Beyond the Known Universe, a collection of episodes that kicks off the fourth season of Nickelodeon's terrific Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles relaunch, follows our half-shelled heroes on an inter-dimensional adventure as they team up with a talking robot, battle giant dinosaurs, and recover pieces of a black hole generator...and I promise you it's not terrible. In fact, it just might be the most polished collection of episodes to date, serving up a surprisingly robust mixture of sci-fi action, humor, drama, and even more winking nods to pop culture from the last three decades (including both earlier animated series and the original comic, but we'll get to that later). The point is: most franchises jump the shark once they travel to space...but this one somehow, some way, feels right at home out there.
There's a lot of back-story leading up to Beyond the Known Universe: during the last three seasons, our heroes have hidden underground, explored NYC, gone head-to-head with Shredder, met new friends and enemies, tinkered with radioactive goop, taken a spiritual retreat, brawled with Rocksteady and Bebop, and attempted to save Earth from destruction. Most of the ride has been great (for my money, some of the best material this franchise has ever offered), and some of it hasn't: the third season spun its wheels at first but rebounded with a strong finish and big cliffhanger.... and since this serialized show follows a long and linear path, it has the good sense to get right down to business. After travelling six months into the past, our heroes work with the robotic Fugitoid (AKA Professor Zayton Honeycutt) to find three pieces of that black hole generator that doomed the Earth. Standing in their way are the Triceratons, a legion of giant dinosaurs who originally pulled the trigger near the end of the third season.
Nickelodeon's version of TMNT has always been heavily serialized, though not without plenty of one-shot episodes along the way. Things are different this time around: all 12 episodes are focused on the task at hand, which results in a well-paced game of cat-and-mouse as both sides battle for control of the generator pieces. The only minor exception to this rule is standout episode "Trans-Dimensional Turtles", in which our heroes end up meeting their 1987 counterparts and the 1984 originals: there are still a few well-earned dramatic moments here (not the least of which is a reunion with Splinter, who was spoilered at the hands of Shredder last season) but, for the most part, it plays as a nice breather amongst the other episodes. Otherwise, this renewed focus on longer story arcs gives Beyond the Known Universe more punch than usual, so here's hoping that Season 4 continues to mutate in the right direction.
It's not exactly hidden, but the other secret weapon here is an assortment of well-known voice actors with (mostly) major supporting roles during these 12 episodes...and, in a few cases, the rest of the season too. Contributors include Doctor Who alumnus David Tennant as Fugitoid, Michael Dorn as at least one Triceraton (technically introduced last season). Peter Stormare as Lord Dregg, Zelda Williams as Mona Lisa, Keith friggin' David as Sal Commander, Dwight "Lieutenant Barclay" Schultz as Wyrm, Ron Perlman as astro-shark Armaggon, Michael Ironside as Triceraton Emperor Zanmoran, John DiMaggio (various), and Lucy Lawless as Daagon ruler Hiidrala. That's not even counting five voice actors from the original '87 animated series: Cam Clarke (Leonardo), Barry Gordon (Donatello), Rob Paulsen (Raphael), Townsend Coleman (Michelangelo), and Pat Fraley (Krang). RIP James Avery, sad emoji.
Despite its new direction, Beyond the Known Universe doesn't change everything: the heart of this series has always been the rowdy, lived-in relationship between the four brothers (again voiced by Seth Green, Rob Paulsen, Sean Astin, and Greg Cipes), not to mention their teamwork with newfound psychic and "fifth turtle" April O'Neil (Mae Whitman). The closest thing to dead weight from earlier seasons is Casey Jones (Josh Peck), who hasn't had much to do in a while: he's often in the background and adds little more than comic relief, the occasional catchphrase, and an entry point for audience members in his age demographic. But as a whole, the characters are better than ever and just one more reason why TMNT bucks the trend of TV shows (animated or otherwise) running out of steam after a few years: it's a great start to hopefully the best season yet, and one that should draw in plenty of new fans.
Unlike previous season-starting volumes, Paramount presents Beyond the Known Universe as a 12-episode, two-disc DVD set; this is a big step in the right direction, especially since due to this season's much larger scope. As far as A/V presentation and extras are concerned, the situation is better but there's still some room for improvement. An episode listing is screen-capped further down, or check out the summaries here (ending with "The Evil of Dregg").
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 aspect ratio, my only continued complaint about this series is that it still hasn't been made available on Blu-ray. Other than that, the stylish visuals looks excellent from start to finish, boasting a vivid color palette and solid black levels. Image and texture details are also very strong for a standard definition release, and this season's imaginative locales play to almost every technical strength with a great deal of variety and inspired touches. Aliasing and banding are present on several occasions (and honestly, they're almost expected on animated DVD releases), but it's no biggie when you consider all the positives here. From top to bottom, fans should still be happy...even if, like me, they're still wishing for a long overdue bump to high definition.
DISCLAIMER: These compressed screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent DVD's native 480p resolution.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also terrific, preserving the series' punchy and action-packed sound design perfectly well. Either way, TMNT regularly features plenty of subtle (and not-so-subtle) atmospheric touches, from the vastness of interplanetary landscapes to the steely clang of weapons striking one another. Dialogue is typically anchored up front and crisply recorded, while the sporadic music cues are dynamic but not overpowering. Overall, it's an effective mix that anchors the series' frantic, exciting pace. No optional subtitles are included, only Closed Captions support.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the interface is colorful and easy to navigate with a static advertisement beforehand. Beginning with the last volume, episodes are still no longer divided into several chapters. This two-disc release is packaged in a clear, dual-hubbed keepcase with double-sided artwork. No slipcover this time around, though. OCD...sense...tingling...
Finally, something other than storyboard comparisons! Disc 2 includes "Kicking Shell and Taking Names"
(21 minutes), an episode-length featurette that provides a brief overview of the key characters and a clip-heavy recap of the first three seasons. Executive producers Ciro Nieli and Brandon Auman are also briefly featured as well; they shed a bit of insight on the general production and series progression. It's a surface-level but lightly entertaining effort that's obviously aimed at newer fans, as well as a small step in the right direction for the series' typically disappointing bonus features. With any luck, we'll hear from some of the animators and/or voice actors the next time around.
Most "younger" shows, if they have any gas to begin with, are usually running on fumes after a few years. Not so with Nickelodeon's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: this fourth season gets off to a terrific start with a bold new direction and a longer story arc that rewards patient fans with plenty of action, drama, and nostalgic winks from the past. Like the last two episodes of Season 3, some of this material is also quite a bit heavier than past installments---but even those who were in their single-digits when the show began are probably old enough to handle it. Either way, there's some great stuff here for old and new fans alike, seasoned with plenty of fine voice acting work and the series' reliably good visual effects and character designs. Beyond the Known Universe collects these 12 episodes in one handy and affordable package, paired with strong A/V specs and even a half-decent bonus feature this time around. It's the series' best collection to date, and thus earns a suitably better rating: Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.