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
Audience surrogates are a complicated trick for a series to pull. They aren’t inherently bad; perhaps the world’s most blatant and famous audience surrogate, Batman’s boy wonder Robin, also stands among comics more storied and complex characters, across variants. But there are just as many characters who fulfill the role of the point-of-view character that are far more aggravating than they are charming.
In a sense, Ninja Turtle’s already had a ready made audience surrogate in the person of April O’Neil. She is a human friend to the Turtles who stands outside their strange reality and can stand in as a bridge between the mundane and bizarre. But for this show specifically, April has a key issue standing in her way: she’s an adult. And despite all appearances of a man firmly in his 30s dedicating nearly 6000 words to it a week, Ninja Turtles is designed and intended for children.
You wouldn’t be blamed for missing that however; while the nominal heroes are sold as “teenagers”, they are also giant turtles who don’t really go to school or have anything resembling typical teen lives. Their age is largely reflected in their interests (pizza, video games, massacring robots) than any specific maturity level, but even then there is nothing wrong with adults who enjoy pizza, video games and the occasional technological mutilation.
More troubling, this show seems to resent children. The few times they show up it is largely as comical foils, either bartering for dangerous artifacts or unwittingly hatching dangerous aliens. In almost all occasions, children are depicted as bratty, precocious and crafty. I am not sure how this would read to an actual child, but my reading is that it seems to condescend to the target audience of the show. The very nature of Ninja Turtles was to serve as a blatant advertising project to raise awareness for an obscure comic book to promote a popular toy line. It is not unreasonable for the writers in this position to see kids with a certain degree of disdain.
It is into this environment that new Turtle writer Francis Moss enters the picture with the task of introducing a true audience surrogate character. Moss will go on to write 15 scripts for Ninja Turtles, and serve as an assistant editor on a staggering 108 episodes. But his opening salvo is to introduce a new character into the Ninja Turtle mythos who is a fairly bare-faced opportunity to young fans to place themselves into the world of the show.
But before we can get to that, we open up in outer space!
Correction: we open up with Donatello geeking out about outer space, more specifically about a rare planetary alignment. The other Turtles couldn’t care less though because they are out of Mozzarella and that is a necessary component for making pizza and we all know that won’t do and thus Donatello the Planet Nerd and Raphael the Unrepentant Jack-Ass are drafted to go retrieve more cheese for pizza.
Raph and Don go to the all-night grocery to get some cheese and apparently a few other things, then duck down an alley to get back home. They are stopped by the generic sort of punk rock gangs that litter the mean streets of TMNT New York and are potentially mugged. They are outnumbered, so even with their ninja prowess things look dire. That is until they are saved by our new brave hero: ZACH!
The punks have the immediate correct reaction to a dope kid in a wrap mask and turtle backpack: they clown on Zach and continue to threaten the actual Ninja Turtles. Zach proceeds to show his prowess by immediately tripping over his own feet and falling on his face. In all the confusion, Raphael and Donatello are able to take care of the punks.
As their would-be attackers run off, the Turtles get to meet Zach, who informs them that he is their biggest fan. The fact that Zach knows seemingly everything about the Turtles is a little odd; remember the last time we discussed the Turtles’ public image it wasn’t exactly stellar. Perhaps youth culture is slightly hipper to martial artists who double as freaks against God’s design, but it is still a little unnerving that Zach knows their names somehow.
The Turtles show their only fan in the world the proper respect he deserves: they call him a loser and that he is a danger to himself and others. It is basically that scene in Dark Knight where Batman tells off those fake Batmen without the weird subtext regarding his financial advantages making him more worthy of the title of Gotham’s best vigilante, and instead just openly calling him a dumbass. Zach runs off cying after being mercilessly shamed by his heroes, but not before unquestionably stealing Raphael’s turtle com.
We now cut to the Technodrome because we have had almost four minutes of an episode of TMNT without any Shredder and Krang bickering. We learn that bit about the planetary alignment irregularity earlier wasn’t just an attempt to show of Donatello’s nerdiness but actually relevant to today’s Evil Plot. Granted, the general Evil Plan boils down to all of this season’s evil plans, which is do something time sensitive to raise the Technodrome from the center of the Earth, and thus begin world domination.
