Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: in praise of season 4

As season 5 of Nickelodeon's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles airs in the UK, Matt salutes the terrific penultimate run...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Earlier this year Nickelodeon announced that they would be launching a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon in 2018. Normally, this would be good news. However, in this instance, it served as confirmation that the current cartoon, the 2012 computer animated series we’ve come to refer to as ‘Nick Turtles‘, would be finishing with its fifth season. And as much as we’re excited for a fresh take on the material, this current version is one of the best takes on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to date.

If the fifth season is able to match quality of the fourth, the show will end on a high. The first half of the fourth season was set in space and it was great fun. The Turtles bounce from planet to planet under the guidance of brain-in-a-droid Fugitoid. An intergalactic shark bounty hunter called Armaggon and played by Ron Perlman proved to be a highlight.

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This article will focus on the second half of the season, where the show put together its best long-running story arc and featured some of its most entertaining and affecting episodes. Please be advised that if you proceed past Daphne the spoiler squirrel below, you’ll be met with heavy spoilers.

Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has always struggled a little against its form. The show thrives when it’s telling longer stories, but the creative team have to battle to incorporate serialised storylines.

“They’d rather have complete standalones that can play even out of order,” executive producer Brandon Auman told us last year. “They don’t really like the fact that we’re telling these linear serialized stories. It’s kind of difficult. We’d love to tell more in some of these arcs, but it just gets really difficult.”

In the same interview, showrunner Ciro Nieli explained the difficulties of producing multipart episodes. “If we had a story we wanted to make three episodes long we have no control over how they’re going to air. In the past we’ve done two-parters and unfortunately when we marry them together, those two part specials, they’ll only play those the one time, or the initial release that weekend, and then they have to live later on on DVD.”

For network Nickelodeon, they have scheduling and international distribution concerns to consider. That’s something Nieli touched on, too. “You’ve got to understand, Nickelodeon has its bread and butter in making stories that are 11 minutes. The comedy shows, they’ll take a half hour show and split it into two stories.”

Any show that leans heavily on serialization faces the problem of potentially becoming impenetrable to new viewers. In modern binge watching culture, that poses less of a problem for dramas like Breaking Bad or Game Of Thrones, where viewers can be relied on to marathon past episodes in order to catch up. Children are obviously discouraged from television marathons. Similarly, Breaking Bad didn’t have to worry about a generation of its audience potentially outgrowing the show each year. It’s a problem with no easy solution, and one that has impacted on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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The episode ordering is vital in tension building. On top of the difficulties described in the above paragraph, the show has been further hampered by an erratic broadcasting schedule, which sees it disappear for months at a time in the US, with UK broadcasts often several months behind, before seemingly reappearing at random. Playing the episodes in order reveals an additional layer of care taken in the story pacing. The second half of the 4th season, from City At War to Owari, is an admirable balancing act.

Episodes Broken Foot, Super Shredder and Darkest Plight charge forward in the series long story of the Shredder’s quest to destroy the Turtles, which reaches its conclusion at the end of the run, and set all the characters in place for the season finale. Every few episodes, though, we get a show like Bat In The Belfry (a tribute to Batman ’66) or Tokka Vs The World (a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Godzilla movie). These episodes provide breaks from the main story that are used to heighten tension, to make appearances by nemesis Shredder an event and to explain in-story recovery time for the injured, changing Shredder.

It’s only when the episodes are watched in order at regular intervals (if you’re anything like Den of Geek, those intervals are short) that this storytelling element is revealed. It’s a shame because it’s well designed.

Seeing the episodes together draws out the parallels in various story elements. Karai, the focus of episodes like City At War and Broken Foot, is attempting to restore the Foot Clan to its honourable origins. The character has moved along the spectrum between being influenced by moral end points Splinter (good) and Shredder (bad), moving away from Shredder and towards Splinter. When played in a block we can see it playing out alongside April, whose behaviour has altered under the influence of a sinister space crystal which enhances her powers, a story which concludes in The Power Inside Her. Both characters are battling for their identity against an internal foreign force (Karai her mutation and April the power crystals) and are conflicted over influences.

Similarly, as Karai sets about rebuilding the Foot Clan she walks a line between Splinter and Shredder, and when her recklessness lands her in trouble in Broken Foot, she ends up with face scars to match those that mark her would-be father Shredder. She shows contrition, though, and is able to remove the scarring with her mutation powers. She may show signs of Shredder, but she’s not too far gone.

The other great parallel is that of Splinter and Shredder, the differences between the two explored this time by placing the characters in physical distress. Badly injured in a skirmish with Splinter, Shredder warps his body and his mind by abusing experimental mutagen in an attempt to gain a physical edge and to seek revenge. In the episode Darkest Plight, Splinter is left stranded with a broken leg and must maintain his integrity in the face of peril and desperation as he is confronted by the Rat King. The two injury stories offer a great platform to lay out the differences between the two characters.

