Leatherhead! “What a Croc”

“If I do not have the Transmat…if I cannot be with the Utroms, then life is meaningless.”–Leatherhead vlcsnap-2015-01-19-12h48m43s70 Written by: Ben Townsend Original Air Date: February 28, 2004 Teaser Narrator: Michelangelo Characters and Concepts Introduced: Leatherhead (Proper Introduction) Gargoyles episode I could make a very forced comparison to: “The Cage” The Beats:

  • Michalengelo, who has apparently been sleeping in Raph’s room during April’s stay in the lair, is unable to sleep, thanks to Raph’s snoring.  He makes his way to his room, where April is packing up her belongings in order to move out of the lair.
  • After talking with April, Michelangelo heads to the living room, where Leonardo and Splinter are watching a news report on the growing gang violence.  He then makes his way towards Donatello, who’s welding pieces together as part of his ongoing “tunnel-to-the-river” project.  Donatello recruits his brother to the task, and asks Michelangelo to swim through the already-dug segments and add additional support piping to help prevent it from collapsing.
  • As he swims through the tunnels, Michelangelo spots a large crocodile with uncanny features doing the same.  Scared, Mikey hides and watches as the crocodile swims towards the opening leading to the lair, spots the tubing supplying the ninja turtle with air, and bites it in two before heading back towards the turtle.
  • Back at the lair, Donatello notices the disturbance and activates the emergency retrieval system, which pulls Michelangelo back to safety.
  • Michelangelo tells his brothers about what he saw, but is less than successful at convincing them, particularly Donatello and Raphael.  Frustrated, Michelangelo vows to prove that the crocodile was real.
  • Equipped with a combination SCUBA tank / camera / radio supplied by Donatello, Michelangelo returns to the tunnels.  Soon, he spots the crocodile, who carries a piece of electronic equipment in its mouth. Michelangelo follows him back to the turtles’ old lair, where the crocodile, after putting on a lab coat and glasses, begins speaking quite eruditely to an unseen and silent third party, while at the same time doing some sort of repair work on what Michelangelo identifies as an Utrom exoskeleton.
  • As Michelangelo reports these findings to his brothers, the feedback from the communication alerts the crocodile to the turtle’s presence.
  • Michelangelo makes his escape, with the crocodile gives chase.  Using his knowledge of the surroundings, the ninja turtle finds a tunnel which allows him to swim to safety.
  • …or not.  The crocodile arrives and attacks, destroying Donatello’s device in the process.  It is not until Michelangelo explains that he means no harm that it actually stops and apologizes.
  • The other turtles, who had received Michelangelo’s location without losing contact with him, arrive on the scene.  They provoke the crocodile into a rage, and the various reptiles fight until Michelangelo steps in and apologizes for his brothers and calls for a truce, which the crocodile accepts.
  • The crocodile introduces himself as Leatherhead, and leads them back to his lair.  There, Donatello spots what appears to be a transmat device, which leads both parties to share their experiences with the Utroms.  Leatherhead, it turns out, was found by the Utroms during his unmutated state and accepted as a pet.   An accidental ooze spill caused him to mutate, and since then, the Utroms came to treat him as one of their own.  All was good until the invasion of the T.C.R.I. building, whereupon Leatherhead became separated from his family and left on Earth.  Now, he seeks to complete the transmat so that he may return to the Utroms.
  • Leatherhead’s partner arrive, and stands revealed as Baxter Stockman, who has procured an Utrom exoskeleton to uses as a prosthesis, with his head located inside its chest cavity.
  • Baxter tells Leatherhead that the turtles are the people he’s been warning him about–the ones who were responsible for the destruction of T.C.R.I.  He then unleashes something the two engineers had apparently been working on for just such an occasion:  a turtle-shaped robot with the ability to almost instantaneously scan opponents, create profiles of their fighting styles, and developing countermeasures against them.
  • After initially having trouble facing not!Metalhead, the brothers eventually pull ahead by switching their weapons and therefore their fighting styles. Before it can occur to the turtle-bot to scan the turtles again, it is defeated and destroyed.
  • His creation a failure, Baxter decides to take matters into his own hands.  Using the exosuit’s enhanced strength to his advantage, he makes short work of the turtles.  As he performs his smackdown, he offhandedly mentions how he used to work for the Shredder.
  • Mistake.
  • Upon hearing the name of the Utrom’s archenemy, Leatherhead turns against Stockman.  Stockman manages to escape the crocodile’s grasp, however, and after throwing an explosive canister at his enemies, he makes his escape.
  • The lair, whose structural integrity is compromised by the explosion, begins to collapse.  Leatherhead uses his strength to hold on to the roof and allow the turtles the opportunity to escape.  Michelangelo urges Leatherhead to escape with them, but the crocodile refuses; the transmat will be lost with the lair, and without it–without the opportunity to return to the Utroms–there’s no reason for him to keep on living.  The roof falls upon him.
  • Upon the loss of their friend, the turtles reflect on what it must mean to be as alone as Leatherhead felt, and how lucky they are to have each other.

