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.
Let’s talk real quick about April O’Neil. As a character who has existed since the very beginning of this series, she fulfills an important role in the eco-system of the TMNT cartoon. Namely, she is (thus far) the sole connective tissue between the Turtles and the larger human world. She is also their only friend outside of their immediate family-unit, and also is a useful narrative tool when handy exposition is necessary.
She also is rarely a focal character, serving more as a convenience that allow the turtles to get around more easily. Sometimes this takes a more literal path as she serves as their driver, or other times when she is able to use her resources as a reporter to look up key information. But she herself gets few episodes where it is functionally about her.
The last time (and maybe the only other time thus far) where April was a central character to an episode was “New York’s Shiniest”, where April creates a relationship with REX-ONE, the robotic enforcement experiment. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the same writer, Richard Merwin, scripted today’s episode. Both revolve around April seeking out her own adventure, functioning as a reporter who is hungry for the “scoop”, and in the process getting in over her head.
The problem is that while “New York’s Shiniest” was a carefully plotted story that stuck to its lane (almost to a fault), today’s offering is a bit more of a mess. The characterization of April is consistent across the two stories, but that is about all the two episodes share in common. Some bits of casual sexism and racial stereotyping also don’t help.
We open on the Turtles watching yet another monster movies in the lair, which seems to be their only activity other than practicing their ninjaing and eating pizza. Also there is apparently a channel they get in the sewer that broadcasts cheesy monster movies all the time? Splinter complains that too much monster TV will rot their brains, which comes across as a stab at self-aware satire.
This lazy afternoon is broken up when we learn that Shredder has gotten his hands on a matter transporter, which can transporter anything to anywhere. He uses this space-bending technology to of course transport Rocksteady and Bebop to a trash dump to humiliate them. This has the unexpected side benefit of allowing the Goons to stumble into a sewer drain that in turns leads them directly to the Turtle’s hideout. Thus ensues an early fight sequence where the Turtles’ TV gets busted and the Goons more or less get overwhelmed.
Shredder, feeling that he’s done enough to make Rocksteady and Bebop look like bozos, summons them back to their non-descript warehouse de jour. He also is harassed by an especially obnoxious alley cat. When R&B inform Shredder that they located the Turtles’ lair, he is understandably enthusiastic. He then is reminded they are morons and are unable to recall exactly how to get there.
This April-centric episode finally gets to April, where she is forced to cover the winner of the “Fat Cabbie Contest.” This is essentially meant to function as a goof on short, “human interest” pieces but mostly comes across as a bizarre bit of lazy surrealism.
Fed up with these sort of pieces, she gets a call from Donatello telling her about an emergency involving gigantic alligators in the sewer. Or at least, an alligators-in-the-sewers movie. April is understandably not pleased, but when she sees a take-out box from “Woo’s Oritental Palace” that Rocksteady and Bebop left behind she decides to go investigate.
And this is where we get into our first dose of some problematic stereotyping. This show has had some questionable representation of Asian characters before, but never quite so concentrated. Hacky accents, broad caricature art style and basically everyone there being drawn as literal sumo wrestlers and karate practitioners. None of it is especially offensive, but it is easy and cheap.
Anyway, April asks where the giant warthog and rhinoceros left with their food, and the titular Woo points her towards a nearby warehouse. Luckily when April gets there, the baddies have cleared out, allowing here to take pictures of the matter transportation technology. But before long, that nosy alley cat returns, presses a few buttons on the console and then jumps onto the platform with April. One gene-scrambling later, and April is slowly becoming more cat-like. Or just turning into a Nosferatu.
This is the second time that Cronenberg’s 1986 sci-fi horror masterpiece The Fly has been a direct influence on this show. The first is obviously “Enter: The Fly”, where Baxter Stockman is literally transformed into a human-fly hybrid. Despite the direct comparison obvious there, in some ways this is a more faithful homage. For starters, like Seth Brundle in the film, April’s change is due to a malfunction regarding teleportation technology. April’s transformation is also gradual rather than immediate (like Baxter’s), and as she goes further down her transformation she becomes slowly less human, and more like the creature she is transforming into. No, it doesn’t really delve into the intense body horror of the film, but there is a clear evidence of influence here.
Disoriented from the transformation process, April makes her way back to her apartment. She is followed by a pack of wild cats, a trope that typically denotes someone as cat-like in cartoons and movies despite the fact this is counter to actual cat-nature; cats aren’t pack animals typically, preferring solitary living. But if you are part-cat in a TV show, you better believe you’re going to have a cat-pack following you around. Also Irma shows up because she has no social life of her own.
As Irma fetches a saucer of milk for the cats, April’s voice becomes more and more feline, purring and extending words in the way someone really leaning into their cat puns would. Irma is unnerved, leaves and let’s April get on all fours and lap up milk with the other cats.
