Cowabloga Part 3: “A Thing About Rats”

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.


***

Last time on this turtle-based odyssey: We learned that Shredder is working for or with or somehow adjacent to (the relationship is unclear) a talking brain called Krang who is hard up to have Shredder build a body for him. We also learned they work out of a massive subterranean base called the Technodrome, where they run science experiments such as creating man-human hybrids like Bebop and Rocksteady. The turtles’ mentor and father-figure Splinter gets kidnapped, but luckily is easily rescued before the new threats are summarily defanged as comic relief.

We open in the sewers where the turtles seem to have just brought Master Splinter back home. The turtles plot their next move of revenge for what Shredder has done. A quick reminder: the turtles had Shredder dead to rights, but decided to walk away instead of taking advantage of the situation. This lead directly to them being attacked again, capturing the goon squad and once again walking away. So yeah. Hard to feel sympathy when they try to plan their next plan of attack, given the wasted opportunities so far.

Also worth noting: part of their plan is to get Shredder to turn Splinter back into a human. This a thread that runs through the series for a while, that the turtles primary motivation is to have Splinter revert back to good old Hamato Yoshi. As far as personal motivations go, it is solid, but also is a storyline that has a very definitive end: either Splinter decides to stay a rat forever at some point, or they actually cure him. I’ll let you guess which direction the series goes in.


Then we cut to the Technodrome (apparently toppling over underground cities beneath New York?), only for Shredder to set up shop in some abandoned house and then send out insect drone things to help him find a new source of technology to fulfill his plans of generally being a bad guy. This on the one hand makese sense; in the first episode it was established that Shredder was stealing high-tech equipment from science labs across the city. But at the same time, he is supposed to be getting supplied by Krang. All of this is a short lead-in to the introduction of a new baddie: Baxter Stockman.

Baxter Stockman is actually a character from the TMNT comics that predated the cartoon series. However, in making the transition over to the cartoon, there was a pretty major change made.

baxter1 baxter2
He got really into bowties! Oh also, he had a severe decrease in his melanin. This is a small sticking point in the broad history of representation in comics and cartoons, and luckily just about every other version of Stockman other than this one does depict him as black. But as someone who primarily knew Baxter from the cartoon, to later discover he originally was black and then got whitewashed was a real surprise.

Anyway, Stockman is a crackpot inventor who appears to be interested in the pest control sector as he’s created a rat hunting robot that is far more destructive than originally having the rat would be. He also calls them mousers, despite distinctly designing them for rats, which seems like confusing branding. This might be the reason he is struggling to find someone to finance the mass production of mousers; also the fact that, again, they tear through walls carelessly to clear out vermin.

mouser
The actual reason Stockman is rejected is that apparently pest control companies aren’t especially keen on the idea of eliminating all rats as it would cut into their business strategy. There is a crazy bit of conspiracy theory logic here, the same that says that doctors want people to be sick so they can treat them.

Either way, Shredder observes Stockman’s invention thanks to this spy drones and decides they could be helpful in dealing with Splinter. Splinter offers to mass produce them, an opportunity Stockman can’t pass up, even if his mysterious benefactor wears a metal mask, giant purple cape and has razor blades on his arms. Oh, and co-workers who happen to be an anthropomorphic rhino and warthog. Stockman is instructed to create a master control for the hundreds of mousers that Shredder plans to manufacture.

And here Stockman gives the titular line, “That guy must really have a thing about rats.” Which is helpful, because otherwise it just seems like a really lazy title looking for a punchline. Thanks for zinger, white Baxter!

