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 it 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 is Ninja Turtles is to document and study every corner of this bizarre, seemingly endless pop culture phenomenon. May God have mercy on our souls as we dive deep into this odd vision quest.
A quick refresher of last episode: April O’Neil, somewhat maligned reporter for Channel 6’s Happy Hour News discovers four humanoid turtles trained in ninjitsu by their father figure who is a giant talking rat. Together they uncover a security scam being carried out by the mysterious Shredder, who may or may not have connections to the rat ninja master Splinter. (He does.) The turtles also are obsessed with pizza, and kind of kidnap April at first. With all that behind us:
Our episode opens with the turtles morning routine: hot ninja training, with impatient Michelangelo learning to not rush in followed by breakfast cereal on–you guessed it–pizza. I am curious to see if the pizza thing ever evens out a bit once the initial run of episodes establishes it as a fairly serious obsession, but my hopes aren’t high. Mercifully this is the only reference this episode.
April is eager to get past cereal-pizza shenanigans and get back to work trying to find the Technodrome. So the heroes go off venturing for signs of whatever a Technodrome might be. Following flood water from the building that was destroyed, only to discover a giant cavernous space. Following more mysterious subterranean tunnels, we get the inexplicable credit image that lasted for years and years on this series. It isn’t terribly exciting or memorable, but for fans of the 80-90s Turtle cartoon, it is oddly iconic.
Leonardo, being the requisite wet blanket leader, has the heroes hold back to run all of this by Splinter before they do anything hasty. Which leads to a smash cut to:
THE TECHNODROME WHICH IS SO BAD-ASS. Honestly it’s basically just Spaceship Earth with an eyeball glued on top and tank treds along the bottom, but it is one of the coolest bad guy headquarters in all of Saturday morning cartoondom. Inside, Shredder is digging more and more tunnels with his GIANT LASER EYEBALL, all the while complaining about how his airtight but ultimately untenable security scam was disrupted by the ninja turtles. And then he gets called away by Krang.
Krang is seemingly Shredder’s…boss? Partner? Buddy? Whatever their relationship is, Krang is a talking brain with eyeballs and a mouth who has supplied Shreddder/Oroku Saki with all the incredible sci-fi equipment that allows him to be a threat at all. Did I mention he’s a talking brain? This is an important point because it is at this point that the absurdist nature of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles really takes off. The backbone of the series is the idea of “mutated animals to look like people, or mutated people to look like animals”, but it also isn’t afraid to throw nonsense like a talking brain from another plane of reality at you as if it weren’t a big deal. This show trades in lunacy.
Anyway, Krang berates Saki for not helping him get his legions of followers, who are awaiting in “Dimension X”. Their arrangement seems to be that Krang will allow Shredder to use all of his other-wordly technology, as long a Shredder provides him with a body. Because, again, talking brain. This also raises the question why if Krang is the one with all the advanced technological equipment why he is trusting a mere-earth-ninja-warlord to make the body (which, again, Krang makes clear he designed), but the rich back story isn’t gone into.
Shredder has no time for this, as he’s completely obsessed with trying to take down the turtles and Hamato Yoshi/Splinter. Krang offers a method to defeat his enemies: using metagen on some of Shredder’s foot thugs to create vicious human-animal hybrids. After all, if he’s dealing with rats and turtles, it should be easy enough if he merges humans with more vicious animals.
Back in Turtle HQ, the turtles inform Splinter of what they have found (which I am fairly certain was…nothing?) which prompts Splinter to want to join them in tracking down Shredder. April splits to check out if the news station has any information about the Technodrome (again, which they just learned about because Shredder accidentally blabbed), while the turtles with Splinter go investigate.
Elsewhere at the Central Park Zoo, a warthog and a rhinoceras are kidnapped by some honestly dope looking robots. I know these little dudes primarily from this episode and the first TMNT arcade game, but they are a design I have always been into and I think it is a shame they aren’t used more.
Also, I learned through some very basic Googling that these things are referred to as apparently Roadkill Rodneys, which is also a cool name. But they also kidnapped zoo animals which is kind of a dick move. Which takes us to our commercial break.
Beneath the city, the turtles are still looking for the Technodrome. After an initial episode that features the turtles investigating vague mysteries, eating pizza and then blowing up a bunch of robots, a good portion of the front half of this episode consists of them wandering around giant underground caverns. Apparently children’s programming of past decades assumed their audience had a fair degree of patience.
Back at the very hard to find Technodrome, Shredder attempts to recruit two of his lazy thugs to volunteer for his little science experiment. These are the same toughs that we saw the turtles defeat in the first act of the last episode, but will be the last time we see all but two of them. Initially reluctant, the thugs all jump to be on board when it is made clear they will be able to get even with the turtles. This strikes me as something that is meant to be played as a joke, but forgets to be funny. Also the two thugs we don’t see again have much cooler character design. I am left to wonder whatever happens to them.
Soon the two thugs who agreed to the experiment find themselves strapped down into the sort of medical experiment chairs that all villain lairs need. When shredder walks in carrying the mutagen in a hazmat suit, they are probably starting to quest their decisions. The zoo animals captured earlier are dragged in by those jerk but rad looking robots, and we cut away before we get to see the horrific Cronenberg style transformation.
And what do we cut away to? If you guessed “the turtles searching through more caverns in search of Technodrome,” you win nothing because that’s been half of this episode already. This tunnel however doesn’t lead to more tunnels, but rather a manhole cover that opens into the middle of the busy New York streets! Shenanigans! The turtles clumsily dodge traffic in their first real bit of action this episode. Then they duck into April’s office.
