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
Today was have a new scribe for our Ninja Turtle episode, who only wrote two episodes for the 1987 series. Rowby Goren is another journeyman cartoon scripter, but also has a background as a comedy writer who goes as far back as a regular contribute to Laugh-In. He also won an Emmy for his work on Hollywood Squares, I believe making him the first Emmy-winner we’ve talked about. Goren only ever wrote two Turtle scripts: “Turtlemaniac”, and today’s “Attack of the 50-Foot Irma”.
Which means we really have to tackle in full the Irma-situation today. I have written a lot about Irma, and my frustration with her, as she has come up organically. Specifically, Irma is an easy cipher and stand-in for every negative misogynistic stereotype that April as a central character doesn’t embody. Irma is perpetually man-crazy and looking for her next boyfriend. Irma is smitten with anyone based on the slimmest information. Irma, in this episode, is struggling with a diet besides having no visible need to worry about her weight. Her desires and impulses are used a form of comic relief that feels cheap and easy, and often makes her the victim of the punchline.
None of this of course speaks to Irma particularly. Irma, after all, isn’t real but rather the creation of (mostly male) writers who use her as a catch-all cipher for any negative female stereotype that April can’t fulfill as she is a focal character. Irma thus far has complained about exes who represent gross cultural stereotypes, dated a robot, helped the turtles in minor capacity in saving April and swooned over the same turtles in vaguely unnerving ways. Irma has no identity other than April’s occasionally obnoxious friend and coworker.
But Irma hasn’t taken central stage until now; I anticipated her to play a more central role in “The Catwoman From Channel Six”, but she mostly gets to meet the Turtles, who then proceed to take care of everything while she goofs off in the background. This is the first episode where Irma takes a central position, both as character and plot device. The result, sadly, doesn’t really improve her de facto position as gross feminine stereotype. If anything, it just adds additional layers to it.
We start off in the sewer where Michelangelo is attempting to decorate the sewer for a birthday party. None of the other turtles know anything about it, and neither does Irma, leading to the unfortunate conclusion that Michelangelo is very bad at planning parties. He has at least told April about it, who promises that she’ll make sure that she and Irma both make it to the party, but she has to get to work covering a story.
The story at hand involves an interview at the planertarium concerning a mysterious meteorite that fell to Earth near New York City. The most noteworthy aspect of this meteor is that its core is made of a hyper-rare isotype. So between it being covered by April O’Neil, having rare properties and let’s be honest because it is a plot device on this show, guess who shows up?
That’s right, Shredder appears and jacks the half of the meteor on display. This actually comes off as far more comical than I suspect the script intends before he first is lurking around, uses some kind of aerosol spray to cover both distract and cover himself as he steals the meteorite half, and then stares directly into the camera just in case we missed it. In my own reading Shredder snuck in, got away scott free and then realized he wouldn’t get the credit for being New York’s reigning major dirtbag so decided to leave his calling card, which in his case is apparently looking straight down a camera lens.
Luckily for Shredder, Splinter talks the turtles out of chasing him down because nothing can be gained. Other than, you know, stopping Shredder’s plan before it has a chance to gain momentum, but whatever sensei. Shredder takes the meteorite to the Technodrome where we learn Krang plans to use it as an energy source for his new sci-fi whatsamadoo
Back at Channel Six, Vernon and April recap the events thus far while Irma tries to sneak off. Turns out Irma has been attempting a new diet, but her food cravings are getting the better of her and she attempts to go find something. Despite Irma showing no real need to be on a strict diet, Vernon shames her for always talking about food. April attempts to keep the plot rolling, but Irma has a full on freak out and runs out the door.
Keep in mind up to this point Irma has never shown a propensity for being food-obsessive. She does exhibit properties of an obsessive personality, but predominantly that is manifested in being “man-crazy” or demanding April let her see the Turtles. Yes she did go to the pizza festival, but so did April and apparently everyone else in New York. And just to emphasize, April seems to be very concerned about Irma breaking her diet, but Irma is far from exhibiting signs of someone who has an eating disorder. The dialogue implies she is straight starving herself, which is unhealthy in any scenario, and can work towards developing even worse eating habits. But either way Irma runs off to eat something, and April chases after her because eating is bad.
