If you were alive at any time between 1987 and now, chances are you've heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Even before that, the popular characters starred in their own comic book series created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Essentially, it was a kitchen table project; two independent creators having fun, unaware that their creations would grow beyond their wildest dreams. Spawning an endless supply of merchandise, a video game series and several feature films, the TMNT was one of the most successful franchises of the late 80s-early 90s. It's still going fairly strong today.
Of course, the most well-known adaptation of the Ninja Turtles' adventures came in the form of their first animated series. Premiering in December of 1987, it was quite a success: it became one of the longest-running kids' shows in television history, clocking in at nearly 200 episodes over a span of approximately 10 seasons. Sure, each passing year saw the show get a little more ridiculous---eventually causing the show to collapse under its own weight---but the first few years were chock full of classic moments.
This first season (which only includes five episodes that aired during one week) was one of my first vivid memories of 80s pop culture. In a strange twist of fate, our family had recently purchased a mysterious box called a "VCR", and that magical box enabled me to watch my favorite shows over...and over...and over! These first five episodes were practically on replay for weeks at a time, as the TMNT virus had already begun to infect my body. Soon, I had the lunchbox, the action figures, and the whole nine yards. I vividly remember standing in line for the movie, which stretched the entire way around the theater. I remember the Almighty King of snack foods, the Mutagen Pudding Pie. Heck, my first means of gainful employment came through this show, as I gladly drew TMNT characters for friends at fifty cents a pop in elementary school. Of course, this money was soon spent on more Ninja Turtles stuff, so I hope the copyright karma evened out OK.
What made this show so popular were the main characters, who need no introduction but are getting one anyway. Named after four Renaissance-era painters, they are as follows: Leonardo (the sword-wielding leader of the group), Donatello (the tech wizard and all-around geek), Raphael (undisputed master of sarcasm), and Michelangelo (cowabunga, nunchakus, and all that). Master Splinter is their mentor and father figure, cursed to live life as a rat-like human ever since falling victim to the same mutation as his four students. Also on their side is April O'Neil, a local reporter whose journalistic connections prove to be invaluable...if only to help the public see them as the good guys. In later episodes, there would be many more characters that would assist the Turtles, but these are the core heroes of the story for now.
Of course, what successful show would be complete without a line-up of interesting villains? At the heart of the bad guys is Shredder, who remained a fierce adversary of Master Splinter while he was still human. Shredder's boss, Krang, is a hideous pink brain-like creature from Dimension X, and eventually gets a robotic body so he can run around and cause more trouble. There's also two goofball henchmen named Rocksteady and Bebop (two street thugs mutated into rhinoceros and warthog-like creatures), as well as an endless supply of robotic Foot Soldiers. Once again, there would be many more adversaries for the Turtles to face, but these are the central baddies.
Below you'll find a brief synopsis of the five episodes contained on this collection (watch those spoilers!). Further down, we'll also cover the technical portion of the review, so you might want to grab a slice of pizza before we get started.
Recap of Season One Episodes:
Turtle Tracks (AKA 'Heroes in a Halfshell') - Air Date 12/10/87
In the series pilot, New York City falls victim to a bizarre crime spree involving the theft of technology, and Channel 6 news reporter April O'Neil is on the case. After being confronted by a gang of thugs, she hides out underground in the sewers, where a mysterious group of ninjas come to her rescue. Of course, these ninjas turn out to be our four heroes, and April soon learns the story of their unfortunate fate (after a substantial freaking-out period). As the Turtles learn more about this crime spree, all signs of point directly to Splinter's old nemesis...
Enter The Shredder - Air Date 12/11/87
This episode helps establish the bad guys a little better, as Shredder and Krang are more fully introduced. Their base of operations is the Technodrome, a giant transport vehicle that rolls under the streets of New York City. Also making their first real appearances are Rocksteady and Bebop, as we see the Turtles do battle with these new enemies.
A Things About Rats - Air Date 12/12/87
Another recurring character is introduced in Baxter Stockman, a scientist who has developed a robotic solution for controlling the city's rat population. One interesting aside: in the original comic book series, April O'Neil was Baxter's assistant (who was also black). Eventually, Shredder and Krang "persuade" Stockman to use his new invention to take care of the city's Turtle population.
Hot Rodding Teenagers From Dimension X - Air Date 12/13/87
With a title like that, you can't go wrong. In this episode, a portal to Dimension X is opened, and out come a few runaway teenagers, the Neutrinos. Also through the portal comes Krang's army, and the Turtles finally realize where Shredder and Krang get all their cool gadgets. Once the Tutles team up with the Neutrinos, it's a race to get them back home in one piece.
Shredder and Splintered (AKA 'The Shredder Gets Splintered') - Air Date 12/14/87
In the final episode of this brief season, Shredder teases the Turtles and Splinter with a device that could very well return them to their original forms (although the Turtles are quite happy in their current state, it's Splinter they want to help). Also in this episode, Krang makes his first "big" appearance in his new body, and the odds are certainly stacked against our green friends. Something tells me they make it out OK, though...