While all of this is going on, our brave heroes are doing what they do best: aimlessly wandering around the New York sewer system in search for the Technodrome. This seems to be the writers go-to thing to fill time with in an episode whenever the turtles don’t have a plot specific activity to partake in. They even return to the “manhole goes somewhere unexpected” gag from the last episode, only this time with Raphael almost being run over by a subway train. If I weren’t cataloging every second of this show it probably wouldn’t even occur to me as a strange trend, but it also just highlight show little there is to some of these plots. And yet here I prattle on.

turtles
Meanwhile, back in the actually interesting storyline, Shredder is working on his hundreds of mousers when he gets summoned by Krang. This is also a repetition of their first scene essentially; Krang wants Shredder to build his body (which, reminder, Krang designed and providing the materials for) while Shredder is too busy obsessing over Hamato Yoshi and the turtles. This is actually an important character trait for Shredder: he is obsessed with defeating the turtles, to the point where he actually neglects his duties as crime lord and mechanical-body-architect. Krang meanwhile hopes Shredder continues to fail until he desperately has to turn to Krang for assistance.

After creating his first round of mousers, Shredder grows impatient (see, that obsessiveness again) and send the little robots after Splinter. After another short turtles wandering scene, we return to April and Splinter in the turtle lair. April reveals that she hasn’t been home since meeting the turtles which proves two things. One, truly no one cares about April because she’s been missing from her home for days; she has come and gone from work a few times but surely someone who have noticed her not returning home at some point. Secondly, SHE MUST SMELL TERRIBLE. This is at best three days after the initial encounter, and she spent a not insignificant amount of that time in the sewer. Just as April leaves to go home, the mousers chew their way through the walls and chomp their way to our first commercial break.

wallchomp

Splinter attempts to fight off the mousers, but is in a weakened state and surrounded by robots hell bent on killing him. Luckily the Ninja Turtles arrive at the nick of time, and as we have established in every episode so far, the Ninja Turtles hate robots. The robocide continues in this episodes as they quickly clear out the mouser attack.

After examining the debris, the turtles discover that Stockman actually had his named stamped onto the machines. This allows them to have a lead to follow that doesn’t involved comic mishaps in sewer tunnels, and logically they decide to follow it. But because they apparently don’t know how to use a phone book, the turtles decide to turn to their only friend, stinky television reporter April O’Neil, who surely won’t mind them invading her apartment.

Thankfully April did get that much needed shower, as evidenced by her walking around in her bathrobe when four giant turtles and their daddy rat show up at her door. They tell her they need a lead on Baxter Stockman, which is fairly old news at this point but this show has to find a way to fill 22 minutes somehow. April turns to her trusty computer to do some research on I’m sure some proto-version of the internet. During this time we get our first pizza gag in this episode (and I was thinking we might escape in this one) when Michelangelo attempts to eat a frozen pizza. It doesn’t go well. This is comedy. After some more turtle based shenanigans, April tells the turtle where they can find Stockman and kick them out of her apartment.

Speaking of comedy, I have to discuss a small scene where the turtles talk about how April seems. Here is a short excerpt of dialogue.

Michelangelo: April sure was mad!
Donatello: Oh well, you know women.
Raphael: No we don’t. She’s the first one we met!

This is, against all hopes, a joke that actually got a chuckle out of me. This works on two levels: one, it plays against misogynist stereotypes that are so ingrained that Donatello just spouts them off as if they are accepted fact. And he’s the geeky one! But then the actual punchline is at the turtle’s expense, allowing them to show themselves to be ignorant morons. By the standards of this show this is a fairly progressive joke that seems to set up one idea and then zags into a totally different observation.

Sadly, this deft hand, especially in matters of gender politics, are few and far between on this show. So relish this moment.

Elsewhere, Stockman completes his master control. Being a great boss, Shredder decides to send some of his foot clan robots after him to silence him. He also releases his giant army of newly manufactured mousers, which in turn munch our way to the next commercial.

mousegang

As Baxter arrives home, he finds himself under attack by the Foot Soldiers sent to 86 him. Thankfully our green boys are there to save him, Then they tie him up and interrogate him, discovering his remote control and revealing that Shredder has hundreds of them across town. But with such a long distance to travel, they can’t possibly get there in time. Unless…

They totally steal Baxter’s high-tech van. Speeding off in their stolen ride, they realize that if there are hundreds of mousers, that means that April and Splinter must be in serious danger. This is a nice conglomeration of the first two episodes; in the first episode, the Turtles save April, and in the second they save Splinter. This time they get to save both at once!

