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 may be repetitive at this point, but the tone of this show is a hard thing to pin down. Humor is something the show has attempted from the very first episode, interjecting humorous asides as a method to add some levity. But it also was in service for a fairly straight-forward action-adventure series. The core of the show takes itself seriously, even if it isn’t afraid to incorporate humor on the margins.
But sometimes that humor creeps in less subtly than others. The broadness of the very conceit is in a way absurdist, but for the most part is treated as straight-faced. Keep in mind this is all in adapting a comic series which is intentionally pushing popular trends in that market to their logical breaking point. The whole idea is intentionally absurdist, but both the comic and the cartoon presents it at face value.
The problem creeps in when you have that absurdism read as “anything can happen”. Cowabloga’s favorite Michael Reaves strikes the best balance of this, throwing crazy ideas out there that feel lived in and compatible (like roaming Mad Max inspired biker gangs) rather than thrown out without real thought. Granted, the second episode of this show introduced an interdimensional overlord who is also a talking brain, so the level of absurdity that it allowed may be fairly high. But Reaves typically introduces new ideas with a sense of confidence that makes you nod along and say yes to characters like Captain Hoffman, even as they ride on and immediately off screen.
On the other end of the scale are the Eden brothers. While Reaves introduces legitmately big ideas in a low-key way, the Edens seem very invested in driving home just how absurd this world is. This is getting slightly ahead of ourselves, but the Edens will go on to write my least favorite Ninja Turtle episode, “Camera Bugged”. There is probably an admirable quality for just “going for it” rather than playing it safe, but the gags ratio in this episode simply feels forced rather than organic at a certain point.
The episode opens innocently enough, with Krang and Shredder attempting to track down a mysterious alien metal. But there are small cues that things are off-kilter. For starters, Krang uses the term “wakies” to describe how Shredder and he are working early in the morning before the Turtles have awoken. More over, Bebop is awoken and jokes about not wanting to go to school. This whole sequence somewhat codes the baddies as a family, with Krang serving as mother, Shredder serving as father and the goons their children. Again, it is all a bit more subtle than some later work in this episode, but it comes across as weird and incongruous, but it is another aspect of the ever-fluid dynamics of our bad guys.
Cutting to our other family unit, the Turtles awaken to discover that it is Sensei-Appreciation Day and they done messed up and now need to get something for Splinter to celebrate this made-up holiday. Why it couldn’t just be Splinter’s birthday is beside the point, as we have more goofs to get to, such as Michelangelo stuffed sun-dried tomatoes into the “turtle bank”. Also Raphael isn’t being voiced by Rob Paulsen which feels even worse than when Krang had wrong-voice.
We take a short trip over to the Channel 6 offices to check-in on all our favorite knuckleheads. Irma is having vaudeville-style phono comedy routines where she is DTRing with a wrong number, Berne Thompson is demanding that stories come in and Vernon is off to find a worthwhile scoop. It is an ongoing confusion as to what exactly Vernon’s role in the newsroom is. In some cases he seems to be April’s cameraman, in other moments her direct supervisor, and in episodes like this her competition. Also there is an oddly high amount of Vernon content in this episode so strap in for that.
We check in on the Turtles, searching for something in a pawn shop for Splinter’s Sensei Day present. There are a few weird asides that pawn shops are where people dump things they don’t want, which no. That’s a thrift store. Pawn shops are where people sell off their prized possessions because they are desperately trying to find ways to raise what little money they can. They’re both sad places but for distinctly different reasons.
After they crack wise on accordions for a bit, they eventually get around to asking the store owner if they actually have anything worthwhile, especially if it has a Japanese origin. The store-owner is quick to sell them an “authentic ninja sword” that “someone” sold to him. This is the second episode recently where important artifacts were sold into pawn shops, but it is a narrative device I am kind of into. It makes pawn shops seem like hordes of hidden magical treasures. Pretty sure Mjolnir, Thor’s helmet and Captain America’s shield are all hanging around in the background.
Regardless, the Turtles trade their loose change and gross tomatoes for the sword. As the turtle leave, Shredder emerges and barges into the pawn shop to demand the alien metal. When Shredder demands to know what the “four men who just left” bought, he learns it was a sword. Which leads to my favorite moment of this episode: Shredder squinting his eyes and menacingly informing us “Swords are made of metal”. I am not sure if this counts as educational content or not, but I love it either way.
This leads to our first Foot Clan vs. Turtles fight of the episode. The Goons are more or less immediately defeated, which begs the question why Shredder brings them in the first place as he single-handedly embarrasses Raphael and then beats Leonardo back into a dumpster. Seizing the sword, he raises it menacingly and evil-laughs us into our first commercial break.
Before we get back to the threat of Shredder with his sword, there is a bizarre aside. Donatello attempts to baseball swing at a watermelon (which I can only imagine is rotten and spoiled, thus why it is hanging out in an alley), only for it explode in his face. This is the sort of the comedy that the Eden brothers enjoy throwing in: brief comic exploits that come and go with little fanfare, which are amusing in small doses. I enjoy this one only because it is so clearly jammed into the middle of an otherwise straight-forward action sequence. It doesn’t belong, it feels misplaced and tin-eared. But I kind of like just how brazenly unnecessary it is.
When Shredder finally attempts to slice Leonardo in twain, he slices the sword down, only to discover it cuts a hole to some other plane. When this occurs, everything stops, Michelangelo pegs Shredder from behind with another piece of rotten fruit, and Shredder falls into the rifts, which closes behind him. The goons run off because they don’t have support, and Donatello informs us this isn’t normal, but in maybe the most downplayed way possible.
