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: way back in the very first step of this strange journey, we heard the story of a very noble martial arts master named Hamato Yoshi. Yoshi was exiled from his home in Japan, mutated through mysterious means (ie Shredder’s unclear intentions) and became ninja-master Splinter. At that time, we learned that the Turtles main stated prerogative was to restore their master to his human form. This was their mission statement at the very beginning, and based on the first few episodes was the primary motivator for the Turtles ninjaing at all.
You would be forgiven for forgetting all of this however because it hasn’t come up in a long time. Essentially once the pieces for the series were set into place, the Turtles spend time sit around twiddling their thumbs until there are signs of Shredder or pizza-related festivities, then go top side, win the day and then high-five while drowning in more pizza abuse. Meanwhile, in the background, Splinter’s fate as a giant monster rat is more or less treated as a norm that the Turtles aren’t especially concerned about because hey, we’re all giant mutant animals anyway right?
This is all an especially weird omission because the cartoon creators went out of their way to modify the origin to begin with. In the original Eastman and Laird comics, Splinter started as a pet rat of Yoshi’s who was mutated into a humanoid alongside the turtles. The changing of the origin story primarily serves the purpose to give that initial plot device of giving the turtles a reason to become ninjas: they want to restore their father to wholeness. The fact the show almost immediately abandons that plotline without ever formally resolving it is odd to say the least.
But finally, thanks to the watchful eye and skilled pen of Michael Reaves (along with Brynne Stephens, his co-writer on “Enter: The Fly” as well), we return to this dangling plot point in today’s “Splinter No More!” I don’t know if this was intentional deck-clearing on Reaves’s part, or if he just generally thought it was time for a Splinter to take a more central role in an episode, but whatever the reason I appreciate some attention to this dangling thread.
We open with a bold breaking of formula: rather than wait until the closing moments for our pizza desperation gag, we decide to open with it. Namely, Michelangelo running through the sewers carrying an armful of pies for his brothers and himself. Knowing Splinter isn’t into pizza, he brings a sushi roll for their sensei/father-figure. Unfortunately, Splinter is too depressed to eat, so the Turtles try to work out what they can do to make him feel better. Always a stickler for a continuity because he’s my dude, Leonardo points out that Splinter likely still misses being human. But what can be done?
Apparently, a lot. Turns out Donatello has been hanging on to the last remaining chunk of inactive mutagen from when the Turtles and Splinter were mutated. By adding active components, he can create a small supply of mutagen to transform Splinter back into his human form. This revelation is simultaneously frustrating and satisfying: frustrating because the casual reveal that Donatello just happens to have a portion of the mutagen available, unmentioned until now, seems like a very easy plot convenience, but satisfying because it also plays into the fact that Donatello knows the formula for creating more mutagen as revealed last episode. It builds on established lore in a way this show rarely does, though I suppose I keep saying that. This second season has been much more internally logical than I remembered.
The Turtles go to tell Splinter their plan, which he reasonably gets very emotional over. So he cries. And Michelangelo cries. This is a weird but welcome vulnerable moment for these characters. Again, it is treating a major plot point from early in the shows run with the weight that it deserves, even if it does so at the breakneck pacing that this show necessarily operates on. I know I sang the praises of Reaves last episode, but this is a very key differentiation point: this scene treats these characters as characters rather than walking advertisements for toys.
Splinter is overjoyed at the prospect of being human again, even if he sees the benefits of potentially staying a rat. But the idea of being able to walk in the streets of New York again freely is too precious to pass up, and so he decides to go for it. There is a lot of emotional weight being communicated in the first two minutes of this cartoon for children.
Donatello is able to condense the mutagen down to an aerosol spray that does indeed transform Splinter back into Hamato Yoshi, human man . This transformation somewhat side-steps the standard rules for mutation established before, as April or any other human isn’t around for Splinter to touch first. But continuity pedantry aside, this is treated as a fairly significant moment for the Turtles and their master. Yoshi then heads topside leaving the Turtles to wonder.
