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
I started to focus on the identity of writers around the middle of last season. This led to me discovering a regular name that showed up, especially when episodes of a slightly higher quality rolled around: Michael Reaves. And while Michael Reaves is a significant and important writer, there is perhaps only one other Ninja Turtles ‘87 writer more significant who hasn’t popped up since I began writing about writers. And that is David Wise.
David Wise’s work has actually already been covered, as he was one of the co-writers of the entire first season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He also co-wrote the plot for the Season 2 premiere, but other than that sat out the entirety of that run. This is his first offering in Season 3, and has many more to come.
In fact, Wise has a lot of offerings to come in general. The total episode count of this TMNT series is 198 episodes; Wise serves as either the scriptwriter or story editor on 100 of those episodes. That means that are more David Wise-influenced scripts than there are those he didn’t touch.
And what are the things that mark a Wise script? Well for one, like Reaves he is reasonably invested in world-building, bringing in new concepts that can be used or built upon by later writers. He also enjoys playing with genre, putting the turtles in unfamiliar situations and doing tonal shifts in and out to better effect than most.
This episode is a good example of both of these. An affinity for classic film noir, or at least the tropes of that genre, is the most clear direction for this episode, but it also creates a sense of a world larger than the Turtles battles with Shredder. Yes, Shredder plays a role in this episode, but it is almost secondary, as if the show continues to flirt with having plots and dangers outside of the central premise of the show. Wise isn’t my favorite writer, but he does play with format in an interesting way that few other writers on this show do. Which is why it is all the more remarkable that he is the writer for this show. He established the structure of what a traditional TMNT episode is, and then delights in diverting from that.
For example: this episode opens up in media res, the circumstance and catalyst already occurred rather than the typical opening which has the action start with comedy in the sewer. Another break from tradition: we have Donatello delivering noir-ish narration over the circumstances, a regular Sam Spade as he and the other turtles trudge around the city in their trenchcoats. It is even raining for maximum noir effect.
As Donatello continues to narrate their actions, seemingly out loud, the Turtles hurry to a crime scene. The crime at hand is a jewelry store robbery, where the actual burglars were witnessed using powerful laser weapons. Apparently this in alignment with a series of crimes across the city where similar weapons have been used. Because of the advanced level of technology, the Turtles reasonably think it is likely that Shredder is involved. Of course this is the same world where healing rays are also actual technology, so heat rays aren’t that farfetched.
Either way, the Turtles learn from April that the gangsters involved are under the mantle of Tony “the Butcher” Vivaldi. This leads to the real groaner that Donatello always assumed something about the Butcher wasn’t kosher. That line behind us, April points the Turtles towards Vivaldi’s hideout at a club called the Meat Rack. The Turtles go to investigate further, only to be distracted by something that April has always wanted…
A hamster statue. Exactly why April has always wanted a hamster statue isn’t really addressed, but this antique store seems to randomly have her long-held desire. It also has an antique pizza maker, which the Turtles attempt to buy (re: Michelangelo attempts to buy) but they come up a bit short. April has the hamster delivered to her home and our heroes leave the antiques store, seemingly completely derailed from their investigation of the laser-weapon-gangsters case.
Luckily for our episode, the plot intersects with our diversion as Vivaldi soon visits the antique store himself, strangely interested in the hamster statute April just bought. The store owner honestly informs him that they don’t have the hamster anymore, and Vivaldi decides the reasonable response is just to destroy everything. Which of course gets him exactly nothing.
After dropping off April at her work, Michelangelo finds enough money to buy the pizza maker after all. Running back to the store, he discovers the commotion occurring there; in addition, it is revealed that the gangster were instructed to “nab” any of the Turtles they came across. They soon are able to bind him up with more laser-tech and drive off, leaving us with three turtles.
The remaining Turtles indeed go check on their brother when he doesn’t show back up. They discover the aftermath of the attack from the gangsters earlier. The store keep tells the Turtles that their brother was taken, and the Turtles soon split up and search for any sign of Michelangelo.
This leads to Raphael walking down the street, calling out for his brother and an ominous limousine pulls up beside him. A gaggle of laser guns are soon staring him down, and he is the next Turtle to be nabbed. Honestly the most impressive aspect of this episode so far is the pure pace it operates at. All of this occurs even before our first commercial break.
Leonardo and Donatello group back up, only to realize that now they are short two brothers. Concerned they may be next, they take to the sewers and go to Master Splinter for support. He agrees that Shredder is likely involved, but that the reason that an interdimensional crime lord would team up with local organized crime remains a mystery.
The Turtles and Splinter decide to go back to the antique shop to do some more investigating. Before long they find themselves being gunned down by the mobsters. Splinter causes a distraction, getting himself captured and drawing in Leonard like the dope he is. Donatello’s bo-staff is even swiped away. Donny makes a run for it, only for the Butcher to cause a building to collapse on top of him. As he drives away, we finally go to that first commercial break with a dramatic shot of Donatello buried beneath rubble.
Turns out he is okay though, as he stumbles out of the rubble and goes to visit April at the Channel Six building. Turns out April is getting professional pressure to use her contacts as a journalist to get to the bottom of the laser-gun robberies, in no small part because she works with a crowd of cowards.
At the front desk, Irma is begging for a date again as Donatello stumbles in. Soon enough, Donny gets April up to speed. When planning their next step to get back the Turtles and Splinter, Donatello says he can only think of one place they could have been taken: the Meat Rack, the club they mentioned at the beginning of their investigation and never quite made it to. And based on the clientele hanging around outside, the Meat Rack is some kind of meat themed punk-disco bar? Which is an odd fit for the firmly prohibition era gangster operation the Butcher and his thugs are clearly running.
