Things Can Be Reversed: “Return to the Underground”

“Him and his big ideas.  ‘C’mon guys, let’s go down to the underground city! We’ll have some laughs!’ WE’LL GET EATEN!”— Michelangelo

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Written by: Marty Isenberg

Original Air Date: March 6, 2004

Teaser Narrator: Donatello

Characters and Concepts Introduced: Turtle Tunneler

Gargoyles episode I could make a very forced comparison to: N/A

The Beats:

  •  Donatello has been spending the last few nights at his lab, unsuccessfully attempting to use the crystals from the underground city to divine a permanent cure for Quarry and the other people turned into mutants by the Foot Clan.  However, it is not until Quarry gives him the answer in a dream–a crystal dream, like the one Michelangelo had that showed him the underground city before he’d ever seen it–that he realizes that the solution lies in using a specific sound frequency to liquefy the crystal, allowing it to be injected into one’s bloodstream.
  • Using Donatello’s latest invention, the Turtle Tunneler–a mobile drill not unlike the one used by the baddies in the first animated series–the turtles approach the underground city, only to find that not only is the cavern’s crystal moon missing, its absence means that their friends have reverted to their berserk mutant forms.  Worse still, some of the now-mutant-agains take it upon themselves to attack the tunneler, eventually throwing the vehicle into the lava.
  • Fortunately, it turns out that the Turtle Tunneler is both lava-resistant and amphibious.
  • The turtles arrive to the underground city proper and exit the Tunneler.  As they walk through the city, noting a surprising lack of crystals, they run into the Entity, still stuck in crystal hibernation where they’d left hir last time. A door into an adjacent chamber opens, and the turtles find what appear to be other members of the Entity’s species, also in crystal hibernation, which appears to contradict the story they’d been told about the Entity being the last of their kind.
  • While the turtles ponder this new information, Quarry attacks!  Fortunately, Donatello manages to inject her with his one sample of the cure, reverting her back to her human form.
  • Quarry–or rather, Sydney, her actual name–explains the situation to the turtles.  Her friends, attempting to make their cure permanent, ended up using up all of the crystals in the underground city.  In an attempt to obtain more, they attempted to dislodge part of the crystal moon with explosives found in the city, but ended up making the entire thing fall into the lava, disrupting its healing energies.
  • The turtles and Quarry come up with a plan to recover the crystal moon.  It involves Donatello and Sydney using Turtle Tunneler to dive into the lava and tie a (also-lava resistant) rope around the crystal moon, and use a variation of a block and tackle to lift the moon, with the weight of a collapsing tower, downed with the same explosives that initially brought down the crystal moon doing the heavy lifting.
  • The plan is set into motion. Despite resistance from the mutants and cutting it really close with the rope, the turtles manage to raise the crystal moon.  Once it is out of the lava, its energies once again return the mutants to their human forms.
  • Donatello uses the new supply of crystals to create healing serums for all the mutants.  Afterwards, they all travel back into the surface, where the now-former mutants are able, for the first time in years, to once again see the sky.

Continuity and Mythology Notes:

  • This episode deals with characters and situations first introduced in season 1’s “Notes from the Underground” three-parter.

“Notes from the Underground” was easily the biggest and most important of the original concepts–read: those not based on previously existing comic book stories–introduced by the show in season 1, so it comes as no surprise to see it being revisited in season 2.  Unlike the original Nano and Garbageman stories, which were largely self-contained, “Notes” had a very specific sequel hook–the humans mutated by the Foot and cured by the dweller of the underground city could only remain cured in the underground city–so it is also not surprising to see a sequel episode deal specifically with that, as Donatello finds a way to make the cure permanent.    While his eventual success isn’t terribly surprising given the way the episode is drafted, it is also very telling, and says quite a bit about the sort of series this Ninja Turtles is. TMNT is, specifically, a series where change can be reversed.

Consider Gargoyles and its own group of mutated humans—Talon, Maggie, Fang, and Claw, last revisited in this blog in “Kingdom”.  Although Talon and Maggie spend their first few stories attempting to return to their former state, it’s clear that the series is not at all interested in reversing their and the other mutants’ mutations, and is instead interested in how they deal with their new lives. Their story—and Gargoyles as a series—is largely about the impossibility of hitting reverse,  and about dealing with the cards you have been dealt with an eye towards the future.

