Teenage Mutant Ninja Origins Part 2: The 1987 Cartoon

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There is a tension inherent in adaptation.

When you adapt something from one medium to another you have to change things, that is simply unavoidable. Mostly this is due to the strengths and limitations of the medium you’re adapting the story into.  To give a comics example; you can’t do the Dark Phoenix saga in a film the same way yit was done in the comic because a film lasts 2 – 3 hours and tells a single story. A comic runs for years and tells a new story every month so you can have a slow burn sub-plot like the corruption of Jean Grey into the Dark Phoenix happen in the background every issue until you suddenly make it the main story. You could also do that on television, or possibly in a novel if it was lengthy enough but not in a film.

That’s just one example and there are many more. In adapting something to a new medium some changes are necessary.

However, if you’re bothering to adapt a story then there must have been something in the original worth adapting. It must have been popular enough that someone thought it was worth spending the money to make it into a film or TV show. The tension comes from making the necessary changes to adapt it into the new medium whilst preserving what made the original work in the first place.

So a certain amount of change is necessary.

But then you get the changes that have nothing to do with conventions of the medium but happen in adaptations anyway.

For example, Gimli the dwarf is presented an entirely serious character in the original Lord of the Rings novels. However in the films he increasingly becomes a comic relief character, prat falling and spouting one liners. There is nothing inherent in film as a medium that demands a comic relief character, this was a change the creators decided to make because they thought it would improve the film that was not entirely necessary.

These changes are unnecessary. But they’re not necessarily bad. There are plenty of examples of a creator adapting something and improving upon a flaw in the original text.  Batman the Animated Series was so good at this that many of their changes, like Clayface’s origin or Two Face’s personality, were absorbed back into the original comics.

More often than not though they are bad, or at least neutral, and they infuriate fans of the original work.

I’m a die hard comics fan, I have been so since I was 9 years old and I have heard more than a few people whine; “why did they have to change it? It was great before and now it sucks!” whenever anything from a comic gets adapted.

Indeed I’ve said it myself on occasion.

I say all this as a preamble to my next statement. The adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from gritty black and white comic book to Saturday morning cartoon may be one of the most successful adaptations of a property from one medium to another of all time.

I say this not because I think the 1987 TMNT cartoon is better than the comics (I don’t) nor do I consider it to be an amazing cartoon (it really isn’t. the animation and storytelling do not hold up well at all) but because I think the cartoon is a better and more successful at being a cartoon than the comic is at being a comic.

As evidence just look at the history of the two properties. The comic was cancelled one year before the cartoon was and whilst it has been brought back and cancelled a few times since and was a big hit for an indie property it was never a number one, nor even a top ten, selling title.

In contrast the cartoon was at one point the longest running American animated TV show (until The Simpsons overtook it). It spawned countless imitators and a huge host of licensed products and spin-offs.

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For most of the world, the 1987 cartoon is the definitive version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it in every way supplanted the original comics. Indeed it introduced some changes and improvements that would be carried forward into pretty much all other adaptations.

So, what did it change?

The biggest change is an overall change in tone. TMNT the comic is played straight. Ridiculous stuff happens but the threats are real threats, the dangers are really dangerous. Characters die and suffer. It is a dramatic adventure story.

TMNT the animated series is a comedy. Dramatic stuff happens, the turtles use their weapons and fight bad guys but there is never really any sense of threat or danger. At all times the tone is light and comedic. We have bumbling incompetent villains, fourth wall gags, nod and wink references, parody characters and puns, a constant non-stop torrent of puns.

Now if you were a fan of TMNT the comic in 1987 I imagine you’d be furious at this. It seems for all the world like the cartoon is making fun of this comic you love. It really isn’t though; it’s making fun of anything and everything it can get its hands on and just embracing the fact that, well, the basic concept of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is kind of ridiculous.

And I think this was the smartest decision the producers could have made.

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Most narratives, especially in genre, are all about hitting the audience’s expectations and giving them moments they specifically come to see. In porn it’s sex, in comedy it’s a joke, in horror it’s a scare. For a dramatic action story it’s an action sequence. And your audience will forgive anything in the story itself if you hit these pay off moments well. A film with a very basic plot but excellent action sequences will go down well with fans of action films.

But action sequences that are exciting to watch are hard to do in animation. It can be done but it requires a lot of time and money to animate well and TMNT just doesn’t have that budget. Comedy though is kind of easy to animate. That’s why most animated television shows historically have been comedies and only recently have we had serious attempts to do dramatic story telling in western animation on television.

