Oh Glob I Finally Finished This, Thank Glob: “Turtles in Space — Part Four: The Arena”

Grool: Gladiators do not help each other!  In the games, the weak deserve no mercy!

Raphael: Wrong, hornhead!  We look after our own.

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Written by: Mike Ryan
Original Air Date: November 29, 2003
Recap Narrator: Raphael
Characters and Concepts Introduced: Traximus, Monza Ram and the Triceraton All Stars
Gargoyles episode I could make a forced comparison to: N/A

Beats:

  • In their first bout as part of the Triceraton arena, the turtles are pitted against a creature called the Spasmosaur. Watched by hundreds of spectators, including Prime Leader Zanramon and Prof. Honeycutt, the turtles defeat the creature by having it crash against a wall and dropping a statue of the Prime Leader on its body.
  • The turtles are herded into a pit, where they meet the other gladiator slaves.  Among their number is a lone Triceraton called Traximus, who is apparently the undefeated champion of the arena, who reacts to the new arrivals not at all.
  • The gladiators’ jailer, a Triceraton named Gruell, designates the turtles as “practice dummies” and orders the other gladiators to attack them.  Traximus watches as the TMNT defeat their attackers, which leads Gruell to order another attack, this time ordering both that Traximus join the gladiators, and that they use lethal weapons.  The turtles work together defeat their attackers, this time managing to humiliate Gruell in the manner of Biff Tannen in the process.
  • A defeated Traximus asks Leonardo to kill him, but the turtle refuses to do so.  Instead, they shake hands in understanding.
  • Mealtime arrives, and an angry Gruell makes a show of not giving the turtles the food they’re entitled to.  The other prisoners, led by Traximus, share their food with the newcomers.
  • As the gladiators eat, Traximus tells the turtles his story: a former member of the Triceraton Senate, he was imprisoned after protesting the changes bought upon by Zanramon’s dictatorial regime.
  • Still later, the gladiators are taken back to the arena.  Although the turtles are the only fighters not to be given weapons, they are not unarmed, as Traximus managed to pull some strings to get the turtles’ weapons smuggled to them.
  • Zanramon, with the Fugitoid in tow, makes an appearance at the arena and addresses the public, declaring that the day’s event is a deathmatch pitting every gladiator against the turtles.  The gladiators refuse.
  • After herding the rebellious gladiators back to the pit, Zanramon brings out the pride of the arena: Monza Ram and the Triceraton All-Stars, a quartet of the best of the best the empire has to offer.  They are defeated.
  • Before they can be killed by the Triceraton forces, the turtles take matters to their own hand.  Hijacking the hovering cameras, the turtles make their way to Zanramon’s podium and take the Prime Leader hostage.
  • As all of this happens, the Federation fleet approaches the Triceraton Homeworld, ready to do anything to recapture the Fugitoid…

Continuity and Mythology Notes:

  • This episode is based on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Vol. 1) #6.
  • Although they are not repeated here, the other three members of the Triceraton All-Stars are also given names in the original comic book: they are Mixx Trolo, Xoite Damaz, and Daz Ublem.

—-

Now this is more like it.  After two episodes of stalling, we are now back at a point where significant things actually happen.  We meet Traximus here, and while his story here is incredibly thin, as he goes from semi-suicidal to remembering what he was fighting for in sixty seconds–he’ll be important later on.  What’s more, after several episodes with the turtles at at the mercy of circumstances, this episode features a turning point, as they manage to turn things to their advantage in a  substantial way.

If episode two of this arc was Star Wars and last episode could trace its lineage to The Great Escape this one owes a lot to films like Gladiator and its ilk.  Take away the sports-event touches brought about by the presence of commentators Raz and Zed, and the Triceraton Arena is basically the Roman coliseum.  Nothing wrong with that: the turtles have a long history of this sort of stylistic homage, beginning from the very first issue–a pastiche of Frank Miller’s Daredevil work to the original “Turtles in Space” arc to the Fred Wolf’s cartoon  episodes like “Attack of the 50-Foot Irma”.   In fact, the characters’ ability to adapt to this kind of homage is an important part of what makes the TMNT work.

I’ve mentioned before that this arc bears a structural resemblance to Gargoyles’ World Tour arc: in both, a subset of the cast is taken away from their homes and loved ones, and forced to jump from one place to another as they try to make their way back. What’s more, neither storyline was, I believe, initially seen with that much fondness, in large part because they were extended interruptions of existing stories, one that in Gargoyles‘ case lasted for more than twenty episodes—I know that I was eventually going “are they still in that damn boat” after a while, and I had the benefit of nightly back-to-back episodes. However, “similar” isn’t “the same”, as they both have drastically different agendas and reasons for being.

The World Tour has one primary aim, and that is to expand the show’s universe beyond New York, a goal it achieves by establishing that the Manhattan Clan is not the only game in town, and that indeed, there are a bunch of other heroic characters around the world, each with their own stories, set ups and supporting casts. Goliath, Elisa, and Angela thus serve as our point of view characters as they continuously crash, Doctor Who style, into other peoples’ stories. What makes this work—when it works, anyway–is that the series for the most part manages to maintain a balance, focusing on the new characters while still developing the existing cast.

Meanwhile, “Turtles in Space” exists because the turtles went to space in the original book, which in turn exists because Eastman and Laird wanted to take the turtles to space. Goldfine takes advantage of the story in order to set up some plotlines for the season—things set up here will become very important by the end of the season—but world building feels less like the point and more like the inevitable consequence of up and moving your main characters somewhere else.

More to the point, despite featuring a slew of new-to-the-show characters, “Turtles in Space” is never not about the turtles. The focus remains squarely on them, their dilemma, and the actions they take in order to survive and get home. The Fugitoid and the other guest characters get just enough focus to make the story work, but it’s not their show by any means.

“The Arena”, then, is the arc’s most effective story yet, in part because it’s the one that most resembles a World Tour episode, in that it takes the time to slow down and tell us about the world and other people. The Triceratons, who so far have been generic aliens that happen to resemble triceratops, now have glimmers of an actual, specific culture and history. What’s more, in Traximus and to a lesser extent characters like Rez and Zad, we begin to see that their culture isn’t a monolithic one, and that there are noble Triceratons and asshole Triceratons and Triceratons who are “just doing their jobs”, which in the end helps make them that much more appealing, to the point where they’re one of the concepts I’m sorry we didn’t explore more. There are hints in Fast Forward that the Republic has gone through a decline in the intervening years between the present and 2105, and I would have really liked to see what that meant. Unfortunately what we got was Fast Forward, which, while still likeable in many small ways, has enough wasted potential to power a small nuclear reactor.

Random Thoughts:

  • While their place in their respective stories places them opposite each other, I don’t think it’s  inaccurate to say that when one comes down to it, Leonardo and Goliath don’t actually have a whole lot in common.  While they can both be angsty, that angst comes from radically different places.  Leo is angsty because he has a perfectionist streak a mile deep.  Goliath is angsty because the institutions he placed his trust him all turned against him in a short amount of time, leaving him, for a time, with nothing to believe in, which is precisely where Traximus finds himself in this episode.
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