15 February 2015

The First Great Time War | 1987 vs 2012: A Battle of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

An appalling, Thatcher-led act of censorship has unwittingly provided me with a handy means of disambiguation here - one that, in of itself, seems to encapsulate my feelings about the earliest and most recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television series. Whilst Fred Wolf Films’ 1987 cartoon and Nickelodeon’s ongoing CG series are far from being the total sum of the franchise, for me they are the two finest representations of it, and so inevitably this “shellabration” will dwell on them at the expense of the movies, other TV shows and even the Eastman and Laird-inked comic books from which they first emerged.

What was known in the UK as “Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles”, is a lightweight and bodaciously colourful kids’ cartoon that bears only the most obvious of resemblances to the Mirage Studios comic books that gave life to it. Its mutant turtles and resident rat are heroes in the traditional sense of the word, prone to the occasional “cool but crude” quip and anchovy ice cream-topped pizza, but otherwise painted in as bright a white as one could imagine, and pitted against two-dimensional adversaries whose cartoon evil is eclipsed only by incompetence that would (and in my case did) beggar even a child’s belief. Yet for several years, for me it represented the pinnacle of television excellence, and even when I’ve revisited it in adulthood - and by “revisit”, naturally I mean obsess over it all, even the final five seasons that I missed out on the first time around, thanks to puberty - I’ve found it embarrassingly compelling, forcing my long-suffering wife through seemingly never-ending marathons of Region 1 imports teeming with fourth wall-breaking asides and fights set to scores that have never been bettered in a children’s show.

The continuing Nickelodeon animated series, by contrast, is defined by its ubiquitous (and appropriate) darkness and more adult characterisation; not to forget its inspired, comic book panel stills and slow-mo sequences. Ninjutsu is placed right at the heart of the series, not merely as a combat style to be practised, but as a state of mind. Yet the show does not eschew the wacky, outer-space sci-fi that set the original series apart from the first few films. Indeed, it could be argued that the Kraang are in fact the show’s main antagonists, particularly in the first season, most of which shrouds the seldom-seen (and thus much, much, much, more menacing) Shredder in mystery. Most importantly of all though, the show’s turtles live up to every word of their “Teenage Mutant Ninja” billing as the series’ creators take the characters’ comic book cores and cartoon selves and fuse them into something clearly greater than the sum of their parts. 

There are, however, a few aspects that Hero Turtles did better than the current series, and to appease my inner child I’ll start this piece by looking at them. One of my favourite things about the original series was the Technodrome - Krang’s mobile technological fortress that looked like the lovechild of a Death Star and a Dalek. At full strength, it would have given Shredder and Krang a decent shot at world domination - but, of course, it was rarely seen in such a state. The show’s finest seasons were driven by the baddies’ schemes to “raise the Technodrome” from the Earth’s core or seabed, or find enough power to open a portal large enough to bring it back from its exile in Dimension X. Even in late ’80s syndication, the baffling nuances of which prohibited the progressive and labyrinthine story arcs of today, the spectre of the unstoppable Technodrome lent each season of Hero Turtles its drive. The Technodrome of the 2012 series, whilst a visual spectacle, lacks the sense of importance and personality that its predecessor had in abundance.

Another big advantage of the original series is its music. Chuck Lorre’s theme song is almost as remarkable an achievement as his superlative geek comedy, The Big Bang Theory. Suitably epic, cool and unforgivably catchy, it has become such a hallmark of the franchise that the 2012 series’ own theme is a modern take on it that shares the signature “der ner ner ner, ner ner”; even the Ninja Turtles’ T-phones ringtones chirp it out in polyphonics. The show’s incidental music is every bit as good, especially in the show’s early years. The baddies / action theme, for instance, whilst no “Imperial March”, is absolutely phenomenal for a kids’ cartoon. If there was a soundtrack album, I’d buy it.

I should also highlight that many of the current show’s strengths have their roots in the Hero Turtles series. From the Turtle Van turned “Shellraiser” to the Ninja Turtles’ differently-coloured bandanas (that have since become entrenched across the media) and Splinter’s former life as Hamato Yoshi (rather than Hamato’s rat), which gives the personal vendetta at the heart of the current show its heat, as well as the Splinter / Shredder / Korai relationship its pathos, many of the 2012 show’s foundations find their roots in 1987.

Yet the Ninja Turtles series is visually, and perhaps even tonally, closer to the original graphic novels, though it doesn’t limit itself to them or Hero Turtles when it comes to plucking stories and characters. The show selectively borrows from almost every iteration of the franchise, even The Secret of the Ooze and, more recently, the highly-rated 1990 movie, while all the time contributing incredible ideas of its own, such as recasting Channel 6’s most famed female reporter as a high-school student who’s unwittingly central to the Kraang plot, and painting dentally-challenged vigilante Casey Jones as a troubled teen too. Even Irma - Aprils habitually lovesick sidekick from days of old - is brought down to school age, albeit with a slow-burning twist that’s impossible to foresee and absolutely mind-bogglingly brilliant. All these elements from all these disparate inspirations are dextrously woven into a logical, linear and frankly spellbinding story that I think could, if the audience is there, run until young April is old enough for that Channel 6 newsroom.

Where the two incarnations meet most closely is in their comedy. Humour is an integral part of both series, though both treat it in very different ways. Hero Turtles’ humour is very much for the mums and dads, most of it delivered in the form of a quick quip directly to the camera, and almost as much again as less-than-subtle self-mockery. Like most kids’ shows of the same ilk, there’s also a generous dose of slapstick and farce, but these elements don’t stand the test of time in the same way that the protagonists’ meta-fictional musings do.