Back on the Technodrome, Shredder cuts a hole from the other side with his magic sword and steps through the rift. Krang explains that the sword is created from the alien metal that was typically used in spacecraft capable of crossing between dimensions. A fragment was left on Earth when they visited, where it was discovered and then turned into the ninja sword, which still contains the transdimensional properties of the metal.
I probably don’t need to even say this, but this is a very cool plot device. The idea of Shredder having a ready made way to cut through reality, which he can use an escape tunnel to get away from fights is much cooler than the pneumatic tubes, and he of course immediately plots on how to use this magical device against the Turtles. The core conflict of this episode is easily the coolest thing Shredder has done maybe ever. So that is something the episode has going for it. Unfortunately it is somewhat undermined by the fact that Krang follows this all up by saying he loves it when a plan comes together, because A-Team references really drive home the narrative tension.
We get yet another comedy vignette, where Vernon follows the old “man bites dog is news” axiom the obvious literal end by dragging a dog into the Channel 6 offices. He attempts to have April film him actually biting a dog, which is of course the best way to advance your news career, but she is already off helping the Turtles. I only bring this totally inconsequential scene up because it takes up some of my time watching this episode, so it only feels fair it also takes up some of your time reading about it. Also the show makes a joke about animal abuse, which is never fully addressed and is kind of fucked?
Anyway, April is gone because the Turtles want to broadcast a personal message to the Technodrome which will draw Shredder to them. This leads to our next hilarious bit of comedy: Krang spending time in the Technodrome watching intentionally overwritten melodramatic soap operas. This gag comes up more than once in this episode, and it stinks, only because it serves little purpose other than to get in your face and point out how incongruous it is. “This doesn’t make any sense! Why would Krang like soaps? Isn’t that weird?” As I said earlier, absurdism is the bread and butter of this series from the word go, but leaning hard on that button to undermine consistent characterization doesn’t exactly engender a great response from me.
Anyway, the baddies take April’s bait and soon enough Shredder (with Goons right behind) slices his way into the broadcast areas of the sewer. Shredder threatens to kill Splinter, only for the Turtles to open a water pipe and get the splash on the bads. Shredder then uses the sword to essentially disappear and then re-appear elsewhere, knocking April into sewage, causing a water main burst and then finally dragging Splinter into his pocket dimension.
We finally get a look at Shredder’s tear dimension, or as Shredder puts it “the back of beyond” which I dig despite it being nonsense. Shredder and Splinter float around on these loose bits of ground that are just floating through nothing-space, only for Splinter to attempt to fight and Shredder doing the most Shredder thing and just bouncing, abandoning Splinter in the nothingness. Returning to the sewers, Shredder demands the Turtles surrender if they want to save their master, taking us to our final commercial break.
Shredder gives the Turtles an hour to decide before cutting another hole in reality and returning to the Technodrome. The Turtles are reasonably skeptical about simply submitting to their sworn enemy, but have to come up with a plan. They decide to use the junkyard to their advantage, putting out another message to lure him there.
After a brief scene in the Back of Beyond, we cut to the Channel Six building where April sludges in, clearly not having taken a shower since being shoved in sewer water by Shredder. Vernon, who somehow isn’t fired for attempting to bite a dog on camera, thinks he smells a story (as well a raw sewage) and decides to trail April. All of this Vernon bullshit takes up time, but it also leads literally nowhere. The basic gag is that Vernon is trying to out-scoop April, but it never materializes. Vernon in general a bit of a useless character, as he functions as an incredibly low-stakes C-plot whenever he appears, because in the context of magic swords and pocket dimensions, inter-office politicking of a local news station really couldn’t matter less.
The Turtle’s broadcast another taunt to the Shredder, this time telling him to meet them at the junkyard for their surrender. Taking a battalion of Foot Soldiers with him, Shredder uses one of the pneumatic tubes to the surface. The Turtles give up…well, at least three of them do. Donatello attempts to use the stereotypical junkyard magnet to pull the sword up. Shredder laughs that the sword is of an alien metal, thus is obviously not ferromagnetic; unfortunately for him, his armor totally is and thus he is comically sucked up to the magnet.
This gives the Turtles an opportunity to attack the foot clan, while Rocksteady and Bebop attempt to get Donatello off of the magnetic. In the scuffle the magnet breaks and Shredder get dropped from a great height. Their enemies defeated in a heap of loserdom, the Turtles attempt to grab the sword and save their sensei.
Except for then a giant tear in the sky appears and a trans-dimensional ship shows up, which bizarrely is shaped and modeled after a country-style antiques store. Some baby blue, elephant-trunked aliens float out, make some passing environmental comments and then nab the sword from Shredder. The aliens thank the Turtles for finding the sword, and say they’ll be back in the far future.
The aliens then attempt to leave, but the Turtles still need to save Splinter. Thus they use a grappling hook, tethered to April’s news van, lifting all together. The ship passes through their rift, which is revealed to travel to the same pocket dimension Splinter has been chilling in. Splinter gives a mighty Cowabunga of his own, lunges at the hole the ship is traveling through and escapes, as the ship leaves (with the footage of the whole encounter) into the rift.
Shredder splits (naturally), the Turtles tell Splinter how much they appreciate him (it is still Sensei Day), April complains about losing her footage and Vernon whines from the trunk of the car he got locked inside, which randomly gets picked up by another giant magnet, presumably to be crushed into one of those WALL-E cubes. And that’s the last we ever see of Vernon as we fade to black!
As I said at the top, the Edens are not my favorite writers on this show. They interject comedy at awkward moments, they use the absurd in a way that undermines the nature of the show, and this episode is hell-bent on making this Vernon conflict feel like anything I should be concerned about and I just can’t. The result is an episode about a ninja sword that can cut through reality that I find rather dull at parts. Which in some ways is an accomplishment unto itself.
Next Time: Things are going to get a little wet and wild! That’s…less gross than it sounds.