There are few media phenomenons as perplexing as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It started as a violent spoof of 1980s comic books, but was transformed into a kid-friendly Saturday morning cartoon and toy line that dominated the minds of young viewers well into the 90s. And the multimedia behemoth didn’t stop there; there have been major motion pictures, 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 appeal to nonsense? 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.
Oh hello there! After a not-so-short, not-quite-planned hiatus, I return to watch more turtles of the mutant and adolescent variety who also practice the ancient arts of ninjitsu. And I come back to a series of episodes very near and dear to me! After Return of the Shredder Who Never Really Went Away established the new status quo of season two, the next four episode create a loose arc that I shall describe as the Episodes With the Weird Crystals in Them. I primarily remember these episodes because of their VHS release. Ninja Turtles, like most 80s and 90s cartoons, had collectible VHS releases that typically contained two episodes each. But the Incredible Shrinking Turtles VHS was an oddity and contained all four episodes of this quasi-connected storyline. As a young Turtles fan, this blew. My. Mind.
So before we get to this episode, a quick refresher on the current status quo: after the Turtles defeat Shredder, Krang, et al., the Technodrome was banished to Dimension X. Which would be a much bigger hindrance if the Technodrome didn’t already have the established ability to open a portal between Earth and Dimension X. So Shredder picks up right where he left off, except Krang is now withholding any support until Shredder can actually prove himself halfway competent. Which is fair, given how thus far the Turtles have easily defeated any evil plan Shredder and Krang throw at them. So maybe he is just trying to break down Shredder to stop obsessing on the Turtles and just get on with actually focusing on world domination or whatever it is Krang actually wants to do.
Focusing on this episode (finally), we open on some tropical forest, only just kidding it is Central Park where the Turtles are practicing their “ninja training techniques” in broad daylight. Raphael is just telling Leonardo that he is kind of a buzzkill when Shredder attacks! Only, it isn’t Shredder but just Michelangelo in a costume. Thus far this episode is less than a minute in and we already have two fake outs and like five instances of Leonardo being a bummer.
The latter is actually a somewhat important character development moment. Leonardo up to this point has been portrayed as a featureless also-ran who you mainly know is the leader because the earworm of a theme song informs you every episode. Here we see him pushing the turtles to practice, admonishing them for goofing off and generally being kind of a dillweed. Which is far more interesting than just being “the other turtle”.
All of this training and goofs is broken up when a spaceship crashes in a lake and the Turtles have to save the visitor inside. In what feels like a nod to the origins of the Hal Jordan version of Green Lantern, the Turtles rescue the alien long enough for him to inform them that there are three fragments of the Eye of Zarnoth that they must find before they fall into the wrong hands. The fragments, when combined, would grant “undreamed of power”. Luckily the purple E.T. has a “crystal converger”, which is alien speak for a GPS device that can track down the fragments. Passing it off to the Turtles, the nameless alien dies/evaporates. The turtles seemed mostly unfazed by meeting a random new alien life form, taking things in stride and going about collecting the fragments.
One problem: their arch-nemesis the Shredder heard this whole conversation while conveniently lurking in the bushes!
This would seem like a hilariously convenient plot device, but recalling the last episode there is actually an established trend of Shredder inexplicably using the park as his base of evil operations. So the idea that he might just be lurking around is preposterous, but within the already established preposterous confines of this series.
The turtles go in hot pursuit of the crystal fragments with Shredder trailing them. We are also reminded that Shredder is working with Baxter Stockman, mad inventor who fluctuates wildly from sniveling toady to petulant child, literally whining about not getting to finish his ice cream cone. This all leads to a conversation between Shredder and Krang that follows the typical format of these talks now: Shredder declares he finally has a Turtle-proof plan, Krang is reasonably skeptical, Shredder demands support and Krang is a withholding motherfucker. Again, this was all established in previous episodes, but shows like this continually re-establish their status quo.
The converger finally leads the turtles to a dock where garbage is literally being carried off on a ferry because fuck you planet Earth. The Turtles retrieve the fragment from amongst the garbage, only to have Shredder show up and decide he wants it for himself. By the relatively low bar of Shredder plans, this one isn’t half bad: allow the Turtles to do the literal dirty work, jump once they have retrieved the fragment and just claim it from them. Too bad the Turtles have mopped the floor with their nemesis every time they’ve encountered him, so shouldn’t be that big of a setback.
And thus leads to my favorite part of this episode: the Turtles getting smoked by Shredder. This is actually a really important development. The Shredder defeats the turtles single-handedly. Granted they attack him one-on-one and he uses a few environmental tools to his advantage, but he also proves himself to be a true threat. This is an important development. Up to this point, the villain portion of the cast have been relegated mostly to jokes. And that identification doesn’t change much over the history of the show, but at least here the Shredder individually defeats the Turtles, undeniably proving himself to be their superior in one-on-one combat.
