Revisiting the Original 1987 Cartoon Mini-Series
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have become a staple of nostalgia in my life.
I didn’t know about the comic until later. I hadn’t heard about this violent black and white book that somehow intertwined with Daredevil until I was already in my teens. My memories lie mostly with the toys, original movie from 1990, and the cartoon series from 1987.
It debuted in October, 1987. It was really only made in an effort to sell toys. I know most things from that time were commercials. The Reagan era had just vetoed a bill that would restrict how many minutes of commercials could air an hour. This veto now meant that your entire cartoon was allowed to be a commercial if they felt like it. Shows like Transformers and He-Man were hitting the markets hard, and Play Mates toys was looking to get in the action figure market. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were looking to liscense the characters in their strange comic book, so the two parties reached a deal. Playmates would take the risk and make the toys, if they could get a cartoon as well.
It debuted as a 5 episode mini series. It took a few airings to really take hold, but once it did it became a cultural phenomenon. The toy line was released a year later due to the massive success of the show. The show was a staple of the Saturday morning cartoons. Eventually moving in to syndication in 1989. The show lasted 10 seasons, which was well more than it’s Saturday morning counterparts. It was airing 5 days a week and I was taking in all of it.
I have 2 younger brothers and it hit all of us hard.
We all felt like the ninja turtles. We had the toys, the cereal, the sheets, and woke up early on Saturdays to watch the cartoon. As much as the Ninja turtles have been in my life, I haven’t gone back to revisit the original series as much as the other iterations.
I don’t want to review it, as much as just revisit and see how it holds up. It’s unfair to try to review nostalgia. It held such a major part of my life that anything I remember will only bring back great memories of the sewer play set and drawing after school. I wanted to see if the series could hold up. Would I be comfortable showing this version of the turtles to a friends’ kid or, potentially one day, my own? I wanted to see if the show I watched almost every day was actually any good.
Early on, I’m pretty impressed by the quality. The style is similar to other cartoons of the 80’s with painted backgrounds and traditional cel animations. The theme song is still great and does a great job of getting you ready for what you’re about to see. It’s still really catchy. Chuck Lorre (yes, THAT Chuck Lorre) created a song that can withstand different generations. The simple “Heroes in a half-shell” jingle still pops up in versions of the turtles today.
I don’t think I ever realized the first 5 episodes string together to form a continuous mini series.
It helped a lot with the storytelling. Instead of being bombarded with intros, each episode seems to have its own place in introducing someone or something. Episode 1, Turtles Tracks, shows you who the turtles are, but this is really an introduction to April meeting the turtles. She works as your guide through the world. You learn about the turtles through her eyes because, at this point, she’s the only human.
The thing that really stood out to me was how wrong my memory has been about the character personalities at this point. Leonardo doesn’t so much lead the team as much as insist on practicing. Raphael isn’t rude or crude, but more of a Marx brother, He’s filled with one liners and every sentence ends with a tinge of “Hot-cha-cha.” Donatello’s description holds up. He, indeed, does machines. Michelangelo is described as a “party dude” and impatient in an episode, but more resembles the guy in high school that got too high and added ketchup to crackers and called it “pizza.”
New York City’s portrayal in the 80’s has always been hilarious. There are always roaming gangs of teens wearing Michael Jackson’s Beat It coat. No one stops for anything ever, which still holds up. But an old lady pulled a giant gun out of her bag here. I’m amazed anyone my age wants to move to New York.
The turtles and April are supposed to be friends, but are actually almost terrible to each other.
April is only concerned with her news story and, at one point, is willing to sacrifice the TMNT identity for the sake of a story. The turtles aren’t blameless. April lets them in to her apartment, and they destroy it within 15 minutes. Leo is “practicing” by throwing lipstick against a painting, Mikey burns, I guess all of the frozen pizza? And April needs a much better diet.
This is where we get introduced to the turtles putting absolute garbage on their pizza. initially I thought they loved pizza. But after seeing toppings of pepperoni and Ice cream, jelly beans and mushrooms, or anchovies and peanut butter, I wonder if they hate it. It’s horrifying. I’ll blame the mutated taste buds.