This version of TMNT, however, is one where things like mutation is reversible and almost always reversed.  Baxter Stockman, we’re told, eventually gets his body back, even though it takes him a hundred years.  Donatello, not unexpectedly, is restored back to his “normal” self after he undergoes a second mutation.  We don’t know what would have happened to Hun after he is turned into an adult mutant ninja turtle in Turtles Forever, but Peter Laird, at least, appeared to expect him to eventually return to normal had the series continued in some manner.

In fact, a lot of things are reversible in the show: while there’s a lot significant change within the series, little of it seems to alter the core status quo of four mutant turtles living with their mutant dad rat, who by the end of Turtles Forever are essentially the same characters they were in the first episode.  Michelangelo kills an alternate version of his father without blinking.  Donatello sees alternate versions of his family die, and continues the rest of the series with no visible trauma.  Leonardo deals with PTSD after he chooses to sacrifice his entire family to save the universe, but visible signs of it go away as soon as he spends some months with a Wise Martial Arts teacher.

This rubber band approach to writing and characterization marks one of the greater points of divergence between the cartoon and the comic books it sought to emulate, which was often marked by constant, drastic, and permanent change–the Shredder’s deaths, the birth and life of Shadow Jones, the turtles’ development into adults, etc. It is also, I feel, the reason why the show lost its way in latter seasons, especially in season 7, where the status quo of various characters and groups seemed to have little relation to where they’d been when last we’d seen them, making what little change we had seen feel irrelevant.

And yet, this isn’t exactly surprising, as the Mirage TMNT was always an outlier anyway. TMNT the cartoon was merely following the standard set by decades of comic books and animated television, which are all about easily-reversed change and a commitment to a certain level of stasis, which characters being forced to remain the same way they were when they were first created, and untied to any particular time period. Something like Back to the Sewer fits right in with this—even its title is all about looking back.

Frankly, I’ve never gotten the appeal of this approach, for something that isn’t a comedy like The Simpsons or Calvin and Hobbes. I get that there are arguments that can be made for it—even though many are based on plain old ageism (old heroes aren’t appealing), misogyny (can’t have our women be “unsexy”), fear (adulthood is terrifying and uninteresting), and laziness (research about time periods that aren’t our own, ugh!)—but to me, its rewards are paltry compared to what writers give up in order to make the approach work.

Consider a character like Spider-Man’s Aunt May. Assuming she starts out being 60 (never mind that she never looked a day below eighty) when Spider-Man was first created in 1962, this would mean she was born in 1902, and lived through Prohibition, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, two world wars, and would now be there for all the changes of the sixties. Think about how many stories you could write using that background. Think about all the changes she must have seen, and how they could have shaped her.

Consider, then, Aunt May in 2015, who is meant to be the same character. If we assume she started out being 60, that means she would be around 75 in the comic book’s present day. Thanks to the sliding timeline, she was now born in 1940, was a toddler during the tail end of World War 2, a teenager during the fifties, and in her twenties during the sixties. While potentially just as interesting as the May Parker who was born 1902, it is impossible for them to be the same character.

And yet the nuances inherent in either version of the character are unlikely to make it onto the page. Thanks to comic books being what they are, details that date a character tend to be, if not verboten, frowned upon, and that not only takes away a lot of a character’s weight, but also a bunch of potential story ideas. Comic book Aunt May never gets to be a specific woman, with specific experiences, but rather, a generic sixty-something with no defining life experiences or history, and while it’s not impossible to use her to tell poignant stories, it’s much harder to do so—think of Mad Men, if it had to be set in a vague, ever-shifting present, rather than 1960-1970, and how one could possibly replicate everything that made it good under those circumstances.

