Friday, March 1, 2013

Fred Wolf Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Series in Review (Most of It)

The old Fred Wolf Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon seems to be a polarizing thing among people my age: many either think it's the worst thing in the world or the best thing, with the latter stating that all faults can be excused by the series' ironic tone.

After rewatching a selection of episodes throughout the run, and then almost the whole thing, I'm in the middle. If asked to choose firmly, I would say I like the FW show, but there's so much that's flawed I can't say that without squirming.

When the Fred Wolf show is fun, it's sweet, and when it's bad, it's toxic. There's only a handful of episodes that I enjoy enough as an adult to watch again, but I like these episodes. It's the rest that give me trouble.

So, you know the thing. It's about the title mutants, and everything else. I've read and seen a lot more Turtles material than this, but I'll never be able to hate the Fred Wolf show for being a toned-down version of the original comics. My main question is how the Fred Wolf show holds up as a thing onto itself, how successful it is at what it's actually trying to be.

And it's usually not. An ironic tone is one of the hardest things to get right, and even though TMNT is an ironic series, there's also a big lack of effort, with a lot of recycled plot devices and characters who only take an episode or two to grasp, before they start doing the same thing over and over again. Sometimes the episodes do hit the mark and become very funny, but not often enough.

But that's not to say the characters aren't likable. One of the reasons the Turtles franchise has done so well is because it gives viewers/readers four distinct protagonists that can catch the eye of a wide range of potential fans. You can choose any Turtle, and you'll see a lot of mileage gotten out of them.

I think Donatello was my favourite Turtle at one point, since I dressed up as him for Halloween in grade school, and I tend to love my fellow nerds (out of solidarity). These days, however, I don't have a favourite Turtle. I have nothing against the Turtles, there's something to like in all of them—I just can't pick one above the others, or even say I have a strong emotional attachment to any of them.

I don't say this to be "cool", just that that's how it happened. When it comes to the Fred Wolf show, Donnie is just too perfect, always inventing something to save the day. I don't like perfect characters unless they have nostalgic cachet, and Donnie just doesn't have enough. He's not a bad character, but I'm just not into him.

Raphael is the least like other versions of Raph, but as an adult, I love it when Fred Wolf Raphael acts like he's also had enough of the series' bullshit, and he's often the source of genuine laughs. I like Fred Wolf Raphael better like that, than any of the episodes that pretend he's a merry prankster rather than a wry cynic. But still, not my favourite Turtle.

Michelangelo is a dumb pseudo-stoner, but you know, he's a sweet guy. I wish his potential role as the "heart" of the Turtles was played up more.

It's annoying when anyone says Leonardo, and characters like him, don't have "a personality" simply because they're not vivacious enough. Leo does have a personality, and I've got a weakness for stoics and fussbudgets. However, I'll agree that Leo gets the most Captain Obvious lines, at the expense of showing his actual personality.

But, for me, there's a difference between liking a character and appreciating a character. Liking means you not only enjoy the character, but have some gut feeling this is "your" character, one that you're attached to in some way. So while I appreciate the Turtles, I don't "like" them, at least not at this point. But they are enough to carry a series, and a franchise.

The same thing's true for the main villains of the story: they're very funny characters, but I get tired of them eventually after I've seen all their moves.

All those parodies are right on: Krang and Shredder are totally the old married couple, and Krang is the one who wears the "pants"—I love watching him mock and belittle Shredder. It's hilarious for a good while, and something that keeps the series distinct. Shredder is such a dumb twit, and Krang isn't actually much smarter, but their bickering is one of the pleasures of the show.

Bebop and Rocksteady are morons, but we also knew that too. Honestly, when it comes to this version of the story, we don't need them to be cooler, stronger villains: they're great as bumbling comics. However, with their brief pretence to being threatening, sometimes it'd be good to have them be more competent than the Turtles, but still comical.

But again, they do almost the exact same thing in every episode, so you have to comb through for the standout moments, or wait for them to come around. An actual liking for a character can beat back the spectre of redundancy, but eventually even that starts to wear you down.

