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.
Before we get into the episode proper, I am going to note that I have started to pay attention to the staff credited with writing every episode. Other than the long closing credits, it is the only production seal of quality that the episodes have. And luckily for us, this episode comes from Michael Reaves, whose previous credits include “The Mean Machines” and last time’s “Enter: The Fly”, both of which I quite enjoyed. So excited to see if Mr. Reaves can keep up his hit rank.
We are off to a good start as we learn that apparently Donatello has built a previously-unrevealed Danger Room within the lair. And this thing is no slouch either. Mega-lasers! Mechanical pits! Grabby robot hands! We see Michelangelo struggle through this monstrous obstacle course before getting washed up and dressed down for his sub-par clearance speed. There is something about Splinter with a coach’s style clipboard I am way into.
In yet another abandoned warehouse elsewhere, Shredder checks in with Krang to draw out his new villainous plan. Well, actually it is an old plan: he wants to use Krang’s mutagen that created the Turtles, Rocksteady and Bebop to create an army of mutants. You’ll remember this was a plotline in the first season of the show, though was depressingly disregarded before it actually went anywhere. Finally realizing this is the best idea he’s had yet, Shredder begs Krang to send him some mutagen.
Krang also recognizes this idea has merit, but there is one problem: a storm occurring in Dimension X will likely affect the accuracy of the transdimensional portal. Shredder is all “eff it, we need that mutagen and I have zero chill or patience, so toss it in anyway.” The effect?
The canister of mutagen gets way off course, namely in the swamps of Florida. Busting open in the swamp, the mutagen causes a group of four frog to mutate in a familiar fashion to our heroic turtles. Only more…dopey looking? The turtles never actually look all the menacing in the animation style of this cartoon, but the frogs here are fairly comical looking. Like a buff relative of Kermit. Oh also they scare some tourists. Which is what you get for deciding to go to the Florida swamps for your vacation.
Shredder is of course upset that the canister when so far off course, but to be fair Krang did warn him. This leads to Shredder wanting to go investigate Florida for himself, see what damage the mutagen did. And because he for once doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, he uses a holographic projector to…well, make himself look like himself without his Shredder gear on and some very Miami Vice fashion instead. Why he has to use the projector and not just change his outfit is unclear, but the result is the same: me geeking out for unmasked Shredder.
When April comes across some reports of “monster frogs” in Florida, she immediately shares it with the Turtles. They come to the reasonable conclusion that this might relate to their sphere of influence, and decide they should go investigate. But before Michelangelo can pack his surfboard, they also see new reports of Rocksteady and Bebop generally being a menace in New York. This was actually part of Shredder’s plan; if R&B were to stay behind, they could keep the Turtles busy while Shredder did his investigation. And the Turtles indeed do respond, running off to the rescue with April close behind.
Back in Florida, Shredder tracks down where the mutagen crashed. He first discovers the empty canister, and then the four mutated frogs. Not exactly the army he was expecting, but quickly Shredder gets to work sweet-talking the frogs. The frogs themselves have a genteel Southern accent which more or less telegraphs them as not cut out for the world of ninja fighting, but soon are given new threads–or at least a holographic equivalent. And what a look: surfer chic with giant geometric medallions.
Immediately swayed, the frogs trust Shredder and dub him a “nice person”. Which I suppose is a logical response when everyone else’s response so far has been to yell and run away.
In New York, Rocksteady and Bebop are still causing chaos. The Turtles eventually show up to take them down, and…R&B are treated as a legitimate threat? In fact, the only reason why they don’t do more damage to the Turtles is they get a call from Shredder that they need to come back to their hide-out because he apparently has the fastest transit system known to man and can get up and down the East coast in a matter of minutes. Goons retreat and the Turtles trip over broken glass, traditionally not an especially slippery substance.
When the Goons finally get back to the warehouse, they are introduced to the frogs. Shredder also reveals that he has given the frogs names that reflect his own values, namely history’s greatest dictators and conquerors: Attila the Frog, Genghis Frog, Napoleon Bonafrog, and Rasputin the Mad Frog who doesn’t quite fit the theme but I doubt they were going to go with Adolf Hitfrog to drive their point home.