And let me just pause at this moment to critique the cartoon as a whole. In preparation for this review I watched the first 5 episodes of TMNT 1987 again and hoo boy are they rough. The animation is largely appalling* with tons of mistakes (my favourite is when the wrong voice comes out of a turtle’s mouth) and just the worst editing in a cartoon I’ve seen in outside of Hanna-Barbera. The plots are perfunctory and riddled with plots holes (how does the turtle van drive to a vast subterranean cavern?), the action is unimpressive and tedious (mostly it’s turtles dodging lasers) and there is never any dramatic tension even for a second.

But, as a comedy, it still works. Even though it’s aimed at kids and plenty of jokes don’t work there were more than a few lines in these episodes that had me smiling.

“We’re the news media. Who’d want to hurt us?”

“This is great! I must really be onto something hot if they’re trying to kill me.”

“No April, you wouldn’t last five minutes in a ninja pizza parlour (turns to camera) I love saying lines like that.”

There’s also just plenty of sight gags and situations that had me giggling too, such as an old lady pulling a giant machine gun out of her shopping cart when she sees the turtles.

Trying to do the TMNT cartoon as a drmatic action piece in the manner of the comics would not have worked with the restraints the producers had. Playing it as a comedy could have though, and it did.

So they changed the tone, what else did they change?

Most significantly and most successfully, it changed the appearance of the Turtles. The actual characters are slightly taller and slightly more humanly proportioned than they’re drawn in the comics. They also look friendlier and have pupils in their masks that make them more open and human looking which helps with the comedy.

But best of all they have colour coded bandannas.

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Hallellujiah!

Now I know colour coding wouldn’t help much in a black and white comic but even in later volumes of the comic that are in colour the turtles all have red bandannas. Considering the turtles are drawn to look identical to each other this makes it incredibly annoying to figure out which character is talking. Literally the only way to tell is to see what weapon they’re holding. Yes, it doesn’t make sense for a ninja to jump around in bright primary coloured cloth but these ninja are all green to begin with so shut up logic. The colour coding is such a massive help in telling the turtles apart that it was naturally carried forward into every other version.

The initials on the belts though…not entirely necessary guys.

The turtle’s origin is tweaked a bit as well. The turtles falling into the sewer and the mutagen falling into the sewer happen on different occasions. This is neither an improvement nor a loss really but does remove the Daredevil parody.

The mutagen doesn’t come from aliens this time either but from Shredder in an attempt to kill Hamato Yoshi.

This brings me to Shredder, Splinter and Hamato Yoshi.

Oroku och Hamato

In this version Hamato Yoshi and Shredder (Oroku Saki still) are both ninjas in the foot clan. Yoshi is the leader and trainer of the branch of the clan they both belong to.  Shredder wishes to be the leader and so when a revered sensei of the foot comes to visit he literally stabs Yoshi in the back. Well, nearly. He stabs his robe to the wall meaning Yoshi can’t bow, and then when Yoshi removes the dagger he appears to have pulled a dagger on the sensei. Yoshi has been framed by Shredder and is apparently disgraced so he flees to New York.

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For some, inadequately explained reason he ends up destitute and living in the sewer. Kay. There he makes friends with some rats, and then the turtles. One day he and the turtles get exposed to the mutagen turning them into turtle-men and he into a rat-man, Splinter.

This is so much better than the comic.

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For starters it means we don’t have to buy kung fu rats in tiny cages. Yoshi becoming Splinter means he would of course know martial arts from his time in the foot. Indeed he’s already shown to be a teacher of ninjas.

It also provides a much more interesting dynamic between Splinter and Shredder. Rather than being a clichéd “you killed my master” kung fu set up Splinter has multiple reasons to hate Shredder. He disgraced him, forced him out of the clan and turned him into a rat man. Shredder also has better reasons to hate Splinter than revenge, he’s jealous of his superior martial arts skills and fears that he might take back the foot clan. It also gives the turtles a better reason for going after Shredder than revenge; they want to turn Splinter back into a human. That’s a much more noble motivation than they had in issue one of the comics. And it adds a tragic element to Splinter as a noble man betrayed and forced down to the level of a rat but who still has dignity and appreciation for art.

Considering this series isn’t aiming for high drama it does a better job of setting up dramatic conflicts between the main characters than the comic does.

Of course they had to change the origin. The original version had too many murderings and love affairs for a kids cartoon. But even if it’s an accident it’s a happy one.

There are some problems with the new origin though. It makes Shredder out to be the unequivocal bad guy, he’s the betrayer and the attempted murderer when in the original comic he has been wronged by Yoshi and so is a bit more nuanced. It also doesn’t explain why Yoshi goes to New York and then sets out living in the sewers. There are homeless shelters in New York dude, sewer should not be your first option.

