Ninja Turtles: In Memoriam by Jerry Whitworth
Recently, Nickelodeon would announce the upcoming fifth season of the CGI-animated series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will be the series’ last. Premiering in 2012, this third animated television series based upon the comic book created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984 was developed by J.R. Ventimilia, Joshua Sternin, and Ciro Nieli. Longtime television writers who have known each other for decades, Ventimilia and Sternin would depart the series after the first season leaving Nieli to be the primary vision for the show throughout its run. Likely best known for his two seasons writing and directing for Teen Titans prior to his work on Ninja Turtles, Nieli also produced a series for Jetix called Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go! which paid homage to Japanese genre work as viewed through the lens of an American fan of anime and tokusatsu (elements from both TT and SRMTHFG evident in his TMNT). In much the same way popular series like Spectacular Spider-Man and Young Justice carefully selected aspects of the franchises they adapted across their decades of existence (across various platforms), Nieli took a surgical approach to his Turtles. The various comics (from the original Mirage books to the Archie years and into the present IDW line), television series (Murakami-Wolf-Swenson and 4Kids Entertainment), Playmates toyline, and the franchise’s several films all fed into Nieli’s vision.
In its first season, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles established the foundation of the show. Ninja master Hamato Yoshi was exiled from Japan following a deadly confrontation with his rival Oroku Saki where he was exposed to mutagen in New York City turning him into a humanoid rat (then taking the name Splinter). Caring for four turtles who were transformed into humanoids by that same mutagen, the youths only knew the sewers they were raised in secret within. Becoming teenagers, the mutants ventured to the surface where they become embroiled in a scheme by the alien Kraang (who were inadvertently responsible for the teens’ mutation) to conquer Earth by abducting the seemingly ordinary Earth teenager April O’Neil. Matters become more complicated when Saki, who assumed the name the Shredder, learns of the ninja in New York and comes to investigate (as it’s later learned Shredder had raised Yoshi’s daughter Miwa as his own named Karai). The series’ second season featured the fallout of the group’s conflict with the Kraang as mutagen was spread across the city spawning a rash of mutations (including April’s father). Franchise favorite Casey Jones joined the series becoming a rival to Donatello for April’s affection. Karai would learn her true origins which saw Shredder attempt any means to bring her back into his fold (so far as imprisoning her and later enslaving her). The season ended with the Kraang claiming New York City for its self as Splinter is believed dead and the Turtles and their friends flee.
As with the franchise’s first live action film, the third season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles saw the youths retreat to the country to recuperate. This season would largely be the start of an ongoing theme of the series to pay homage to various works in pop culture as the desolate setting of a cabin in the woods provided ample material for horror-themed situations (though, the previous season would dedicate an episode to pay homage to Big Trouble in Little China). Season three also saw the emergence of franchise favorites Bebop and Rocksteady in Shredder’s employ while the Turtles obtained new valuable allies. Created for Archie Comics, the Mutanimals were a team of Turtles allies banded together against a mutual foe. The star of several comic book mini-series, there was a time when it appeared the Mutanimals would have received their own animated series and toyline. The Turtles and Mutanimals successfully pushed back the Kraang only to then fall prey to the Kraang’s foe the Triceraton Empire who destroyed the Earth. Season four of the series would see the Turtles with April and Casey go back in time to save their planet.
The Fugitoid, a cyborg alien, arrives on Earth moments before its destruction to take the Turtles and friends to the past in hopes of preventing the world’s cataclysm. Journeying across the cosmos, the heroes are successful at not only saving Earth but in preventing Splinter’s death at the hands of his nemesis (as well as crossing over with their 1987 animated counterparts at one point). A 2D animated film for Nickelodeon featuring the series’ characters aired around this time called Half-Shell Heroes: Blast to the Past which saw the Turtles again combat the Triceratons but in Earth’s Cretaceous period. With the defeat of the Triceraton Empire, Karai re-appears trying to take over the Foot with the Shredder left in a weakened state following his defeat by Splinter. In response, Shredder is mutated into Super-Shredder and seeks the destruction of his foes (including Karai who he finally abandoned hope of reconciliation). Inevitably, Splinter and Shredder would finally both fall in battle. In the coming season, Shredder’s second-in-command Tiger Claw takes up the reins of the Foot and summons the Demodragon lord Kavaxas, ruler of the Underworld, to grant him one wish. The final season, which will be twenty episodes in length, will begin airing March 19, 2017 on Nickelodeon. In addition to the television series, IDW has published several comic book series based on the show including a crossover currently running with Batman: The Animated Series.
Nickelodeon’s ending Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series is one of the most entertaining and engaging adaptations of the franchise ever produced in its 33 year existence. Arguably, its one of the best animated comic book adaptations in general. Early on, Ciro Nieli stated the series’ ideal length would be five seasons (though, he later said if warranted, it could have been extended). And as Nieli reportedly was under pressure to make the show more lighthearted and comedic, the series’ end was perhaps a compromise to make way for a show more in line with today’s youth (like Teen Titans Go! with short, silly episodes that lack depth and can be quickly consumed for short attention spans). Meaning, while coming to a close, it was ultimately the realization of Nieli’s vision for his take on the Ninja Turtles. While a love letter to the franchise (as well as to many facets of pop culture in general), it perfectly intermingled mature themes with a palatable interpretation for young viewers. Death, sacrifice, honor, and addiction were all elements examined in detail over the series’ first four seasons. Nickelodeon’s TMNT offered a buffet for the fan of the franchise’s three decades of multimedia dominance, humor and fun for children, action for diehard martial arts fans, and a complex story of family, war, and justice for all ages. Undoubtedly, the show will be viewed as one of the finest animated series of its time and perhaps one of the greatest ever produced. Given the world’s recent fascination with comebacks, who knows if this will truly be the end of this version of the Ninja Turtles? What can be certain is if this is goodbye forever, Ciro Nieli’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will forever be a highlight of the TMNT brand.