Back on the surface, we cut to Zach returning home. As he tries to sneak upstairs, he is caught by his equally obnoxious older brother who continues the mocking that the Turtles started. His brother seems to not believe the Turtles are real, which…seems fully demonstrable. Like they aren’t exactly a secret, though details to the public seem to be scarce. They are regularly covered on Channel 6 news, and they appeared as guests on a television talk show. If he was questioning if Zach met the Turtles that would be one thing, but he seems unconvinced they exist at all. In most circumstances, being skeptical of giant talking ninja-fighting turtles is probably a position I would support, but honestly the evidence seems to be against nameless older brother in this circumstance.
Speaking of Turtle News Headquarters, over at Channel 6, April fills her role of exposition spouter by finding breaking news about a break-in at a science lab by a “warthog and rhinoceros”, which leads to Irma making a crack about a garage sale at the zoo and do you even understand how zoos work Irma? April informs the Turtles about the break-in, which Zach also hears about through the communicator he lifted off of Raphael. So yeah, a dangerous situation is made exponentially worse when a child runs into the fray.
At the planetarium, Shredder and the Goons are stealing some crystals that are central to their whole “rising the Technodrome to the surface” plan, but the Turtles get there in plenty of time to stop the theft. Or at least they would, if Zach didn’t choose this time to stumble in on his bike, fall head over ass into a giant pit and get himself in the middle of things. Shredder isn’t sure what is going on, but never missed an opportunity to endanger children, especially when this science lab inexplicably has a giant metronome machine. The baddies run off, leaving Zach to be potentially crushed by whatever this pendulum device is meant to be, which gets us to our first commercial break.
We come back from commercial to April delighting in how much Berne her boss is going to love this footage, because apparently Channel 6 is in the business of child snuff films? Unfortunately for her but luckily for Zach, Raphael has some other ideas as he saves the wannabe Turtle at the nick of time. The villains are able to get away, which leads to the Turtles giving a new dressing down to Zach for ruining everything.
Zach protests that he’s 14 even though his actions, voice acting and everything about him screams “eight-year-old, at the outside”. In his defense, he also apparently went through a growth spurt because he is now the same height at the turtles at least in this shot.
There is a weird exchange where Zach again makes the argument that he really wants to be a Ninja Turtle too, which Raphael immediately calls out as crazy talk. Zach retorts by saying that no one would want to be him, which ho boy that’s a lot to unpack. Thus far we haven’t exactly got the cosiest view of Zach’s homelife, but “has shithead big brother” isn’t the worst of existences. This gives subtext that something truly unsettling is going on his life that he escapes from in his daydreams of turtledom which is fairly heavy side-comment to make in an otherwise lighthearted show. Making matters worse? Our heroes, and Zachs, seemingly miss the comment entirely as they immediately start ignoring him enough for Zach to sneak away.
Returning to the Turtle Lair, Leonardo discovers “something sticky” underneath the Turtle Van. Turns out to be ultraviolet paint that allows Zach to follow their tracks. Because Zach is hellbent on becoming the Turtle’s best friend, and the most obvious way to do that is to consistently harass and stalk them. Makes sense. Either way, just as Donatello does The Donatello Thing of figuring out the evil plot with extremely minimal clues, Zach rushes in to a less than enthusiastic response.
Well at least from the Turtles; Splinter seems into the idea of of the Turtles being publicly shamed by a 13-year-old with fancy paint. The Turtles, properly scolded by their sensei, decide to give Zach a tour of the lair. In return, Zach shows them a “neat trick”: by connecting an auxiliary audio cord to a Turtle Com can make truly awful noise! Neat! Having humored his dreams of being a ninja turtle, Zach is swiftly excused to go back home.