Other than the origin changes the Turtles and Splinter are much the same as they are in the comics with clearly defined personalities. Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines, Raphael is cool but rude and Michaelangelo is a party dude. Why it’s all there in the (still fantastic) theme song. The only real change is Raphael who is usually portrayed as the angrier more violent turtle but you can’t really do that in a Saturday morning cartoon so Raph here is more of a sarcastic quipster.

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The series also introduced a lot of stuff we associate with TMNT. The surfer talk catchphrases (Cowabunga, Radical) were created for the series. Incidentally it’s fun to see in the first five episodes things that were obviously meant to be catchphrase that never caught on (“Turtles fight with honour” and “let’s boogaloo”). It also introduced the idea that the turtles order really weird pizza like whipped cream flavour, or adding breakfast cereal as a topping. In fact it’s the first version to suggest that the Turtles are obsessed with pizza at all. While the weird toppings idea didn’t stick around the concept the the Turtles love pizza has certainly become ingrained in their make-up. This series also introduced the Turtle Van and Turtle Blimp. This is typical Saturday morning stuff  (put some vehicles in for kids to buy toys of) but the Turtle Van is so well designed and so iconic (I love the frowny face with the spare tire as a nose) it’s been brought back a few times too.

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April O’Neil is much changed from the comics. For starters she isn’t a scientist’s assistant but a news reporter. This is another great change from the source material. There’s a reason Superman and Spider-Man work for newspapers, it’s just a great story telling engine to insert into your narrative. Rather than being reactionary and limited to New York April O’Neil is out there chasing stories and that provides an excuse to send her around the country and get the turtles involved when threats become too big for her.

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Her appearance is much changed too but this is the iconic April O’Neil most people think of. Red head, yellow jumpsuit and, two features in particular that everybody remembers.

April-ONeil

Yeah, April O’Neil is pretty much the first woman I ever had a crush on. And I think she cemented my fondness for red heads forever.

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April brings with her a lot of new characters from her news channel. Her boss, Burne Thompson, her rival reporter and cameraman Vernon Fenwick and her friend and secretary Irma Langinstein. These characters provide broad comedy in most episodes with varying degrees of success but they’re pretty one note stereotypes.

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Casey Jones shows up but he’s a much reduced character than in other adaptations. He’s presented in a manner that very closely matches his earliest appearance parodying vigilantes and cop shows like Dirty Harry with his extreme violence (well, as extreme as a Saturday morning kid’s cartoon can get). The thing is in other versions of TMNT Casey is allowed to grow beyond that role and become an ally to the turtles and a well-rounded character. Here he never does.

TMNT1987_Shredder

By far the biggest sets of changes apply to the villains. We’ve already discussed some of the changes to Shredder’s origin but there also changes to his appearance and personality here. The original comics Shredder was just a ninja, a particularly dangerous ninja with a Darth Vader helmet but still just a ninja. In this he gets elevated to full on super-villain. He has plots to take over the world (well eventually, most of the time he has a more short term goal that he needs to achieve before the world conquering stuff can start) and although he does have a ninja clan he also has a vast array of high tech weaponry, vehicles and resources, access to an extra-dimensional army and a crew of mutated street punks. His appearance makes him seem less like a stealthy fighter and more like a flamboyant Doctor Doom style villain complete with purple cape.

Now all of these changes are to make him more like a standard cartoon villain of course. The set-up with him having vast technological resources means you can tell a lot more stories with the same starting point. Shredder needs thing n so he uses x special weapon which causes y problem for the Turtles. Rinse and repeat. At least in his first few appearances he is still treated with dignity and comes off as a viable threat. However, by the time a few seasons have rolled around he’s been reduced to a comically inept villain.

This is also the series that cemented Shredder as the Turtle’s big bad. In the comics he dies in his first appearance, and although he does return the Turtles deal with a variety of threats in that book. In the cartoon he appears in nearly every episode. Again standard Saturday morning stuff but it helped define Shredder as the Turtles bad guy.

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Krang also appears in nearly every episode and he is by far the best thing about the 1987 TMNT series. Instead of being a race of brain aliens Krang is unique in this setting. He’s actually the conqueror of an alien dimension (Dimension X) and he used to have a body before losing it in an unseen accident that also blasted him to our dimension. Krang, more than Shredder , really drives the plot. He either wants to get a new body, or bring his army over from Dimension X or empower his vast tank the Technodrome** but being a brain without a body he can’t enact any of these schemes himself hence his allying with Shredder. Krang is written and acted as amazingly sarcastic. He just owns Shredder repeatedly with cutting put down after cutting put down. Their relationship is akin to something like Ren and Stimpy or Brian and Peter in Family Guy. One intelligent guy constantly sniping at his stupider friend at a level that often goes over Shredder’s head. It’s such fun to watch.