Ninja Turtles takes a very different approach, as its humour works on just one level throughout, though that level is more plainly teenager / nostalgic geek than Hero Turtles’ younger demographic. As the show is generally more mature, its jokes are too, and they come as often from surprising sources, such as Hoon Lee’s decidedly dry Splinter, as they do comic-relief Mikey; loved-up Donnie; or even completely-nuts Casey.

Where Ninja Turtles starts to trounce its ’80s predecessor is in its storytelling, which is as complex and compelling as in any supposedly-adult drama that I watch. The series benefits from being able to spin out its story naturally over many episodes, with its core narrative spanning all three of its seasons to date, rather than having to push the reset button at the end of every twenty minutes. This allows the characters to grow and threads to develop, often leading to shocking scenes with lasting consequences. 

Shredder’s henchmen, for instance, are given time to be developed as human characters before their mutations, and even then they aren’t locked into an eight-season-spanning role, with one of them undergoing a painful secondary metamorphosis early in the second season. Even Shredder’s adopted daughter, Korai, who’s as principal a character as any of the Ninja Turtles, is constantly at risk of death or mutation; the O’Neils, April and her dad, similarly so.

Indeed, Ninja Turtles really enjoys the luxury of being able to take its time, rather than rush to get the key players in place. Cases in point are Hero Turtles stalwarts Baxter, Bebop and Rocksteady. We’re well into the second season before the mad scientist undergoes his defining B-movie evolution, and the season is nearing its end before we get our first glimpse of everyone’s favourite mutant warthog, pre-mutation, in the guise of a super-slick master thief. The introduction of Rocksteady is even more remarkable, as he’s present from fairly early in the first season, but it’s impossible at that stage to foresee his mutant-rhino fate. We are almost half way through the third season before Bebop and Rocksteady are ready to take their place at Shredder’s heel, and when they do, there is far more to them and their relationship with both Shredder and each other than there ever was back in the classic series.

Turning to the casts, the Hero Turtles of the 1980s were voiced by a veritable who’s who of children’s voice artists, most notably Cam Clarke of Dogtanian fame, and Rob Paulsen who was - and continues to be - in just about everything that I, my teenage nephews and small daughter have ever spent a childhood moment watching. Those four voices - as well as those of Splinter, Shredder and especially “Jewish mother” Krang - are burned into my brain; a childhood soundtrack marred only by the odd annoying episode featuring a stand-in actor. When I started watching the 2012 series, I remember thinking, “They’d never get away with that these days,” blissfully unaware of the acting merry-go-round to come in the last quarter of the second season.

With no disrespect to the ’80s actors, Ninja Turtles intentionally set its stall higher, in profile at least, casting high-profile movie stars and even a former Hero Turtle in its main roles. Prototypical silver-screen teen Jason Biggs was cast as Leo, with ex-Hobbit Sean Astin playing his fiery brother and first-season leadership rival Raph. In an inspired move, Rob Paulsen returns but to play Donnie, who’s pitched closer to Hero Turtles’ fun-loving Raphael than its science-fair Donatello. The technical wizardry is still there in Paulsen’s Donnie of course, and complemented beautifully by a sense of lanky awkwardness that his crush on April can’t help but accentuate, but he’s otherwise the lightest member of the team - with one notable exception. Greg Cipes’ Mikey is loveably bonkers, eschewing the surfer lingo of his ’80s incarnation - “Booyokasha!” has replaced Cowabunga!” as his battle cry of choice - in favour of countless quirks and apparently endless silliness that, incredibly, often contribute to the resolution of a plot. With his big ideas squeezed through the mind of mouth of an buffoon, he’s like a mutant Karl Pilkington; an idiot savant with an amazing knack for lateral thinking and, quite amusingly, naming things. 

The stellar 2012 cast went nova when Biggs departed in 2013, leaving us with a sound-alike Leonardo in place until Season 3, when Seth Green took over the role full-time. In a marked contrast to the classic series unconvincing precession of stand-ins, however, Dominic Catrambone does a great job of imitating Biggs Leonardo, and the dialogue in the second season’s closing, Biggs-less episodes is deliberately Leo-lite so as to mitigate any damage. When Green finally takes over the role in Within the Woods, Leo’s new, heavier and much more seasoned voice is not ignored but opportunely tied into a major plot point - one that looks like it’s going to allow Green to really make the role his own as the Ninja Turtles leader is forced to reinvent himself in the face of injury and invasion.

And so, Hero Turtles and Ninja Turtles are - quite literally - like day and night to one another, yet I still find them both incredibly alluring; something that could not be said of The (irredeemably awful) Next Mutation, TMNT or indeed anything else in between. Ninja Turtles is, however, the better product all-round, particularly if you’re more than a few years old and enjoy the more expansive, modern style of storytelling. With all eyes currently on the home media release of the heroes in the half-shell’s latest movie outing, I’d urge you to throw your coins in the direction of Nickelodeon’s first five volumes of the 2012 series instead, which, for me at least, have become the new yardstick for the TMNT.

The first five volumes of Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are available from iTunes in 1080p HD for £12.99 - £17.99 each. Each volume comprises approximately half a season (thirteen episodes or thereabouts) together with a “Mutation of Scene” featurette for each episode, and a handful of other extra titbits. Regrettably – and inexplicably – only the first two seasons of Fred Wolf Films’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are available in the UK in their entirety, be it digitally from iTunes or on DVD, though a handful of episodes from later seasons are available on various compilation DVDs / download packs. The limited edition complete series box set is available in the UK on Region 1 DVD through Amazon for £87.44 plus £1.26 for delivery, though needless to say this will only work on Region 1 / multi-region DVD players.