"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" Season 8 is Shell-Shockingly Mediocre
I was enough of a comic book fan at the time to get the joke when the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird hit the scene, but even then I was never sure if the joke could sustain itself. I was definitely a little bit too old to have caught Turtle Fever when it began in earnest in the late 1980’s, and by the time the heroes on a half-shell made it to the airwaves, they had already transformed into everything they were created to parody. Any interest I’ve had in the franchise was limited to getting the Usagi Yojimbo toys. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to watch the 8 episodes of the 8th season of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ original TV series, I can’t say that I feel like I missed out on much. It is, at best, a thoroughly conventional superhero cartoon with an average execution and passable animation. From all accounts, season 8 of the show marked a significant shift in tone from earlier seasons, becoming darker and more serious according to the press materials and the synopsis on the back of the DVD case. After watching the season, either I have a very different definition of “darker atmosphere” than they do, or the earlier seasons were so lightweight as to be entirely trivial.
The turtles of the title are Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo: four talking, teenaged reptiles who live in the sewers of New York City and fight crime, personified in the forms of the evil ninja Shredder, brain-in-a-jar (without the jar) Krang, the pair’s henchmen Bebop and Rocksteady, and a few other wreched examples of scum and villainy that seem to have been created for this season. They are aided mostly by the show’s token female, April O’Neil, a TV news reporter for Channel 6, who films the Turtles’ exploits from afar to prove their heroism to her boss, the mutant-hating Burne Thompson.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t an awful show, but it is incredibly derivative and packed with superhero story clichés. The turtles themselves lift teen mutant angst straight from the X-Men, defending a world that hates and fears them, except that not many people really seem to fear them and it’s hard to believe the turtles are really all that bothered by anything since they seem rather vapid. April O’Neil is a small variation on Peter Parker’s schtick of filming superheroes for fun and profit, but at least she (usually) avoids being the damsel in distress. Meanwhile, her boss Burne Thompson isn’t much more than a poor impersonation of J. Jonah Jameson. Shredder and Krang are typical old-school supervillains, talking a good game but failing utterly at everything they attempt, at least partially because their henchmen Bebop and Rocksteady are such incompetent fools and partially because both sides suffer from terminal cases of Bond Villain Stupidity.
The plots are all cobbled together from the same stock superhero elements that were familiar to audiences half a century ago. Mistaken identity story, where the heroes are suddenly taken for villains because everyone jumps to conclusions? See episode 3, “State of Shock.” Newly helpful allies who are very obviously Bad Guys in disguise? Check either of the “H.A.V.O.C.”-themed episodes or “Turtle Trek,” although the latter wraps in an unsurprising “not so bad after all” twist. Time traveler from the future coming to mess up the past? Try “Get Shredder!” for the Bad Guy version and “Enter: Krakus” for the Good Guy version. More often than not, the technology the villains develop to stall or divert the Turtles would be put to better use doing just about anything else, like robbing the bank or stealing the MacGuffin. The show even finds a way to steal from Transformers in “Cyber-Turtles.” If it was the first place where one was exposed to these plots, I suspect Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would seem awesome. However, if you’ve ever read superhero comic books or watched superhero cartoons for any length of time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is strictly ho-hum, been-there-done-that storytelling that’s made almost entirely of the stuff that a show like Kim Possible happily mocks and subverts.
One of the few interesting things in this season are the two elements that were eerily prescient of current events. It’s hard to watch Shredder collapsing the Channel 6 skyscraper with explosives in “Get Shredder!” without thinking that no children’s cartoon would ever do something even vaguely similar today. It’s also mildly amusing to see a company called “Darkwater” fielding a team of heavily armed mercenaries who shoot first and don’t listen to the answers for the questions they ask eventually, although the company formerly known as Blackwater probably isn’t engaging in secret genetic engineering experiments to create energy-projecting megalomaniacs.
Lionsgate has packed all 8 episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Season 8 on one DVD. Video and audio quality don’t seem to have suffered appreciably, but that’s mostly because the source material doesn’t seem to have been all that great in the first place. The full-frame image and stereo soundtrack are adequate enough, though, with only the end credits looking significantly worse for wear. The disc also places several chapter stops within each episode at sensible locations, allowing one to skip the credits sequence quickly. There are no bonus features other than trailers.
While I was never a fan of the Turtles, I can’t say that I ever hated them either. At most, in my more militant days, I would said they were another example of Hollywood presenting Asian culture with whitebread instead of the real thing, giving me Southern California when I wanted Sho Kosugi. (Come to think of it, I’m still having a hard time retorting to my more militant self about that.) Watching this series now, I find it is neither bad enough for a rant or good enough for a rave, although I am a bit puzzled why the franchise has had so much success. If you’re an old-school Turtles fan, help yourself (assuming you haven’t already), but if you’re not, I’d suggest one of the more recent Turtles series (supposedly better) or any number of other, better superhero cartoons instead.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review stated that the Turtles lived in “an unnamed city.” Turtles fans have since informed me that their city is New York.