That’s right, it’s been 25 years already. This summer sees the turtles back in full force, from toy re-issues and comic reprints, to DVD releases of the cartoons and movies. We take a look at the first two seasons of the hit 80s ‘toon which took the world by storm.
It was 25 years ago that artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird envisioned on a napkin the image of a little, stocky turtle wielding a pair of nunchaku. What began as a simple way of amusing themselves over the course of one evening soon became a fully realised work. Citing Frank Miller as a major influence, the duo set about creating an origin tale depicting the lives of four young crime-fighting terrapins, which in turn parodied Miller’s Ronin and Daredevil tales. It was quirky enough for them to set about self-publishing the first issue. Creating Mirage Studios, they published an initial run of 3000 copies; press reviews were favourable and word of mouth spread quickly, ensuring the first pressings selling out within days. The demand kept growing and subsequent re-pressings of issue 1 sold in the tens of thousands, making it one of the most successful self-published comics of all time. It was indeed the start of one of the most fascinating stories in comic book history. Merchandising quickly followed, which amounted to small figures and role playing games, but it wasn’t until toymaker Playmates Showed interest in manufacturing action figures that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would explode into a world-wide phenomenon. Playmates Toys agreed on the condition that a television deal be struck first; it was a done deal. Murakami, Wolf, Swenson, Inc quickly came on board to produce a 5-part cartoon. Turtles went global and the rest as they say is history.
TMNT’s first season was largely an experiment in playing it safe. At just five episodes in length it tested the waters for Playmates’ toy line, airing on CBS over the course of one week. Naturally, then, its main purpose was to establish principal heroes and villains. Taking us through the turtle’s origin story, the series differs quite drastically from its comic counterpart. The turtles each have colour-coded headbands to make them more identifiable to children, and they now have ferocious appetites for pizza, which are usually topped with all kinds of wacky ingredients. The core basics now sees Splinter, not as a mutated rat formerly belonging to Hamato Yoshi, but Yoshi himself, who had fled to America and shortly fostered the turtles after they fell through a nearby manhole and into his sewer. His once violent history with Oroku Saki, who had murdered his lover Shen in act of revenge, is eliminated for obvious reasons, while Saki, who later became known as ‘The Shredder’ upon taking over the once proud Foot Clan, no longer wears a mask to disguise his disfigured face, but simply to look imposing. April O’Neil, who originally worked for terrorist Baxter Stockman as a computer specialist, is now a news reporter, while in a pc move Stockman himself goes from black to white as he becomes Shredder’s scientific slave. Then we have Krang serving as the big bad alien with plans for world domination, based in appearance upon the original comic’s kindly Utrom race. Rounding up the primary cast are new additions in bumbling mutant henchman Rocksteady and Bebop.
To be honest these changes work considerably well for the TV show’s format. April for instance has one of the most bizarre tales in comic book literature; instead a reporter here, she makes a lot of sense as a go-between in helping the turtles out with a little detective work, sometimes becoming the damsel in distress, but always trying to keep them on the rails. Moreover, the series eschews the violence of its bloody source material; much of it resigned to the fearless four taking out their anger on robot foes, as seen in the regular appearances of the Foot soldiers and Mousers; in other areas their weapons of choice are usually used to pin crooks to the walls by their own clothing. Terrorism is largely kept at bay when it comes to notable support, and of course, in contrast to the stark black and white pages of E&L’s work, it is all rounded off with considerably bright and cheery looking visuals which regardless manages to superbly grabs one’s attention.
Like Eastman and Laird’s comic though it does share some commonalities in terms of social themes. It never goes overboard, in fact it’s a largely ignored aspect of the show, but when the writers are into their stride they do manage to insert little quips here and there rather appropriately. The turtles are social outcasts, having to wear disguises whenever they go topside. While the private eye get-ups and horrid 80s tracksuits are played for laughs the message isn’t undermined when it comes to these early seasons dealing with discrimination, ignorance and paranoia: “Shredder and Splintered” and “Splinter no More” attesting a fair amount to this. Environmental issues are also touched upon, naturally evident in storylines like “New York’s Shiniest” and “Invasion of the Punk Frogs”, which warn of man tampering with science and nature.
But when it comes to pure entertainment value it’s well into its pop-culture references. Like the comic parodied the works of famous superhero fiction, the series pokes fun and pays homage to various B-movies. This is particularly evident during the latter part of season 2 when the arc format ceases and the more episodic structure sets in. We have an episode dedicated to robot law enforcement; another involves mutated pizzas that look like H.R. Giger knock-offs; April’s DNA mixes with that of a cat, thus giving us – you guessed it; while poor ol’ Baxter becomes a permanent Man-Fly. These moments afford the writers plenty of opportunities to mess about, while the more incidental scenes involving the turtle’s lifestyle, particularly that of their adoration toward television which bestowed them their current vernacular, offer brief moments to smile at.
A lot of the humour is also derived from the interaction between the four turtles, though evidently it’s Raphael with his sarcasm and Michelangelo with his laid back gestures who end up generating the most chuckles. Leonardo of course is the serious leader, while Donatello, not without his witty observations, is a typical egg-head. The series never forgets the intrinsic personalities of each turtle, which over the course of its run creates more of that identifiable aspect; everyone knows for instance that Raph is impulsive, while Mikey has a serious lack of patience; Donatello loves building conspicuous gadgets (to sell more playsets and toys?) and Leo might as well be banging his head against a brick wall for all his efforts. Characterization such as this is touched upon briefly from episode to episode, and though it rarely borders on the kind of seriousness examined in the comics, they do enough to carry a message across in a more subtle manner than other cartoons of the day were.