April meanwhile is being chewed out by her boss, who is unhappy with her not having a completed story for him. He reassigns her to the zoo theft angle, which April seems to see as boring story. Now maybe I am misisng something and New York is crazier than I thought, but animals being stolen from the zoo seems like it would be a pretty big deal. Either way, April is pissed and lashes out some at our green boys, only to run into them in some hastily put together street clothes.
It is almost impressive to find something less inconspicuous than their flasher outfits from episode one. Anyway, April seems to have taken a sharp turn on her story, because she informs the turtles she heard about something that might lead them directly to the Technodrome, the zoo theft. This is an odd shift for two reasons: a literal half-scene before April was grousing about having to cover this story at all, and she seems to have pulled the key information that links the theft to the Technodrome (which they still don’t fully know the nature of) out of thin air: the theft was performed by robots. Either way, the turtles boogie off to investigate.
Elsewhere, Splinter proves himself far more successful at tracking than the turtles as he finally locates the Technodrome all by himself. He is then immediately captured by those robots I like so damn much, which begs the question what his plan was in the first place. The turtles are in hot pursuit however, as they go down the tunnel the robots left behind at the central park zoo.
Now we get to the real heat of the episode: the turtles invading the Technodrome to face a series of physical challenges from Shredder. This starts with revealing that Shredder is apparently a big Star Wars fan, as the turtles are forced to go through their own version of the trash compactor scene.
This was a fairly standard trap for 80s action cartoons. Donatello’s technical know-how clears that challenge. Next up, those rolling robots (which come to think of it, are also very Star Wars-adjacent) take a crack at the turtles and immediately are defeated by Raphael. Maybe this is why these guys never really show up again: they’re cool looking in theory, but also ultimately not that threatening. Such a waste. Anyway, the turtles wander into a collection of monstrous battle-bots before we cut to commercial.
As I stated last episode, the turtles ongoing battle against robots of all stripes is a fairly important creative decision: it allows their ninja weapons to be used for maximum destructiveness. And like the foot soldiers from the previous episodes, the turtles hold back zero percent and basically dismantle these robots mercilessly. Two episodes in and it becomes very clear: the turtles hate robots.
Finally the turtles discover Splinter, tied up like bait, and finally come face to…well mask to the Shredder. Shredder reveals himself to be Oroku Saki, but now he goes by the title the Shredder. This is one of those awkward moments in storytelling where the viewer has already been privy to all of this information for about an episode and a half now, but the heroes have to be told for the sake of them knowing; when you have people like me complaining that the turtles seem to immediately know what a “Technodrome” is, it probably is a double standard when they actually have the heroes gain information naturally.
More revelatory (if you aren’t really paying attention I suppose), Shredder reveals it was he who leaked the mutagen into the New York City sewers and thus turned the turtles into what they are today. He tells them that this naturally means they should feel compelled to join his evil crime organization, which they seem less than thrilled about. Also, Shredder’s dialogue is more ammunition for my “secret Star Wars fan” theory: “Don’t deny your destiny; join me!” Clearly Shredder’s a real Kylo Ren.
Predictably, Shredder reveals his secret weapon to defeat the turtles if they were to refuse: the newly mutated Bebop and Rocksteady! They immediately prove their ongoing effectiveness by knocking each other out. This essentially sets the stage for every Bebop and Rocksteady moment from here forward: treated as a serious threat but more often than not immediately dismissed as a joke. A few foot soldiers are defeated and soon the Shredder stands alone. Having their greatest (and really only at this point) foe cornered and outnumbered, the turtles of course collect Splinter and just leave.
Once they get to the surface, the turtles are just congratulating themselves on a job well done when OH NO BEBOP AND ROCKSTEADY! AND NOW THEY HAVE COMICALLY LARGE GUNS! This is another theme of the henchmen’s appearances; they are presented as maximally threatening when they are also toting laser blasters. Which begs the question on why Shredder had them morphed in the first place, as they could have perfect well shot at the turtles in their human forms.
After the turtles once again completely embarrass them, Raphael hilariously argues they are never going to defeat Bebop and Rocksteady. While it would be easy to dismiss this as saracasm (it is Raphael), his tone seems fairly earnest. It is at this point I wonder if they writers of the show this early on want the turtles to seem consistently competent. Keep in mind this is pitched as their first major outing, and it is suggested that all of these events have occurred over the course of about three days. But other than a short moment in the trash compactor moment, they rarely seem to break a sweat. Do turtles sweat? You get my meaning. They competently handle everything, to the point where when it is suggsested something is difficult for them it plays as a joke.
All of these nit-picks aside, the turtles then lure the dumb dumb dumb Bebop and Rocksteady into a zoo cell and capture them. April shows up after all the action has been settled, which she is initially bummed about but is happy to get exclusive footage of the two henchmen. As the heroes drive off, a rolling robo appears who helps free Bebop and Rocksteady (I might start just referring to them as R&B for brevity’s sake–hey! That’s also a music reference!)
Oh and that’s the end of the episode. A lot to like here: the stuff in the Technodrome is definitely an early highlight for the series, and the reveal of Krang is an early sign that this show is willing to go a bit wild. But there is also a LOT of wandering around in the comically huge caverns beneath New York City and the turtles seemingly unflappable nature makes any of the danger feel fleeting or false. Still, this episode has a soft spot in my heart. If for no other reason giving us those lovable Roadkill Rodneys. It was nice seeing you guys. I hope you keep rolling somewhere.
Also, Bebop and Rocksteady are dopes. Roadkill Rodney forever.