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.
We open our action this episode en medias res, with the turtles already tracking down Shredder and Baxter to thwart their evil plan. Granted, they aren’t sure exactly what he is up to, only that he’s on the roof of the World Trade Center and probably up to no good because Shredder literally never does anything that isn’t plotting to kill the Turtles.
Also I suppose I should pause to recognize the awkwardness of anything related to the World Trade Center as depicted in film and television made in an era where there is no way they could have known their eventual fate. This is especially noteworthy here because while it is generally accepted that the Turtles live in New York City, the numerous landmarks of that town are rarely used as plot points at any time. So yeah, it sticks out for multiple reasons. But mostly the tragic ones.
Moving on from that, Baxter attempts to create a shield that will cover both of the Twin Towers (again, not going there at all), only for his device to blow up thanks to a miscalculation in his Doctor-Who-referencing technobabble. This infuriates Shredder, and before they can regroup they go to the old standard of flee. The rhythm of these Shredder and Baxter run away from the Turtles scenes have become an old comfort at this point, and I hope they never end.
After their fleeing, Shredder and Baxter set up shop on a traveling garbage barge. Shredder truly seems fed up with Baxter, which is odd not so much because Baxter isn’t a screw up, but because he has been such a screw-up to this point that the fact that the thing that drives him over the edge is the explosion of a shielding devices comes off as…minor. Like compared to that time he stole Shredder’s helmet and reality-warping crystal? I would imagine that would be a bigger thorn in tin-face’s side.
Krang and Shredder have the exact same conversation they always have, where Krang ruthlessly shames Shredder for being a failure and Shredder demands more help. Specifically he wants Rocksteady and Bebop to be sent over. Uncharacteristically, Krang finally relents and Dumb and Dumber get to return to Earth. Because something something mass displacement and portals, Krang needs someone sent back in exchange for sending the moron twins. Because of course he does, Shredder offers Baxter as an exchange, showing in his mind two strong idiots are worth more than one smart idiot. The switch is made, and a single fly flies through the portal to Dimension X after Baxter.
Because Shredder is a cartoon villain, he decides to get to the Turtles through their “weakest” point: April O’Neil, who I am going to hope gets weak points primarily for being a civilian friend and not just because she is a lady. And what precisely is Shredder’s evil plan? Why sending her flowers of course! Delivered by a comically over-stylized dweeb!
Because April assumes that the Turtles sent her the flowers, and apparently they have romantic feelings for her as a group, she goes to try to let them down gently. She is practicing a “we are from different worlds” speech, but really I would stick with “separate species” as the primary reason. Unfortunately the Turtles aren’t there, but Splinter immediately recognizes it as a doku plant, which is slam dunks into a trashcan. Splinter asks if April already smelled the fragrance of the flower, and she passes out in response.
Back in Dimension X, we are shown the treatment Baxter received, being dragged off by rock soldiers. Krang makes it clear that one bumbling normal human being is more than enough for his taste, so he has no need for Baxter. So he tosses him into a “disintegrator unit”, presumably to be disintegrated. The fly that came with Baxter also flies into the unit with him,
Unfortunately for Krang, his disintegrator seems to be on the fritz. For starters, it doesn’t disintegrate anything, but rather melds the fly and Baxter into a man-fly-hybrid, skipping over the whole Brindlefly-style transformation process. Then, the thing straight blows up, likely out of shame for not doing a good enough job with the whole disintegration thing. And out flies our brand new Baxter Stockman!
This is a huge moment for this show. Not because Baxter becomes a primary character at this point; quite the opposite, he becomes an occasional guest star rather than Shredder’s ubiquitous lackey. But it establishes the ability for this show to still change at this point. Baxter is a fairly central character for the front half of this season, but we have a radical shift where he is traded out for Bebop and Rocksteady going forward. The message is clear: episodes can have significant shifts in overall narrative.
(The show then hopes we ignore the fact how infrequently it actually does this.)
In the chaos of having a destroyed disintegrator unit, Krang is unable to stop Baxter from escaping and making it back to Earth. He also steals a laser pistol and then bounces. I have to say, I like new fly-Baxter much more than whny-dween-Baxter.
Back in the sewer, the Turtles return from trying to track down Shredder to find Splinter tending to a still unconscious April. Splinter info-dumps that the doku plant sent to April bears a toxic fragrance, and the only antidote is a gazai leaf, which will be especially tricky because it look identical to a doku plant. Probably unnecessary to mention, but both plants are total fabrications for the plot.
The Turtles rush to a greenhouse for rare plants to see if they can secure a gazai. On their way, the Turtles are discovered by a still disoriented Fly-Baxter. Remembering them as his enemies, Baxter opens fire and blasts us to our first commercial break.
The Turtles retreat to the sewer, trying to regroup a plan of how to get the gazai for April. Baxter returns his focus to tracking down the Shredder, seeking his revenge. When they finally reunite, Shredder convinces Baxter that they should be allies because the Turtles were really their mutual enemies from the start, plus a few lies to boot. Seeing how Shredder was more directly responsible for his near-death-but-instead-mutation, the logic doesn’t exactly follow, but Baxter’s loyalties have been consistently wishy-washy at best. He buys Shredder’s logic and co-signs with yet another plot to kill the Turtles.