Back at the Technodrome we learn that Krang’s designs for the isotype within the meteorite is to power an enlarging ray. The actual purpose of this plan other than general havoc is somewhat stepped past, as Krang tests out the ray on Shredder. The result is some amusing body-distortion animation as different part of Shredder’s body grow at different rares, meaning he first has gigantic arms, then a relatively tiny head, and so on. It is an honestly amusing bit of sight work slapstick that mostly is the product of understanding the broadness possible in animation. After a successful test, Shredder is returned to normal size and they plan to take the enlarging ray to the surface.
Irma in her quest for food apparently finds New York’s famed junk food section, with a cookie bakery and ice cream parlor right next to each other. April continues to insist that Irma stick to her diet, takes her eyes off her friend for literally a second and loses her. Rather than checking the ice cream parlor Irma was just salivating over, April checks the alley to see if she ran off that way. April’s investigative instincts might need some help.
Serendipitously, Shredders pneumatic module pops up in the same alley that April is investigating, followed closely by a second one carrying the enlarging ray. Knowing a situation that calls for Turtles when she sees one, she summons our heroes who run to the rescue this time. Just as they arrive, Shredder is able to activate the ray, meant to be aimed at him, but because we’ve already seen the name of the episode, we know it actually hits Irma instead. It also appears to cause her ice cream to melt, which takes us to our first commercial break.
The ray appears to have no immediate effect on Irma, though she is bummed that she didn’t get to have ice cream. Shredder runs off to his tube, and Leonardo tries to lead the turtles to follow, only for volcanic lava to come to the surface and keep them at bay. This is actually a cleve device that has come up a few times now, but these tubes are a recent enough addition to the world that I suppose driving the point home they can’t be followed in still important.
Back at Channel Six, Vernon recruits Irma to go find some more information regarding the meteorite theft. In attempting to get the reports, Irma starts to grow sporadically, which in turn causes precariously stacked boxes of loose paper to tumble and make a giant mess. Vernon yells at Irma being a klutz, while I question Channel Six’s filing system. Either way, Irma is left with new apeish arms as she wonders what is wrong.
Below the streets, Donatello is running scientific tests on some crystals he found on the scene in their scuffle with Shredder. He confirms his suspicion that is has traces of the isotope that Shredder stole earlier, and immediately realizes the potential ramifications of this discovery because Donatello is a Sherelock-on-the-show-Sherlock level supernatural genius who immediately can make deductions based on incredibly limited information.
We cut back to the Channel Six offices, where Irma’s growth spurts are becoming less and less subtle. There is something about the sound effect of rapid growth used that is a bit stomach churning, as it seems to suggest stretching tissue and cartilage. Also, the irregular body-growth gag from earlier in the episode which played as fun for some reason plays as more horrific in this segment.
Irma eventually freaks out and runs away because that is apparently her MO. April warns the Turtles that something is up with her friend, only for super genius Donatello to inform her that he’s already on it. He also calls Irma a monster, which I may have literally done before and hearing it out of his mouth makes me regret it.
Back at the Technodrome, Krand and Shredder are squabbling because of course they are. Turns out that Krang is going to need more of the meteorite isotype to power the laser again, because apparently his whole process was capable of exactly two enlarging rays. So of course Shredder is sent to steal the other half of the meteorite, while the Turtles are expected to be busy dealing with Irma, who now is as tall as three-story buildings.
The Turtles track down Irma, where Donatello refers to her as a “30-foot tall klutz”. This word is thrown around to describe Irma a lot throughout this episode, so let’s take a brief moment to recognize a few of the broad character traits that Irma has been given.
-Obsessive, particularly about men.
-Also food addicted, to the point of requiring a restrictive diet
-Lives vicariously through April
-Generally more nuisance than help
This all paints a picture of Irma being a burden. Yes, she is friends with the Turtles, but mostly because the Turtles need friends where they can get them and she hounded April about it, and only then when April was literally turned into a cat person and Irma was forced to step in did they actually meet, and was immediately shoved aside for her friend. I am dismayed when April is cast in the damsel in distress role on this show, but Irma isn’t even afforded that. She is just a hot mess in a constant state of disheveled distress.
Back to the plot, the Turtles are following Irma as she rampages her way towards the Channel Six building. Being klutzy old Irma, her mighty ponytail knocks over a transmitter atop the building which causes live electrical wires to hang. Leonardo is driving the Turtle Van, and heading directly towards the electrical wiring and apparently the brakes have decided to stop working as he shouts ‘I can’t stop!’ which takes us to our final commercial break.
Using a grappling hook, Donatello is able to slow down the van. The turtles then proceed to have an exciting action sequence where they ground cables, climb the side of the building and fix the transmitter. All while the musical cue typically reserved for exciting fight sequences plays!