Because they are concerned for their friend but also addicted to watching bad television, the Turtles finally get around to investigating Woo’s House for Asian Stereotypes for themselves. Dressed in their flasher disguises, they give a few bad Bogart impressions before throwing down unnecessarily with the local clientele. This never really goes anywhere, and seems to be an excuse to infuse more action sequences here. In reality, this episode doesn’t have a whole lot for the Turtles to do action-wise until we get to the conclusion, so I guess we find ways to keep things moving
Back at Channel 6, April is becoming more and more cat-like. Irma is concerned but because Irma is the definition of useless there is nothing she can do to help or stop her friend. Fully transformed by this point, April flees. Poking around in her friends stuff, Irma discovers April’s turtlecom and pings the Turtles. The Turtles now have two human friends! Sadly, one of them is Irma so there are pluses and minuses. The Turtles agree to meet Irma to get more information on April.
Returning to the matter transporter, April attempts to recreate the accident that caused her to transform, only for our baddies to return from presumably wandering around New York’s sewer system aimlessly. Luckily for him, Shredder has a handy trap cage hanging for just such an occasion. When Bebop attempts to feed April a rat which he just happens to be holding on to for I’m sure valid reasons, Shredder gets an idea: using April to track down his arch-rival Splinter!
Shredder gives a short plot-important note that the molecular shake-up will eventually fade while he attaches a mind-controlling collar to April. He orders her to track down Splinter, which she does dutifully enough. And because she wants back-up and is a cat, she of course frees a tiger from the zoo. A tiger that just happens upon our Turtles as we cut to our final commercial break.
Dontaello fends off the tiger long enough for the rest of the Turtles to meet Irma at April’s apartment where they hope to find clues to where Shredder’s hideout might be. They quickly work out the genetic-transference that occurred because wacky science is a language Donatello is fluent in. This also leads to Raphael’s comment, “That means right now there is a cat who is trying to find just the right nail polish!” It is a slightly tone-deaf joke about April being obsessed with her nails, a theme that will come up again, a character trait more or less never exhibited by April elsewhere. Like Woo’s, it isn’t a joke that is especially cruel but just a bit mean-spirited.
Elsewhere, April is on the prowl with her tiger pal to track down Splinter. We also learn that Splinter is deathly afraid of cats, which follows being a rat. So when a tiger and Cat-April do finally invade his home, he is pretty nonplussed.
The Turtles do track down the cat that April got gene-spliced with, who takes an instant liking to Donatello, only to learn that Splinter is in danger! Irma comments that the name Splinter sounds cute. I guess things didn’t work out with REX, because Splinter is the kind of name you think is cute if you literally think any name sounds cute. Splinter is the least cute name I can think of is what I’m saying.
Catpril attacks Splinter, who refuses to fight back because they’re friends. Shredder’s mind-control seems to have a hold however, just as the Ninja Turtles show up. Leonardo unsheathes his sword and runs at April and Donatello immediately assumes he is going to behead her or something and totally flips out. Thankfully he only means to cut off the collar because of course that was the plan.
Shaking April from her mind control, the Turtles now just have to deal with the tiger she brought. Luckily Michelangelo knows exactly what to do: lure the tiger with a wind-up mouse toy he has on him (for reasons?) into the animal cage the lair hold (for other reasons?).
Back at the warehouse, Shredder is bummed out over lost control of April because he was pretty proud of this plan. A moment later, Bebop holds up the rat he attempted to feed April earlier, only for it bite him and scamper away. A moment later, Rocksteady attempts to bludgeon the mouse with his club only to, oops, totally wreck the matter transporter. This clean writes that particularly useful piece of technology off the world map. Somehow Shredder blames the Turtles for his own lackeys idiocy.
We have our closer scene where the Turtles and a newly re-human April celebrate their victory with (of course) a pizza party! April (reasonably) complains about her nails being all fucked up, to which Raphael yucks it up that “Yep, she’s back to being a woman alright!” Which is the grossest this episode gets, but it pretty bad. The fact Raph has this smug look on his face when he says it makes it worse. In my head canon, Raphael is just kind of a sexist douchebag who his brothers put up with, but one day he’ll say one “Well actually” too far and get put in his place. Raphael probably spends a lot of time on Reddit is what I’m saying.
Because we can’t end on just one gross sexist trope, we also have Irma wandering in for our stinger, wherein she longs to meet her “dream man”, still fascinated with someone named Splinter. When Splinter is revealed to be a giant rat-man, she promptly runs away because ladies are scared of rats! Get it?!
Yeah this episode is not the best. April does get to have some agency, but she also is literally mind-controlled by Shredder through a piece of high-tech jewelry. The flow of the episode is also off, from the weird opening fight scene to the one-off cabbie gag, to the weird emphasis on Woo’s. There are certain plot devices I enjoy (Bebop rat serving as a Chekov’s gun was a welcome joke), but the tone of this episode feels off brand for the show. This is Merwin’s final TMNT script, and while I enjoyed “New York’s Shiniest”, if this is his brand of humor I am a bit relieved he never became a regular staff writer.
Next Time: We close out Season 2 with a grand battle! All that talk about opening portals from Dimension X to Earth? It finally matters!