Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (known as Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles in Europe due to controversy at the time) is an American animated television series produced by Murakami-Wolf-Swenson. The pilot was shown during the week of December 28, 1987 in syndication as a five part miniseries and began its official run on October 1, 1988. The series featured the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters created in comic book form by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. The property was changed considerably from the darker-toned comic, to make it more suitable for children and the family.
The initial motivation behind the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series was that, upon being approached to create a toy line, Playmates Toys was uneasy with the comic book characters’ small cult following. They requested that a television deal be acquired first, and after the initial five-episode series debuted, the California toy company released their first series of Ninja Turtles action figures in the summer of 1988. The two media would correspond in marketing style and popularity for many years to come.
David Wise and Patti Howeth wrote the screenplay for the first five-part miniseries. When the series continued in the second season, comic artist Jack Mendelsohn joined the show as the executive story editor. Wise went on to write over seventy episodes of the series, and was executive story editor for four later seasons as well. Wise left the series partway through the ninth season, and Jeffrey Scott took over as the story editor and chief writer for the rest of the show’s run.
The show was in Saturday morning syndication from October 1, 1988 to September 9, 1989. After it became an instant hit, the show was expanded to five days a week and aired weekday afternoons in syndication in most markets, from September 25, 1989 to September 17, 1993. Starting on September 8, 1990 (with a different opening sequence), the show began its secondary run on CBS’s Saturday morning lineup, beginning as a 60-minute block from 1990 to 1993, initially airing a couple of Saturday exclusive episodes back to back. There would also be a brief “Turtle Tips” segment in between the two episodes which served as PSA about the environment or other issues. There were a total of 20 “Turtle Tips” segments produced and aired. Beginning in 1994, the show began airing as a 30-minute block until the series ended. The series ran until November 2, 1996, when it aired its final episode.
The show helped launch the characters into mainstream popularity and became one of the most popular animated series in television history. Breakfast cereal, plush toys, and all manner of products featuring the characters appeared on the market during the late 1980s and early 1990s. A successful Archie Comics comic book based on the animated show instead of the original black-and-white comics was published throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Action figures were top-sellers around the world. In 1990, the cartoon series was being shown daily on more than 125 television stations, and the comic books sold 125,000 copies a month.
The origin story in the television series differs greatly from that of the original Mirage Studios comics. In this version, Splinter was formerly a human being, an honorable ninja master named Hamato Yoshi. Yoshi was banished from the Foot Clan in Japan after being deceived by the seditious Oroku Saki, who pinned Hamato Yoshi’s dogi to the wall with a knife, preventing him from kneeling before their sensei which was seen as an insult. When Yoshi removed the knife, the sensei was again insulted believing Yoshi was drawing the blade in opposition to him. Exiled from the ninja clan, the disgraced Yoshi moved to New York where he was forced to live in the sewers.
While living in the sewers with the rats as his friends, Yoshi one day found four turtles, recently bought from a pet store by an unnamed boy who accidentally dropped them in the sewer. Yoshi returned one day from his explorations around New York to find the turtles covered with a strange glowing ooze. The substance caused the turtles, most recently exposed to Yoshi, to become humanoid, while Yoshi, most recently exposed to sewer rats, became a humanoid rat, and started going by the pseudonym “Splinter”. This, and the following Archie TMNT Adventures Comics, is the only origin story in the TMNT franchise where the Turtles come to Yoshi before being exposed to mutagen. Also, Yoshi becomes a rat, whereas in most other versions, he is Yoshi’s pet rat that becomes humanoid. This is also the only version in which the Turtles become fully grown immediately after exposure to the mutagen, whereas Splinter raises them from infancy in other versions. Yoshi adopts the four turtles as his sons and trains them in the art of ninjitsu. He names them after his favorite Italian renaissance artists: Leonardo da Vinci (Leonardo), Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (Donatello), Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael), and Michelangelo Buonarroti (Michaelangelo). In most versions, the Turtles tend to go by nicknames Leo, Donny, Raph, and Mikey, but in this version they are always addressed by their full names. Each Ninja Turtle wears a mask over his eyes with a distinctive color, and is trained in the art of a distinct weapon.
Meanwhile, Oroku Saki has left Japan and tracked Yoshi to New York City, where he intends to destroy him once and for all. He has become associated with Krang, a disembodied alien brain who has been banished from his home, Dimension X, where he was a great warlord. Saki has taken on a new persona, donning a suit covered with razor spikes, complemented by a long cape, and a metal mask over his mouth. He has also taken on the pseudonym “The Shredder”.
It becomes clear in the first season that the mutagen that transformed the Turtles and Splinter into their new forms was dumped into the sewer by Shredder in an effort to destroy Yoshi. Shredder thought it was a deadly poison. The Turtles vow to take revenge on the Shredder for dishonoring their master, as well as turning him into a rat. The Turtles want to force him to turn Splinter back into a human again, though this quickly evolves into stopping Shredder’s ongoing criminal career with the aid of Channel 6 reporter April O’Neil. The Turtles begin to take on the role of vigilante crime-fighters operating outside of the jurisdiction of law enforcement against any criminals, much like Casey Jones in the third season. For the first couple of seasons, it seems as if the Turtles are constantly preoccupied with hiding their existence. This seems to be slowly relaxed and, by the last few seasons, most citizens seem to be well aware of them. They also frequently have to deal with citizens misunderstanding them, thanks to the efforts of Burne Thompson, April’s employer, and Vernon Fenwick, a Channel 6 cameraman, who distrust the Turtles and frequently blame them for the trouble that the Shredder and Krang cause.
Shredder, Krang, Bebop and Rocksteady (two street thugs morphed into animal form by exposure to the Shredder’s mutagen), and a small army of robotic Foot Soldiers try to destroy the Turtles and take over the world. Much of their quest for world domination hinges on bringing the Technodrome (Krang’s mobile fortress, and his and The Shredder’s base of operation) to the surface as it was either stuck in the earth’s core, Dimension X, the arctic, or Arctic Ocean.
In the last three seasons, the show, which had already lasted well past the average lifespan of most Saturday morning cartoon series, went through dramatic changes. The animation became darker and closer to the movies’ style, the color of the sky in each episode changed from the traditional blue to a continuous and ominous dark-red sky (which was commonplace with newer action-oriented children’s programming at that time), the theme song was changed, the introduction sequence added in clips from the first live-action film, and the show took on a darker, more action-oriented atmosphere.
The Turtles finally banish The Shredder and Krang to Dimension X at the end of the eighth season. They destroy the engines and the “trans-dimensional portal” of the Technodrome preventing them from returning to Earth, though they later return for a few episodes in season ten. A new villain, Lord Dregg, an evil alien warlord, appeared as their new chief nemesis for the final two seasons. Lord Dregg begins a propaganda campaign against the Turtles, turning the general population against them and in favor of him and his forces. However, Dregg is eventually outed as a villain and the Turtles are finally hailed as heroes within the city. The Turtles also suffered from subsequent mutations that would temporarily metamorphosize them into hulks with diminished intelligence. Also the TMNT acquired a new ally, Carter, a black male with an incurable mutation disease before he left to look for a cure in the future. In the last episode of the series, the Turtles trap Dregg in Dimension X.
In 2009, the Turtles, Shredder, Krang, and various other characters from the 1987 series returned for the 25th anniversary crossover movie Turtles Forever, in which they meet up with their counterparts from the 2003 series. Due to financial reasons, none of the original voice actors were able to reprise their roles, and replacement actors were used instead.
Learn more about the concepts, principles and symbolism behind the subliminals found in this television series: