Last time, we talked about my favorite foursome, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, focusing on their various comic appearances. However, it’s a rather safe bet that you probably remember them more from their shows on TV. So, grab yourself a slice of pizza as we continue with the history of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The 1987 series, aka the Fred Wolf series
This is probably the first thing that pops in most people’s minds when they think of the Ninja Turtles. The origin of this show is rather interesting. Mirage Studios was in talks with Playmates Toys to make a line of action figures based on the characters. However, Playmates thought that there wouldn’t be much of an audience for toys based on an indie comic, so they wanted a TV series. Working with Mirage, they contacted Fred Wolf studios, who produced a five-episode mini-series that would be known as season 1 of the ’87 cartoon. Writer David Wise helped develop the property from a grim-and-gritty comic into a fun, action-comedy series. There were quite a few changes from the original book: Splinter was no longer just a pet of Hamato Yoshi, but Yoshi himself transformed into a rat. April was no longer a scientifically-minded antique shop owner, but a Lois Lane-like TV reporter constantly looking for a scoop. Shredder was no longer a ninja-clan leading crime boss, but a megalomaniac in an alliance with an interdimensional alien warlord named Krang (this series’ version of the Utroms from the comics), with a vast army of robots and mutants. And the Turtles were changed to their most basic characterizations to be family friendly. As a result, a lot of the fans of the comics dismissed the cartoon as selling out. However, the show still had enough of the original spark that it not only helped sell millions of toys, but last for 10 years! Personally, it never got as good for me as those first 5 episodes, especially as the show became more comedy-focused in later years. It would eventually try to return to its action roots, with the last 3 seasons getting a major art redesign into what fans call the Red Sky seasons. The last two seasons ended up replacing Shredder and Krang with Lord Dregg, a rather-lame alien villain with an admittedly cool voice that just seemed pointless. The series didn’t get a grand finale, but it will be fondly remembered, and the DVDs are still available from Lion’s Gate, giving me and other fans a chance to recollect them.
Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation aka Saban’s Ninja Turtles
So, in 1997, Saban (the company famous for bringing Power Rangers to America) was given the go-ahead to create a new series starring the Turtles. On paper, it sounded interesting: a live-action series where the Turtles are reunited with the lost fifth Turtle, a girl named Venus, and have to face an invading force of mystical dragon-creatures. The execution was, sadly, terrible. Venus became an obnoxious Mary-Sue character with an irritating Chinese accent, and her mystic powers often were the key to save the day all the time. The costumes that caused the show to be so over-budgeted were awful, the villains were incredibly lame (Shredder and the Foot appear in the first episodes and are quickly defeated by Venus), and in my biggest complaint, Venus’s presence caused the Turtles to no longer be a family of brothers who now had a sister, but four guys now with a female of their own that they could hook up with. In other words, in attempting to avoid incestuous implications, they got rid of the key bond that made the Turtles stand out from other pop culture teams. This show did so badly, that it was cancelled after only one season. There is, however, one interesting moment. This version of the Turtles made a guest appearance/crossover with the Power Rangers during the series Power Rangers in Space. While it’s cheesy and silly, it was a fun passing of the torch from the Ninja Turtles to the Power Rangers.
