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.
In 1987, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven made his American film debut. The director had a varied history, focusing on historical dramas with a sense of humor and playful imagination. So it was a surprise when his first film in America was a cyberpunk satire written by first-time screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. The film was a pitch-black comedy commenting on 1980s consumerism culture, the role of law enforcement in crime-ridden areas, the dangers of privatization of public services and the impact of rapidly growing technology on individual lives. In addition to be a landmark in sci-fi filmmaking, it was also a moderate commercial success, making more than three times its $13 million dollar budget. There was even a cartoon based on it, which itself is a bit odd given the film’s penchant for unapologetic, graphic violence. But its lead character did look cool and had a catchy moniker.
It is impossible to know if Ninja Turtle scribe Richard Merwin had Robocop in mind when he wrote “New York’s Shiniest” (his first of two TMNT scripts), but there are some thematic links. In addition, there is the proximity; Robocop came out in July 1987, giving the production pipeline a year and a half. You know what premiered in October of that same year, almost exactly opposite the much-anticipated second season of Ninja Turtles?
Our episode opens with Shredder sharing his new plan to Turtle-murder to Krang: the NYPD is so understaffed that they have commissioned a robotic unit to help fight crime. Shredder’s plan is to kidnap the police’s robot prototype, reprogram it to obey him and then create an army of evil robots. This avoids the obvious problem of the fact that Shredder has already tried the whole ‘army of robot minions’ thing against the Turtles and failed spectacularly. Krang more or less humors him, while also throwing shade at Rocksteady and Bebop.
Elsewhere in the City, April and Irma are chatting about, what else, men and Irma’s seemingly endless search for love. This is all fairly standard, but you know what isn’t? April wearing normal people clothes.
Much like seeing Shredder without his mask on, there is something startling seeing April out of her trademark yellow jumpsuit. It really drives home the question of why that was the questioning decision for her in the first place; it isn’t at all traditional garb for a television reporter, nor is it even the kind of thing a down-and-dirty investigative reporter would wear. It is closest to something a sanitation worker might wear, but even then it seems overly stylish than anything. It is one of those startling moments to see a character who is a cartoon in every sense of the word broadcast in a different way. It’d be like Doug Funnie decided to wear jeans.
April finally arrive at her apartment to discover she’s being robbed! Incensed about the circumstances about the crime-rate in New York, April decides to channel her frustration into a story about how the police are planning to increase their fight against crime. Meanwhile the Turtles, informed via turtle-com, start to search for the burglars to pilfered her things. Soon they find her things being sold by the burglars on the side of the road. A short rumble later, and the Turtles are able to get April’s things back thanks to good old-fashioned vigilante justice. Which mainly details smashing street lights and also lifting a van which these burglars find very terrifying for undefined reasons.
While the Turtles return April’s things to her apartment, April runs off (in her reporter coveralls natch) to report on a secret testing of the robotic police officer. This is a good reminder that in the Ninja Turtles version of New York city, robotic civil servants are not that uncommon. After all, the Turtles already met a robot meter maid who herself was created an entire robot firm that seems to specialize in service droids. Even with this higher level of automation on TMNTNYC, the idea of a robot cop is treated as big news. More over, April is investigating without really clearing with the authorities. Which the police really love, people poking around unauthorized.
While sneaking, April uncovers “REX-1”, the robot cop she heard about. While she i starting to interview REX, the not-so-robotic guards arrive and poke to see what might be going on. REX steps in to protect April, showing very little regard for other officers of law enforcement. April tries to leave before she gets into bigger trouble, but REX seems to have imprinted on her as it chases after her and hands her its remote control and then carries her home.
Back at home, April has a new combination roommate, cook and bodyguard as REX seems fully dedicated to meeting any and all of April’s needs. Then Irma drops by and starts to flirt with REX. April tries to point out that Rex isn’t human, which A) is patented obvious and B) ignores the fact that Irma also insinuated once that she was willing to date Big Foot. Before that trainwreck goes anywhere worse, the guards that April escaped when she found REX have tracked her to her home, which gets us to our first commercial.
REX continues to confirm his status as a blunt instrument, as he defuses the situation by the most direct way possible: shooting April’s door off. This display of power and protective nature continues to turn on Irma, before April grabs REX and runs to the sewers! There REX meets the Turtles and immediately break Donatello’s bo-staff. Then he bullies Donatello (“Being a 7′ robot means never having to say you’re sorry”), leading Leonardo to try to save his brother. I don’t care what Irma thinks, I think REX might be kind of a dick. Toxic-robo-masculinity something something.