Shredder also is training them in martial arts, giving them European style weaponry and generally drawing a line under the basic idea of creating a dark-reflection team to the Turtles, except their the Frogs. The problem with this identification is that while the Turtles are more or less identifiable by very specific character traits, the only thing that separates the frogs is their weapons of choice. Their voices are similar, demeanors identical and clothes both varied AND similar enough to make them difficult to tell apart.
Bebop is not so sure about this plan, seeing how the Ninja Turtles are the stars of the show and trained ninjas with years of experience at this point. Shredder make the counterpoint by having the frogs beat up Bebop, which somewhat undercuts the fact that he was doing a number on the Turtles just a moment before.
Before long, the Frogs rob a bank and the city immediately shows their inability to distinguish frogs from turtles as the Turtles are blamed for the robbery. This is a reflection to yet another Shredder plan, when the people of New York were also unable to distinguish turtles from people in 2nd-grade-level turtle costumes. Furthermore, the mayor decides to start an anti-turtle squad, led by this dude, Captain Hoffman.
This is an interesting development for a few reasons. For one, it is an actual consequence of the city’s general distrust of the turtles. This has been a hinted theme in past episodes, but it never really comes to anything other than the Turtles needing disguises when they go out which are all universally terrible anyway. Secondly…is this a B-plot injected into this episode about halfway through? To say nothing of an antagonist who is outside the Shredder-Krang gang? Between the Baxter-fly last episode and now totally 80s Captain Hoffman, the show is starting to show a desire to expand it’s nameable threat count. Shredder will remain the central villain, but he is not the only thing the Turtles have to worry about. That is a worthwhile development.
Pleased with the performance of his “punk” frogs (who are not especially punk other than this shows usage of the word punk to generally refer to criminals), Shredder asks Krang for more mutagen to increase his army of mutants. Unfortunately the canister that crashed was the last of the mutagen that Krang had, and he needs Shredder to collect certain chemicals to create more.
Elsehwere, the Turtles are looking for clues to clear their name. But they are soon spotted by the police because they have learned how to look down alleyways and the Turtles forgot to wear a “disguise”. While fleeing from the police, they run into the Frogs who are in the process of stealing chemicals for Shredder. After Rasputin uses a trick arrow he apparently borrowed from Ollie Queen, the Frogs make a hasty and hoppy retreat while the Turtles are as baffled as me at people being unable to distinguish turtles from frogs.
Donatello also reveals that he apparently knows the chemical compound of mutagen, so he knows that the Frogs are likely attempting to recreate it and are also missing an important and rare active component, niotrinoline (spelled guessed at for this totally fake chemical). Finding the other chemical plant that will receiving a shipment of “the stuff”, the Turtles rush to beat the Frogs there.
Worth noting here, for the last several episodes Irma has been making short cameo appearances where she more or less begs April to let her meet the turtles, while April says she barely knows them, or more accurately, lies to her best friend. This isn’t especially important for this particular episode, but it does set up for a future moment so probably should mention it somewhere.
While the Frogs and the Turtles are in a race to get the niotrinawhatsit, we are kept informed about the Anti-Turtle Attack Squad, who reveal that the city is serious about this initiatives as they arm them with giant tanks. In additional, Captain Bodacious–er, Hoffman is armed with a turtle tracking device. It is safe to say the police department is sick and tired of getting complaints about giant green animals and are going to make sure they are taken care of once and for all. Also, the squad apparently has one tank, five members and hilarious cramped cabin space.
Our plotlines converge as the Turtles and Frogs both zero in on a shipment of niotrinsthestuff, just as the ATAS finds them. Before the reptiles and amphibians can throw down, the tank shoots at the frogs. While tanks typically have a more explosive artillery, this one opted to just freeze their targets in solid blocks of ice instead. The turtle look on in horror as the tank turns its attention towards them and we jump into a commercial break.
The Turtles hoist the tank by its own freeze ray however, as they cause the tank’s cannon to shoot a nearby building, which then causes an avalanche that traps the ATAS inside. Before running for safety, Leonardo orders the other Turtles to lend a helping hand to the frogs, taking them back to the lair to figure out what is going on and save them from inevitable hypothermic death. As the Turtles run off with their frogsicles, Hoffman swears that he’ll track them down.