Continuity and Mythology Notes:

  • This episode takes elements from “Leatherhead” (Tales of the TMNT (Vol. 1) #7)  and “Leatherhead Too” (TMNT (Vol. 1) #44) .
  • The turtles were forced to abandon their first lair in “Things Change”, the first episode of the series.
  • We first saw Leatherhead’s in silhouette in “Return to New York” Part 3, the last episode where we saw T.C.R.I. and the Utrom.
  • Baxter Stockman was last seen in “Return to New York” Part 3, where he and his armor were blown up by Donatello.
  • The Turtlebot was originally seen in the first  Konami TMNT (2003) videogame.

TMNT is still marking time until “City at War”, giving this bunch of episodes a leisurely, even lazy sort of pace.  While Leatherhead is an important canon character, his debut episode still feels more casual than significant.  A lot of time is spent with the turtles relaxing in their lair, and while this harms the episode to a significant degree–Leatherhead’s sacrifice has little weight, as the time that could have been spent making it resonate is instead spent elsewhere–it means that we are once again shown that the turtles’ lives aren’t all about facing enemies, and that the normal bits are just as important as the dramatic bits.  Still, while this is a slower episode, it doesn’t mean it isn’t important. There’s Leatherhead, of course, but there’s also a sense that this episode is a turning point in the series as an ongoing adaptation of the original Mirage stories.

At this point in the cartoon, Lloyd Goldfine and the other creators, when not focusing on original stories and characters, have been adapting stories and characters drawn from a rather limited pool–specifically, stories and characters appearing in the main TMNT book or the micro-series one-shots, and were created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.  With one exception–“The King”, Peter Laird’s favorite TMNT story–all of the stories adapted so far have been capital-I Important–they immediately advanced the larger story in some way or another. And so, in the first 1 1/3 season, we’ve already adapted most of the weightier stories in the Mirage TMNT canon, and only two stories that fit that bill remain: “Shades of Grey”, which doesn’t translate at all to children’s television, and the looming “City at War”.

Still, “all the big” stories is by no means equivalent to “all the stories”.  There are still a large number of TMNT stories the show has yet to adapt, and this episode marks the point where the writers begin to shift their focus to those stories.  From here on, adaptations of the smaller, less well-known TMNT stories will become more common, giving more obscure Mirage characters like Nobody, Renet, and the Justice Force a chance to shine outside the page.

Unlike the Turtles, Shredder, Baxter Stockman, or any of the other comic book characters appearing on the show so far, Leatherhead did not debut in Volume 1 of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but rather the first volume of Tales of the TMNT, a book that was briefly being published at the same time, with stories sometimes by Eastman and Laird and sometimes not, and most of which,  at the time, could have accurately been considered “filler”Unlike the Mirage characters seen so far in the cartoon, Leatherhead was not created by Eastman or Laird, but by Ryan Brown, who at the time mostly worked for Mirage as an inker.  Along with the Rat King, he was one of the few characters from that run to gain overwhelming exposure in other incarnations, usually in versions which bore only superficial similarities to the original. Here, however, we’re back to the original concept: a crocodile taken in by the Utrom and accidentally mutated, making him a cousin of sorts to the turtles (and, for those playing the Gargoyles / TMNT comparison game, a loose analogue to Talon and the mutates).

What we don’t get, strangely enough, is an adaptation of his original debut story–at least not yet. While similarities exist between “What a Croc” and “Leatherhead” the former is not an adaptation of the latter–we’ll won’t get to that until season 3–which is something of a departure for the 4Kids series, which prefers to adapt Mirage stories when it can.

