WTF?!: “The Search for Splinter” Part Two

” Myself, I would have fired the decorator.— Michelangelo

Written by: Greg Johnson
Original Air Date: November 1, 2003
Recap Narrator: Raphael
Characters and Concepts Introduced: Mr. Mortu, Utroms, The Transmat
Gargoyles episode I could make a forced comparison to: N/A

The Beats:

  • Donatello and Mikey work together in order to prevent themselves from becoming street pizza.
  • Despite being outnumbered and outmatched by the T.C.R.I. staff– including Mr. Mortu– Casey and April reunite and manage to escape the building, taking one of the company’s hover-scooters with them.  They are not followed.
  • The turtles infiltrate the building and find it to be unlike anything they’d expected, with various rooms which appear to be designed for no other purpose than to confuse and confound outsiders.  Eventually, they split up.
  • Mike and Don use an elevator to access several floors, but every time their destination is the same: a hallway identical to the one they’d left.  Eventually, they spot a couple of security guards entering the elevator, but manage to hide themselves and remain unseen.  The guards, which have been tasked with getting to “decontamination”, press a series of buttons and head to a floor that is *not* identical–in fact, as Mikey notes, it looks like a giant, mechanical stomach.
  • Leo and Raph follow two employees–who appear to be some techs in charge of keeping “decontamination lines” working–to another segment of the same stomach-like section of the building.
  • Michelangelo and Don watch as several T.C.R.I. employees line up and prepare for decontamination.  This involves peeling off their skins, exposing their true selves: small, vaguely-brain-like creatures nested inside the abdomens of robotic exoskeletons.  These then use floating devices to head to the decontamination chambers where any harmful agents they might have encountered are washed off.
  • The Guardian who met with the turtles last episode is summoned for an audience with his three masters, who ask him to account for the tracking device found on him, and to inform them of the turtles’ shenanigans and how they might jeopardize their objective of returning home after centuries of living undetected on Earth.    The Guardian attempts to downplay their findings, but Mr. Mortu enters the conversation, informing his masters that it’s worse than they think: given the way Casey and April subverted their systems, there is every reason to believe that the turtles are actually currently inside the building.  Oh, and the name of their species is revealed: The Utrom.  
  • An intruder alert is sounded, and both groups of  turtles find themselves attacked by Utroms.  They eventually reunite and find themselves herded into a chamber where, inside a liquid-filled pod, floats  an unconscious Splinter.
  • Don tries to take a look at the systems controlling Splinter’s prison, but doesn’t get a chance to do much more than confirm that he’s probably not dead.  He doesn’t get to do much more than that before the Utrom break into the room.
  • Despite the fact that neither party really wants the equipment inside the chamber to get damaged, the battle continues, eventually moving to another room.  There,  the turtles end all stepping on what turns out to be some machine.  Mortu arrives and warns them to step away immediately, but it’s too late: the machine activates, atomizing the turtles.

Continuity Notes:

  • This episode is a direct continuation of the last, and like it, it is based on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (vol. 1) #4.
  • The Utrom leaders exposit that none of their domains had ever been infiltrated.  This will eventually be made false, as the season 4 episode “The Tale of Master Yoshi” will reveal that an Utrom base in Japan had indeed been attacked several decades earlier.
  • Although this is the first appearance of the Utrom in their true guise, there had been hints as to their appearance seeded throughout the seasons–most notably, the guardians’  medallions and the pommel on the Sword of Tengu.

—-

If ever there was an episode that I wish I could forget so I could see it again for the first time, it’s this one.  The second part of “The Search For Splinter” relies on keeping the viewer off-balance for its impact, meaning that people who know what to expect–which at the time of its original airing included me, who had already been introduced to Utrom via the Mirage comic book–are done a disservice by that knowledge.  As is, the show does a great job of pacing the progressive escalation in weirdness, from air vents that don’t lead anywhere,  to rooms designed exclusively to confound intruders all the way to rooms that recall body parts and employees who are actually brain-looking aliens.  However, like most illusions, it’s not as effective once you know what’s really going on.