Back at the Turtle Lair, the Frogs get unfrozen. Initially scared they have been captured by the enemy, they get ready to throw down with the Turtles finally…only for Splinter to break up the fight. If there is any disappointment with this episode, it is that the we never get this battle, which makes the whole “they’re like the turtles but for Shredder” premise kinda hollow. Especially when it is teased at three different points in the episode.
Regardless, the Turtles soon explain that Shredder is actually awful, which the Frogs quickly agree to because they have animal instincts that can detect evil which I am fairly sure is not a real thing. Now friend, the Turtles and the Frogs come up with a plan to trick Shredder.
The plan is revealed for the Frogs to return to Shredder, reporting that the Turtles were able to get the Niotrimcguffin before them, and that they plan to hide it at Stonewall Prison, which is basically “Alcatraz but in New York”. And like Alcatraz, it is closed as a prison, so the goon squad rush to retrieve the chemical from this very rational hiding locale and not at all a trap.
But oops, it was all a ruse, as the Turtles reveal themselves to be at the prison! They threaten to take down Shredder once and for all, just as Captain Hoffman arrives on the roof! Using the holographic projector from before (though it apparently has turned into an orb now), Shredder and and R&B all disguise themselves as members of the ATAS and run away, which is a slightly better version of their typical just running away.
The Turtles and Frogs have to make an actually difficult escape, as Hoffman throws a gas grenade filled with mutant-centric knockout gas. Rushing against falling unconscious, Rasputin save the day with more trick arrows, creating one explosion to create an escape tunnel, and another to collapse the pathway behind them so they can’t be chased. Hoffman growls and says the mayor isn’t going to like this.
You know what I don’t like? If my research is correct, Hoffman never shows up again. This is a real waste of a character, as he creates a natural tension in situations like this. And this show is in desperate need for villains who aren’t just lackeys or extensions of Shredder and Krang. Reaves creates a perfectly good secondary antagonist for other writers to use, but apparently no one took the bait.
That disappointment behind us, we transfer to our final scene. Donatello has mapped out a path for the Frogs to take by foot to get back home, and there is a general thanking all around for helping the Frogs find their path to the “right” side. And because we haven’t incorporated pizza yet, Michelangelo offers one to help tide them over until they get back to the swamp. But can you imagine it, the Frogs hate pizza! What wackiness! Cue credits!
When some reservations, I will say this is another success in the resume for Michael Reaves. The Frogs are smart addition to the cast of the show, even if they don’t get quite enough screen time to differentiate themselves or a whole lot to do other than hold bags with dollar signs on them. Heck, I know Rasputin uses the bow-and-arrow with trick arrows, but if you asked me to connect any other frog to their weapon I would making wild guesses, to say nothing of being able to visually distinguish them. They do come back several times, which is more than I can say for Hoffman, but here they do little to distinguish themselves from a good idea.
But this episode is chock full of good ideas. An evil Turtle team! Actually giving a face to the anti-turtle side of the city governance! Establishing the idea that the mutagen can be re-created with rare but attainable chemical compounds! Between the last episode and this one, the thing I think I like the most about Reaves works is his willingness to add elements to the world, and not necessarily reset the world back to square one at the end of an episode. This is still relatively early on in the shows history, so making broad strokes like this is fairly safe and perhaps even necessary. It allows the show to feel vibrant and alive.
I am officially looking forward now to any Reaves penned episode coming up. I am so enthusiastic about his work that I did some research to see what other cartoon writing he’s done. Consider my surprise to discover he was one of the writers on my favorite Batman movie of all time, Mask of the Phantasm, as well as the classic Batman two-parter Feat of Clay. So yeah. A fan of the guy’s work, so will flag whenever he comes up again.
Sadly, Reaves suffers from Parkinson’s Disease and has increasingly had a hard time doing more writing, working with co-writers primarily. His contribution to the world of animation is truly remarkable across a remarkable career. Thank you Mr. Reaves, one of the unsung heroes of Saturday morning cartoons.
Next Time: More Michael Reaves work! And a major plot point from the first season is finally addressed! And I think Cthulhu? Maybe? Let’s all go mad together!