What’s more, it’s always seemed to me that in this lack of definition actually makes writing harder.   I’m reminded in particular of stories like The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, which tracks the billionaire’s life through the last third of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th; as creator Don Rosa explains, a huge part of the creative process often involved studying history, and what interesting things were going at the time each chapter was set, and then shape the story around those. What’s more, Scrooge’s aging gives the story a natural sense of progression, allowing him and other characters to change significantly without having to invoke a million Nothing Will Ever Be the Same events.

Meanwhile, I’m hard-pressed to recall just what has been accomplished by mainstream comics’ insistence in keeping their main characters eternally in their twenties / thirties. It’s not like telling stories of a fifty-year old character makes it impossible to ever again tell stories of them when they were twenty.

Thus, if there’s one thing I can’t help but love Gargoyles, even as its problems become more glaring with time, is its self of permanence and dynamism. I like that the characters don’t end up where they started, and that the world by the time “Clan-Building” ends is very different from the world in “Awakening”. The part of me that loves timelines—a large part, because, guys, I fucking love timelines—loves that things happen in specific times. And as much as I love TMNT, I really wish it had done more of that sort of thing. Sure, we got things like Casey and April’s relationship, which does change and evolve in consistent and permanent ways all the way through and culminates with their wedding, but that feels like an outlier. I don’t think we would have ever gotten Shadow Jones, if the series had continued.

That said, let’s go back to mutates and mutants–specifically, mutates and mutants that started out as humans before growing, fur, wings, a more perfect penis, etc. Like I said, the genre convention for works like Gargoyles is for mutants to stay mutants (the same applies to cyborgs) which can be a pretty dark fate, or even the darkest possible fate, particularly if death isn’t a factor. In cases when it occurs without the person’s consent—which is most of them—it can evoke a whole host of fates and / or bring about a whole bunch of undesirable consequences: it’s an often-physically (and sometimes mentally) disabling bodily violation which strips away victims’ identities, and forces them to live isolated from society what can often feel like the wrong body.

And yet, mutation is rarely shown being as traumatic as that last paragraph suggests.  After the initial shock of the transformation passes through, mutated humans tend to acclimatize themselves to their new bodies, sometimes with incredible quickness.  Any subsequent angst tends to be muted, so that it doesn’t get in the way of the character’s role as a player in an action story.  When someone’s response to being mutated is to commit suicide—as happens with Tasha in the Gargoyles: Bad Guys comic book—it’s shocking in large part because it’s deviates so wildly not the familiar narrative.   And yet, given everything that mutation involves, it perhaps shouldn’t be.

Now, there isn’t any problem with mutated humans who don’t see their mutations as a big deal; the world is plenty large enough for characters like Bebop and Rocksteady. However, a world that’s big enough to include characters who come to accept their mutations should also be big enough to include characters who never do, and the fact that it very often isn’t bugs. Heck, even Gargoyles’ Maggie, who in “The Cage” was willing to risk dying for the possibility of being human again—note that her human life, by all accounts, sucked—gets absolutely no focus on her issues after that episode. Given how fertile dramatic soil these issues actually provide, and how and how they allow several marginalized peoples to see themselves represented, for once (albeit only allegorically, in some cases), the fact that they’re not focused on all that much is, at the very least, one hell of a missed opportunity. What’s more, at some point, imbalances in the ratio of people who accept their mutation vs. people who don’t, as well as the way people in the latter group tend to be positioned as antagonists, make the acceptance seem less like The Way Some People React, and more like The Way People Should React. And that’s a problem.

I want mutants who can’t accept their mutations and develop anxiety or depression, and whose oppression renders them incapable of functioning in ways popularly considered normal. I want mutants who are forced to spend all their time and energy in order to function on what is essentially life support. I want mutant support groups. I also want mutants who don’t accept their mutations because they’re too angry—angry at the people who mutated them, angry at not being able to resume their normal lives, angry at not being able to return to their old status quo. I want mutants who use their anger in order to be able to deal, and I want mutants who use their anger as the fuel that drives them to perform acts of tactical genius as they attempt to return to their original bodies, or to gain whatever measure of justice is possible.  I want a multiplicity of reactions to the fact that life has changed irrevocably, rather than just business as usual.

