There are few media phenomenons as perplexing as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A violent spoof of 1980s comic books, transformed into a kid-friendly Saturday morning cartoon and toy line that dominated the minds of young viewers well into the 90s. But the multimedia behemoth didn’t stop there; there have been movies, endless toys, video games, touring concerts and inescapable merchandising for the last three decades.
But what caused the cultural impact of the Ninja Turtles? Was it the absurdist concept appealing to a childlike interest in the franchise? Was the structure of a well-balanced team that allowed for every viewer to self-identify with at least one of the members? Was it the inescapable earworm of a theme song? The only way to uncover the strange alchemy of Ninja Turtles is to document and study every corner of this bizarre, seemingly endless pop culture well. May God have mercy on our souls as we dive deep into this odd vision quest.
Before we go anywhere, let’s talk about that theme song. It’s actually kinda terrible, with high-end vocals that pierce the eardrum, to say nothing of the aggressively obnoxious and repetitive melody. But damn me if it isn’t catchy, and does the key job of establishing the primary characters before each and every episode. Perhaps the greatest feat is that it’s mercifully short, getting vital information out of the way and then getting on with the show proper.
Fun Fact: The Turtles themesong was written by famed television producer Chuck Lorre. You know him better as the guy who had made a lot of terrible TV shows and also Roseanne.
Inescapable theme song behind us, let’s lunge directly into the first episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Or as the case may be, Adult Human Endangered Journalists, as the first character we are introduced to is April O’Neil, yellow-jumpsuited reporter for Channel 6’s “Happy Hour News”. We see her filing a report on “crime…in the Big City”. It seems that a recent string of high-tech thefts are linked to ninja attacks. Or at least that’s the analysis of this clearly informed ninja expert.
April’s covering of the case doesn’t please those involved, as she soon finds herself confronted by a gang of thugs who only vaguely resemble ninjas in the sense that they’re carrying weapons. April does get off the great line “We’re the news media for crying out loud, who’d want to hurt us?” These days April? A lot of people.
Abandoned by her cowardly film crew, April attempts to fend off the thugs/ninjas, attempting to escape by climbing into the surprisingly expansive sewers of the Big City. The thugs give hot pursuit which April sees as good news. Unfortunately, she gets cornered, outnumbered and clearly in a bad way. But what’s this? Saviors from the shadows? But who could it be?
AHHHHH KILL THEM WITH FIRE!
Thankfully April has a slightly more reasoned response: she faints.
Eventually regaining consciousness, April learns a few other important facts. Number one, not only was she rescued by a gang of giant turtles, they also live with a giant rat (cue fainting spell encore; this will be a recurring thread, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has some fairly…let’s say outdated ideas of female representation). Secondly, the turtles eat disgusting pizzas that I doubt even the least self-respecting pizzeria in the “Big City” would balk at making. A personal favorite? Jellybeans and mushrooms. Actually, the formula for a Ninja Turtles pizza is pretty simple: normal pizza topping + junk food = Turtle approved pizza. Count me in for canadian bacon and banana chips.
Wait, that actually sounds kind of delicious.
After April demands some answers, the rat steps forward with the requisite origin story flashback, complete with wibble-wobble transfer. For a while, it seems that the rat is telling a mostly irrelevant story about a dojo in Japan, where a wise and virtuous leader Hamato Yoshi was usurped by his more cruel rival, Ororku Saki. There’s a cute bit where a master sensei suddenly talks like he’s from the Bronx as he kicks Yoshi out of his own dojo, but the relevance to the monsters in the sewers of the Big City seems thin.
Yoshi flees to America, takes residence in the sewers and befriends exclusively rats because Yoshi now distrusts all humans. (I may have made that last part up.) But one day that all changes when an unlucky boy loses four turtles down the sewer and…oh wait a minute, we’re back in Japan, talking about the Foot Clan, the dojo that Saki took over after Yoshi was banished for being disrespectful. And you can tell they have evil intent because they do things like attack helpless soda machines.