It is only now that the Turtles have some doubts about this whole process. If Yoshi is human again, will he really want to hang out in the sewers with them? Or will the allure of life in the streets of New York be too tempting? Concerned they may have just distanced themselves from their father, the Turtles grow anxious.
Cutting away from all this pathos and character study, we join April O’Neil, ace reporter, and Irma Her Friend, secretary who left the office, as they record a PSA for “library week”, which April dunks on because I guess she thinks libraries are mad boring? Irma makes her requisite “Where are you turtle boyfriends?” comment before April stumbles upon something isn’t boring: Rocksteady and Bebop in track suits. Not wanting the Turtles to miss this momentous occasion, she dials them in to come check out the situation.
Turns out the Goon Squad were there to steal a book for Shredder which details an ancient spell that can open a door to other dimensions. This is significant because if Shredder can open his own portal to Dimension X, he can retrieve all his junk from Krang without Krang’s approval. Also he is rocking a very nondescript monk hood again, I suspect because he is looking up tomes of actual, legitimate magical spells in the public library. Are libraries still so boring now, April?
Elsewhere, Yoshi is enjoying his first leisurely stroll amongst people in a long time. Unfortunately, he is reminded of a very harsh reality: cartoon New Yorkers are almost universally rude. Also, taxi cabs expect to be paid for their services. Disappointed but not deterred, he turns his attention to on a stroll through the park.
Back at the library, the Turtles finally track down Shredder and R&B in their sick new duds. Using an explosive shuriken, Shredder is able to incapacitate the Turtles. Running off with his book of magic spells that (I can’t emphasize this enough) he got from the public library, Shredder beats feet and leaves the Idiot Twin responsible for taking care of the Turtles. Which leads us to our very menacing first commercial break.
Luckily for our heroes, Leonardo wakes up in time to throw a sword into a radiator, spooking the goons who retreat hastily. The Turtles then investigate the scene to figure out what Shredder was scheming. Finding pages from the book that were ripped out (defacing library books Shredder?!), Donatello is able to surmise that he is trying to find an underground temple used by cultists in the 1920s. The temple is located at a nexus that allows Shredder to open portals to other dimensions, and the Turtles quickly surmise that could mean the Technodrome returning to earth. Suddenly the Turtles are significantly less concerned Yoshi’s walk-around, and more concerned about Shredder tapping into ancient dimensional gateways.
Speaking of Yoshi, we return to the park where we see more cartoon New York jerikness as he is mugged. Being a ninja master, he is more than able to defend himself. But before he can even flex those muscles, Yoshi begins to change back into Splinter. Turns out the effects of the spray weren’t permanent and now Splinter has to quickly find a way back to the sewers before his rat form causes mass panic.
Shredder meanwhile has tracked down the location of the subterranean nexus to all realities. He just has to translate the ancient spell to precisely call upon Dimension X, and he’ll be able to call forth his vast Foot Clan army. Checking in with Krang (which…I was under the impression the whole point of this exercise was to cut out Krang but regardless), he is warned that he has to get the spell precisely right or else he’ll call upon another dimension.
As the Turtles recap their situation thus far, they wish they could talk to Master Splinter about their circumstances. This is ironically juxtaposed against scenes of Splinters attempts to get back to the sewer as having gone poorly. It is a short little scene, but it plays nicely as the Turtles continue to assume Splinter is out of their lives, while Splinter himself is caught between a rock and a hard place.
The Turtles also reach out to their only other friend in the world April O’Neil to use documentary footage she shot of the subway tunnels to see if they can scope out any signs of the cultists temple at the mouth of the nexus. As to drive the intentional absurdity of the circumstances, there is a genuinely funny gag where Michelangelo struggles to explain the plot thus far. He simplifies it down to “If we don’t find this certain subway terminal, the world’s going to end at midnight. No biggie.” It is the show acknowledging its ludicrousness while also taking it at face value which is precisely when this show is at its best.
Shredder continues to trek along the subway tunnels to find the temple, only for Bebop to point out that the subway tunnels are kinda sorta in the general proximity of the sewers, which is where the Turtles live. Because he hasn’t been obsessed with them for the last ten seconds, Shredder remembers that the Turtles are an ongoing concern still and panics. He calls Krang for back-up and we learn that apparently Krang’s robo-body requires showers because this episode is going to throw as many challenging concepts at us as it can.