After April tells REX to let Donny go and fills in the Turtles, she asks them to kidnap her long-suffering and insufferable cameraman Vernon Fenwick. Because they love kidnapping people, the Turtles happily oblige and bring him back, blindfolded to the lair. This of course leads to the issue of how can Vernon be a cameraman while blindfolded, which means that Donatello ends up taking over cameraman duties. Which in turn begs the question: why not just steal a camera? Or use the camera April already has? Oh right, because seeing Vernon whine is fun.
Using the camera and some other equipment, April does a live report from the lair, breaking new about the existence of REX, which we learn stands for Robotic Enforcement Experiment. The news report gets the attention of Shredder, who seems intrigued by the idea of a robotic police unit. The same unit he kind of showed his hand at knowing about at the beginning of the episode? Still, April gets her big scoop and the villain is brought back into the fold.
Being a master hacker, Shredder breaks into the city’s computer systems and steals the schematics for the REX model and creates his own army of off-brand REX-robos. He sics them on the Turtles because of course he does. As they are on their way home from dropping Vernon off at home and crossing one of NYC’s many bridge, the Turtles are confronted and surrounded by Shredder’s REX army, which stomp us into our final commercial break.
After one of the REXclones blasts a hole in the bridge, Leonardo appears to choose suicide over defeat as he drives straight into the water below. Shredder, being fed all of this encounter, is thrilled. He then has his robots go to town: robbing banks, tipping over armored cars, even taking over the Channel 6 news offices.
This all despite the fact that, as everyone knows, turtles are naturally aquatic-friendly animals. (Vans, not so much; RIP original Turtle Van). Though slight pedantry: this show hear and elsewhere will regularly refer to turtles as amphibians, which is not accurate; turtles are reptiles with adapted lungs to maintain underwater for extended periods of times. True amphibians can actually breathe underwater, which turtles are incapable of. I have just been meaning to get that off my chest. Whether reptile or amphibian (but really they’re reptiles), the Turtles emerge from the water, have a short ecological message about not polluting the East River and plan their next move.
Elsewhere, Splinter, April and REX-ONE are traveling around in…I guess another Turtle Van? How many of these do the boys have? Anyway, they are driving when they run into a swarm of REXes. REX-ONE, macho boss, steps in to save April because that’s kind of his thing. He gets a few decent shots off, but is soon overrun by his dopplegangers. But the Turtles arrive, using some handy power lines to deactivate the evil REXes.
Back at the lair, Donatello attempts to repair REX with new programming that is meant to help defeat the rest of Shredder’s REX clone armies. It takes some TV parts and VHS cassettes (much to Michelangelo’s comical chagrin), but soon REX is brought back to life (just like Robocop). In addition being back alive, REX is now able to control the REX clones, but only at a limited range. But how to get them all to come in one close-quarters location?
Why fireworks of course. Who doesn’t love fireworks? And especially fireworks shaped like Ninja Turtles…sort of. The REX clones are more than eager to take the bait, or more accurately Shredder is as he orders the REXes to all attack the Turtles. The army storms in, and REX-ONE….starts spouting off lines from the cassettes that Donatello used to help run his programming. Needing time distract the REXes while the programming is fixed, the Turtles engage the REX army in some carousal shenanigans.
Finally the routines of the tapes find something that actually works: an aerobics routine that the other REX clones are forced to copy, soon overriding their circuits or something and just kind of blowing up. This continues to Turtles long-held tradition of destroying robots, which is not balanced I suppose by Donatello actually saving one. Very uncharacteristic behavior. Oh also Shredder swears vengeance, mostly because he doesn’t have a chance to run away this episode.
The episode ends with dropping in on April in her night-time robe (scandalous!) as Irma drops in once more to ask if she wants to join her on a date. April declines, because of course she does why would she wanna third-wheel, only for Irma to reveal that her new boyfriend is REX-ONE! Irma is dating a robot! She and that robot are going to be intimate! Zero judging!
So yeah, just like RoboCop, in that it has a robot who is also a cop. The episode is actually a pretty tightly scripted and plotted piece of work: the first act establishes April finding REX, the second acts details her breaking the news about REX as Shredder unleashes his clone army who confront the Turtles, and in the final act the Turtles overcome the odds and find a way to stop the REX clones. No fuss no muss, though it doesn’t swing for the fences the way that some of those Reaves scripts routinely do; for example, Krang never takes a shower for no reason. Structurally sound if not exactly a barn burner, this episode taps into a cultural zeitgeist of robots that are also cops and plays it safe from there. Oh and then those robots date Irma apparently.
Next Time: Some old friends return for a second round of gyro burgers!