Irma has a tearful thankful word for the Turtles, and I am have surprised they don’t show her massive tears creating potholes in the street below, though there is a bit where she blows her knows and shatters a wall of windows. The Turtles attempt to console Irma that is totally okay that she has become a Godzilla, only to lead to a few jokes revolving around the word big. I want to remind that Goren is predominantly known as a comedy writer, but this is the most classic joke structure comedy we get in this episode and it is all pretty low-hanging fruit.
To make matters worse, April comes to the roof to inform the Turtles that apparently the entire US Army has been assigned to take down Irma. Needing somewhere to hide her until they can figure out a plan to shrink her back to normal size, Leonardo suggests an abandoned airport hangar. This continues to odd trend of Leonardo knowing about places his brothers don’t for reasons that are entirely unexplained.
The Turtles get to work trying to shrink Irma back to normal size, but will need the second half the Meteor fragment. Of course Shredder and his goons are already hot on the trail of it as well. And while the Turtles have the inside scoop from April on the location of the second fragment, Shredder has a hyper-specific tracking device just for the powerful isotype, because if there is anything this show loves it is giant devices that track a single thing. Turns out it doesn’t work however, so Shredder just ends up trailing the Turtles anyway and ending up at the Planetarium.
So our final conflict is established, as the Turtles arrive disguised as hilarious ill-defined “military guys” and the Foot Clan takes a much more direct approach of using a battering ram to force their way in. The actual fight doesn’t take long, as the Turtles more or less defeat the baddies with little effort. Really this whole sequence seems placed here out of contractual necessity of having the goon squad humiliated at least once an episode. The story is much more interested in dealing with Irma as a giant walking disaster case, so it begs the question of if the plot really benefits from Shredder’s involvement at all.
Before they stop their retreat, April informs Leonardo that Irma is sleepwalking towards the city with a major case of the munchies. Donatello develops a giant capsule for Irma to swallow to help her go back to her normal size, and the race is on to have her take it before the Army guns her down. Unfortunately Irma is unwilling to take her pill unless she has it in a scoop of ice cream because on top of everything else she is also necessarily infantilized now.
Luckily Michelangelo has the head on his shell to come up with a brilliant plan: steal an ice cream bike and use a cement mixer to create a giant mess of ice cream to sneak the pill inside. Just as the army gets close enough to fire charges on Irma, we learn that she always dreamed of chugging ice cream out of a cement mixer (like we all do), which gets her to take the pill, which in term shrinks her back to normal size. Much to Vernon chagrin, who apparently wanted to see his co-worker killed by the Army.
In the sewer, we finally get to Irma’s birthday party which is a combination of Donatello showing off his dance moves to April and Michelangelo’s latest pizza crime: ice cream pizza. Irma starts stuffing her face with “Double chocolate with extra garlic”, April continues to chide her for eating anything ever, and Irma points out she lost 10,000 lbs. and we all have a good laugh as we fade out.
My massive issues with the general characterizations of Irma across this series aside, this episode is fairly well paced and structured. As I said above, it has a conflict that isn’t simply “Stop whatever Shredder is up to”, even though it is still an episode that for some reason includes the usual score of bad guys to little benefit. And while Goren’s writing style is a little more broad slapstick than I care for, it is nice to see a plot that really gives the Turtles a legitimate problem to solve that they can’t just punch their way to victory on.
Still, the Irma stuff is gross, as is the constant harping on her need to diet. The final moments to seem to make light of it, but the general conceit is that Irma has no sense of self-control, either in her impulses or general flailing. I know I am consistently hard on Irma, but it important to note it isn’t because I find the character all that annoying. In some circumstances I even find her weirdness charming.
What I find most annoying is how hard the writers attempt to make her annoying. She is meant as April’s plain, klutzy, lovelorn friend who stands in for an everyday woman that April as a glamorous reporter doesn’t. But the comparison doesn’t make Irma more charming, but rather more grating. She acts like a child, petulant and needy, and the Turtles affection for her seems tinged in a sense of obligation. Irma needs friends, and the best she can do is her long-suffering co-worker and the mutant freaks in the sewer that are desperate for any support they can get.
I will try to be easier on Irma in the future, enjoying the parts I can, ignoring the aspects I find gross and generally giving her the benefit of the doubt. It isn’t her fault really that she’s the worst. She is destined to be so by the very nature of being a born burden.
Next Time: We get all noir! And we discuss a very significant writer in the Ninja Turtles canon!