That said, I also feel that the show’s production values don’t do the episode’s premise justice.  While more-than-adequate most of the time, I feel that an episode this outside the show’s wheelhouse needed something a little extra–unconventional storyboarding/camera angles, better sound design–to make it pop.  It still works, to a degree, but it could be so much better.

In any case, this is the last episode of what is probably my favorite first season of any TV show ever, except maaaaaybe Alias.  Had the show ended here, I think it would have still been regarded as an exceptional series (at least by those who knew about it, which was not, comparatively speaking, a whole lot of people).  Sure, it had its misteps–“Garbageman”; the fact that the story requires more than what 4Kids / Fox’s S&P were willing to allow; the tendency to recap previous episodes in really unnatural-sounding ways–but when you get down to it, it managed something few American shows back then–animated or not–had: a complete story, planned out from beginning to end.

It’s important to note that this was a few years before Lost or Avatar: The Last Airbender: sure, you had stuff like Buffy, Babylon 5 or HBO series like The Sopranos–and of course, Gargoyles–but I would argue, that, with the possible exception of maybe Babylon 5 (which I haven’t seen, and can’t comment on at length) there’s a subtantial difference between them and this.  Those other shows feel like  collections of interconnected stories that combine to form a larger story.  Season 1 TMNT–or more accurately, TMNT until “Secret Origins”–is one big story that occasionally branches out into smaller ones.

To illustrate, let’s take Gargoyles.  You can, to a degree, identify an overarching theme to the show’s first season–the clan’s acclimation to 20th century New York and their decision to view it as their new home–but that’s not what the story is.   There’s no overarching antagonist or challenge whose defeat marks the end of the story, but rather a series of enemies who need to be defeated at various points and who periodically reappear.  And when “Reawakening” ends, it feels less like a conclusion and more of a chapter break in a story that’s not designed with an ending in mind–which makes sense, since the story of Gargoyles isn’t “the Manhattan clan deals with X”, but “The Manhattan Clan, who deal with X, Y, and Z”.

The first season of TMNT, on the other hand, is a story about “the protagonists deal with X”–specifically, the turtles’ discovery of, and initial conflict with, The Foot. Almost everything in the season feeds into the telling of that story, and when it is resolved in “Secret Origins”, there is a sense of closure that is not present in the finales for Buffy or Gargoyles.  Part of this is due to writing, but another is because of what each show’s concept is.  Buffy Summers fights to protect Sunnydale and the world from the threat posed by the world’s various demons, which is a job that doesn’t end when the defeats The Master; the turtles, on the other hand, have no such mission, or a mission at all.  When the Foot are defeated, there’s no reason for them to expect to face anything that would make for a good action series.  They will, of course–there’s still two thirds of a season left by the time this story ends–but when they did, they feel part of a new story.

However, that in itself is not why I believe the season is exceptional: it’s because it’s one large story  that I find shockingly well-plotted.  Every event leads naturally to the next, and there’s a good sense of escalation and increasing danger.  We have an antagonists that remains threathening throughout, and manage to feel like characters with wants and needs instead of glorified obstacles.  We have a world, which while limited doesn’t feel constrained.  Aside from the lack of diversity when it comes to prominent characters–only one woman appearing regularly, no LGBT people–it is, for the most part, lacking in problematic elements.  It climaxes in what is still the most shocking moment in my history as a consumer of fiction.  All this from the people whose previous claim to fame had been a series of mediocre localizations.

Season 2 of TMNT will, unfortunately, not be as good as the first.  It’ll start and end well, but it’s middle, underpinned by a story that they really didn’t have the capacity to tell well, is incredibly rocky.  It’s also much less cohesive than its predecessor, feeling like a series of small stories rather than a huge one.  Still, it’s interesting, and it includes the adaptation of the last capital-I-important stories of the original Eastman and Laird TMNT run, so there’s still lots to say.  I just hope it doesn’t take three years to get through it all.

