Mount Everest: “City at War” Part One

“I don’t understand, Sensei. We set out to do something good; it turned out bad. But the truth is, we started it; how can we just walk away?” Leonardo

City at War 1

Written by: Eric Luke

Original Air Date: March 13, 2004

Teaser Narrator: Leonardo

Characters and Concepts Introduced: Karai, Karai’s Retainers

Gargoyles episodes I could make comparisons to: “Avalon”, “Turf”

The Beats:

  • Leonardo and Raphael are horsing around on the Manhattan rooftops like some kind of turtles when they spot a deal going down between several Foot Ninja–led by a member of the Shredder’s Elite–and members of the mob last seen in “Lone Raph and Cub”.  The deal goes bad, resulting in violence; Leonardo wants to interfere, but Raphael holds him back, arguing that it’s not their fight, and that nothing of value is lost if a few criminals kill each other.  Eventually, the police interfere, scattering the criminals and making the turtles’ arguments moot.
  • Elsewhere, a young female Foot Clan member, Karai, finishes her martial arts exercises when she is informed of the situtation in New York. She declares to her retainers that it is time for her to do something about it.
  • After building up his frustration by watching news reports of the gang violence, Leonardo turns to training, attempting to do a specific move where after being all spinny-twirly, he stops the spin at a specific point and stabs a specific target.   It’s not working out, and it’s making him visibly frustrated.  Splinter asks him what the deal is in order to help him out, and Leonardo explains: he feels responsible for the gang violence due to his role in the Shredder’s death (the show is kind of ignoring “Secret Origins” here), and believe he and the rest of the turtles now have a duty to stop it.  While Michelangelo  kind of agrees with his brother and Donatello is agnostic on the issue, both Splinter and Raphael disagree: Splinter because he feels that taking on the city’s problems is folly, and Raph because he feels it’s just not their concern.  His frustration not assuaged, Leonardo leaves.
  • Leo is out in the city when he spots several Foot Ninja doing the roof-hopping thing.  He follows them to a building near the docs, where he sees a member of the Foot Elite exiting said building and the Foot Ninja locking it from the outside. Inside, he finds several beaten but living mobsters, as well as a ticking time bomb.  After carrying the mobsters outside, Leo attempts to deactivate the explosive and fail, causing him to beat feat so as not to get flambeed.  He succeeds.
  • At the lair, Michelangelo gives Donatello a crash course on the specifics of the gang war, using toys.  It’s adorable.
  • Elsewhere the various mob leaders are complaining about how poorly they’re doing in the war when Boss–the boxer from “Lone Raph and Cub”–enters and tells them that they needn’t worry: with their new ally–whom he hates–and his tech, they can’t lose.
  • Leo follows the Foot Ninja to a half-building that apparently serves as their base–it’s not explicitly stated, but there’s enough clues to suggest that it’s the building where Leo and Shredder first met, which was of course wrecked back in “The Shredder Strikes” Part Two.   Leo is about to fight the Foot Ninja when he is stopped by his brothers, who tell him that his was a really bad idea.  The conversation is by no means a private one, as the turtles are easily spotted.
  • The turtles fight the Foot (The Foot Elite are weirdly absent), and are eventually worn down by sheer numbers.  Just when defeat seems imminent, a new party enters the fray: a warbot sent by the mob and created by their ally, the one and only Baxter Stockman.
  • The turtles and the Foot join forces to take on this more formidable foe, and in the end, it Leo who does the most damage, successfully doing the spinny-twirly thing and stabbing the robot’s sensors, causing it to shoot blind.
  • Seeing that the tide has turned, Baxter activates Plan B, and blows up various explosives set up inside the building.  As the stone and rubble fall around them, Raph sarcastically tells Leo that he hopes he’s happy with the choices he’s made.

Continuity and Mythology Notes:

—-

For fans of original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book, “City at War”, which ran for thirteen issues and featured the return of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird to creative duties (*1) has attained a downright legendary status.  By far the most ambitious and introspective story the book had ever attempted, it permanently changed the Mirage comic and its dynamics, and is consistently considered one of the best TMNT stories ever.

The original story featured five different sub-arcs, each focusing on a different set of characters.  The actual “City at War” part focuses on the violence that arose in New York City in the wake of the Shredder’s death and features the turtles as they deal with the civil war within the New York Foot’s divided and warring ranks.  Splinter, meanwhile, is injured and trapped in an abandoned factory, with the Rat King as his only companion.  April decides to leave Northampton for Los Angeles to make new life for herself with her sister Robyn, and Casey follows: while April actually makes it to the West Coast and has to deal with the ensuing culture shock, Casey’s journey ends in Colorado, where he meets his future wife, Gabrielle, who is pregnant with their eventual child, Shadow.     Finally, we have the story of Nathaniel Buscheyev, an immigrant from an unspecified former Soviet state, who is severely injured by a Foot Clan bomb placed below his apartment and is forced to convalesce at a hospital.  The stories interconnect only at the margins; until the last issue, TMNT is essentially four different books (*2), united only by common themes.

