the Fugitoid coming back from the grave. This episode is PACKED, but its paced extremely well.
On the subject of the Fugitoid, I wish he’d stayed dead. Not because I dislike the character, but because it undercuts his heroic sacrifice (especially when he only bought it seven episodes ago). The way they bring him back is rather sketchy, too, as he had apparently uploaded a copy of his memory core into a satellite shortly before sacrificing himself, then the memory core broadcast itself into Donatello’s palm pilot (this was 2005, people). That explains the modem noises Donnie kept receiving on his equipment for the past three or so episodes. Problem is that this isn’t the “real” Fugitoid, is it? It’s a copy of his memory core, so doesn’t that make this a clone? So I guess the original Fugitoid is still dead, not that they’ll ever treat this one like he isn’t the genuine article.
My favorite aspect of this episode is seeing Hun and Stockman teaming up, as they both see themselves as becoming deadweight in the face of their potential replacements. Stockman even gains a new robot body built for him by Chaplin, and its muscular frame means he no longer has to fear the physical wrath of Hun. Even then, they kind of come to terms and form an alliance, despite how they’ve hated each other since day one. It’s one of those “they deserve each other” moments and I dig the way their arc is turning out.
“The Entity Below” (written by Greg Johnson)
A planetary alignment reactivates the crystals in the Forbidden Zone, reviving its population (including the villainous Entity). When violent earthquakes threaten New York, the Turtles suspect that the crystals have something to do with it and return once more to the underground.
Oh lord, not these a------s again.
The stuff about the magic crystals and the underground city and all of that crap has been a festering arc since the beginning of the series and it just won’t go away. I mean, are YOU a fan of this storyline? Because it never grabbed me, yet it just keeps going.
“The Entity Below” tries to give the storyline some direction and winds up tying it into some previously unrelated plot elements from the series while also setting up a few new ideas. We learn that the denizens of the Forbidden Zone are the Y’Lyntians, the progenitors of the Atlantis myth, who thousands of years ago used crystals from a meteorite to become the rulers of Earth. They mutated humans into specialized slaves: Beasts of Burden, Avians and Mer-People. Then during a great battle with the human race, their island sank and they were forced to go into hibernation underground. Oh, the mythology!
The mutant slaves are a new element, giving us an origin to the green sasquatch that appeared back in “The Monster Hunter”. The other two slave races haven’t appeared in the series yet, but will soon enough. They’ll prove to be the last lingering concepts from this “crystal cavern” storyline, which after this episode will mercifully be over with.
I kinda get the feeling that the writers weren’t too satisfied with this storyline, either. It’s been around since the show began and was originally promoted as this deep mystery, but they just didn’t play around with it all that much. And the episodes they wrote that explored the concept were always… boring. Maybe they had some big ideas in mind, but it just didn’t work out in the end. Regardless, I do appreciate that the writers did the proper thing and gave this storyline a resolution rather than just forget about it entirely.
And man, what a bleak resolution. After entering the Forbidden Zone, the Entity (actually the High Mage of the Y’Lyntians) captures the Turtles, but they’re freed by Versallia, an Y’Lyntian who doesn’t want to see massive human casualties when the Entity raises a new continent to replace their lost one. It’s very convenient, but with her help the Turtles destroy the crystal moon and… and… Jeez, they KILL everyone!
The Forbidden Zone collapses and sinks into the lava, with only the Turtles and Versallia escaping in time. I can understand massacring the Entity and the mages who were trying to raise the new continent, but what about all the civilians? Our heroes, everybody.
You can tell that writer Greg Johnson wanted to put a period on this storyline and assure the audience that it was OVER. Everybody’s dead, the Forbidden Zone is destroyed, this meandering storyline is DONE. The Turtles even joke once its all over that they will never, EVER have to go back to this stupid place ever again. And thank goodness for that.
Well, that’s it for this batch. A decent collection of episodes with only a couple of duds to speak of, none of which I’d categorize among the show’s worst. Next time, we’ll get the introduction of long-time Mirage characters Renet and Savanti Romero, Hun’s storyline this season will at last come to a head, and then the first half of another long story arc, featuring three-times more impalements than what we got in this batch of episodes! Looking forward to it.