But Yoshi was totally cool with his turtles and art books, until one day he came home from…somewhere to find the turtles covered in a pink goo, walking right into our first commercial break.
As we come back, Red-Mask-Turtle even jokes that the story might be finally rounding the corner to something resembling relevance. Which is a hilarious bit of lampshading for a show for children; this is actually a theme that goes on for a while in the series, and one that generally went over my head as a young viewer.
Back in our flashback, Yoshi washes the goo off, seemingly have instinctual knowledge that this is A) a mutagen that B) transfers its victims into a hybrid creature with the last animal they were contact with. Thus the Turtles, most recently in contact with Yoshi, become turtle-people. While Yoshi, who was in most recent contact with the tur–er, I mean the rats, somehow, turns into a rat-person. You know, I should have noticed he was wearing similar clothes to the giant rat telling the story.
The turtles name their master-father Splinter “for obvious reasons”, while he proceeded to name them after his favorite renaissance painters, finally making all of those art references earlier make sense as well. Afraid that the outside world would hate and fear them, Splinter did the only possible thing he could: he trained them to be ninjas. (In his defense, he was very good at that.) Thus we finally learn the names Donatello (Purple-Mask), Raphael (Red-Mask), Leonardo (Blue-Mask), and Michelangelo (Orange-Mask), and we even get a titular line in the mix.
After the whole story is unfolded, April comes the only logical conclusion that the Turtles are responsible for the ninja-thefts (they are ninjas) and tries to flee before she’s stopped by Donatello’s impenetrable bo-staff, though he’s speaking with Raphael’s voice. (This sort of thing happens a lot in these early episodes…and later episodes too.) Afraid that April will blab about them to the news media, whom everyone apparently loves, they do the only thing they can do: hold her hostage! OUR HEROES!
We finally check in at Channel 6 headquarters, where April’s co-workers start to wonder what happened to her. Including the pink-shirted dude who totally knows what happened to her because he deserted her. “Oh yeah boss, she was probably mugged and murdered. But it’s not like she’s irreplaceable or anything. I am standing right here.”
Back in the sewers, the Turtles and April are brainstorming a way for everyone to get what they need, all while OUR HEROES are brandishing their weapons brazenly. The crew eventually comes up with the plan that the Turtles will help April get her story as long as she keeps their names out of it. Despite the fact that April has already made the realization that “Monster Humanoid Turtles Living In Big City Sewers” is a bigger story than “Sorta-Ninjas Steal Stuff”, April agrees to these terms, most likely to escape her captors clutches. Plus the Turtles have a human friend now, which could come in handy.
ELSEWHERE (man this show jumps around a lot), in an undisclosed but very sinisterly designed location, the ninja-thugs report back to their boss, who they refer to as “Mr. Shredder”. We’ve seen this evil master criminal a few times throughout the episode, as well as his giant computer console that seems to double as a closed-circuit system that gives him the ability to see literally anywhere he wants. Shredder proceeds to ominously demand if his underlings were indeed defeated by turtles. What a strange obsession.
And then we see our heroes investigating the sewers of the Big City for information regarding April’s attackers. When they discover a matchbook for Ninja Pizzeria, they naturally assume it is a crucial clue in their investigation, and not the name of an aggressively themed 1980s pizza joint. Not exactly Batman levels of deduction here, but they were never billed as Teenage Mutant Detective Turtles.
This is as good as any time to mention one of TMNT’s oddest tropes: breaking the 4th-wall. It’s not exactly central to the show’s plots or ethos by any means, the same it is for Looney Tunes or Deadpool. But when Donatello warns April she “wouldn’t last five minutes in a ninja pizza parlor”, he immediately turns to the camera with a shit-eating grin and mentions he loves saying lines like that. The joke is jarring, even more so when it’s punctuated by a rimshot at the end of it. For what is otherwise a fairly straight, if goofy, action-adventure series for young viewers, the consistent reminders throughout the series that this is all a TV show feels strangely out of place.