To rub salt in their wounds, Shredder uses the fragment on the Turtles which is a bold move seeing how he has no idea what it will do. Luckily for him it doesn’t make them super good at beating up Shredders or anything, but instead shrinks them to a comically tiny sizes, complete with up-pitched vocals. Pleased with this results, Shredder attempts to capture the wee tiny turtles, only for them to make a slippery escape. This also leads to Leonardo to use the term “haul shell”, a term I can only assume makes sense if you know the ancillary term “haul ass” which the nominal target audience of this show of impressionable children wouldn’t?
Anyway, the turtles escape but are still teeny tiny and annoyingly squeaky voiced. While trying to figure out their next plan of action given their perilous situation, they are flushed down the sewer by a street washing truck and are soon scramble their way back home. Splinter, making his first appearance of this episode, concurs that this is a pretty large problem (yuck), but doesn’t offer much in solutions. Thanks Dad! So her interrupts a business meeting with April and he gang of idiot co-workers. She walks out of a meeting mid-inspirational-speech, adding another thing to the “Things That Would Get April Fired” file.
Elsewhere, Shredder is checking in with Krang, who continues to be unimpressed with Shredder’s claims that he’s killed the turtles when he doesn’t actually see dead turtles, which is a fairly understandable rubric for success given the series so far. He is a scientist afterall and demand empirical evidence. Also, Shredder has proven himself to be full of empty promises.
Splinter and April are on the prowl for Shredder, when the Turtle Van’s in-board television has a news bulletin about Shredder shrinking monuments around New York City down to miniature size. They rush to the Empire State Building, the latest in Shredder’s collection. Except they get stuck in traffic, a weirdly hilarious accurate portrayal of traffic in New York which typically doesn’t try to engage in real-world problems too often. Meanwhile, Shredder has made a model NYC for himself which…proves he’s defeated the turtles somehow? After looking very capable in combat with the Turtles, Shredder swiftly swings back to looking like kind of a goober.
In the sewers, the Turtles are washed away by a “sewer trickle”, which washes them away again deeper into the sewer system. Climbing aboard a bar of soap, they soon have to cut off portions of their boat to feed to the snake which slows him down long enough for the turtles to get away. This whole section seems like mainly an excuse to play with scale some with the whole shrunken turtles bit; there is even a scene where the four are eating a normal sized slice of pizza as a four-person meal.
After Krang is suitably baffled why Shredder thought miniaturizing Manhattan would prove he had done anything to the Turtles, Baxter makes himself useful for the first time in the episode and reveals he has created a “Heat-Seaking Turtle Scope”, which naturally can track the unique heat signatures of mutant turtles. Using this, Baxter runs off to capture our heroes.
The turtles continue to be in small-sized-oriented peril, including being potential fish food. Just as they are about to be eaten, Baxter Stockman scoops them out of the…harbor? I guess? For those keeping score at home though, Baxter actively saves the lives of the Turtles so that he could take them somewhere else to kill them. Hurray Saturday morning villain logic.
Back to the chase, Splinter and April are aimlessly wandering around the backstreets of New York in search for the Turtles. As they do, Splinter suddenly “senses” his student nearby because apparently Ninjitsu sensei are also Jedi masters? He soon tracks them down to Shredder’s hideout, which appears to be an in operation cheese factory. (It is an improvement from Central Park?) They burst through the door right before Shredder is about to smash the heroes with a crowbar because this show wants to tease some truly horrific violence against animals.
A fight ensues between Shredder and Splinter, which more or less seems to suggest that the show is barely interested in its titular characters. In fact, the Turtles are literally knocked to the side, before April attempts to find a way to grow them back to full-size. Donatello suggests using the crystal again might reverse the effect because baseless conjecture and dangerous trial-and-error is sorta Donatello’s M.O. Luckily this time he is correct, and the crystal zaps the Turtles again and they grow to their full size.
Cue slapstick resolution, as Donatello bow-staff flings from its harness, stopping the cheese press that was about to smoosh Splinter’s head, giving him a momentary advantage to get the upper hand on Shredder. Seeing the numbers severely against his favor, Shredder flees with Baxter. The turtles attempt to give chase, but Splinter tells them to not worry about it, that there are lessons to learn through failure and the episode is almost out of time anyway so one more action sequence isn’t in the cards.
The episode end as many so far have, with April reporting on the shrinking buildings coming to an end. The Turtles debrief about the situation, and there is a pizza gag and that’s all folks!
As an opener for this loose-arc, this episode does a lot right. It establishes the fact there are mysterious alien crystals (a fact that seems to go unnoticed by the rest of the populace) as well as allows Shredder a moment to shine. There are a few problems, chief among them that the Turtles barely do anything of importance here. That is somewhat welcome after they have been nothing but dominant in any challenge set before them, but it also makes for kind of a dull episode for long stretches. They barely escape what would otherwise be minor annoyances, and then don’t even save the day outside of minor conveniences.
Still, there are some fun scale gags and the groundwork is laid for the next few episodes. All in all, the show is hitting a groove that it will stay in for a while, for better or worse.