Hence, why I appreciate this particular arc and these particular characters (and also the larger Baxter Stockman arc, which works in very much the same way). I like that these are characters who don’t accept their mutations—granted, in large part because it also involves losing higher brain functions—to the point of choosing to remain imprisoned in an underground city, alone and cut off from the world.  I like that even then, they’re doing whatever they could to find a permanent cure. I like that they manage to get their revenge on the people who mutated them, and aren’t treated like bad guys for it. And heck, they win!  They eventually get to return to their human forms on a seemingly permanent, side-effect free basis, which makes them more fortunate than most.  The execution is kind of middling–Sydney, is the only mutant we get to know, and even then, she’s largely a cypher–but as is, the story is worthwhile for the sheer novelty of it.

Still, though, I would have liked to have seen the former mutants revisited, to see how they’ve done in their attempts to return to their normal lives.   I wanted to get to meet Sydney as a human, and how her experiences underground changed her. It’s important, because recovery isn’t regression; even if she has her body back, that doesn’t make her the same person she was.

Random Thoughts:

  • While the amount of episodes between “Notes From the Underground” and “Return to the Underground would seem to belie the notion that Donatello has made developing a cure for Sydney and company a priority, it’s worth noting that “Notes” began an arc that took the turtles away from the lair for months, and which ended with the turtles losing Splinter.   That said, we’ve also seen Donatello work on non-crystal related stuff in the past few episodes, which suggests that helping Sydney was not his only priority, and that he’s not the sort of person who can put all his effort into a single project without burning out.
  • Donatello creates a whole bunch of stuff this episode, and a lot of it feels largely contrived.  While it makes sense that Donatello would create a bunch of stuff to make their trips underground less of a hassle, the level of technology involved feels far beyond what he should be able to pull off, leftover Utrom tech or no leftover Utrom tech.  After the show established a precedent with the Battle Shell, it just feels wrong to have Donatello create something from scratch.
  • Similarly, those utility packs the turtles use in this episode baffle me.  On one level, they feel as if they were included with action figures in mind.  On the other hand, they’re nowhere near distinctive enough to actually be useful as action figure source material.  What’s more, like the Turtle Tunneler, several of its aspects seem beyond Donatello’s means; how the heck did he manage to equip them with stun lasers?
  • Personal Headcanon: Sydney eventually ended up working for Agent Bishop in some capacity.
  • The fact that Donatello’s serum goes through absolutely no testing makes my inner scientist want to curl up in a fetal position and die.
  • This episode isn’t anything special, but I have to say I do like that its major obstacle is one solved by improvising simple machinery.  It’s not really something you see a whole lot of, in this genre.
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3 Responses to Things Can Be Reversed: “Return to the Underground”

  1. Chimalpahin says:

    I wrote a lengthy comment but the site couldn’t publish it 😦

    Basically I would also have liked to see more of Sidney. Was this before or after the Triceraton arc? I would have loved to revisit her then. It would give the invasion a bit more weight and just be nice to see her again. Heck why not have Donnie check up on them every once in a while and make sure the cure is actually permanent? They were far too sure of themselves.

  2. Ian says:

    I have no idea why your post wouldn’t have posted. Sorry to hear about it. : (

    This is before the Triceraton arc. I’m not sure there’s space in that arc to showcase her on top of everything else the arc showcased, but it would have been nice to see her in the aftermath. It’s just…the writers could have really done anything with her and it’d be somewhat believable; that they didn’t try anything feels off.

  3. Chimalpahin says:

    Weird :(. Actually you’re right, it’s kind of bugging me now. Why didn’t they bring her back? Wouldn’t it be great to have another female character? After watching the 2012 Turtles, women in general are sorely lacking in a way I don’t think they were before. ’12 Irma and April’s mom in particular bug me.

    Well this is a bit off tangent but since you were talking about reversibility, have you heard of a game called Undertale? I highly recommend it. It’s an RPG where you can fight monsters or Befriend them instead. You can go thru the game without killing a single person! And the game remembers your actions, one of the few that goes out of its way to make you feel consequences have things feel irreversible, unless you go way out of your way to hack the game. Check it out man
    http://boingboing.net/2015/09/24/undertale-game.html

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