Meanwhile, Shredder is realizing that the Turtles likely will figure out what the goons plan is for the stolen crystals, and thus needs to cause a distraction. He tracks down Zach by the license plate on his bicycle (which I am fairly certain is not a thing), and then sends the goons off to kidnap him. Thus the Turtles will be hopefully too distracted by child endangerment to stop their world conquering plan.
The only problem with Shredder’s plan? Bebop and Rocksteady continue to be idiots who can’t tell a real live boy from the stuffed animals he is hiding amongst. They also randomly outline the general plan Shredder has laid out, which more or less confirms that they know that the Turtles likely know but that the Turtles don’t know they know. Thus Zach wonders if he should take it upon himself to tell the Turtles that the goons know what that they know and…listen let’s just take our final commercial break.
Donatello finally pieces together that they have to track down Shredder to the Central Park planetarium, which marks the second time the Turtle’s battle with Shredder has climaxed there. Unbeknownst to them, Shredder has a cadre of Foot Soldiers to help support him, which would be way more concerning if the Foot Soldiers weren’t perpetual chumps. More concerning? Zach gets his dumb ass kidnapped after all when he snoops too close and even Rocksteady is able to nab him.
The Turtles split off, with Leonardo and Michelangelo taking care of Shredder and the Goons while Raph and Don are relegated to Foot Soldier duty. Unfortunately the Shredder crew is almost immediately threatened with something bad happening to Zach and have to surrender. Meanwhile, Donatello just puts the drill module in reverse and sends the Foot Soldiers back underground. And…then also get captured.
Things seem hopeless, until Donatello mentions that the crystals that Shredder is using to harness power are sensitive to noise. Zach immediately jump into action, doing his ‘I can cause horrible feedback noise’ trick and thus destroys the crystals and saves the day! Or least allows the Turtle enough time to free themselves, guard Zach and then charge the baddies. They of course run away.
But a-ha! The nearest module was already sent back to the Technodrome! Meaning that Shredder and the Goons have nowhere to run to, because as we all know the whole point of the modules is they leave molten lava in their wake and block anyone from following them.
Or Shredder and the goons roll down an endless series of Bugs Bunny style tunnels until finally tumbling into the Technodrome. Honestly, this technicality wouldn’t bother me so much, if the show hadn’t made such an effort to explain in multiple previous episodes that the modules can’t be followed. So to undermine that, unnecessarily, seems pointless. But that is search for meaning and logic in Ninja Turtles and oh God what am I doing with my life?
Anyway, back at the lair Zach announces his plans to start a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan club. It is hard to get a reading on if the Turtles are honored or openly mocking their only fan, but they eventually tell him that Zach is the only fan they need and give him his own Turtle Com. He is an honorary fifth turtle, thus giving us our title. Because they would never actually add another Turtle to the team.
We finish out our episode by Zach returning home to his dillweed of an older brother who continues to be a Ninja Turtle skeptic. That is until he literally looks past Zach to see the giant van filled with turtles that dropped him off. Thus our final shot is the look of a bully teenager who has had his entire understanding of the world irrevocably shattered.
And thus we finish the introduction of Zach. Honestly I was dreading this episode more than I probably needed to. Yes, Zach is annoying and doesn’t do much to elevate the shows perception of children as little more than obnoxious twerps. But he’s mostly an earnest fan who has a seemingly shitty home-life who self-inserts himself into the Turtles because they are an inspiration to him. That’s a fairly simplistic plot structure that is hard to muss up, regardless of how aggravating you make that character. And while the baddies evil plan is fairly stock standard, it at least is treated as a genuine plan and not an avenue for comedy.
Make no mistake though: Zach is not a great addition to the core cast of this show, and he only pops up here and there, mostly to fill the role he does here of “kid who gets in over his head but helps at the eleventh hour”. But he also is mostly inoffensive and could be far more obnoxious. He elicits little more than a shrug, which I realize is faint praise. But compared to some other supporting characters on this show, a shrug isn’t half-bad.
Next Time: An episode that I have very high expectations for based on it’s very cool sounding name, but also recognize that is the easiest way to set myself up for massive disappointment.