Television Time Machine: 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'
Ladies and gents!
It feels like an age since our last Television Time Machine... I have neglected to whisk you backwards through time to visit your favorite old shows long enough! It’s time to kickstart this contraption back into shape. The dilithium crystals are locked and aligned, it looks like we’re ready!
This week’s Time Machine visit is a little different. Instead of looking back at one series from a particular decade, this week we’re going to look back at four different television incarnations of a group of popular heroes... the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! The Turtles have been in the news an awful lot as of late due to the upcoming Michael Bay produced feature film reboot (with Megan Fox slated to star) giving some fans the heebie-jeebies. Also, I recently reviewed the first DVD release of the newest Nickelodeon incarnation of our heroes, ‘Rise of the Turtles’ right here on TVRage!
Anyone under the age of forty grew up amidst the Ninja Turtles craze, so I expect I don’t need to introduce you to the characters themselves. Well... maybe a quick cursory preamble?
Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello are four turtles, mutated to anthropomorphic status and trained in ninjitsu by their also-mutated rat sensei, Splinter. They live in a world of strange scientific experiments (like the ooze that mutated them in the first place) and old-world ninja clans battling for control of the criminal syndicate of New York City. All of these sci-fi, fantasy and seemingly drug-addled elements combined into a unique, wacky, lovable children’s cartoon back in 1987... but before that show, the Turtles were two-tone characters on a comic book page...
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Like so many of our favourite television shows and films, the Ninja Turtles were born on the comic book page. Why are comics such a prolific source of adaptation? Well it is a lot easier to take a risk and produce a comic book with a concept that is a little out-there (like, say, turtle teens) rather than convince a production company to finance a show or a film on an unproven idea. In many ways, comic books have become the pre-pilot pilots for television, given the success of television series like ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Arrow.’ Back in 1984 when Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were producing their comic book ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,’ the Comics2Film craze hadn’t hit--to the best of their knowledge they were producing their art as a comic book and there it would remain.
Printed on oversized cheap newsprint, running only 3000 copies... who would have thought that Eastman & Laird were creating an empire?
So it would be easy to assume that some television muckity-muck spotted this comic series with very unique main characters and was bold enough to take it to the small screen, but that actually wasn’t the case; there was a very important step along the way: action figures.
You see, while today television has snapped up every comic book property in sight, back in the 1980s, children’s television served one primary function: sell toys. Several hit series, including ‘Transformers,’ became toys before they were television shows--the shows were designed as flashy half-hour commercials for the retail playsets. It was the company Playmates who reached out to Eastman & Laird about the potential of their turtle characters as action figures... provided there was an accompanying television series to sell to the wee whipper-snappers.
THE FIRST SERIES: 1987
This is the moment when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were altered forever. While the comic books were dark tales involving murder and violence, Playmates wanted to sell to kiddos. Actually, since I was born in 1983, I was essentially Playmates’ target demographic: a young male who would pay attention to a colourful cast of characters and grow up with them as a mainstay. So what needed to happen?
When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles debuted on television in 1987 they had transformed from the comic book cover you see above: they were smiling friends, loving brothers, fighting for one another with their ninjitsu training against... robots? The bad guys known as the Foot Clan in the comic books were adapted into robot henchmen in the series, allowing our heroes to slice and dice them without any blood or consequence. The brothers donned colour-coded masks so that children could differentiate from each; their personalities were taken to extremes, allowing for the broadest base of appeal (Leonardo is the heroic leader, Donatello the brainy tinkerer, Michelangelo the party dude, Raphael the hot-tempered aggressive one). Oh, and there was one more important addition: pizza.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of 1987 became obsessed with pizza, playing off of their New York City setting in a more child-friendly manner. The tone of the original comic book series had been lost but an entire generation--my generation--had been captivated; these turtle heroes cracked jokes, saved the day, and stopped for a slice of pepperoni when all was said and done.
You can’t discuss the Turtles themselves and not touch on both their human companion, April O’Neil (the plucky journalist who discovers the existence of these mutated creatures) and their imposing villain, The Shredder. Always mysterious, Shredder had an axe to grind with the Turtles’ mentor Splinter, making the destruction of Splinter’s surrogate sons The Shredder’s top priority. Shredder is a perfect example of what made ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ so successful: the character is a little frightening, for those of a young age. He wanted nothing short of the destruction of our beloved heroes. The show featured actual stakes and actual drama that allowed the stories to resonate as these children grew older as well, while keeping a firm PG presentation on screen.
Beginning in 1988, ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ began in Saturday morning syndication, making kids look forward to the weekend even more. It became such a hit that the show was extended to run five days a week, right after school. These episodes featured moral lessons for viewers, including everything from controlling your anger to learning to share; this became even more pronounced when brief two-minute Public Service Announcements were created to directly speak to children between shows. They were wholesome, they were popular and these turtles were fun.
It was the 1987 version of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ that calcified the characters into the forms we all know today and went on to become one of the most popular children’s television series of all time. But that was just the beginning.
Sure, we had a television series and great action figures... but there was more. There was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles magazine, published regularly. There were stickers., school supplies, cereal and Hallowe’en costumes. Eventually, there was even music. Seriously.
In 1990, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles went on a concert tour. The “Coming Out of Their Shells” tour, as it came to be known, featured live-action turtles playing music as a band (Donatello; keyboards, Leonardo; bass guitar, Raphael; drums & sax, Michelangelo; guitar) on stage around a familiar plotline: April O'Neil is kidnapped by the Shredder, the turtles have to rescue her. As the weak framing narrative continues, Rock & Roll literally defeats the enemy... but it wasn’t really the story that mattered. Just like the popular Disney On Ice shows that have run for decades, there is no real reason to see our beloved characters in this odd setting--all that matters to the kids in attendance is that they are seeing the beloved characters!
After countless other food tie-ins with restaurant chains and ice cream bars, I’m sure you’re beginning to get the idea. This incarnation of our heroes ran until 1996 for a grand total of 193 episodes. The heroes were forever ingrained in popular culture. The Turtles wouldn’t return to television again until appearing live-action in 1997, but to understand that we have to leap to the silver screen.