Cowabloga Part 9: The Mean Machines

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.

***

A quick refresher: we are solidly halfway through a four-episode arc which has the Turtles hunting down fragments of the alien “Eye of Zarnoth” (spelling on Zarnoth is a total guess by the way), which grants the wielder incredible and incredibly ill-defined powers. So far Shredder has captured the first fragment, lost it, REcaptured it and continued to prove his inability to defeat the Turtles even with ridiculous advantages. Also, whoever title coloring on this title card don’t know anything about no Ninja Turtles:



This episode opens in the sewers, where Donatello announces he created a new tracking device to help find the remaining fragements of the Eye. (The alien tracking device they had been using ran out of batteries, an actual plot point from the last episode I forgot to cover in my write-up because it seemed insignificant and also supremely dumb.) Getting a reading on a nearby fragment, the Turtles have to go up topside. Fortunately, Leonardo has come to the reasonable conclusion that “trenchcoat and fedora” look is not the most convincing disguise, but worry not,Michelangelo has a perfect new solution.

Groucho
Monk robes with Groucho Marx glasses, an even more inconspicuous look. The fact this look never got an action figure is a damn shame.

Just as the Turtles are drawing closer to the fragment, a bank robbery breaks out, which of course they attempt to break up, immediately discarding their ingenious disguises. And because we are almost two minutes without seeing them, Shredder and Baxter Stockman also observe this scene playing out before them. Turns out that Baxter was able to calculate the trajectory of the fragment from the spaceship’s crash a few episodes ago. After some digging around in the garbage, Baxter is able to retrieve the fragment and the baddies make an escape.

Our distracted heroes, meanwhile, are dealing with the bank robbing thugs they chased down an alley. Quickly taking care of them, the Turtles realize the fragment is on the move and attempt to flee before the police arrive. Meanwhile, Shredder, evil cross-dimensional criminal mastermind hails a yellow taxi. Which he then hijacks. Because bad guys.

In their dingy warehouse du jour, Shredder explains his new evil plan to perpetually unimpressed Krang. Turns out Baxter plans to hook up the crystal fragment to a computer, which should give them unlimited power to…do…something. Shredder is actually unclear what exactly it will do, but is quite certain it will of course lead to the defeat of the Turtles. Krang, as always, gives the verbal equivalent of an eyeroll and signs out. This leads to Shredder tasking Baxter to find a computer to “hook the fragment up to”. Even by his incredibly low standards, this is not an especially well-formulated plan for Shredder.

In the sewer, we are treated to a brief comedy sequence where Donatello attempts to hook his alien tracking device to the Turtle Van. A circuitry incompatibility leads the van to freak out, nearly run over our heroes and then have to be run off to the side and crashed. Donatello then points out he may have misjudged something, and Raphael razzes him; this is the part that make it a joke. I only point all this out because I forgot to mention the battery thing and that turned out to be important, so apparently I need to cover all the short, inexplicable Turtle comedy bits as well.

Goof

Elsewhere, at an insurance company building, Baxter is able to find a computer to “hook” the crystal fragment up to. The computer then seems to be taken over by a Decepticon.

Decep

The computer, which immediately can speak and understand English, calls itself “O.M.N.U.S.”, for “omnipotent multi-processing nexus of universal sentience” or as Baxter succinctly calls it, a “thinking machine”. When Baxter gets a little mouthy, O.M.N.U.S. shows his power by making all the machines in the immediately vicinity go haywire.


Shredder remains unimpressed, but O.M.N.U.S. reveals that with a stronger power source, it could control all machines in New York City. Being an obsessive dope and not seeing the potential dangers of this plan, Shredder promises to get more power for his new computer BFF. Another short Turtle vignette later, and the power has been achieved to grant O.M.N.U.S. more control over the entire city’s machinery. O.M.N.U.S. detects the Turtles are nearby and of course Shredder freaks out and demands that they be destroyed.

The Turtles pull into what appears to be a construction site where they were meeting April to get her roped in to their problems because they don’t have any other friends (yet). Just as they are explaining their situation to April, O.M.N.U.S. zaps and takes control of the construction equipment in the site and sets it to attack the Turtles and April as we music-sting our way into our first commercial break.

Construction

After the break, the Turtles are slow to realize that automated construction vehicles are essentially one step away from being robots. And while it has been a while, one thing remains try: the Ninja Turtles really hate robots. So soon they get to the business of using these massive machines menacing mayhem against each other.

This sequence is actually pretty cool, if a slight retread of some earlier turtle tropes. It essentially works as an opportunity for Leonardo to look calm and cool under pressure, and Michelangelo like a total pyromaniac with a death wish. Also in the scuffle, April’s Channel 6 news van gets totaled (or as she refers to it, her “mobile unit”, raising question on if April is secretly a robot). This proves another timeless if not recently explored trope: the Turtles are a toxic influence in the life of ace reporter April O’Neil.

