Monday, March 23, 2015

On the second season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (i.e. the one where they introduce Casey Jones)

Despite being the exact same length as the first season—26 episodes—the second season of the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series seemed to be much longer, perhaps because of the fact that the scale of the stories increased dramatically. There's that, and, I think, the fact that this particular season is broken up into several smaller arcs within the overall, season-long conflict of the Turtles trying to save New York City and the world from The Foot Clan and the invading extra-dimensional alien conquerors, The Kraang.

Those smaller arcs include the opening one in which the now over-confident Turtles try to finish off The Kraang, accidentally releasing a bunch of canisters of mutagen into the city. One of these lands on April's father Kirby O'Neil, transforming him into a hideous bat-monster for much of the season (Michelangelo attempts to ub him "Wingnut," the name of a humanoid bat character from the old Archie Comics Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures, but the others prevent him from assigning April's dad a villain  or monster name). This drives a wedge between April and the Turtles, who she rather rightfully blames, and for a while she cuts herself off completely from her mutant family and spends all of her time with her new human friends, a rough kid named Casey Jones and a Daria-like classmate named Irma (whose name, at least, is imported from the original 1987 cartoon, but who is otherwise quite thoroughly redesigned, looking more like Enid from Ghost World than the other Irma from a ninja turtles cartoon).

Later, a great deal of focus is spent on Karai, who is torn between serving two competing father figures—The Shredder and his Foot Clan, and Splinter and the Turtles—and Leonardo spearheads an effort to convince her to leave The Foot, which results in a tug-of-war that ends quite badly for the character (I spoiled her identity in the last piece on the series, so I guess there's no harm in spoiling something about her story in this piece to: By the end of the series, she too is mutated, becoming a snake monster, although apparently able to revert to human form by "shedding" her human skin).

And, finally, there's a pretty epic battle in which Kraang Sub-Prime (Gilbert Godfired) and Kraang Prime (Roseanne Barr) recruit The Shredder's Foot Clan and together launch an all-out invasion of New York City, one that destroys large sections of it, including the Turtles' lair, and takes Kirby O'Neil out of the picture again, some time after he was cured of his bat mutation. The Kraang/Foot alliance starts early in, with Baxter Stockman reverse-engineering new robot Foot soldiers from Kraang technology (The first season's Foot ninja were, like those in the original comics, actual human ninja; in the second season, they are replaced by robots then, making them like the Foot Soldiers from the 1987 carton series, although these are designed the same as those form last season, save for the fact that they can sprout an extra pair of arms, tipped with outlandish weaponry like buzz-saws and drills).

That battle, which plays out in the two-part "The Invasion," is a pretty dramatic one, pitting The Turtles, Splinter, April, Leatherhead and their new ally Casey Jones against The Foot and Kraang, including a giant robot housing the giant Kraang-Prime. These episodes offer one of the more distinct echoes of the original comics, as Leonardo is split from his brothers and is hounded and harried by The Foot Clan (as in 1986 one-shot Leonardo) and the Turtles and allies have their home destroyed and retreat from the city in the face of overwhelming odds (as in 1987's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #10), fleeing for April's farm house (where a good chunk of that first volume of Turtles comics was set).

It's a surprisingly down ending for a kid's cartoon—Leo badly wounded, Splinter even more so after what looked like a savage fight to the death with The Shredder, Kirby lost, our heroes all turning tail and leaving the city to the alien invaders—but a fairly spectacular climax to the season (and the show so far). The cliffhanger ending is in sharp contrast to the ending of the first season, in which April and the Turtles have a post-invasion repelling dance party.

An even louder echo of the original cartoon comes in the episode "The Good, The Bad and Casey Jones," which is essentially this series' cover version of 1985's Rahapel one-shot. After losing his cool badly while sparring with his brothers—here, however, Raph doesn't nearly kill one of them in a fit of rage—Raphael takes to the streets to cool down, and meets a kindred spirit in human vigilante Casey Jones. After fighting one another, the two become friends.

Of all the re-imagined characters that appear in this series, I think the producers and designers did the best job with Casey (That's concept art for the character at the top of the post). Introduced in that aforementioned one-shot, and officially joining the cast of the original comics series in the also aforementioned TMNT #10, Casey Jones was conceived by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as a parody of the typical street-level superhero or action movie character. Rather than being motivated to fight crime by an actual tragedy in his own life, he's instead motivated by cop shows and action movies, and makes his own costume and weaponry in order to become a vigilante crime-fighter (Note this was 23 years before Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s Kick-Ass #1, which introduced a superpower-less, regular New Yorker motivated to become a vigilante crime-fighter by comic books and movies).

Originally portrayed as a psychopath in the comics, when Casey reappeared later, he was essentially just a regular guy hanging out with the Turtles, Splinter and April. He was a sort of POV character, and, the most regular and relatable character in the series, even more so than April.

Here, of course, Casey is re-cast as a teenager, as was April. We first meet him as a somewhat abrasive, extremely arrogant punk kid with a crush on April, his tutor. He's not friends with April long before he starts getting pulled into the craziness of her life, helping her fight against The Mutagen Man and, later, Foot robots, which he battles on the ice rink while practicing hockey, hitting them in their heads with hockey pucks.

When Casey finally suits up to fight crime, the producers design him in what is easily the best-equipped and coolest looking version of the character, even more so than that of Rick Veitch's Casey Jones from Casey Jones: North By Downeast, who was pretty thoroughly armored in hockey padding and carried a golf bag bristling with more weapons and equipment than the comic book version usually sported. (Ha! "Sported.")