Shredder demands that Krang send him a up-until-now unmentioned “neuro-scrambler” which he can A) set to only affect mutants and B) will cause those affected to treat each other as enemies. Krang has reservations but sends it regardless. Because this episode needs more complications to be added.
We cut to Splinter, who is very distressed with just how distrusting humans can be of giant mutant rats, and retreats down to the subway, chased by a pair of police. As he hides in the tunnels himself, Splinter remembers a dangerous lesson at an inopportune time: subways tracks sometimes have subway trains running down them.
This seems to be the point where plots are converging, as all major players are not traversing the subway, and the neuro-scrambler affects the Turtles. The Turtles all becoming increasingly agro at each other, April makes a crazy face, and we bounce to a commercial.
Resolving out first peril first, Splinter is shown barely being missed by the subway train, discovering that the transformation back to his rat form is complete. Dismayed by this turn of events, he is broken out of his pout as the police return to chase him down again.
Elsewhere, the Turtles actually seem ready to fight each other! The dream match-ups are drawn, Leonardo vs. Michelangelo, Donatello vs. Raphael! Sadly April has to be a party pooper, mention that Splinter would be totally not down with fighting each other and of course breaking them out of their neuro-scrambling. Soon the Turtles destroy the neuro-scrambler, leaving Turtles Civil War for another day.
Time is almost running out as Shredder discovers the cultist temple, setting up R&B as sentries. They actually prove themselves to be useful as they stop the Turtles and April as they arrive, though the show goes out of their way to point out that their massive turret guns are merely “stun lasers” because God forbid Shredder actually try to kill the Turtles right before he upends all of reality anyway. Also, if the fact that Shredder is dealing with some real dark-arts business wasn’t abundantly clear up to this point, there is a giant would-be-goats-head-pentagram above him.
Finally time to speak his ancient spell, Shredder attempts to open a portal to Dimension X. But his recitation is interrupted by Splinter, who causes the spell to be mischanted and thus a portal to some unknown dimension to be opened. Shredder and the Goon Squad try to eliminate Splinter, but oops a horrific monster from the other side of the portal reaches out tentacles and grabs–
Portals to unknown realities?
Did Shredder and Splinter accidentally summon a Lovecraftian Old One? If so, the eldritch terror of the situation seems to escape mutant minds, even though April is screaming her head off. The Turtles meanwhile start to fight, discovering that just stabbing it and slicing it won’t do much, which of course gives them censor-free rights to slice and stab with impunity.
After the baddies make their contractually mandated escape, the Unnamable Beast makes its way completely out of the portal, they only see one option still available to them: cause a major collapse and crush the monster inside. The plan seems to work, suggesting the Old One was maybe not as powerful as advertised. Or was a baby. A Young Old One.
We reach our end cap with Splinter giving the breakdown of the episode from his perspective to the Turtles. The Turtles are initially apologetic that the de-mutation didn’t take, but Splinter declares he has decided he would prefer to be a rat anyway because people turn out to be kinda awful. Which a slightly weird moral for a cartoon to take, but one pizza joke later and we’re out!
A lot to unpack here. The nominal A-plot is strong, as it both does address a major question going forward for the show fairly directly and serves as a good character establishing moment for the core cast. The B-plot is madness, the kind of throwing everything at the wall mad-cap nonsense that can break good or bad episode to episode. I am going to say this breaks the right way just because it is so crazy it is hard not to enjoy. To straight-faced have Donatello explain nexus points and portals to hellish other dimensions is gleefully mischievous that I have a hard time giving it a hard time being rudderless.
Ultimately though, the opening sequence is the real heart of this one, and that stuff is strong enough and the crazy stuff is fun enough that I found myself smiling pretty much throughout. Throw in the unexpected moral of “yeah humans are the worst” and you have a winner in my book.
Next Time: Robot cops?! I’d buy that for a dollar!