ComicsCulture Cartoon Corner – Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles

Back as a kid I loved Ghostbusters and I loved He-Man. Coming in a close third, however, was the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. Now before we get any further we’re going to have to address that name. Those in America, and anyone under 25 here in the UK, know the Turtles as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Now the question is what’s in a name?

As it turns out an awful lot. The mid 1980s were apparently a very weird time here in the UK and the government at the time, led by Maggie Thatcher, was concerned that violent kids cartoons were creating violent kids so was fighting hard to censor them. They’ve attacked everything over the years from comics to videogames as being bad influences for kids and truth be told there has been very little evidence for any of it.

In the mid 1980s the big scape goat was Ninjas. It was felt by the government on the day that if children were to see Ninjas, and ninja weapons, they would be instantly corrupted. I can only imagine what would’ve happen had we 1980s kids all decided we only wanted black PJs and nabbed some bamboo gardening canes and decided to go to war with authority. Of course this all looks ludicrous in hindsight but it had a VERY big effect on cartoons of the day.

The Turtles was the show that felt this most severely. For starters we had the name of the show changed and that awful evil word ninja was replaced with hero. The theme song was then changed accordingly. Splinter no longer taught them to be Ninja teens. Instead now he taught them to be fighting teams. Surely that was worse?! Oh well.

For some reason Nunchukas were singled out as being the weapon that the UK Government had trouble with. As such poor old Michaelangelo had most of his scenes removed from the credits. It got worse though. Each episode was also edited, often badly, to remove Michelangelo from all the fight scenes or at the very least to minimise his participation. To us Brits he was the funny guy they kept around to make them laugh but was crap when it came to a fight. To the Americans? He was the nunchuk ace who could rival any of the other Turtles when it came to fighting skills. Mike’s woes were even worse as in the end the animation was very clumsily edited to give him a grappling hook he never used rather than the dreaded nunchuks.

Poor old Mike eh? What I find weird is that the government had zero issue with Leonardo’s katanas and Raphael’s sais. Both bladed weapons and quite lethal especially in untrained hands!

The ironic part of this? The toyline, whilst changing the name from Ninja to Hero, had Mikey with his nunchuks intact. The video games again kept the nunchuks. Hell the 1989 live action movie, that I had the vinyl album for as a kid, was called Teenage Mutant NINJA Turtles here in the UK. The arcade cabinet, for a review of which check both Retro Reaction and Great Old Gaming Gems, was about 50/50 split between Hero or Ninja. Those officially made for the UK market had Hero but a lot of arcades found it cheap to source their machines from abroad hence the many Ninja machines.

It wasn’t just the Ninja that was the problem. Two of the Turtle’s most famous catchphrases “Let’s Kick Some Shell” and “Bummer” were also cut from UK airings. No idea why they didn’t want us to kick some shell but the government felt that “bummer” sounded like 1980s slang for anal sex and just think of the kids! It really does sound like I’m making this up doesn’t it? But nope. This really happened. The government stepped in because they thought that the biggest problem with some talking Turtles was that they’d get kids wanting to run off to become anal sex obsessed ninja warriors.

Cutting out the nunchuk scenes, plus the other edits, rather obviously left the episodes with a short running time than the standard 22 minutes but not to worry! They had a few “ingenius” solutions to that. They often repeated scenes featuring the other three turtles. If that didn’t work they’d add random other dialogue scenes from earlier in the episode which often made no sense in context. And if that didn’t work? They’d actually slow down the episodes by playing the master tapes at about 95% speed. That was on the threshhold of being noticeable by most people but it’s definitely a cynical move to save us from some alleged ninja menace.

A good comparison of two episodes between the censored UK edits and the uncensored American airings can be found here:

You can also see the differences in the two version of the opening credits by comparing both in this article too.

With all that preamble out the way what about the show itself?

Well the Turtles themselves originated in 1984 in a self published comic by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. The comic was a parody, of a sort, of the current run of Daredevil by Marvel (written at the time by Frank Miller) which was at the time a dark and gritty crime noir series more akin to the recent Netflix DD series than Marvel’s usually fair. To those only familar with the TV show the Turtles characterisation is almost unrecognisable. Mirage comics would pick them up and this dark, mature, original Turtle series would last for a few years in relative obscurity. In late 1986 Eastman and Laird thought “hey wouldn’t it be cool if we could get action figures made of our cult creations?!” so approached Playmates Toys. Playmates thought that a cult comic that was selling 10,000 issues on a good month wasn’t really a good market for toy productions so said they’d make the toys but only if Eastman and Laird could secure a cartoon deal. They then approached Fred Wolk Films who decided to invest in a 5 episode miniseries that would tell the Turtles origin story. This was made quickly and aired over 5 days in America in December 1987 to massive ratings and massive reviews. Playmates, seeing how successful the miniseries was, started production on the toys and by the summer of 1988 Turtle mania had begun.

It wasn’t until September 1988 that the first official season of Turtles would be aired (officially referred to as Season two) and the show would go on to run for 10 seasons totalling nearly 200 episodes. The last new episode aired in late 1996.

Unlike most cartoons of the era we Brits did get Turtles pretty close to the US airdate with it beginning in time for the 1988 Christmas season. The problem was that created a massive demand for Turtles toys but, rather inevitably, the toys weren’t ready. When they did start shipping to shops in 1989 there was literal riots to get hold of them. I remember our local Asda getting two boxes of figures in and people fighting to the point that police had to be called. I, rather smugly, already had all the figures by that point. My much older sister had toured America in the summer of 1988 and had brought me back the full set of figures. I didn’t know who the Turtles were when she gave them me but she knew the next big thing when she saw it!

By 1990 the show was being shown in 125 different countries around the world. We were all in the thrall of T.U.R.T.L.E. POWER!

Before we get in to the cast let’s have a Turtle-y Awesome Theme Tune Tidbit! We all know, and love, that classic theme tune. The music was by Dennis C. Brown who has composed A LOT of theme tunes in his time. The lyrics however? They were by Chuck Lorre. THAT Chuck Lorre. The guy who created two of the biggest sitcoms of the last decade, The Big Bang Theory and Two And A Half Men, that guy.