The year was 1989. Turtle Power had taken over the planet and, more importantly, my school. The turtles were everywhere. Everyone had to have a favourite of the four hero turtles (I’m from the UK so our heroes were called “Heroes” not “Ninjas”). It was not optional. Mine was always Raphael, though I had to occasionally be Michaelangelo despite not really being a party dude. Probably because I was five years old.
The appeal of the Turtles was far and wide. Initially it was just the action figures. Then it was colouring books, cereal and lunch boxes. Then it was colour-changing t-shirts, sticker books, video games and pizzas. Underpinning the whole mess of parent bankruptcy was the television show.If you were a British child at the time, you were probably introduced to the Turtles by Andi Peters from the inside of a broom cupboard. It’s more normal than it sounds. Whilst the cartoons were generally of a very high standard for the height of their popularity, often riffing in unexpected ways on old horror films, nothing ever quite touched the first season – a five-episode masterpiece that functioned as well as an episodic release as it does in hindsight as a one-off special.
The story itself is reasonably close in plot to the original Eastman-Laird comics on which it is based, only slightly softer in tone. The Turtles are chanced upon by news reporter April O’Neill, who the four heroes save from a gang attack. They take her back to their sewer-based hideout to recover and upon her waking they tell her their backstory along with that of their ninja master Splinter.
From their we follow them as they defend New York City from the evil Shredder, acting at the behest of the literal brains of the operation Krang, along with their two bumbling goons Bebop and Rocksteady and a clan of Footsoldiers and Mousers.
The standard of animation was perhaps so good it was unsustainable for a weekly animation. The show was essentially a means to peddle the merchandise and action figures, so the quicker they churned episodes out the more outfits we could see the Turtles in and the more friends and foes they could encounter. Each ended up with their own action figure – never more apparent than the Ace Duck TV hero who literally appeared on screen for less than ten seconds but was exceptionally popular as a toy.
The first season was also much darker in tone than the future seasons, at least until the popularity was faltering and they tried to take it in a new direction. Writer David Wise always preferred this earlier darker tone but the lighter and more comedic direction played into the hands of the popularity of the show. After all, the parents were the ones buying the toys.This five-episode story arc remained untouchable for my younger self, desperate but unable to see the sort of serious animation coming out of Japan at the time. It was an interest sparked by my brother’s subscription to Manga Mania, though we didn’t get to enjoy the Akira feature film until it aired on BBC Two on 8th January 1994.
I can’t recommend this original series enough. Almost three decades later the story and animation hold up and it brings back a heap of memories of a misspent childhood. Seek it out.