By 1989, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was an unavoidable pop phenomenon. Originally an attempt to raise awareness for the Playmates toy line, the show had taken on a life and fan base of its own. Merchandising became omnipresent, as well as hugely successful arcade game and a major motion motion picture.
As we enter the third season of TMNT, we continue to explore what strange alchemy was in this show that captured the imagination of the youth of the world. How were characters expanded and differentiated over time? Did an increased production schedule significantly impact the quality of individual episodes? Would the world accept a Michelangelo without nunchucks? The only way to answer all these questions and more is to document and study every corner of this bizarre, seemingly endless well of pizza-centric martial arts excitement. I hope you will join me. It is scary out here alone
As I put more focus on the creative forces behind these late-80s cartoons, writing occasionally takes some more detective work than one might suspect. Case in point: today’s episode comes from the writing team of Reed and Bruce Shelly. The pair only wrote two episodes for TMNT (“Green With Jealousy” and today’s “Sky Turtles”) so they don’t have as lasting an impact on the franchise as mainstays like Michael Reaves and David Wise. But it leaves the question of who exactly are they?
So off to handy IMDB I go. At first I assumed that the Shellys were brothers, but research leads me now to think they may have been a father and son team, namely based on the gap between their career starting points. Bruce’s earliest writing credit is 1967’s short-lived sitcom Hey, Landlord!, and then had an extended career as a journeyman scripter through the 70s and 80s. He wrote for everything, from the Love Boat to Happy Days to Wonder Woman, but typically never more than four episodes of anything. The longest resume for any one show he has is ten episodes of Eight is Enough.
My comparison, Reed’s earliest credit is work on the James Brolin-starring soapy drama Hotel in 1987, twenty years after Bruce’s debut. It is a writing credit he shares with Bruce. Reed and Bruce continue to consistently share writing credits for the rest of their writing careers, almost exclusively on cartoons, with a few exceptions here and there such as Reed’s solo work on shows like Extreme Dinosaurs and Tattooed Teenaged Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills, a very real, very low budget show that lasted for 40 episodes. The pairs biggest claim to fame is probably being the co-developers of Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. For those keeping score, that is the broad slapstick Sonic series from the mid-90s, not the grim-dark action-oriented Sonic series from the mid-90s.
The pairs last work was a 2003 Inspector Gadget series, and unfortunately the scant information available makes it hard to know if either are still alive and just enjoying retirement or not.
All that background aside, today’s episode is a fairly textbook example of a Season 3 episode. It crams in a lot of supporting characters, establishes a threat and more or less stretches that plot out as far as it can reasonably. The effect is an episode that feels overly padded at times, but doesn’t meander, a trend some Season 2 episodes could get into to varied effectiveness. By comparison, this episode is focused on its central premise and threat, almost to a fault.
We open on the sewer, where Michelangelo is being weighed because apparently he has a big prize fight coming up. The Turtles take turns fat-shaming him because all that pizza he scarfs down has to go somewhere. That said, he is shamed for causing the scale to creek at 190 lbs., which isn’t exactly that obese to begin with and then add the fact he’s a giant turtle and I’d have to imagine the shell weighs something. Either way, Splinter puts Mikey on a strict diet to get his weight under control.
This slice of life moment out of the way, the Turtles all start to float in mid-air. Completely baffled as to why, they speculate as to what could be causing this. We soon learn the reason as we cut the Technodrome and of course it is new technology from Krang and Shredder because what else would it be? Turns out Krang has invented a “gravity controlling device”, which Shredder immediately claims ownership and control of.
I feel like the Shredder/Krang dynamic changes depending on the writer or even by the episode. Sometimes Krang is a controlling manipulator who hinders Shredder, while others see Shredder as taking advantage of his relationship with a multi-dimensional warlord. In this case, it is the latter, with Shredder wanting immediate satisfaction of the world conquering variety and starts to “lower gravity” across New York City.
Cut to Channel 6, where check in on April O’Neil and her gang of loser co-workers. Specifically we learn that Irma has a new boyfriend (sorry Rex) and she’s convinced this is the one. This conversation is hijacked when everybody starts floating around all goofy, and then we get by far my favorite Irma moment ever of her just spinning in little circles forever.
April of course checks in to see if the Turtles can help her at all. But before things can get much worse, Shredder inadvertently overloads the gravity controller and causes it to short-circuit, returning gravity to normal and unquestionably killing hundreds off screen. I guess this is the part where I should mention having a lifelong illogical fear of gravity going haywire, being pulled high in the sky and then plummeting to my death. It is a very specific and very implausible fear, I admit, but one I very genuinely have and that this episode 100% taps into.
Shredder goes to repair the gravity control device, while the Turtles go out to see if they can find any clues. Of course they find nothing because there are no clues on the surface to find, but at least their being relatively pro-active about trying to do something? Leonardo does suggest that it could be that the anti-gravity moment was just a “freak of nature”, suggesting that Leonardo thinks that gravity just stops working sometimes. Increasingly Leonardo is becoming my favorite turtle because of his subtle but brutal honesty, but this is not one of his finer moments.
Suddenly, the gravitational pull from the device is greatly increased (or as Donatello puts it more scientifically, “hyper gravity”), causing the Turtle van to flip over for some reason. Pretty much everything is pulled to ground like we’re all living “This House Has People In It”.