For example, there's Splinter, whom I left out above because he's different. He's a goddamn legit childhood icon, though I can still keep my head above water when discussing him, see outside that fact. But as a tyke, everything Ninja Turtles usually had to do with Splinter in one way or another.

I don't quite know what it was about him, whether my liking for rats and for intelligent characters was started by Splinter, or that he appealed to interests that were already there. Regardless, my lower brain that reveres Splinter in an odd way, thinking of him as a boss, a badass, and maybe the only smart character in the show. I also like his design, even if he doesn't look like the other rats in the series.

Yet, my rational side tells me that Splinter is as repetitive a character as the rest, and his wisdom consists of trite and obvious observations, and that's when it's actually practical and not fake "Asian wisdom".

(Also, I can't unsee the fact that this series treats Japan and Yoshi's history as if all of it were like medieval Japan, which other versions don't do. It annoys me for some reason.)

(Second also: I realize that Splinter usually doesn't call the Turtles "my sons" in this show, but he still seems very fatherly to me. I can't get on board with the idea that they have a more distant, formal relationship in the FW show.)

After episode upon episode of the same thing, even my interest in Splinter starts to wear down, and I focus on his standout moments, when he has a greater stake in the conflict or actually steps into it. And then I'm attached to Splinter again. Follow the rat.

Among the main characters, that leaves April O'Neil. I was neutral towards April growing up, not yet finding it meaningful to identify with female characters and be disappointed at what you got. These days, jeez, I dislike her.

My first problem with April was that she was hard to define as a character—her bravery or timidity came and went depending on the situation, and whether she was nice or harsh also changed rapidly. After a while longer, I realized the main problem was that April is a go-getter, but her initiative is only rewarded with being a victim, being kidnapped by whoever she seeks out. And then, she's a victim most of the time anyway.

And that's fucked up. April doesn't have to be a ninja or a mutant to be interesting or strong, but the idea that her desire for some hot news only leads to being threatened and kidnapped reads like, "Well, she shouldn't have left the kitchen because look what happened". It's just a tiny bit disturbing.

It would be better if April's constant failures were played for laughs, but they aren't, at least not in the sense that April is treated like a female Wile E. Coyote. The jokes are that she's kidnapped because it's her standard role in the script, not because it means she's leading a terrible life or is seen as a stupid character.

Many guys in my generation see April as a vixen, the Jessica Rabbit of Saturday morning. I have no idea why—she doesn't act sultry at all, and that jumpsuit is pretty silly-looking. The mysteries of life, I guess.

Another thing about April's life is that she has one outside of the Turtles, to an extent—her co-workers at Channel 6 are regular characters in the series. I like this idea in principle, because it makes a world richer to have the secondary characters without lives that revolve around the mains (though I also have no idea what kids actually like or what, and don't factor that into the equation), but Burne, Vernon, and Irma are insufferable.

Irma is the one I like the least, and I dislike her more than April. I expected to find some awkward-girl solidarity with Irma, but instead we got an animated Cathy, constantly worried about men, her figure, and anything else women are "supposed" to worry about. Aack! She seems like a rip-off of Janine Melnitz, but without Janine's shrewdness or backbone.

Like April, Irma's flaws seem not to be ones created "for" her character, but just following this idea of what female characters are expected to be like. They're not funny characters onto themselves, but just stereotypes and treated as the norm for their gender, instead of examples of someone who is severely messed up or unlucky.

I support, endorse, etc. flawed female characters. But I want them to have personal flaws, instead of just being "Women, am I right?" types of characters, whose faults are simply because they are female. That's what April and Irma are like.

Irma's only saving grace is in later seasons, when she starts making caustic comments towards Vernon, but it's not enough by that point. Really not.

Burne's not so bad, except for the times they try to rip off J. Jonah Jameson with him. Except for that one time, when I can totally believe he did it just to impress his ditzy younger girlfriend.

Vernon, of course, is an idiot and a coward and I don't like him, but at least he's treated like a flawed character. And he's used as a device to pretend that the constantly-exasperated April and Irma are strong individuals, but it's just a sham.