“City at War” is largely a story about finding purpose, and reexamining one’s core beliefs to adapt to rapidly shifting circumstances.  The turtles return to New York and find that purpose is not something that comes easily to them; while Splinter’s teachings about honor would have them become involved in the conflict between the various branches of the New York Foot, Leonardo in particular isn’t sure his is a philosophy worth pursuing.   A dying Splinter is forced to overcome his beliefs and kill rats for food; Donatello, despite his hatred of guns, chooses to use one to kill a member of the Foot Elite.  April, dissatisfied with her life with the turtles, escapes to the West Coast and finds that the change in scenery doesn’t help at all.  Casey Jones, on the other hand, is perfectly happy with his new life with Gabrielle, until her death causes him to return to New York to live with his mother. It is also a series that brings about a lot of permanent changes. Casey is a dad now. He and April get together, and remain so for some fifteen years of comic-book time. Karai loses her daughter and takes permanent control of the New York Foot, on paper, at least (in reality, her control is threatened every other Tuesday). The turtles’ / Foot feud is resolved, again, sometimes only on paper (the Foot will still attack the turtles for a lot of non-Shredder reasons) but again permanently. It very much feels like an ending, because it is: the first volume of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ends with the finale of “City at War”, and with it, the era of substantive creative collaboration between Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Laird would not return to regular creative duties with this version of the characters until 2001; Eastman never does.

All of this makes “City at War” an incredibly uneasy fit for Saturday morning animation. While 4Kids has thus far been largely successful in translating Mirage stories, that’s largely because the stories it’s adapted so far tend to be far more action-focused and superficial than this. That the series passed on adapting issue #11 of the original series, despite it being one of the standout issues of the original Eastman and Laird run, says all that needs to be said about the show’s priorities vs. the comics’, and how uncomfortable the former was with introspection (*3). And then there’s the logistics of the thing. For one, spending thirteen episodes—half a season—on a single arc is a good way to frustrate viewers—see “World Tour, Gargoyles”, which at least had the benefit of not spending every episode on the same place. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that despite the similarities between comic book and cartoon narratives, none of the characters in the TV series are in the same places they were in the book by the time its take on “City at War” begins, and are in some places headed in the exact opposite direction as in the source material.

Actually, let’s go further: “City at War” the comic book story exists in inherent opposition to everything the cartoon is about.

One very important thing to know about “City at War” is that it’s the arc that gives TMNT a direction, after two years of aimlessness.  After “Return to New York”, Eastman and Laird turned creative duties to a series of creators, who basically put out whatever they wanted, continuity be damned. Creatively interesting, to be sure, but it’s the sort of thing that tends to dilute the brand, since for two years, the book wasn’t about anything. Even when guest creators were phased out in favor of Mirage staffers, the series was still largely about random adventures, with little in the way of character development or evolution. When the characters are all directionless at the beginning of “City at War”, it’s not because that was the intentional and natural result of years of storytelling; rather, they were directionless because they’d done nothing that mattered for two years; they’d just returned to Northampton to dick around until Eastman and Laird were ready to write them again.

It’s kind of perfect, in its own way.

On the other hand, if there’s one thing you can say about the 2003 cartoon, particularly during its first five seasons, its that it was never lacking in direction. Everything had a purpose, and the individual stories largely existed to advance a larger tale. Even the stories between “Secret Origins” and “City at War”, which were largely independent from one another, all served to advance or set up specific stories—“The Ultimate Ninja” set up the finale, “Modern Love” got April out of the lair and set the April / Casey ship in motion, “What a Croc” told us where Baxter Stockman was in advance of future stories”, and “Return to the Underground” tied up a dangling plot thread. Like those stories its version of “City at War” another step in the show’s larger story, and therefore is not and could never be what the original story was in the original book.

Consider, additionally, where every character currently is in the show. After “Modern Love”, April O’Neil has decided to rebuild her store and is in the process of doing so; at the same time, she is also exploring the possibility of dating Casey—precisely the opposite of her starting position in the book. Ditto for Casey, who in addition to his changing relationship with April still has his vigilantism (he’d abandoned it in the comic book after unintentionally killing an attacker). The turtles remained in New York after their return and are doing what they’ve always done; they have no qualms about Splinter’s teachings, because Splinter did not raise them to be assassins in this continuity and in fact discouraged their involvement with the Foot. Splinter is conceivably in a position for his “City at War” arc, except the Rat King doesn’t exist in this continuity yet. The show would have to do several 180° turns in order to be in a position to do a book-accurate version of “City at War”.

And then there’s the violence issue.

Western Animation has consistently had problems depicting gang wars. It’s a concept that implies a certain amount of inherent violence, violence that tends to be several levels beyond what the medium can depict and which resists sanitization. A gang war done in the style of “City at War”, in particular, is especially tough to translate, because it’s all about the action and the violence; while it’s nowhere near Berserk-levels of gory, there’s still a certain weight to it; it acknowledges that people are likely going to die when you have robots and ninjas and policemen shooting it out on the thoroughfare, which is something the cartoon cannot at all admit. The final set piece, in particular, features the turtles and Karai taking on and killing the last of the Foot Elite, something the show might have been able to depict in season 4, but not in season 2, when we still have to show downed people moaning so we know there’s absolutely no chance of them being dead.