The turtles make their way to the surface, and the goofiness continues as an unassuming grandmother/homeless persons turns out to be packing a machine gun, threatens the turtles and prompts April to find them clever disguises. Thus she buys them all a set of trenchcoats and fedoras, the most innocuous and unassuming of outfits.
A few hilarious “man city-dwellers are weird” gags later, and the Turtles discover Ninja Pizzeria. And not just that, but a whole district of ninja-themed shops and services. The Turtles make their way to Ninja Pizzeria, where the staff act and dress as ninjas. This bit goes on for longer than it needs to, and never fully formalizes into a joke other than the whole idea of ninjas eating pizza being a culture clash…which is one of the central premises of the show in the first place? As a first episode gag, I suppose it establishes tone, but it is all very strange.
April gets fed up with the boys eating pizza (again) and wanders off (solid plan) to find a seemingly unrelated building labeled “Manhattan Security Services”. For reasons unclear, she decides to investigate; against all odds, this lead does turn out to be relevant as she discovers that the security firm which covers several scientific firms is in fact staffed by seemingly heavy-footed ninjas, who in turn actually rob the science labs in questions.
I have two reactions to this. One, by the standards of the evil plots on this show, posing as a security firm that then uses access and information to rob potential clients is far from the worse. But two, it is a very short con as eventually the word if going to get our about your security firm that you do a very bad job. Anyway, April attempts to tell someone, probably at work that she has a lead on the ninja thefts case, only to be kidnapped by said ninjas before we hop to our next commercial.
After the break, we return to the turtles still scarfing their garbage pizza but soon find a breadcrumb trail of clues that lead them to their new found human friend, who has been kidnapped. I assume they don’t care for that because they want exclusive rights on kidnapping April. This leads them to a rooftop where the turtles must fight many ninjas. Soon our heroes discover the ninjas are in fact robots, which allows them to cut loose and just generally dismember their opponents. This is an important creative decision the show has to make, as it allows our cool ninja heroes to use their very cool but also very deadly ninja weapons on this children’s television program. The effect is lots of explosions.
Anyway, from his secret base Shredder observes the fighting style of the turtles as being of the Foot, which naturally leads him to the thought that they must have been taught by Hamato Yoshi, aka Splinter. This cuts back to the turtles taking out the robo-ninjas and their high-tech weapons with relative ease. When the ninjas go into retreat mode, the turtles chase after them. In their pursuit, they find a video conference screen (or Donatello puts it, an “ACME technologies digital video transceiver”), which gives them their first good look at Shredder. Shredder promptly flips out, says he must keep his Technodrome a secret and then promptly tells the turtles he has something called a Technodrome. Good job keeping secrets, Mr. Bad Guy.
The Foot Ninjabots get away, but not before spinning a giant lever marked “FLOOD” which proceeds to then cause the basement plumbing to burst and begin to flood the building from the floor up. The turtles quickly remember that being amphibious turtles makes flooding less of a concern for them, but they have to save Human Friend April O’Neil so a hasty retreat is needed. They quickly escape to the roof, only for the flooding to completely destroy the building they were in.
Back in their sewer hideout, the turtles show Splinter an outfit one of the ninjas wore, which he identifies as belonging to the Foot Clan, his own dojo from back in Japan. Convinced that his old adversary Oroku Saki is in New York, the turtles pledge to Splinter that they will find Saki and…um…hope he’s a robot? The episode ends with the turtles eating more pizza, to just firmly establish the brand the show is going for.
And that’s it. The first episode of a multi-millionaire dollar empire. All things told, it is an odd opener; the real thrust of the series is formed over the first five episodes that creates that status quo that goes forward from there. Amongst those five episodes are some truly show-defining bits, but other than setting the groundwork for the turtles origins, there is little here that is all that exciting. Keep in mind the big threat at the end of this episode is a battalion of Foot Soldier robots, a villain that is essentially cannon fodder in future episodes.