I can imagine someone calling me contradictory for deriding April and Irma for being weak, because besides Splinter, my other favourite character in the Fred Wolf show is Baxter Stockman, who is, yes, cowardly and foolish almost always. But Baxter suffers for his faults, and they seem like part of his individual character. It also helps that there are male characters to contrast him with, while Irma and April are the lone female regulars.

I've said a lot about White Baxter before: I was uninterested as a kid, but now his terrible life is weirdly funny to me, I hate myself for liking a whitewashed character, I prefer him as a human, and I don't see him as an innocent victim. All of that's still true.

I'm actually glad that Baxter didn't appear in more episodes. After seeing how tiring it can be to like a regular character in this show, I prefer Baxter's small number of appearances, and that he doesn't stick to one formula for long: timid inventor to mad, simpering henchman to mutant fly acting on his own to dumber mutant fly in an ambiguous relationship with a computer. I'm not satisfied with everything regarding the character, but I appreciate that he's kept fresh.

I have a soft spot for some of the other cast members. Maybe it's irritating to have a "real" character like Casey Jones be transformed into a one-trick nutbar, but he's a very funny one-trick nutbar, especially because, yes, he doesn't get overused. Likewise, when the Rat King is being more creepy weirdo than regular megalomaniac, he's pretty fun.

I was more generous towards "Raphael Meets His Match" the second time, liking the character of Mona Lisa a bit more. Sure, she's still a generic heroine with some shades of self-insert, but at least she's a female character with a backbone, and a lizard girl is still pretty cool. The TMNT franchise has a problem with female characters always being normal humans, which suggests that women can't be "ugly", so I cheer on every female mutant, even if they attract creepy furries.

And this probably doesn't count as a preference for an individual character, but I found that Barney Stockman is growing on me. Yeah, he's in a terrible episode and used for one single lazy joke, but the idea of Baxter having a twin brother who's more confident and competent but is also batshit crazy is funny to me for some reason.

Hell, I even have a soft spot for Baxter's computer "friend", because of the hilarity involved in that relationship. Though I can't fully commit to an interpretation of as to whether that computer is using Baxter or not.

The episodes I want to watch again depend on a lot of different things. They are the ones with my favourite characters, or the ones with a cool monster or concept, and/or the ones that manage to be as wonderfully ridiculous as the series is capable of.

That there's such a small number of them isn't because I don't "get" what the show is trying to be, but that it often can't hit that sweet spot of being so insane it's fun, or so bad it's good. These things are hard for any media to achieve, and in the case of this show, the misses can be cringe-inducing.

This is an action-comedy show, heavier on the comedy. Anybody who believes otherwise has distorted childhood memories, or just doesn't want to believe. The Fred Wolf Ninja Turtles show is supposed to be silly and goofy, with moments of peril being on par with the Adam West Batman show. Yeah, it becomes goofier over time, then there's those generic Red Sky seasons, but it's never without silliness.

Now, the comedic aspect of the Fred Wolf series helps to give it some distinction among the cartoons of its time. In principle, I appreciate it for this. However, I think The Real Ghostbusters is superior to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when it comes to balancing the two tones. TRGB had better jokes, and moments of earnest emotion/darkness, which give it the advantage.

Furthermore, its craziness was more original, not to mention its satire bit slightly harder. Of course, this refers to TRGB in its early years, before executive meddling set in, but its best can easily compete with TMNT's best.

So while the Fred Wolf show can be good, it's not the best of its sub-genre. While I appreciate what it's trying to do, it doesn't do it to the fullest. There are so many howlers and groaners and facepalm-inducing moments that it makes the series hard to take in large doses.

As the series goes on, there's also what I can call a "loosening". Characters and situations get more idotic and bizarre, and the plots seem to lose more of their focus. As more and more time goes on, the repetition becomes obvious.

All of this can't be excused by saying, "It was supposed to be funny". Even the most ironic-minded media occasionally does things in earnest, and I can't see all the faults of this show being intentional. Sometimes, writers just have to pump out scripts really fast, and the results could often be crappy and repetitive.

Humour can also become a crutch when a recurring joke is pointing out a series' flaws. That joke can work the first or the second time, but after a while, it starts to seem like a substitute for making effort to improve. TMNT does this a lot, and it wears out, too.