Random thoughts:

  • This episode is really loose when it comes to continuity, with huge bunches of it being disregarded later on. The T.C.R.I. building apparently has no security cameras, despite the fact that we know they had a working on the roof.  The Utrom’s concern about being contaminated by human contact, which makes up the backbone of this episode, is never brought up again.  As I said earlier, details about this are further disregarded when the series decided on the Demon Shredder plot.  It’s the sloppiest the show will get on this regard until season 6.
  • So among the Utrom names we’ve heard now are Mortu (“Utrom” backwards and apparently his real name), Newman (a Seinfeld reference and possibly an alias).  Eventually we’ll see Utrom with names like Krang (a nod to the original ‘toon) and Ch’rell.  No unifying element at all, and one of the places where it’s clear writers just didn’t a damn, which feels appropriately Mirage-esque but wish had been handled differently.  Granted, maybe it’s possible that they all come from different parts of the Utrom homeworld, each with its own language and naming conventions, but I don’t feel there’s any evidence that the writers were thinking about the issue that way.
  • I feel this episode does a really good job of mantaining the balance between making the Utrom morally ambiguous–we still don’t know anything about their aims or origins–and sympathetic, while at the same time making them viable antagonists.  Part of it, is I feel, that we get a handful of moments where they’re just talking about regular stuff, which makes them feel very human, even as we learn that they aren’t.  The final battle in the end feels quite unlike any in the season, because its a bit of senseless violence that actually feels like senseless violence.
  • For those who haven’t read the original books but still find the Utrom familiar, it is because they provided the base for what the original cartoon turned into Krang.  Introduced in the third issue of the original book, they eventually become a huge part of the Mirage Universe’s cosmology.
  • I really like the scene where the Utrom bigwigs are collected all the evidence of the turtles’ present and use it to come to the correct conclusion.  It’s a bit of competence that feels very refreshing, for some reason.  Still, their security apparatus is odd, for reasons I delve into later.
  • This episode features one Utrom with a female voice (played, I believe, by Veronica “April”  Taylor).  We’re not told if this specifically means that there’s an Utrom gender binary, but it certainly appears to be the suggestion.  If that’s the case, though, I wonder if the various Utrom cosplay exclusively as members of their same gender, or if they mix and match.
  • There are a bunch of really nice Don/Mike interactions in this episode, starting with the moment they work together to save one another–using an idea conceived by Mike–and continuing on with the moment when they cover each other’s mouths to prevent them from screaming as the Utroms reveal their true forms.  It’s a stark contrast with their interactions in the new series, where Don loudly complains when paired with this particular sibling, and is, I feel, perfectly justified in doing so.
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5 Responses to WTF?!: “The Search for Splinter” Part Two

  1. Yarp says:

    If you don’t mind me asking, what were your top five episodes of season one?

  2. Ian says:

    I don’t mind at all, Yarp; thanks for asking. : ) This is off the top of my head, so the order isn’t necessarily fixed, but these are my five favorite episodes of the season right now.

    1) “The Shredder Strikes Back” Part Two – Awesome pacing and sense of escalation, awesome fights.
    2) “Return to New York” Part Three – I consider myself hard to surprise when it comes to fiction. This episode did so twice.
    3) “Things Change” – Still my personal favorite pilot episode of anything,,perfectly introducing the characters and their world.
    4) “The Search For Splinter” Part One – This one has a whole bunch of interactions I like, and is one of the funnier episodes in the series.
    5) “The King” – I had to think about this one, but in the end, I think I understand why Peter Laird considers it one of his favorites, It’s small and cozy personal and very TMNT, the sense that TMNT should always be a show where going to the basement or cleaning up the junk you have lying around has the possibility of resulting in some sort of adventure.

    How about you? Any favorites?

  3. Pingback: TURTLES IIIIIN SPAAAAACE!!: “Turtles in Space – Part One: The Fugitoid” « Monsters of New York

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