And they do so by smashing in April’s window and once again making short work of the many mousers. Unfortunately the structural damage caused by the mousers initial attack causes April O’Neil’s entire apartment to collapse. So let;s take a quick assessment of the turtle and Aprils relationship.

-They kidnap here after they worry she is going to reveal them ot the world
-She gets kidnapped by killer robots and barely escapes when she is tangentially involved in a business building being flooded and destroyed.
-She spends multiple days in the sewers without a shower.
-She neglects work duties, when she already seems to be on thin ice.
-Her home is DESTROYED.

apartment

Meanwhile, the Turtles get a helpful friend who does research for them they very well could have done themselves. Seems like a fair trade.

Following the instructions that Stockman gave them about the Shredder’s hideout, the turtles rush to the scene to finally face their arch rival, who they could have totally defeated much more easily the episode before. The plan is to deactivate the master control Stockman created for Shredder, then boost the signal to use the original remote that Stockman used to shut down the mousers. Michelangelo suggests that the mission to deactivate the master control would be easier if one turtle went rather than three (assuming Donatello stayed behind to do tech garbage.) The logic of this false premise is not really explored, but of couse Michelangelo is volunteered to be the lone turtle to go into creepy mansion.
Proving both his own ineptitude to carry out the mission he suggested as well as the clear flaw in his plan, Michelangelo is immediately captured by Shredder. After tieing Michelangelo to a chair to keep him occupied, Shredder sends his mousers to attack the remaining turtles and April outside. Luckily Michelangelo gets a helping hands, well, tendril from Krang who frees him so that he can thwart Shredder’s plan. Which leads to maybe the greatest exchange in this show yet.

Michelangelo:Wait a minute, why should I believe a talking brain?
Krang: There’s no time to argue!

mikekrang
It is moments like this that make this show a classic.

While the wave of mousers creep closer and closer on the van, Michelangelo actually shows some wits for once as he causes Shredder to destroy his master control with his sci-fi ray-gun, which in turn allows Donatello to attempt to use the original remote control to reorient the mousers. After attacking Shredder, the master ninja retreats to the Technodrome and the mousers destroy yet another architectural icon of New York and seemingly themselves in the resulting collapse.

mansion

Thankfully Michelangelo is fine, and informs the other turtles that he was rescued by a talking brain. Raphael is obviously skeptical, somewhat missing the fact that the turtles themselves are a weird freak of science as is. “Sure, man-sized turtles that can talk and do ninja crap, but a talking brain? Impossible!” The episode ends as the turtles drive off in Baxter’s van. Which, reminder, they stole.
Our heroes!

mikevan
While I give this episode a lot of guff above (because this series is for nothing else if not nit-picking), this is easily the strongest episode so far. It has a coherent plotline (aside from the whole why does Shredder need new technological concepts to steal), it more or less moves at a steady clip, has significantly less downtime and knows what to do with it more logically. Plus there are moments of actual peril; the end scene before Michelangelo destroys the master control is sold as if the turtles are in actual danger from the zombie-like mousers.

The other thing this episode has a surprising amount of is some interesting politicking. This show doesn’t often go into this direction too often, as it prefers to keep its moral alignments very clear. But there is an interesting bit at least here where Stockman is not really played as a terrible villain; he’s just an inventor who created a flawed product who was taken advantage of by Shredder. Who in turn attempts to kill him. Likewise, Krang’s motivations are laid out very clearly: he wants Shredder to continue failing to defeat the turtles until he finally agrees to create him a new body. Thus him betraying Shredder in the final act makes total sense, but keeps Krang firmly as a bad guy as far as the lines are drawn. AND the turtles have Stockholm syndromed poor April bad enough that when their presence directly leads to her apartment building collapsing, she blames the building!

This is all the show finding it’s groove in a way that really rarely happens much. There are a few highlight episodes still to come, but there are more clunkers than winners. But this one is a clear winner, and plays to the shows strengths. Surely this late 80s-early 90s cartoon for children can maintain this momentum.

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