In short, there’s a million reasons why attempting to adapt the story to a Saturday Morning Cartoon was a terrible idea. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to realize that doing so in a way that did the original “City at War” justice would be almost incredibly difficult.Why do it at all?

Well, there are several reasons, mostly involving Karai and the fact that “gang war for control of the Shredder’s empire” is the natural next step for the story to take after “Return to New York” / “Secret Origins” took him out of the board. But really, in the end, “City at War” got adapted because it’s there. One of the goals of the series was to adapt the original Mirage comics and present them to an audience that had never heard of them; you can’t do that without adapting, the biggest and arguably best one of them all.  You just can’t.

There’s also this: “very hard” is not “impossible”; there are ways of making the story work even with the constraints imposed by Saturday Morning Cartoons standards and practices. Given the production team’s record—which was largely very good—there was a reasonable chance of success. Not a good chance, necessarily, but good enough to make the risk seem worthwhile. And so there the creators set out, ready to take on their biggest challenge so far. Did they succeed?

*Snort*. No. LOL.

To be fair, though, there are moments that come close. Also, there are moments that I feel don’t work because they were attempting to adhere to the source material too much, when that source material, at points, is just not very good (*4). In any case, the whole experiment is interesting enough in retrospect that it’s worth dissecting in some detail, which is good, because dissecting things in detail is what this blog is all about.

So I’m going to do things a bit different. Instead of talking about this arc episode by episode, I’m just going to take the post for Part Two to talk about everything that worked in the arc, while the post for Part Three will be about the (many, many) things (many) that didn’t work (many). But first!

Footnotes!

(*1) More Laird than Eastman: while Kevin Eastman drew issue #50, which began the arc, his role for the rest of the story was largely that of co-plotter.  Art duties for the rest of the arc fell upon Mirage workhorse Jim Lawson.

(*2) Not counting Nathaniel’s story, which is limited to panels per issue.

(*3) And also, it is not a coincidence that the story they skip is the first story where April O’Neil is the core focus and sole POV character.

(*4) Not that this is in any way an excuse, since part of the job of an adaptation is to identify the parts of the original that don’t work and make them work.

Random Thoughts:

  • This episode very noticeably reuses a lot of footage from previous episodes, specifically from the Foot Clan / Turtles fight in both “The Shredder Strikes” episodes.  It is incredibly shoddy work, and very noticeably, largely because the rooftop the battle is set on has a big honking hole in it, which just disappears whenever old footage is used. No reason has been given for this that I know of, although its easy enough to assume that the animators ran into deadline problems somewhere along the way and were forced to cut corners.
  • One of the show’s experiments for season 2 was the inclusion of original songs in assorted scenes, and the first of those is seen in this episode.  I don’t make any claims as to its technical quality–except to say it at least doesn’t make one wish for the sweet release of death–but its a fun enough little thing to try once and then never again.  They did it twice.
  • As Leonardo channel-surfs through news reports, he runs across a debate show, “Butting Heads” featuring the following delightful exchange.

Ivan: Victoria, your inability to recognize the truth when it hits you over the head never ceases to flabbergast me. This is obviously a gang war on a city-wide scale, with the factions vying for total control.

Victoria: Ivan, your scare tactics amaze and amuse me simultaneously.   This is no more than a few random clashes between gangs in a small-scale turf war!  You’re once again proving yourself to be a complete and total loser.

Not the public discourse we need, but the one we have.

  • On that note, the various news reports Leo is listening to, while very much telling instead of showing, are nevertheless an effective way to convey just how bad things have gotten.  They also serve–and this has just occurred to me–as a pseudo-nod to the original story, which was punctuated by news reports of conflict in the former Soviet states, including what I believe was the real-life Bosnian War.
  • After their weirdly firearms-free debut, the mobsters (and the Purple Dragons next episode) now carry the same rifles used by the National Guard in “Secret Origins”.  On the plus side, this gets rid of the weirdness of seeing characters who should have no problem procuring guns not use them.  On the other hand, the presence of firearms, exacerbates several of the problems with “City at War”, which is something I’ll talk more about in my write-up for Part Three.
  • I really wish we could have gotten more detail about the deal going on between the Foot and the mob, because it’s just so weird.  There’s no indication that the “stuff” the mob is buying is or why they would believe the Foot would sell it to them in good faith.  I could see it being pretense on both sides, except it seems a rather inefficient way to wage a gang war.
  • Similarly, the part where the Foot beats down the mob, and then leaves their unconscious bodies to be blown up by a bomb is confounding.  Yes, the bomb disposes of the evidence; if you’re going to do that, why not just kill them first?  It just feels lazy on the part of the Foot Ninja. The Shredder would not approve.
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