Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Season 6: Cowadunga
As I’ve said before, revisiting the sacred cows of one’s childhood can lead to mixed feelings. For me, in the case of Thundercats, it was worth it. Yes, that show has its undoubted flaws, but I can forgive them; it has just enough virtues, and I’ve enough warm, fuzzy feelings, to smooth over the cracks.
I will tell you at the outset, though, that I can’t say the same for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I cannot describe the palpable sense of impending doom that rolled over me about one minute and thirty seconds after the opening credits began. Even the title sequence was not as I remembered it. Was the music always this tinny? Was the lead vocalist always so whiny? “They’re the world’s most fearrrrrssssommme fiiigghhttING teeeeeaam”. Were the interjections into the song by the turtles themselves always so vomit-inducingly cheesy? I feared the worst. Then … oh god … the show turned out to be even worse.
What have I done to myself?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 6—a double DVD set, comprising 16 episodes of the old 1980s cartoon—now has a special place in my collection. It is the only DVD set that has single-handedly led me to doubt my former 8-year-old self. Naturally, I had always assumed that I was an individual of impeccable taste. Even the pre-pubescent me could discern a great toon from a merely average one, and, in turn, a merely average one from a steaming pile of excrement. Alas, that thesis, which has held firm for almost 18 years, is now undone. Whilst Turtles was never my favourite show as a kid, I thought it was at least respectable—about on par with The Real Ghostbusters and marginally better than the Scrappy-Doo era Scooby Doo or The Super Mario Bros cartoon. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is so unspeakably bad a cartoon that it has led me to doubt the judgement of all 6- to 10-year-olds of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The word “abysmal” should not be used lightly, but it is almost not strong enough here.
What makes it so bad? To put it bluntly: Everything. The writing is woeful. There are some attempts at cleverness, which usually take the form of a character breaking the fourth wall. In one episode, for instance, after taking some instructions from Splinter, one of the turtles (don’t ask me which one!) says “Whoa dude! Pretty deep for a cartoon show”. In another episode, Shredder asks Krang rather impatiently when he’s going to make his plan for world domination. That is the extent of the writers’ efforts at “cleverness”, which fail utterly because they are so random within the context of the show. The plots of individual episodes are practically interchangeable in their sheer, far-fetched outlandishness and (at the same time, bizarrely) utter predictability. In the first episode Krang and Shredder’s spaceship, The Technodrome, is plunged to the bottom of the sea after the bumbling Rocksteady and Bebop misfire Krang’s super laser—a gun that was earlier able to animate a giant rock monster. In another mind-numbingly lacklustre episode, “Polly Wanna Pizza”, Michelangelo buys a pet monkey that promptly wrecks the turtles’ sewer hideout. The other turtles force Michelangelo to return it to the pet shop and swap it for a parrot. Meanwhile, April O’Neill has been trying to get the scoop on the release of a notorious mob boss. To cut a long story short, it turns out that Michelangelo has ended up with this mob boss’s parrot, which just happens to have the key to a famous stolen ruby hidden in his feathers. Cue Donatello and the “Key Analyzer Spectroscope”. If this sounds fun, then take it from this weary reviewer that it isn’t. Time and again, the writers write themselves into dead-ends only to write themselves out of it with a deus ex machina. And they do so without the necessary wit required to make such obviously lazy writing enjoyable. It works neither as a straightforward narrative nor as a pastiche of cliché.
But it’s in the voice acting and characterizations that the show really falls flat on its face. Every cartoon has at least one desperately annoying character. Most famously, there was Scrappy Doo in Scooby Doo, Bat-Mite in The New Adventures of Batman, Orko in He-Man, Snarf in Thundercats and Slimer in The Real Ghostbusters. The point is made. Most kids liked those shows despite those immensely annoying characters. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, though, doesn’t just have one annoying character, but seven of them. First, there are the four turtles themselves. Despite the claim in the theme music that “Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines … Raphael is rude … and Michelangelo is a party dude”, there is very little to distinguish them by voice or personality. The characters are defined almost purely by their actions, and there’s not much difference even there. So, for example, Leonardo is more likely to be the one training hard while Michelangelo is more likely to be slacking off playing on a video game. But while he is training, Leonardo is indistinguishable from the other turtles; likewise with Michelangelo on the games machine. They will both use the words “whoa”, “dude” and “mondo” a lot; they are both fairly stupid when speaking to Splinter and unusually perceptive when dealing with adversaries. And, perhaps most importantly of all, they both have annoying unrealistically upbeat “surf-dude” voices. It is too much to take.
As well as the four turtles, we also have the incompetent and loud Bebop and Rocksteady. These two fill the role of bumbling henchmen who always upset their masters and inadvertently aid their opponents. It is a part played to perfection by the Mutants in Thundercats, but, alas, in Turtles the role of Bebop and Rocksteady is so reduced to stereotype and plot function that there is no comedy to be wrought at all.
The final annoying character is Krang—a favourite of mine as a child. His voice is LOUD and his role in the show is hopelessly confused. He appears to be the boss of the baddies, but the turtles and Splinter don’t seem to care about him. They always talk about Shredder as their arch-rival. Imagine a Star Wars in which Emperor Palpatine was made to seem like a total irrelevance and less intelligent that Darth Vader. That is essentially the relationship between Krang and Shredder.
I hate to be so brutally one-sided in a review, but I cannot with any degree of honesty, say that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Volume 6 has anything to recommend it. It is rare to come across an item so completely without merit that you are actually thankful that there are no extras, deleted scenes or hidden features. I am ashamed to have watched and not minded it as a child. To those of you who remember it with fondness, I beg you do not waste your money on this. It will not only destroy any sense of nostalgia you might have for it, it will also lead to self-chastisement and, quite possibly, to the shattering of your assumptions about everything your 8-year-old self liked. Save your money. Go out and buy yourself your favourite childhood snack instead. If nothing else, the ingredients on the packet will be better written than Turtles.