If I'm being harsh, it's only with love. I can't adopt a pose of total ironic detachment towards this show, because I have an earnest affection to it. I make these critiques because I care, and I think it could have done better. There is a sense of quality that transcends a work's tone, and just because a series is a goofy comedy, doesn't mean it can't take the effort to be good.

The idea of making the series honestly darker, or sharper, or more action-oriented is a little heartbreaking—the 4Kids series is already that, and it's great, but I'd want the Fred Wolf show to keep its distinct tone.

Instead, I want it to have been better at what it's trying to be, not totally re-imagined. Because there's a gem of an idea in playing a series into a comedy, and even the Mirage comics could be very tongue-in-cheek.

Then there are the "Red Sky" seasons, the last twenty-four episodes of the show, spread out across three seasons. This is not the type of dark retool I was talking about, though many older fans try to treat it as one. It's just a lazy retool, to pretend the series is "keeping up with the times".

In the Red Sky seasons, the series is drawn differently. The Turtles look more angular, April has a brown jacket over a green shirt, and some other junk. The nickname itself comes from the backgrounds showing a perpetual red night.

The theme song also has a "hardcore" remix, and includes footage from the live-action films from the live-action film for some reason. A few of the tinier silly things are cut, like the Turtles no longer eating weird pizza, or Krang's android body not appearing until the final episode.

But, no, this retool isn't actually darker. Imagine all the forgotten generic action cartoons from your childhood, and you've got the new tone. The plots aren't as weird as the weirdest of the first seven seasons, but they are familiar to cartoon viewers, meaning the stories are nothing notable.

Furthermore, the characters act largely the same, including Raphael being oh so sassy, and April being regularly kidnapped. The main difference is that the old villains are toned down. The Shredder's tantrums aren't as enormous, and he hardly bickers with Krang. Yes, Shredder blew up the Channel 6 building, but he otherwise doesn't seem like a darker or smarter villain at all, just less goofy. And it's boring, especially without James Avery to voice him.

The Rat King, when he reappears, is also just an ordinary villain without his distinctive craziness. Again, not actually darker, just blander. So is Casey Jones, who is still rugged, but not nutty. It's a major problem with these seasons, taking away many of the show's distinct parts and leaving nothing in its place, while not improving the writing or continuity.

However badly the series could botch its attempts to be funny, however stupid the characters could be, at least that gave the seasons one-seven their distinct flavour. The way to improve it would not have been to try to shave away the goofiness and do nothing else, but to refine what was already there. Instead, we just have a diminished show.

Of course, most viewers remember the Red Sky seasons for their new cast members: the Turtles' new sidekick, Carter (voiced by Bumper Robinson) and the new major villain, Lord Dregg (voiced by Tony Jay). But before they appear, the series screws around with various potential new characters and villains, introducing new aliens and vehicles before settling on things.

None of these new characters are interesting or really shake up their world, and soon disappear. Carter is a slightly better character because there's more to him, but he's still uninteresting. I hate to say this about the only positive black character in the entire series, but Carter reads like a self-insert character. He shows up out of nowhere and knows about Master Splinter, gets trained by him, manages to make the initially hostile Turtles eat crow, and gets superpowers.

Yes, okay, Carter has some transformation angst, as "mutant" has been re-defined to refer to just weird monsters created by science, and he can Hulk out into a yellow-skinned cyborg behemoth that doesn't look like any kind of animal. But god, it's a bland angle, especially when the cast is full of permanently mutated humans who never get to change back.

Lord Dregg is worse, because he's just a generic villain who makes the same mistakes that generic villains do. You can have your villain with no other motivation than to be evil, but he has to have some elegance, some power and intelligence to him or her. And boy, Dregg doesn't have any of it.

Like many nineties kids, I grew up hearing Tony Jay's dulcet voice as many different villains, but he brings only bring brief moments of panache and gravitas to Dregg. There's something mulled about Jay's performance here, that I can't put into concrete terms.