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Bebop and Rocksteady were original creations for the 1987 series that were fondly regarded but don’t seem to have shown up in any other versions. In one sense I don’t know why. They have really great designs and provide a striking visual. They’re also a nice concept. In this continuity Shredder has the mutagen himself and he uses it to turn his street gang allies into powerful animal men. Great idea, it means Shredder can routinely produce new monstrous foes for the Turtle’s to battle and it provides an endless source of new animal men designs for Playmates to make toys out of. However the main reason they’re usually not used elsewhere is that they’re a bit redundant. They’re henchmen for Shredder who already has an entire ninja clan at his disposal and they’re bumbling comedy henchmen at that. Bumbling henchmen is a venerable old trope but the problem with including it in TMNT 1987 is that the relationship between Shredder and these two is basically the same as that between Shredder and Kang so they’re a touch redundant.

Incidentally the foot clan in this version are all robots. This is incredibly stupid and makes no sense but was necessary because FCC restrictions at the time would have precluded the turtles using their weapons on real people. So it’s either robot ninjas and Raphael gets to stab things or human ninjas and he doesn’t. I feel the show made the right choice there.

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Baxter Stockman was the second villain the turtles encountered in the comics and so he is in the TV show too in a fairly faithful adaptation of his initial scheme involving small dangerous robots called mousers. Whilst Stockman is a recurring character in the comics he is mostly a technological foe attacking the turtles in a cyborg body for example. The TV show already has a technological foe in Shredder and Krang though so Stockman is another redundant character.

Until they turn him into a fly in a parody of, what else, The Fly.

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Yeah, that happened.

Oh and he was black in the comics and isn’t in the cartoon. I don’t know why.

The show also created a few new villains or elevated some existing villains into a much bigger deal. Of these Leatherhead and The Rat King are probably the most prominent and well remembered.

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Leatherhead is a Cajun Alligator-man. Unless you really like Cajun jokes there isn’t a lot to him.

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The Rat King is a bit more interesting. He’s a homeless guy with the power to control rats, initially with a flute and then later with just his mind. Since Splinter is a rat this understandably causes a few problems for the turtles. Rat King is interesting for a few reasons. Firstly he’s really more of Splinter’s enemy than the turtles which allows for some rare Splinter focused episodes. Secondly he isn’t a bad guy so much as he is chaotic neutral. He believes rats are superior to humans but mostly is content to just hang around in the sewers with his rat buddies and whilst he often is in conflict with the turtles he will sometimes aid them if something threatens the sewers. For an 80’s kid’s show that’s surprisingly nuanced characterisation.

Also props for taking a design like this

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And rendering it in a way that it can be animated; that took some skill guys.

So ultimately what do I feel about the 1987 turtles cartoon?

This is my childhood in TV show form. This thing is pure raw unfiltered nostalgia. And unfortunately it pretty much sucks. It’s got bad stories that are badly animated. I have very fond memories of this show but it does not hold up well at all. The only thing that hasn’t aged is the comedy and I was pleasantly surprised with how funny I found it as an adult when I had a sneaking suspicion going in that it was going to be a Scooby Doo level of bad, bad puns.

But I think the ideas and concepts in here are better than the comic. They’ve taken what was a promising idea and refined and improved on it. The characters motivations and personalities in here are just superior to the comic and it adds some concepts (colour coded bandanas, eating pizza) that just work and will show up in later adaptations.

Basically if you could take this show complete with light tone but combine it with more logical stories and better animation you’d have the platonic ideal of TMNT.

But what if you didn’t animate it at all? What if you did it as a live action movie? Join us next week when we look at the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie.

*Although by the standards of the time it wasn’t that bad actually. Of all the American cartoons produced between 1980 and 1990 really only stuff done by Disney and some of the Sunbow stuff (i.e. Transformers) was better animated. But it has not aged well at all.

** More kids cartoon stuff. TMNT like any 80’s cartoon existed to shift toys so Shredder and Krang often employed tanks and vehicles that screamed “buy me!” to their audience. The biggest and best was an enormous vehicle called the Technodrome which was basically a Death Star on tank treads with a giant eye on the top. Gaze upon it! I love the designs in this series, they’re so creative and so bizarre.

Technodrome

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