In the Mirage continuity, Leatherhead is the only character aside from the Turtles and Splinter to be mutated by the Utrom ooze. While he’s far from the only other sentient non-human the turtles will encounter, he’s singular in a way that he isn’t in other incarnations, where he’s one among a million other mutants.  Here, however, he’s back to being one of a kind, more or less,  and I’m glad, because it shows that the writers get it: they understand that while there’s nothing especially wrong with mutants, there’s not much inherently right about them either, and so very little is gained by just adding them to a series nilly-willy. Sure, having lots of mutants is useful when you have to sell lots toys; get a good artist to design them, good animators / sculptors to bring them to live, and you don’t have to do much else.  However, when it comes to telling a story, they aren’t necessarily assets or viable characters.  They still need to be backed by good writing and character development, and the best concept or design in the world won’t make up for their absence.

Take Leatherhead himself.  He’s a mutant crocodile / sometimes alligator, and that is by far the least interesting thing about him. It’s not an accident, I think, that his comic book debut spends most of his panel time on exposition. This cartoon also extrapolates from his comic book behavior a tendency towards berserker rages, but that’s mostly under-explored and under-developed. Far more interesting is Leatherhead’s relationship with the Utroms, as it’s something that better resonates with the shows theme of constructed families.  Leatherhead doesn’t fit into the turtles’ universe because he is a mutant who knew the Utroms; he fits into the turtle’s universe because he is the turtles, if the turtles had lost everyone and been left alone, and that’s something very much worth exploring. To their credit, the writers seem to understand that so a certain degree, as they make it a point to mention those parallels.  Unfortunately, the episode isn’t at all structured to take advantage of it; with the episode’s point of view spent mostly away from Leatherhead, there’s not enough time or space to really dig deep into the character or the implications his story has on the turtles.   Still, the writers understand that viewers need more than huge honking talking crocodile, and attempt to deliver.

Something the episode does do really well, however, is use the world the showrunners have established  in a way that feels both expansive and natural.   While “What a Croc”‘s plot very much relies on the relationship between the Utroms and the Shredder, and between the Shredder and Baxter Stockman, it nevertheless manages to stand alone as its own independent story. More recent incarnations of the turtles can sometimes evoke small ponds overrun by too-large fish in its attempts to tie everything and everyone together–there’s no space to do much of anything, including breathing; here, the use of the characters here feels expansive–it makes the turtles’ world seem bigger–both because the combination of players doesn’t seem obvious, and because the players aren’t confined to being part of the turtles’ / the Shredder’s stories: they’re  independent agents whose stories happen to sometimes intersect with the larger story.  Everything’s connected, but not everything is connected to the same degree, and that makes all the difference.

In the end, “What a Croc” is one of those episodes that fall just short of being something special, and is instead just slightly better than okay.  The actual plot is nothing special, but the little things are just enough to make it worth watching.

Random Thoughts:

  • One of the things I really like about this incarnation of the turtles, particularly when compared about the franchise’s other two incarnations, is just how competent they are.  The turtle-bot, who in the newer cartoon would likely take an entire episode to defeat, is dispatched here with very little muss or fuss in a way that is very satisfying.
  • On that note, the turtles’ fight with the turtle bot remains one of my favorite set pieces in the show.  Short but very, very satisfying.
  • The turtles’ sleep patterns are not something the series often focuses on, and what we’re shown here does not do a whole lot to clarify.  We have no idea what time the events of this episode occur in, but apparently it’s a time when they turtles are normally asleep, except for the fact that they aren’t.  Is it day?  Is it night?  No clue.
  • TMNT voice actors sometimes pop out in the weirdest of places.  F.B. Owens, Leatherhead’s voice actor, also played Caiaphas in the 2001 version of Jesus Christ Superstar, which raised some eyebrows when I first saw the credits for the DVD version.

4 Responses to Leatherhead! “What a Croc”

  1. Chimalli says:

    Another great commentary friend! Still thoroughly enjoying the site. I’ve not been keeping up with the new show, the casual sexism is just too much, my younger sister does watch it and I sometimes join her. The amount of mutants in the new show is getting to pokemon levels of ridiculousness! While that new Leatherhead is fine, this one is still my favorite.

  2. Chimalli says:

    Another great commentary friend! Still thoroughly enjoying the site. I’ve not been keeping up with the new show, the casual sexism is just too much, my younger sister does watch it and I sometimes join her. The amount of mutants in the new show is getting to pokemon levels of ridiculousness! While that new Leatherhead is fine, this one is still my favorite.

    *please delete the earlier one, sorry*

  3. Pingback: Mount Everest: “City at War” Part One | Monsters of New York

  4. Pingback: Landfill(er): “Junklantis” | Monsters of New York

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