Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: the Saturday morning TV show of Generation Y. Being born in 1991, it was a little bit before my time, but I knew and liked the franchise nonetheless. I owned some of the action figures and a board game, would rent a couple of the live action movies, and for a short time even wore a hand-me-down jean jacket with patches of the four turtles on the back and sleeves. When I was a little older I got more into some of the TMNT videogames and would catch some of the episodes of the 2003 TV series. Despite all that though, I couldn't say that I remember a single episode of the original 1987 series that brought the comic book characters into the mainstream, but now I can. That's right; over the past six months I watched all 193 episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!
Between seasons 1 through 3 you get the TMNT experience. See this incarnation's origin story of the turtles and the history between Splinter and Shredder, witness the mutation of Bebop and Rocksteady, get weirded out by Krang and the Neutrinos from Dimension X, tremble at the mighty power of the Technodrone, and meet recurring antagonists Baxter Stockman, the Rat King, Leatherhead, and Metalhead as well as allies Casey Jones, Lotus, Zach, the Punk Frogs, and Channel Six News team April O'Neill, Irma, Burne, and Vernon. A desire to learn about these characters was what sparked my interest in watching the show, and they definitely kept me engaged throughout its entirety. The personalities of Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael really begin to develop over time, and I was always excited when an episode contained one of the secondary villains like Baxter Stockman or the Rat King.
Season 1 contains just five episodes but establishes all the main characters and their backgrounds. These five episodes have the feel of an extended pilot with slightly choppy animations at times, minor quirks like turtle mix-ups in the voice-acting lines, and much more violent and graphic fighting sequences. From season 2 onward, the show was cleaned up dramatically to fine-tune and polish the character models and tone down the violence, most likely due to censorship. Too rarely post-season-1 do we see the turtles use their ninja weapons in a traditional fighting manner, robotic foot soldiers get cut to pieces, or pedestrians and villains wielding realistic rifles or pistols (everything was replaced with futuristic ray guns), leaving much to be desired in the action department, but the later 2003 and 2012 TV series would eventually both make up for this shortcoming of the original series. While the action takes a disappointing turn with the onset of season 2, many other aspects of the show refine their form. The expression of wit and humor in the writing is probably my favorite characteristic of the series. Primarily the turtles but also other characters commonly shout out puns, one-liners, and fourth-wall breaking comments. Most episodes end with some kind of funny moment to downplay the feats of the turtles in that particular episode in a humorous way. They're often bad jokes, but I've always been one to appreciate the wit required for even a bad pun. Speaking of bad puns, many episode titles are ripoffs of popular horror and sci-fi movies; take for example "It Came from Beneath the Sewers", "The Maltese Hamster", "20,000 Leaks Under the City", and "Invasion of the Turtle Snatchers". I think "Son of Return of the Fly II" takes the cake; imagine a young viewer thinking he missed an episode in the Baxter Stockman chronology due to this absurd title, what a joke. The voice-acting is very good for the most part and contributes largely to the personality of the characters, although some of the voice actors changed over the seasons. I think Shredder had at least 4 different voices, but the original voice work done by James Avery, aka Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, was the greatest. All in all, it's apparent that although they were writing to entertain kids, the writers of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were also entertaining themselves in the process.
Seasons 4 through 7 continue the formula and maintain what made the earlier seasons great. At this point you've pretty much seen it all. I've said it before, and I mean it in the best way possible, but the show is just good enough to keep watching. That's saying a lot though if I can stick out a 193 episode cartoon series from the late '80s and early '90s because it's truly enjoyable to watch. Nothing really changes during this middle period of the series, but there're a few new character appearances including Slash, Bugman, Mondo Gecko, and Tokka and Rahzar (as seen in the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, 1991). The recurring plots with two of my favorite side characters Baxter Stockman and Lotus are among the best. While some episodes certainly feel repetitive and lackluster, most are at least status quo, and a lot stand out as memorable moments of the show's long run. Along with the episodes involving the aforementioned new characters, "Krangenstein Lives", "Snakes Alive!", "The Star-Child", and "Invasion of the Krangazoids" are several that immediately come to mind. Season 7 is probably the most fresh, with a high percentage of pretty good episodes including the seven that take place in famous European travel destinations.
Seasons 8 through 10 of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are where things get shaken up. Right away you know things are off when they begin with a new starting sequence which contains half cartoon clips and half footage from the live action movie from 1990, all to the sound of a reworked theme song which is slowed down to about a quarter speed and sung by a different singer with about half the lines removed and a couple changed. It's weird at first and far from classic like the original, but after a few episodes it kind of grew on me. As episode 8-1 begins, a change in some of the character animations is immediately apparent. The turtles have noticeably defined muscles and more serious facial expressions with slightly tethered bandanas. To match this new look, the action sequences are a bit more technical again like in season 1 and less slapstick (which is welcome because they're supposed to be ninjas). April got a big makeover with stunning teal eyes, orangeish hair (still short), a softer, more unique facial structure, and no longer wearing the old yellow jumpsuit. Some fans probably hate this new look, but personally I like April a lot better this way. Before, her facial features were so stock she looked exactly like any generic female character from G.I. Joe with the addition of a yellow suit and breast implants.
The animation changes and starting sequence are not the major changes in the last three seasons though; what really changes is the serious tone of the show with less humor, an emphasis on recurring story arcs with the turtles becoming hated by New York and media, a mutant rights group, new alien villain Lord Dregg, human-mutant Carter, humans from the future, a should-have-been-scrapped-storyboard-idea where the turtles develop super mutations that periodically transform them into illogically and inconsistently mechanical and ugly oversized monsters, the growing irrelevance of Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo's personalities and ninja skills/use of ninja weapons as well as the slow disappearance of main characters Splinter, Shredder, and Krang, and you can forget about almost every other side character I've mentioned previously. Do the changes bode well for the show? Not really; they're interesting at first but get old fast. Season 9 was the worst by far with Lord Dregg, Carter, and the turtles' unstable super mutations. During the middle of it, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was no longer good enough to keep watching; I just watched because I only had around twelve episodes in the entire series left. However, after 169 episodes spanning seven seasons, I understand that it was time to try something different with the show. Thankfully season 10 quickly made a turnaround by its third episode, and the series closed on a fairly good note with a couple strong multi-part episodes which included a good plot to ditch the super mutations and Carter, bring Shredder and Krang back into the mix, reemphasize the importance of Splinter, and end with a greater degree of finality then we would have had should the writers and studio called it quits after season 7. Overall, seasons 8 through 10 are worth watching the same way Beast Machines and The New Batman Adventures are worth seeing at least once; they clearly don't live up to their predecessors but often contain interesting plots and provide a fresh take on their respective series.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was an incredible television program and one that still holds up fairly well today. It's one of those rare shows that really displays the masterful art of cartoon writing. To think that for ten years there was a team of people who came up with progressively more absurd storyboards with alien invaders, wrote jokes and dialogue for adolescent humanoid turtles, and then voice-acted all of that in some recording studio is mind-blowing. I can't say that I have a dream job, but that sounds pretty fucking awesome to me. Damn, what am I doing with my life? Getting paid to be a CPA and watching at least one episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles every day. Turtles for life!