There you have it: the five episode "mini-series" that served as the first season of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Looking back over the episodes, they're just as entertaining as they were back in 1987. Although my interest in the show had faded long before it slowed to a halt, it was a blast checking out these episodes for the first time in over 10 years. Even though these first episodes of TMNT are fairly cheesy and totally unrealistic, it never took itself seriously enough to really matter. Besides, these were the 80s, so the cheese factor was a general requirement!
Chock full of corny one-liners, awesome characters, and more pizza than you can shake a stick at, the Ninja Turtles were an indispensable part of many a childhood. These first five episodes are tons of fun, and really hold up nicely considering they're over 15 years old. Although it's a short one indeed, this first season is now available on DVD from Artisan Home Video (NOTE: This compilation is not advertised as 'Season One' on the packaging, but it is...trust me!). Containing the first five episodes in their entirety, Artisan has also included a few "never-before-seen" bonus episodes with this collection. While these bonuses aren't all they're cracked up to be, the overall quality and nostalgic value of the "Classic Five" makes this disc a definite winner in my book.
Let's see how this one stacks up, shall we?
Presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, these early episodes look a little better than I expected. It's hard for this show to hide behind its low-budget production values, but I must say it looks pretty darn good for a "kid's show" from the late 80s. These episodes have been digitally remastered, and look reasonably clean and clear (check out the screen captures for proof!). Colors are bold and accurate, and the black level is also fairly consistent. Print flaws are kept to a minimum, although I spotted several cases of pixellation, edge enhancement, and compression artifacts (no surprise, considering there's over three hours of material on here). There were also a few incidents of flickering in the brightness levels, although these were most likely inherent in the source material. Overall, these episodes have never looked better---especially the much-newer bonus episodes---and that's what really counts in the long run.
Presented in Dolby Surround, all of the included episodes sounded pretty darn good. While there was practically zero surround activity to be found here, the dialogue comes through with no problems (although subtitles should have been included anyway). Even though a full-fledged 5.1 remix would have been most interesting, I really can't complain about the audio quality for this release. It's not going to win any awards and it isn't home theater demo material, but it does the job nicely.
Packaging & Presentation:
Unfortunately, I found the DVD presentation to stick out like a sore thumb. Although the packaging and menus are bright and colorful, the artwork style and color scheme doesn't really lend itself to the dark (but still fun) atmosphere of these earlier episodes. Menu designs are static and silent, although the layout and navigation are a breeze. Each 22-minute episode is presented on its own, with no chapter stops or additional information about the episodes. The DVD is housed in a regular keepcase, with an episode index and an embossed outer slipcover. Although it could have been much worse, here's hoping Artisan improves the presentation of future "season" releases.
Another mild disappointment of this release is a lack of real bonus features. To Artisan's credit, they did manage to throw in 4 "never-before-seen" Bonus Episodes, although a select few die-hard fans may have caught them before. These four episodes ("The Beginning of the End", "The Return of Dregg", "Mobster from Dimension X", and "The Day the Earth Disappeared") were not aired in most parts of the U.S., although they could be seen in the United Kingdom. Another interesting aside: In the UK, this show was known as the "Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles" due to a mysterious censorship of the "offensive" word Ninja.
These four bonus episodes represent a portion of the show's 10th and final season (from late 1996), well after the three films had been released. To say the show had changed would be an understatement: several character voices are different, there's tons of new faces, and the show features a much darker and bleaker atmosphere (and a crappy new opening!). It's not really the TMNT I remember enjoying as a kid, and a far cry from the first few seasons of this classic show. Addtionally, a few of these episodes are presented out of chronological order (for the correct order, check out the link section at the bottom). Their inclusion in this first collection is also very curious; after all, why package the last few episodes of a show with the first few? It makes for a disjointed viewing experience that will likely leave fans more confused than entertained.
Anyway, I know I'm not the only fan that would have loved to see more substantial extras, like an Art Gallery, TV Spots, or even a few Audio Commentaries. With any luck, Artisan will realize the gold mine they're sitting on, and really pull out all the stops for future season sets. In the meantime, at least these first five episodes are entertaining enough to keep this release above water.
While this isn't a perfect DVD release by any means, the quality of these early episodes really hit the spot! It's no secret that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one of the most popular and unique cartoons in TV history, and these first five episodes are a shining example of what this show brought to the table. Part action, part comedy, and way over-the-top unbelievable, any respectable fan of the original series would do well in picking this disc up! These episodes were a fun and entertaining trip back to my childhood, and this DVD thankfully presents them with a decent technical presentation. Although the bonus episodes leave something to be desired, I sincerely hope this disc is just an appetizer for future full-course season releases. Still, there's a decent amount of material for the asking price, and it's a great way for fans of the newer show to check out the original. For nostalgia's sake, this one's a no-brainer! Recommended.
The Official TMNT Website
Complete 10 Season TMNT Episode Guide, 1987-1996
List of TMNT-related articles from X-Entertainment.com
Download the TMNT font (Used for this review!)
Randy Miller III is a cool (but crude) cartooning instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.