Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Animated Series: Season 1 Review: Page 2 of 3
Season 1 of the beloved cartoon series consisted of five episodes airing through the week of December 14, 1987, repackaged later on home video as a feature-length animated initiation to the Turtles and their crime-fighting antics. Episode 1, "Turtle Tracks," immediately kicks off with several changes having been made to the source material. Most notable is the switch from the Turtles' all red bandanas to color-coded ones, probably to avoid confusion and add variation to our heroes. Also apparent is the shift from seriousness to comedy as the animated Turtles crack jokes and down pizza between battling against scheming forces. The majority of viewers were oblivious of these alterations, unaware that the comics even existed until after the release of the cartoon. Additionally, adjustments were made to the origin story that improved the roots of the TMNT and helped launch the franchise into the pop culture phenomenon it remains today.
"Turtle Tracks" opens in the midst of a ruthless crimewave locking a stranglehold on New York City. Maverick Channel 6 reporter April O'Neil, sporting her signature yellow jumpsuit, eeks closer and closer to exposing the mysterious bandits responsible for the recent spike in criminal activity. When a group of the thugs corner her after she flees from them into the sewers, the anthropomorphous warriors make their big splash, crushing their opponents with minimal resistance. April is in shock upon meeting her rescuers -- Leonardo, the leader wielding two razor-sharp katanas; Donatello, the brains of the group armed with his trusty bo staff; Raphael, the sarcastic rule-breaker spinning a pair of pointy sais; and Michelangelo, the jokester twirling his radical nunchakus. April's amazement only continues when the Turtles introduce her to their mentor and father-figure, an elderly humanoid rat named Splinter, highly skilled in the art of Ninjitsu.
At this point, the series takes more liberties with the Mirage comic book beginnings, all for the greater good. The origins conceived in the cartoon series differ from every other version of TMNT, beginning with Splinter training in Japan in his human form, a budding ninja student named Hamato Yoshi. Framed by rival Oroku Saki for the attempted murder of their clan leader, Yoshi finds himself banished from the country. The disgraced sensai heads to New York and find himself living in the murky sewers with a gaggle of rats and, later on, four baby turtles who were dropped down a grate from the streets above. One day, Yoshi discovers the turtles frolicking in a puddle of glowing ooze, the substance mutating them (who have been spending most of their time with the human Yoshi) into their current state, while Yoshi (fresh from hanging out with his furry, foraging companions) feels the effects of the goop when he transforms into a giant whiskered man-rat.
Yoshi takes this monumental development in stride and dedicates his life to educating the Turtles under his new moniker, Splinter. It's interesting that in all other versions of the TMNT origin story, Splinter is the pet rat of Hamato Yoshi who becomes humanoid instead of being Yoshi himself. Another difference from previous renditions is that, in the cartoon, the Turtles immediately grow to teenager-sized forms after they encounter the ooze, rather than in the comics and movies where Splinter raises the tikes over a 15-year span as they slowly sharpen their fighting and language skills. Splinter wraps up their story to April in present-day, and as the Turtles lead her back to the street, they are attacked by a gang of purple masked ninjas. Upon literally smashing them into pieces, the Turtles reveal that their assailants are robotic soldiers. Splinter recognizes their insignia as the mark of the Foot Clan, his former tribe, and fears that his nemesis Oroku Saki has returned.
Splinter's suspicions are confirmed in episode 2, "Enter the Shredder," when Saki, now dressed in a suit covered in metal spikes, a flowing cape and a shiny helmet covering his mouth quickly establishes himself as one of the Turtles' biggest threats, a role he would maintain throughout most of the series. Also introduced is Shredder's co-pilot, the disembodied alien brain Krang, owner and operator of the Technodrome, a massive, roving, spherical subterranean battle station borrowing through the NYC underground. As the show's lead villains, Shredder and Krang have a strained relationship -- a celebrated warlord in his former home of Dimension X, the pulsating creature constantly reminds Shredder of his desire to once again possess a body of his own. Shredder's obsession with destroying Splinter and the Turtles takes priority over Krang's incessant requests to build him an anamatronic vessel until they strike up a deal that aims to benefit them equally.
Shredder agrees to manufacture a robotic body if Krang aids him in the creation of two of his own mutants generated to go toe-to-toe with the Turtles. The audience finds out that ol' Shred-Head himself is the architect of the mutagen that spawned his enemies as the deranged evildoer uses it to transfuse the DNA of two ordinary street thugs with that of a warthog and a rhinoceros, animals recently stolen by Shredder's henchmen from a nearby zoo. Bebop and Rocksteady are born, two more staple characters who serve as comedic relief, frequently butting heads with the Turtles but rarely (if ever) coming out on top. The hulking beasts don't give our heroes much of a challenge during their initial fight, serving more as a diversion from the second phase of Shredder and Krang's plan -- kidnapping Splinter from the sewers and holding him hostage inside the ominous, impenetrable Technodrome. So sets the stage for the first truly awesome fight scene of the series.