Inside the Meat Rack, and lo and behold Vivaldi is in fact working with Shredder. He reports that he has either captured or “taken care” of all the Turtles. Turns out the Shredder is the one obsessed with finding what he openly refers to as the Maltese Hamster. Vivaldi complains they can’t go to all the antique stores in town. Luckily Shredder gave him a super magnet, and not only that, but a super magnet that can be set to thematic rather than metallic content, such as “Home Furnishings”, “Men’s Underwear” or “Antiques”. I would point out this isn’t how magnets work, but I half suspect that is the joke anyway. And it is a joke I genuinely chuckle at.
With antiques all over town floating down the streets, Donatello and April get a sense that something fishy is going on. There is a bizarre scene where they run into a police officer who gets in a verbal spar with Donatello before letting them go, only to harass them with further broad advice. It is all so strange, and slows down a show that has been going full steam so far, but I also kind of love it. It just keeps going and you wait for it to go somewhere to support the plot, but it defiantly refuses to. Wise’s dips into absurdist humor are amusing at the very least, if occasionally jarring.
Back at the Meat Rack, the Butcher’s gang is unable to track down the Maltese Hamster in the mountain of antiques the magnet attracted to the club. The Butcher and the Shredder have a short argument while April and Donny sneak in and catch some key information. Their location is exposed while Donatello knocks over some boxes, and are soon facing down the ray gun gangsters. And as we go to commercial break, Donatello tells us it is time for a commercial break.
This is a quick aside to acknowledge that David Wise, more than maybe any other Turtle writer, loves acknowledging the fourth wall. It is that absurdist stretch in him where the framework of the show being loosely a comedy show allows him to play with the reality of it. More than once in this episode alone, characters looks directly into the camera and make comments about their dialogue choices. It is a weird choice, especially because this show is action first, comedy second, but Wise never met a “I always wanted to say a line like that” gag he wasn’t game to employ.
Speaking of action-comedy, our heroes run into the disco portion of the club and start to throw whatever they can at the gangsters, including dishes, disco balls, entire cakes. It is all a bit slapstick, but it is more in tone with this show than random rambling detectives and magnets that can attract underwear. In the midst of this literal food fight, Donatello and April get away and flee back to April’s apartment.
Just as Donatello is explaining the plot, the delivery boy from the beginning of the episode finally arrives with the Hamster. Why precisely it didn’t get pulled in with the other antiques isn’t explained, but Donatello is convinced (accurately) that this is the item that the Butcher was looking for. Donatello tells April to take the Hamster to the docks at midnight, when a meeting between Vivaldi and Shredder is meant to take place.
Back at their hideout, the gangsters bemoan the fact that they still haven’t found the Hamster. But they are interrupted as a random TV seems to have at two-way broadcast where Donatello is able to talk to the gang. He demands to know why Shredder wants the cute hamster statue, which the Butcher is glad to gab about.
Turns out there was once a mad scientist in Malta who created a “super fuel” that killed him in an explosion. But the formula is written down inside the cute hamster statue. Thus Shredder wants the super fuel to rise the Technodrome to the surface and take over the world, letting Vivaldi graciously rule Detroit.
Getting the information he wanted, Donatello instructs the gang to bring the other Turtles and Splinter to the docks for the meeting. And then also reveals he actually was in the room with them, and had just carved out a TV to make it appear like he was on TV. Again, more infusions of comedy in the midst of the action, but another gag that gets a genuine laugh out of me. Anyway, Donatello makes off with a ray gun of his own and escapes.
Finally, we reach the midnight meeting of the mobsters and the Shredder, who brings along Rocksteady and Bebop because when have they ever messed up an important mission? Donatello also arrives and sets up the trade: he will give the statue to Shredder if the gangsters give him the Turtles and Splinter. When Shredder refuses to release the heroes, April disintegrates the statue with one of the ray guns. Convinced Vivaldi’s men did it, Shredder is distracted enough to allow the Turtles to be freed.
Shredder teleports his weapons back to the Technodrome, just before the Turtles threaten them enough just to cause them to run off. Literally the main bad guys showed up, goofed themselves over and flee. This, after the guest villains this episode either captured or nearly killed all of the Turtles and Splinter. Of course, disarmed of their ray guns, the gangsters are much more easily subdued and are left to be picked up by the police.
We end on Donatello and the turtles still stalking around in their trenchcoats. He also is still narrating, which Raphael eventually shuts down by telling him to clam it up. And that’s where we fade out.
As I said at that top, David Wise loves working in genre, and this is a classic example of that. There actually isn’t a real mystery set up here, but it feels like the shape of a mystery around a traditional Ninja Turtles story. Except the “traditional” parts are slowly stripped away even. It is a nice break from formula, and one that plays against expectations.
I think I still prefer the Michael Reaves style of wild abandon, but it is easy to see why Wise was the most prolific Ninja Turtle scribe. He has a sense of storytelling that makes this feel like a unique story that isn’t just pieces placed in a formula. Plus it allows Donatello a moment to shine, playing detective and actually formulating a plan for the final act. I wouldn’t say it doesn’t have to fill any time, but the way it does like the goofy detective actually utilizes the space rather than wasting it.
This episode also proves that an entertaining Turtle story doesn’t need to fully involve Shredder. Much like last time’s episode, Shredder is almost a circumstantial force of nature than anything that story actually needs or really utilizes. And especially as writers are more and more prone to write him as a buffoon, the desire to see Shredder whine and complain his way to failure is waning. Hopefully future episodes will utilize him less or at least more effectively.
Next Time: Shredder borrows the personality of the only character more obnoxious than him. Cowabrainwash!