Oh, and Dregg's character design is awful, some kind of blue dog-bug thing in a patchwork outfit. It's in good company with all of the new creature and alien designs, which look assembled from parts of better ones. Before Dregg makes his debut, the series throws out several more potential villains who are all as generic. So, yeah, nothing special here.

Red Sky also tries to throw in more conflicts, as Dregg presents himself as a saviour to humanity and tries to cast the Turtles as villains, or the Turtles start feeling persecuted and revert to hating humans, but that lasts the emotional equivalent of three seconds. The Turtles also start randomly mutating into spiked monsters, but that really has no impact or meaning, either.

All of this is just executive meddling, making the least amount of effort to make an aged series relevant again. Someone must have looked at the popularity of Batman: TAS and other cartoons and thought being "dark" made these series successful. Not understanding that it's quality, not tone, that makes a series good. A Hip New Sidekick and a Cool New Villain don't save a thing when there is no real effort involved.

The Red Sky seasons aren't a radical change or any improvement in quality. They're about as "intense" as the first season of the show, and just throw in a bunch of new junk to pretend that series is keeping up with the times, while never fixing any of the series' actual problems. It's the equivalent of having Dagwood use an iPad.

Yes, there is a finale of sorts. Dregg gets defeated, Splinter says the Turtles are now his equals, and some hilariously strange stuff actually happens, coaxing out the laughs that had disappeared. But at this point, the series is no longer worth caring about, and didn't really build up to a climax anyway. The only place to go is backwards.

So here's how it works: I like the 1987 TMNT show when I do, when it's enjoyable. I like the vermin of usual size, and the episodes when they hit that particular personal mark. I'm a fan. But when it comes to percentages, I don't enjoy the large majority of the almost two hundred episodes. At some point, they just get tiring.

Oh, and Turtles Forever was neither lying nor mean-spirited. I already established this in a previous review, but I should repeat it: just because a series pokes fun at another, doesn't mean it's trying to cut it down. The FW characters got to save the universe, and they really would be outclassed by a beings from a more serious universe. It's all in good fun.


  1. I appreciate your comments on the Red Sky seasons being more more bland and boring than anything else. Indeed, the whole thing was little more than the "powers that be" realizing that the old slapstick & formulaic schtick that had worked for so long could no longer compete for kids' attention against the superior "action" programs over at the Fox network.

    I'm more sympathetic to the old show than you might be even though I can't really launch into a convincing refutation of your numerous points. It was a product of it's times, never aspiring to take itself as seriously as some other 80s action cartoons, yet benefiting by the occasional moment of brilliance of the main Voice Actor cast. It was both self-aware and self-deprecating, and all the characters seemed aware of the fact that no one was ever truly in danger. And I believe that it was much less formulaic than shows like Thundercats, He-Man, or Voltron, which almost always had the same basic plot resolution to every problem (i.e. main character appears and pulls out his magic sword to vanquish evil).

    Regarding Donatello, I don't think he was guilty of being a "perfect" character. Most of his inventions were cobbled together from trash and random things laying around his workshop. Often, they malfunctioned and caused their creator to be the object of derision by the other turtles. Ultimately, Donatello's competence would be justified by the fact that the invention would work correctly just at the right time... so he actually "deus ex machina" personified.

  2. As far as your comments on the female characters, I concede that your arguments are quite insightful. But I would argue against your claim that April's initiative was only rewarded with being a victim, and I don't see it as a subtle argument for why she belonged in the kitchen... even though her first "fight" did involve her using a rolling pin and frying pan (lol). We the audience may have been privy to the fact that April was a perpetual damsel-in-distress, a fact which was joked about by both Shredder & the Turtles from time to time, but her public face to the people who watched her broadcasts didn't suffer from that reputation. Her co-workers viewed her as the star reporter at her own station, and most people in the city viewed her as a famous TV personality, not as a perpetual victim. So even though the people who get to see the adventures take away one interpretation of her, the in-universe public sees only her success. The key difference in flawed characters like April & Irma from other characters like Baxter is that they had friends who cared about them. April knew that a quick call to the turtles could bail her out of whatever perils she might get herself into. And I don't think that simple fact speaks negatively of her because she's a woman in need of saving by males. All of the characters (turtles & Splinter included) usually found themselves in trouble when they found themselves alone. Usually the cavalry would arrive in the nick of time and everybody would benefit in the end, suggesting that everyone would be wise to have good friends on call in their times of need. Poor Baxter never had a true friend (unless we count that computer), and thus his flaws ultimately led to his degradation.