We get the origin story of Splinter and the turtles. He was born Hamato Yoshi. A peaceful human who loved art. Leader of the foot clan who Oroku Saki looked to take over. It worked. Hamato Yoshi is banished to New York City. He lived penniless in the sewers. Oroku Saki couldn’t stand the thought of Yoshi being alive, so traveled to New York City himself to kill the man. The Shredder is extra.
The mutagen is explained the in a way that surprisingly, makes sense. The mutagen transforms you in to the last creature you touch. Hamato Yoshi last handled a friendly rat, so he mutates to a giant rat. While the 4 turtles last touched Yoshi, and transformed in to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This mutagen also gives us Bebop and Rocksteady, who we see in their human forms until episode 2.
Episode 2 introduces us to the villains.
We only get glimpses of Shredder, while he lurks behind video screens. He seems more like a creepy Dr. Claw rather than former ninja master at this point, but it works. We find out Krang’s backstory as well. He was banished from Dimension X and Shredder has agreed to give him a new body. While the cartoon is hugely different from the Mirage series, they still pulled a ton of weird stuff. As strange as 4 turtles and a rat can be, it’s nothing compared to introducing Krang, Dimension X, and the Technodrome.
Each episode has a specific purpose.
What is probably an effort to sell toys oddly works well as a narrative device. Episode 3, A Thing About Rats introduces Baxter Stockman and the mousers. We get glimpses of what eventually becomes the Turtle Van in episode 4, Hot Rodding Teenagers From Dimension X where I immediately said “Who the hell are the Neutrinos?” I guess not all the characters were meant to be toys.
We get our first real glimpse of how smart Donatello is here. He’s able to take old security equipment and convert it into the coolest mini-van on the planet. We even get a glimpse in to Dimension X, which looks like an 80’s animated hell. Everything is orange with sharp, zig zag lines that have no purpose. It really works in portraying an evil place. Dimension X makes the Rock Soldiers more terrifying, because they love the idea of going back.
The show actually clears up it’s own plotholes on occasion. I would say “Why would the sewers have any effect on turtles?” only to have Donnie say the exact thing right to the camera. In a world where I expected nothing to make sense, the justification is air tight.
The finale, Shreddered and Splintered, doesn’t offer a conclusion to the previous 4 episodes.
At best, it offers more options. We finally get the payoff of seeing the android body of Krang, as well as the added bonus of the Turtle Blimp. The android body grows to enormous size, filling in gaps I had as a kid playing Turtles in Time. I have no idea why Krang was giant in the opening, but now I know.
We get real stakes in the finale. Shredder houses an anti-mutagen Ray that could turn Splinter back to a human, or transform the turtles back in to pets. We get a confrontation between Splinter and Shredder now. Shredder reveals he planted the ooze which mutated him and the turtles. Shredder created his own monsters, which explains his obsession for the turtles.
The finale is anti climactic. The Shredder and splinter face off, only to have Shredder run off when summoned. There’s no chase. No final showdown, They wanted to keep Shredder alive in this run. His death in the comics was meant as a “screw you” to traditional comic book villains who never truly die. Eastman and Laird meant to keep him dead, but he became the most memorable bad guy in Ninja Turtles history due to his ongoing role in this cartoon.
As an adult, the entire presentation holds up.
The theme song is memorable and exciting, and the animation quality holds up. The turtle-puns don’t always hold up and sometimes, Raphael can be annoying. But the story is a bizarre world that begs to be explored more. It doesn’t feel like a commercial, like other cartoons in the 80’s often did. Each episode has a specific purpose to further the TMNT universe. As much as it differs from the original comic series, it’s universe still feels similar. The tone is hugely different. This one tries a bit too hard with family friendly comedy, but not to a point where it ruins the show. The violence isn’t overkill at all. The only things I’ve seen die so far are robotic foot soldiers.
I can even say I’m excited for the next season. From here out, the seasons get much longer and don’t connect as easily. More characters are introduced and the episodes rarely go to multiple parts. But this is a great, fun, action show. It’s still entertaining for adults. I’m excited to see the introduction other characters and seeing if the quality drops off at all. Sometimes nostalgia can blind you, but in the case of the original series, the characters and story were enough to make the TMNT hold up.
If you want to check out the 1st season, it’s available online at shops like Amazon, or (where I got mine) on the Apple Store.