This Casey fights with hockey stick and baseball bats, wears tricked-out hockey mitts and various padding for defense, and even has skates for transportation and fighting purposes, which are apparently folded up along his calves and spring-loaded to attach to his feet when necessary. He also has a bunch of awesome gadgets. He has spray paint can bombs and hockey pucks (some with M80s attached) as ammunition, he has a homemade taser made from a potato masher, and the bike he rides to fight crime on is even tricked out with a flamethrower. . He's got a real  Goonies sort of feel to his equipment, or maybe a Home Alone kid-meets-MacGuyver, in order to play Q vibe. His entire aesthetic is much more that of a high school punk rock/metal homemade superhero than in any other incarnation, and it fits in perfectly with this particular show's look and cast.

His hockey mask is spray-painted to look more skull-like, and, in one great scene, the Turtles remove his mask to find he has his face painted in the same skull pattern, and he hisses at them.

Because of the all-ages nature of the cartoon, this Casey isn't quite the violent psychopath his comics inspiration was, but he's an all-around pretty awesome character, and the fact that he's a high school kid renders a lot of his unusual choices in hobbies and style charming (Seeing the TV show's Casey, I was really quite retroactively disappointed in IDW's Casey Jones, as they similarly made Casey into a teenager instead of a grown-up, but little to no effort was put into making him look different, let alone cool). That is, a grown-up Casey outfitted and acting like this seems kind of crazy, but a high school juvenile delinquent doing it fits, as you'd expect a 15-year-old to think all of this stuff is cool (His "war journal" is another nice nod to the comics, as he draws himself like Kevin Eastman drew adult Casey).

As Casey first appears as a classmate of April's, he's closer to her than the Turtles, and in addition to becoming best friends with Raphael before their first episode together ends (One of the Turtles says something along the lines of, "Great, now we've got two Raphaels"), he has a romantic interest in April, which provides some conflict between the two, and a stronger still conflict between Casey and Donatello, who is also interested in April (Man, there's a great scene in this where Splinter calls Donnie into his room and knocks him down, saying he's trying to teach him to enjoy being knocked down. After a couple of falls, Donatello protests, that it's impossible to make someone like something they don't like, getting the lesson before even finishing the sentence. Great life lesson! Where was this cartoon when I was, like, 22?)

In further acknowledgment of his creators, Casey uses Laird and East-Man brand hockey equipment, and his battle cry is "Goongala!", whatever that means.
(I'm not afraid to admit that the first time Casey shouts "Goongala!" on the show, and is shown jumping up in the air ready to bring a piece of sporting equipment down on a foe as in the above image, my heart skipped a beat).

Other characters are introduced to the show in this season, obviously, although none with as prominent a role as Casey, obviouslier.

Raphael's pet turtle Spike gets into some mutagen at one point, and grows into a much bigger and scarier version of a mutant turtle. He convinces Raphael that he's a better teammate for him than his brothers, and Raphael gives him a black bandanna mask and a huge spiked mace. They set out to fight crime together, but Spike tells Raph he prefers the name "Slash." While Slash looks more like Tokka from the live-action film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of The Ooze, the name is, of course, that of a villain from the original cartoon series, who later appeared in both the Archie comics and the current IDW line. In one of the most interesting bits of casting the show has had to date, they enlisted Corey Feldman—who voiced Donatello in the first films—to play Slash. He appears in a few episodes.

Dogpound, the Foot Clan lieutenant who was basically just Chuck Norris until he was mutated into a giant dog-man, gets "double-mutated" this season, becoming Rahzar (the name of the other evil mutant in Secret of The Ooze). It's a much cooler, scarier design; referred to at one point as a "zombie wolf." Baxter Stockman also gets dosed, mutating into a fly—as he was upon his first appearance in the original cartoon series—although here he's much creepier-looking, and the debt the original cartoon iteration owes to the sci-fi films The Fly are much more obvious.

Rat King, The Newtralizer, Metalhead and Leatherhead all make return appearances for at least one episode a piece, and new characters include Tiger Claw,a tiger man with a jet pack and laser guns that The Shredder recruits in Japan to oversee Dogpound/Rahzar and Fishface, and an Anton Zeck, a master thief with a weird, Tron-esque suit that allows him to stick to walls, turn invisible, throw his laser mohawk like a weapon and other applications. Zeck is voiced by J.B. Smoove, who has the character frequently make Michael Jackson-like noises.

This season also has some of the weirder, more noteworthy episodes, including two that are simply extended riffs on particular films. The first is actually the second episode of the series, "Invasion of The Squirrelanoids!," an Alien/s homage. Some squirrels get into one of the lost canisters of mutagen, and do a kid-friendly version of Alien reproduction: Forcibly climbing into the mouths and down the throats of their victims, gestating in their stomachs and then causing them to them up. A few seconds later, they grow—off-camera—into huge monsters which, here, look just like H.R. Giger's aliens, save with big bushy tails and a few other little squirrel features.

Later, "A Chinatown Ghost Story" has the Turtle-version of Big Trouble In Little China, with James Hong, who played Lo Pan in Big Trouble, voicing the Lo Pan-like Ho Chan character.

The other extended pop culture homage/parody/riff in this season is doled out in smaller doses throughout the entire series, as Michelangelo finds a crate of VHS tapes of an old anime series that's a mixture of Voltron and Battle of The Planets/G-Force (and similar shows). This takes the place of Space Heroes form the first season, as the guys watch episodes of the show and continually find eerie similarities between their own lives and the events of the show. Donatello ultimately takes inspiration from it while they prepare for the imminent invasion of New York City by The Kraang. He constructs a giant robot that requires a whole team to pilot in order to take on Kraang-Prime's giant robot body.

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