Taking the Turtle Blimp, the Turtles finally reach the rare plants greenhouse, dressed in one of their patented non-convincing “disguises”. The Turtles are able to find the Gazai, which the owner helpfully informs them and us it is the last known gazai in the Western Hemisphere. After paying what I have to assume is a minor fortune for this hyper rare plant life, the Turtles try to high-shell it back home. With Baxter trailing close behind.
Meanwhile, the Shredder reveals his new tool in defeating the turtles/new toy for Playmates to sell: an eight-limbed robot that catches target in a spider-like rope-attack, which has an especially successful ran capturing Rocksteady. Shredder names the robot after his goons, dubbing it the “Knucklehead”. This is one of those moments where Shredder’s clear disdain for R&B really makes you wonder why he longed to have them by his side again.
The baddies give a full assault approach to the Turtles, with Baxter shooting from above and Shredder unveiling his deadly camera-gun thing. That is quickly destroyed however, so he unleashes his remote controlled knucklehead, as well as Rocksteady and Bebop. Thanks to the latter duo’s idiocy and quick thinking on Leonardo’s part, the Turtles are able to defeat Knucklehead in a matter of moments and then make a quick escape.
This whole sequence is really awkward. There is an extended sequence introducing the Knucklehead, which is then immediately dispensed of right after. Yes, it serves as the new toy introduced in this episode, but it is kinda shown to be lame toy because it is immediately bested. Yes it looks cool, and make Rocksteady look like a doofus is always worthwhile. But all things considered, this whole sequence feels like a red herring.
Anyway, the Turtles win and run off to save April, hurray! Only they forgot about Baxter, who shoots down the blimp and sends our heroes hurtling towards the ground, and us to our second commercial break!
Leonardo is able to lead the glider portion of the blimp to a somehow non-explosive crash landing, only to have to face off against Shredder and the Goon Squad again. Or they would if the Turtles literally didn’t just run away. Y’all have guns! Like laser guns! Shoot your laser guns, don’t get in a foot race with the heroes!
Hanging onto random dangling rope from the still floating blimp-portion of the Turtle blimp, the Turtles do start to take shot from R&B. Luckily Leonardo has a brilliant plan: deflating the blimp, which will propel them forward. This does help them escape, but in the process Leonardo also drops the gazai, which Baxter helpfully scoops up. Once again proving Baxter is more helpful than R&B.
Feeling defeated, the Turtles return to their lair. Just as they are getting their resolve back up to try to get the gazai back from Shredder, they get a call from Shredder on their own com channel. He essentially says “Hey come see me at this junk yard, beat me in a ninja-style 4-on-4 fight, and you can have your plant back”. Recognizing this for the obvious trap it is, Leonardo hatches a plan. Quick refresher: Leonardo’s last plan is why they lost the gazai in the first place. In fact, both Leonardo and Donatello’s every plan in this episode more or less leads to the circumstances growing worse.
At the junkyard, we learn precisely what the trap Baxter has cooked up for the Turtles is: a pair of electrodes that will shock whoever passes between them, jolting them a “microsecond” into the future, meaning they will essentially be out of sync with the rest of the world. This is the sort of weirdly high concept sci-fi plot points I wish this show actually indulged in more.
All of this leads to the climatic fight between Shredder and his lackeys! Having set the trap, the goons attempt to herd the Turtles back towards the electrodes. Just as they are about to the Reverse-Langolier treatment, the Turtle Van plows through trash piles and opens fire, piloted by Splinter! All of this causes Shredder to drop his gazai, which Baxter then attempts to retrieve but OOPS hoisted by his own sci-fi conceit, he is soon rocketed forward in time and vanishes! Shredder thus reverts to the time-old-standard of running away like a coward.
Back at the lair, Splinter creates the antidote (or “potion” as he calls it) which almost immediately revives April from his coma-like state. Then we get the standard final moments gag: April smells something strange, Leonardo worries it is another doku plant, Michelangelo literally reveals that he made a disaster-pizza out of the gazai plant. Fade to black, tip your waitress.
You know what? I like this one. The plotting is a fast-paced, coherent and has a forward momentum that I really appreciate. There is the weird Knucklehead commercial in the middle of the episode, but that is to be expected from time to time. And most importantly, it gave us Fly-Baxter, one of my favorite characters. He has a great look (nerdy fly), is unquestionably competent (a rare trait for villains on this show), uses laser pistols and generally is a nuisance for the Turtles whenever he shows up. The whole damsel-in-distress arc is fairly trope-heavy work, but it serves as a good motivation for the show and April is gratefully not used as a literal plot-device overly often in the course of the series. Plus things change. That goes a long way in making up for some by-the-books plotting in the main conflict.
Next Time: Four amphibians are mutated and taught martial arts by a Japanese mentor. Sound familiar? Well it shouldn’t, turtles aren’t amphibians. Also, we discuss exactly what punk means anyway.