Shredder wants to take advantage of the situation by sending Rocksteady and Bebop up, wearing “anti-gravity boots” so they won’t be pulled down. They drill to surface, only to wreck havok on a weird boutique dress shop before they go out to hunt down the Turtles. Which luckily appear to be in the area, as the Goons soon are closing in out trapped heroes as we cut to commercial break.
After Bebop takes their pair of Foot Soldiers and literally goosestep off screen, Rocksteady goes to finish off the Turtles who are literally trapped in their van. The Turtles immediately figure out if they could get the boots off of Rocksteady they could likely move around. A few empty taunts later, and they trick Rocksteady into giving them enough time to get his boots off. Soon Michelangelo is tricked out with some new boots and then sent off to get some more boots for the rest of the team.
Michelangelo soon discovers that the “hyper-gravity” is causing his nunchucks to be effectively useless, but soon develops a new plan. Essentially he stands between the two foot soldiers, flips out of the way at the last minute and has them disintegrate each other. Which we get a very graphic depiction of.
This as good a time as any to mention that Michelangelo’s nunchaku use became a serious issue for the series by this point. Some have argued that the series caved under pressure from parent letters that the nunchucks were too violent, but the pressure was much more functional than actual concerns with viewers. Namely, the show was very popular in the UK as well as America, but UK censorship standards in concerns of violence were much more strict.
The most famous example is how the show was changed from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Hero Turtles, mainly because you know ninjas are deadly assassins, not heroes to be admired. And while the show’s moments of violence are few and far between, and mostly robo-centric, the nuks specifically were still a problem for British censorship boards, who basically demanded that any time Mikey hit anything with his weapon of choice it had to be cut. This is why he starts using them more creatively or simply using good old punching instead.
I only bring this all up to point out that the BBC censorship board found it more appropriate for children to see evil robots melt each other down horrifically than to see them get bashed apart by nunchucks. Moving on.
Back at the Turtle van, Donatello notices that bird’s are still able to fly because they are above the hyper-gravity, so if they can get to the Turtle Blimp they can also be above gravity. Michelangelo comes back with the boots off the Foot Soldiers he got evaporated, and we cut to some hilarious shared-boot action as our heroes hop off to the blimp in their moon boots.
Shredder grows frustrated at the Turtles continuing to thwart his plans, so of course he goes top side with his own pair of gravity boots, re-adjusts gravity to start pushing up again and causes the entire city to be affected by “ultra reverse gravity”, which translates into everything in New York City from cats to pizza trucks to entire skyscrapers to start floating towards space. Again, this all taps into some serious personal phobias, but we’ll get through this together as we head to our final commercial break.
The Turtles continue to try to figure out a way to stop the wacky gravity problem, while Rocksteady and Bebop even float up at the Turtle Blimp but then just float off to their eventual demise. But more importantly, the Channel 6 building, with all its fantastic supporting character, lifts out of its foundation. The Turtles are able to ground it by shooting a grappling hook at the Channel 6 building and attaching it to an unnamed structure that is clearly the Empire State Building which isn’t affected by Super Duper Ungravity because it is big I guess?
Donatello then starts to put together a plan that involves a satellite dish which Irma mistake for him calling her a dish and taking it as a flattering compliment because Irma is down. For. Whatever. With. Whoever, including assumed misogynistic turtles. That short gag aside, the Turtles attach the satellite dish to the side of the Turtle Van in the most inconvenient way possible.
The Turtles find where the anti-gravity waves are coming from, and point the satellite at it. Then a giant laser beam shoots out of the dish, which in turn reverses the reverse gravity. None of this is explained really, because well it is all sci-fi mumbo jumbo bullshit anyway, and there is no great solution other than smash the machine one way or another.
Krang decides to take matters into his own hands, cranking up the power of the gravity machine to “super maximum power” and I start to wonder if an eight-year-old was a consultant on the logic of this episode. The reverse-gravity push and reverse-reverse-gravity pull creates a full magnetic sling, and a moment later the gravity control device is flung into space. This returns gravity to normal, which in turn shatters the Channel 6 satellite dish. Moral: don’t let Ninja Turtles borrow your important and expensive technical equipment.
We also get to see Rocksteady and Bebop fall to their death. Luckily we’re all in a cartoon, so when Shredder breaks their fall it doesn’t just crack his neck and kill all three of them but allows the Goons to survive a fall that is quite possibly close to a 20,000 feet in the air. The baddies get away of course, but the day is saved!
Back at the Turtle Lair, Donatello fixes repairing the shattered satellite dish with his welding skills. For his efforts, he gets a kiss on the cheek from April, which leads the other Turtles to want their own kisses. Well except Michelangelo, who is too busy eating as many pizzas as he can. When his diet from the beginning of the episode is mentioned, he points out that he never wants to float off again so he wants to make himself as heavy as he can be. And that is why Michelangelo weighs 400 pounds in all future episodes!
That closes us out, and I have to say this isn’t one of my favorites. As I stated at the beginning, it is actually a very focused piece of writing, with a singular threat in the gravity machine that the Turtles must contend with. But there is also a lot of hand-waving “no time to explain” nonsense in the climax, and the whole thing just feels like a thin premise stretched over a whole episode. There is a benefit to having a tightly focused episode, and there is nothing offensive here. But one of the things I have liked about my favorite episodes is when there are three or four things happening and you see how those components interact with each other. By comparison, this is a bit flat and predictable, but there is a lot of sci-fi nonsense that is easy to enjoy in that “hyper gravity” is fun to say. Forgettable but serviceable.
Next Time: The Turtles go onto a talk show!
No, not that one quite yet!