    Furthermore, I liked April's role in the show because she was often the impetus behind most of the plots getting started, either on account of her reports giving the villains ideas on what to steal, or else her infiltration helped alert the turtles into a villain's schemes since the turtles rarely sought out crimes on their own. Most other TMNT incarnations have tried to avoid the April as Damsel-in-Distress role, but in the process they have made her unnecessary to the plots. April was absolutely necessary to the plots in the FW series, whether she got kidnapped or not.

    Anyhoo, your analysis of the FW series is really interesting to read. It is shocking to try and think this deeply about an old kiddie cartoon that never even thought too much about itself! Heck, even my attempt at an intelligent blog comment exceeded the 4,096 character limit. I don't know how seriously the old show should be taken, but I do appreciate reading your thoughts!

    1. Thank you for your compliments.

      The Red Sky episodes were a chore to sit through all together, though I took on the "bonus episodes" on the season one disk without feeling like my head was squeezed in a vice (they were still stupid, though). I'm totally baffled at all the compliments it gets for tightening up the series or for actually being dark.

      And I agree that the cast of VAs were great. It's a shame when one of them had to be replaced for some reason or another, but we got bang-up jobs from the regulars.

      I suppose it's true that with all the one-shot villains and non-Krang n' Shredder episodes we had less of an in-total formulaic series, but we had huge swathes of episodes that stuck to an exact formula (the "Power the Technodrome" plots), so I have a hard time calling the OT less formulaic, even when I agree the goofiness made it distinct.

      Donnie still managed to MacGuyver a lot out of the junk he had to use, and being Deus Ex Machina qualifies as too "perfect" in my book.

      Yes, there are exceptions to this general impression of Donatello, and exceptions to my general (bad) impressions of April. In almost two hundred episodes, these things are pretty much gauranteed.

      But the exceptions aren't enough to change what's there in my head.

      And I'm not suggesting any conscious dislike of independent women on the part of the writers--just that these things happen to April so often they look suspicious, but were likley unconscious at best.

      For all the male characters who get captured or victimized, they've either got enough chops to counteract these moments, or they're mocked and belittled for it. April necessarily isn't. She's not treated as a flawed character, but just being "the girl". There's still that difference.

      The fact is, she, in-universe, is *not* mocked for her faults is the problem. April is not seen as a flawed character by the rest of the cast. Her faults are treated as a general "woman thing" rather than individual character traits.

      I think April as a whole franchise character is a problem, because she's often stuck being "the normal one", and other writers have to struggle to give her a gimmick to make her stand out.

      None of these incarnations have been all that satisfying to me, and I still think it'd be easy to make April as well-rounded and interesting a character while still being a normal human being, and not a ninja or a mutant or a living drawing or whatever. We'll see what the Nicktoons show does, though I'm usually very bored by the Nick show.

  3. A very well thought-out critique and a pleasure to read. I do love going over familiar and well-loved series and looking at them in their social context. I don't remember the later series though. I don't remember anything after the Technodrome was pulled back into Dimension X for the second time. Perhaps they didn't screen episodes following that in the UK...?

    Much as I loved it at the time (and I really, really did) it does suffer greatly from being watched in retrospect, sadly.

    However I am surprised you neglected to mention the one thing that, I think, really helped to make the show such a hit - the music. It is both constant and brilliant. I honestly believe that in a children's show, where the plot it often goofy and the characters can be less than three dimensional, it is the background music that keeps pace and holds attention, and the only other show that I can think of that was as good for that was Thundercats.

    1. I'm sorry for not replying sooner: Blogger hasn't been alerting me, and I don't get very many comments so I tend not to look at this section. :)

      Yes, the music for the show is very good. I tend not to notice BGM on the first few go-rounds of nostaglic series, but I noticed some people posting separate pieces on the Technodrome forums, and realized the background music was excellent.