The 2003 series aka the 4Kids/Mirage cartoon
So, you can imagine my surprise when I found that Mirage Studios was taking another crack at an animated Ninja Turtles series. After I first heard about it while in college, I proceeded to check the official site for the franchise repeatedly, seeing the new character designs, and generally liking what I saw. But nothing could prepare me for what not only would be a great cartoon even though I was in my 20’s at the time, but my favorite version of the Turtles to date. The 2003 series was a joint-production between Mirage Studios, Playmates Toys, and 4Kids productions (known mainly for bringing the Pokemon anime to the US before branching into their own channel), and Peter Laird, co-creator of the Ninja Turtles, was heavily involved in the series and its storylines. What this resulted in was a more straight adaption of the original Mirage comics, but with a chance to iron out any of the kinks from the books. The show was really good at developing its ongoing plot and characters, with its build-up and subsequent mid-season reveal of the Shredder being a major highlight of its first season. Unlike the last cartoon where the characters never really changed over time, each of the Turtles and the supporting cast grew and developed to such a degree that while they were still themselves by the end of the series, they were also noticeably affected by their experiences. This show had some amazing stories, such as Leo’s constant pressure to protect his family eventually pushing him to darker places until he learned to get his head on straight, the mystery surrounding the Shredder and his seemingly inability to stay dead, and even an interdimensional martial arts tournament that crossed over with indie comic sensation Usagi Yojimbo. The show held nothing back, adapting comic stories like the “Return to New York” arc and its shocking climax (yes, Leo beheads the Shredder in this cartoon) and even the “City at War” arc. Tons of comic only characters like Karai and Savanti Romero got their animated debuts here. The 5th season focused entirely on the battle with the original Shredder, a demon that sought to destroy the world. Unfortunately, due to several issues behind the scenes, they decided to skip this season and jump straight to season 6, where the show was retitled “Fast Forward,” where they found themselves thrown a century in the future and had to stay with April and Casey’s descendant Cody Jones on an Earth filled with humans and aliens. It wasn’t a bad season, but due to season 4 ending on a cliffhanger that set up season 5, skipping it caused a backlash against the new season. Season 5 would eventually air as the Lost Season, but the damage was done. The seventh, and final season, “Back to the Sewers,” saw the Turtles returned to the present and dealing with new enemies and a new Shredder, as well as new designs to emulate the look of the then-recent computer animated feature film TMNT. In the end, as Mirage Studios was preparing to sell the franchise to Paramount, they made one last hurray: a full-length animated TV movie called Turtles Forever that not only was the grand finale of this series, but of the Mirage era of the Turtles franchise. In that, the Turtles of the 2003 series end up teaming up with their 1987 counterparts in a battle against both their Shredders, a battle that leads them all the way back to the original first issue of the Mirage books, and a team of 12 Turtles against one ultimate Shredder to save all reality. It can be goofy, due to the ’87 Turtles being excessively comical in comparison to their more modern versions, but it’s a fun finale to the Turtles legacy at Mirage Studios.
The 2012 series, aka Nickelodeon’s Ninja Turtles
This is the current cartoon of the Ninja Turtles, which is now in its second season, and the first thing to be done with it since Mirage sold the license to Paramount (who own the kids channel Nickelodeon, in case you didn’t know). Essentially, it’s like the IDW comic, only instead of aiming at a teen/young adult audience, it’s aimed more towards kids. What I mean is that it’s attempting to distill all the good elements of the entire franchise, like that comic does, but be more family friendly. In this series, Splinter is once more a man named Hamato Yoshi who is mutated into a rat, but the Turtles are closer to their comic/2003 portrayals in terms of brotherly bond and personalities. April has been aged down so she’s the same age as them, and this time, the alien menace is a race called the Kraang. Shredder appears too as another evil the Turtles must face, and the rivalry between Splinter and Shredder is more personal due to their last battle costing the life of Splinter’s wife, whom Shredder also loved. In the process, Shredder took Splinter’s daughter and raised her as his own, making her this series’ version of Karai. Tons of characters from the old cartoon and comics make appearances in surprising ways, and I will credit this show for making the Turtles actually feel like teenagers, with all the angst, confusion and mistakes kids at that age make. Also, Donatello’s one-sided crush on April is so funny to me. The series is still ongoing, making long-term comparisons and criticisms hard to make, but it is pretty fun, and balances the humor and the action of the previous two cartoons pretty well. Time will tell what its impact on the legacy of the TMNT will be, but so far it seems to prove that lightning not only can strike twice, but three times.
There’s still one more aspect of the Turtles that needs to be addressed before the new film comes out, and that’s the previous films. So come back soon as we jump into the original Ninja Turtles movies.