Even the villains here are ridiculously colourful. Here we have an evil pink space brain from Dimension X who holds what should be a terrifying Shredder firmly under his thumb tentacle. Somehow – it’s never fully explained – Shredder has gotten himself tangled up in Krang’s evil-doings, and now he must follow his every bidding if he’s to enjoy his somewhat miserable existence. While Krang is arguably a weaker element to the storylines (with all that technology of his he’s still a bit rubbish at getting anything done) he does at least serve as an appropriate thorn in ol’ tin-face’s side; he who is now every bit as much of a wise-cracker as the shellbacks he so eagerly wishes to destroy. Ultimately Shredder is the show-stealer here. He’s no less a soulless creation; he picks on everyone, from the bumbling mutants Bebop and Rocksteady, created by his own hand no less, to giving Krang a good old slagging off behind his back; all the while coming up with devious schemes to rid the world of Splinter and company, while hopefully being able to distance himself from Krang and his depressing environment. It’s at this point where you have to acknowledge James Avery for his splendid voice work; the numerous one-liners generate more laughs than any of the turtles manage and frankly when he’s off screen everything seems to slow down a little.
Generally the first season is great stuff, while about half way through season 2 we see it root itself into more formulaic territory. Supporting characters do even more supporting, from April’s boss Burnes now enjoying a blonde bimbo girlfriend in Tiffany, to co-worker Irma permanently trying to prise info out of April in regards to the ninja turtles. Baxter becomes a more permanent addition to the roster and we see other familiar faces return, such as the increasingly annoying Neutrinos. Perhaps a little more discouragingly is that season 2 is a lot more of a mixed bag in terms of writing. While some episodes are bang on in terms of witty humour and light escapades, others are notably lazy in rallying off exposition, relying on absolutely ludicrous supposition in order to move the plot forward; one episode for example, “Catwoman from Channel 6”, sees Rocksteady and Bebop sneak their way into the turtle’s lair before disappearing again. When asked by the turtles how they found the secret hideout Splinter immediately assumes that they must have used a matter transport device, which they did, but come on Splinter, you’re not that awesome.
Despite an aesthetic overhaul and reduction in violence compared to that of the Mirage comic books, TMNT was still met with distain from local censorship groups when it made the trip to Europe. Those of us growing up on cable in the United Kingdom had the good fortune of seeing the first series in its original form, but by season 2 when it had become a world-wide hit things were drastically changed. The word “Ninja” was considered far too violent and influential for children; subsequently it was replaced by “Hero”, while the use of various weapons were toned down. With censorship still banning the presence of Nunchaku on film and television, poor ol’ Mikey got the brunt end of the stick, enjoying very little action compared to his brothers (his scenes being replaced by stock footage) whose staff, sais and sword were freely wielded from episode to episode. Likewise, the BBFC had even taken offence in some of the turtles outlandish war cries. It wasn’t enough of an impact to prove detrimental to the series’ success, however, but it certainly did enough to distance itself even further from Eastman and Laird’s vision.
At least now with censorship laws much more relaxed, the cartoon can be enjoyed as it was originally meant to be seen. Fully uncut, we have every bit of action and every line preserved on digital disc. Three discs house all 5 episodes from season one and all 13 from season 2.
The menus are pretty bland going, consisting of static images featuring artwork not even of the series, along with totally random chop-socky sound effects. The main theme would have been enough, rather than something that sounds like it came out of any number of HK martial arts flicks.
After an initially shaky beginning the episodes themselves aren’t too shabby. The opening titles are about as bad as it gets; oddly enough they exhibit an awful amount of haloing, which I can only describe as halos with halos (see pic below, click to enlarge), with noticeable cross-colouring and heavy aliasing.
Every expense has been spared it seems, but I’ve seen worse from 80s cartoons on DVD. With the credits out of the way we have a fairly stable 1.33:1 presentation of what appears to be broadcast tapes. Indeed these are original episodes with no tinkering whatsoever. While in the past some shows on DVD – Transformers for example – have been terribly mucked about with in order to colour correct certain gaffs, TMNT has all its flaws intact: headbands are the main offender in terms of switching colours between turtles, but being a normal by-product of carelessness back in the day I don’t think fans would want it any other way. Colours are bold, though prone to bleeding, and line work is clean, with a general consistency in quality maintained throughout. Cross colouring and aliasing is still present, along with, rather unfortunately, a heavy dose of haloing which at least doesn’t look nearly as bad as the aformentioned opening credit sequence. From what I can tell though these are progressively flagged; I picked up on no ghosting or combing artefacts, so that makes for a pleasant surprise.
Pretty terrible really. You’d think to celebrate 25 years we’d see cast reunions, audio commentaries, old merchandise advertisements an the like, but no. Instead we have four “bonus” episodes which are from the show’s tenth season. Not being familiar with the later seasons of the original series I found myself struggling with these as they’re completely out of context. The turtles have a new foe in the form of space dude Dregg, with the first bonus episode, The Beginning of the End”, immediately jarring in its introduction to a horribly mutated Leonardo. They throw in bonus episodes, but don’t bother to include the preceding one to the opener, which would have helped a bit!
Although it deviates substantially from its source material – to my mind only the first feature film has ever come close to replicating its tone, while the more recent cartoon also adopted a more faithful approach – it’s still a concept absolutely ripe for entertaining. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is certainly not gruff to look at, it has its fair share of wit and it shows that it still has a little magic left in it after twenty years.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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