Shredder is of course devastated that the Turtles aren’t killed, but O.M.N.U.S. again demands more power if he is going to defeat our heroes. Tapping into the whole city’s power plant, O.M.N.U.S. continues to power up menacingly!

The entire city soon is going bezerk from O.M.N.U.S.’s mucking about with a multitudes of machines. The Turtles and April attempt to track down where the Shredder is hiding. We get a cut away to the Channel 6 headquarters where April’s Lou Grantian boss, Burne Thompson, is fed up with April not being available again and gives the scoop on the big machineageddon to perpetual suck-up Vernon Fenwick. But when it is pointed out covering random machinery going totally bananas might actually be dangerous, Vernon chickens out and makes himself look like a dick because that is his general function.

Vernon

Meanwhile, the Turtles are attempting to track down the Shredder but having a hard time finding a lead. So they decide to question the most reasonable and totally-a-real-thing source of information they can find: a robo-meter-maid. Again, more wasted potential action figures.

MM
There is actually a bit earlier where O.M.N.U.S. brings the entire stock of a robot firm to life to protect their hideout, having apparently not heard that the Ninja Turtles constantly bat 1.000 against robots; it can be assumed that the meter maid is one of their prototypes. This robot first sasses the Turtles, but that doesn’t last long as the Turtles more or less threaten to kill it by water exposure if it doesn’t cooperate. After stabbing a living, speaking lifeform in the throat just the episode before, they now are resorting to almost literal torture techniques on A.I. lifeforms. OUR HEROES!

MMT1

MMT2
And thus a machine learned fear


Back at his hide-out, Shredder reveals that his true plan is for O.M.N.U.S. to draw enough power to be able to open a portal to Dimension X independent from Krang so Shredder can reclaim his Foot Soldier army. This is a really important and interesting dynamic the show at this point plays with constantly: nominally Shredder and Krang are the top two baddies of the series, but they are consistently portrayed as having animosity towards each other. Shredder wants to utilize the technology Krang makes available to him, but bristles as being under the influence of anyone else. It is an understated thing, but more complicated than most Saturday Morning affair tends to get.

Anyway, Shredder’s plans are stalled because oops the Turtles are still alive and coming his way. No worries though Shred-head, as O.M.N.U.S. can take control of the Turtle Van and even careen us off to our second commercial break!

204Mid

Donatello, seeing no other solution, attempts to reconnect the alien tracker to the Turtle Van; as it shorted out before the theory is that the short would cause the van to break ties with whatever is controlling it. And Donatello’s wild speculation wins out again, stopping the van just before it goes piling into a brick wall. Turns out I was right to cover that comedy bit earlier! Good job, intuition!

Taking it by foot, Donatello (who has more to do in this show than I recalled) figures out that Shredder must be using some form of artificial intelligence to control the machines, because apparently he is the only person on this show to have seen Terminator. Arriving at the hideout, the Turtles come across a parade of robots and machines to destroy. This includes:

Cleaning Equipment!

Fire hoses! (Which aren’t machines, but I’ll let it slide cartoon.)



Random security robots!

This all leads to a wall climb that is totally Adam West, and a final confrontation with the Shredder. Well, the Shredder’s robots which is soon derailed when O.M.N.U.S. shuts down. Now stop me if this sounds familiar: seeing themselves outnumbered, the Shredder and Baxter run away rather than face our heroes, despite the fact that Shredder as already beat the Turtles single-handed. The Turtles are left behind wondering what causes O.M.N.U.S. to shut down at such an opportune time. The answer? April unplugged the computer! Rimshot!

AprilPlug

After a short peek at Baxter and Stockman’s cozy studio apartment, we are treated to what is becoming a standard finale to these episodes: the turtles are sitting around some pizza, chatting about the adventures of the day when they spy a hint of a threat resembling something they faced earlier! Oh no! More robots!

Just kidding, it it is a toy! GET IT? RIMSHOT!

204Fin

Guys?

The few lame stabs at comedy aside, this episode is a big step up from the headache before. It has a coherent plot, sticks to it and returns to the cozy trope of the ninja turtles dismantled robots with gleeful mayhem. This is the strongest of the crystal fragment episodes thus far, and wastes very little time (that weird Channel 6 scene aside). The final product is breezy, enjoyable and fairly textbook Turtles action. There is some pretty sloppy animation in parts (namely in coloring mistakes and lackluster lip-movements) but the overall punch of the episode makes up for it being a bit loose in parts.

Next Time: We wrap up this loose arc, with the thrilling conclusion “Curse of the Evil Eye!”

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