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The mutated Shredder is a fantastic turn for, and conclusion to, the character. His motivation is usually clear but under the surface madness has set in and he shifts. At times it just looks like a side effect of the soft approach to serialisation; Shredder has the goal of defeating Splinter and the Turtles and protecting Karai, even if the story and Karai’s allegiance have moved past it. So his goal of protecting Karai, and the lies he’s spun in trying to keep her onside, have become increasingly detached from reality. It turns out that it’s not bad writing, rather that he’s quite, quite mad. It hasn’t been heavily sign-posted, it’s just been there, happening in the background.

Physically, Super Shredder (the physical form the Shredder takes after being treated with experimental mutagen) is a hulking mass of muscle, armour and bone. His deformed face exposes the inner workings of his mouth in a way that’s evocative of Hellraiser. “Like a buff cheese grater!” suggests Michelangelo. Super Shredder looks physically twisted, which is thematically appropriate. In the episode Super Shredder his arm collapses in on itself, providing an instance of body horror that would be more at home in a David Cronenberg film than in a Saturday morning cartoon. His physical form is as erratic as his rage fuelled persona. He has lost his humanity.

As the references to Cronenberg and Hellraiser suggest, the show remains rife with horror movie references. Whether it’s the return of the Fulci twins in Mutant Gangland, Shredder’s claws scraping in Super Shreder evoking A Nightmare On Elm Street or Michelangelo’s concern that Shredder’s set-up will include “a photo of Splinter with him eyes x’ed out”, Nick Turtles keeps horror close to its heart. Perhaps the most powerful horror moment of the series comes from the morbid reveal of the Rat King’s rotted, decaying state in Darkest Plight.

Along with strong horror, there’s a ramping up of the consequences of violence in this season. In the episode The Tale Of Tiger Claw, the titular Tiger Claw attempts to shoot new character Alopex in the back. She cuts his hand off. This paves the way for the wave of death that follows just a few episodes later, as the Turtles and their allies start knocking Shredder’s henchmen off for good, which is really striking four seasons into a show.

The two major character deaths land differently. Splinter’s mortality has long been a theme in this series, with seemingly fatal injuries at the end of seasons two and three. His death here is permanent, though. It’s a gut a punch, both figurative and literal, and one that benefits from Nieli and co’s ability to convey a serious, morose tone.

Shredder’s death is no less shocking. Because, did Leonardo cut Shredder’s head off? It’s certainly implied, and would tie in to Shredder’s death in the Return To New York run of the original Turtles comics. Shredder’s death felt inevitable after Splinter’s, coming in a thrilling and fraught action sequence, but it happens so soon after that it still took us by surprise.

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The effect of all these deaths is a sort generational clear out. Rebellion against the generation above is inherent in a children’s show and here it all fits together so nicely.

The theme of children fighting the wars of their parents, and the cyclical nature of violence is one explored in the original Mirage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic books back in the 80s and early 90s. These episodes draw from the City At War arc, with Karai attempting to restore the Foot Clan, Splinter having visions of the Rat King and even new Footbots modelled after the comic book Foot Elite Guard. The references come thick and fast to Turtles past, with nods to the old cartoon (the Wolf building), the current IDW comic book run (Dark Leo and Alopex) and movies (Casey Jones metal hockey mask from 2007s TMNT and his inappropriate use of of garbage compacting mechanisms from the 1990 live action movie).

There’s even a take on the elevator scene from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), although it’s more of a dig than a nod.

Just because these episodes are more narratively driven and feature a heavier, more serious story doesn’t mean that comedy is forgotten. The tone shifts is different at times but there is always a balance. Every episode is fun. The Super Shredder episode, for example, has a great segment with Rahzar watching a cartoon based on his permutation identity Chris Bradford (a thinly veiled riff on Chuck Norris). Greg Cipes’ Michelangelo, meanwhile, remains the lightness and heart of the show.

The final point I’ll make is not necessarily an interesting one to read or write about, but Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is really cool. The action sequences (consistently brilliant), the humour, the characters, the references and just about everything else in this show is really fresh and lively.

With Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles coming to an end, complete with mortality theming to see us off, I wonder if it’s likely we’ll see another take that has such serialized elements to it. I suspect we might not, although if the new show is able to incorporate serialized storytelling they will have a job matching the work done on this series. There’s something very special about this take on the Turtles, and I’m going to be very sad to see it go. But first, onto season five…

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles season 5 starts on Nicktoons on Saturday 20th May 2017 at 5pm.