Landfill(er): “Junklantis”

“Rule, Britannia, Britannia rules the waves!  I don’t know the words to this stinky song!” Michelangelo

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Written by: Eric Luke

Original Air Date: April 3, 2004

Teaser Narrator: Donatello

Characters and Concepts Introduced: N/A

Gargoyles episodes I could make comparisons to: “Monsters”

The Beats:

  • The river.  A freighter, approaching land, suddenly finds itself systematically taken apart by huge metal tentacles, leaving nothing but baffled and terrified survivors in their life rafts.
  • At the lair, Donatello holds a christening ceremony for the newly completed Shell Sub. Of his three brothers, Michelangelo is by far the most excited about this, and is impatient for an opportunity to ride the vehicle.  Donatello agrees to take him for its maiden voyage.
  • As they navigate the river, the two brothers spot an unusual sight: a truck driving on the river floor, salvaging material from sunken vessels.  Weirder still, it’s not alone, but part of a fleet.  Even weirder still, that fleet eventually forms a convoy, which heads towards a massive underwater complex, apparently made  entirely out of salvaged materials.
  • As Donatello takes the sub to the complex for a closer look, they are ambushed by submarine.  With teeth.  And tentacles.  The sub, much larger than the turtles’, swallows it.
  • Inside the Sharktopus Sub, the turtles exit the Shell Sub and find themselves greeted by masked shock-rod wielding guards, who take them prisoner and keep watch over them as the larger sub makes its way to the underwater complex.
  • Inside Junklantis, the turtles’ are taken before the person in charge.  No points if you guessed that it’s the Garbageman.  Surprisingly, the former slaver is actually somewhat glad to see the turtles: not only does it give him the opportunity to satisfy his curiosity about what they are, it allows him the opportunity to thank them for showing him a new path in life, and the possibilities inherent in illegal underwater salvage.
  • The turtles are taken to the brig. Before they can be locked inside, the brothers decide that it’s time to resist, and take their guards out. They take their uniforms and use them to disguise themselves.
  • Donatello and Michelangelo join the rest of the garbage posse in the main chamber, where Garbageman is giving an inspirational exposition speech prior to their next ship-wrecking run, this time involving their most ambitious catch yet: a cruise ship currently about to set sail.
  • The turtles follow the Sharktopus crew into the sub.  As the vessel approaches the cruise ship, the brothers decide to strike, fighting off the guards and then the Garbageman himself.
  • The turtles take control of the Sharktopus and send it on a collision course with Junklantis.
  • After fighting off the Garbageman once again, the turtles manage to return to the Shell Sub and escape the Sharktopus before it crashes against the complex. Also managing to escape is a minisub, piloted bywho else?the Garbageman.
  • Using its pincers, the minisub manages to damage, but not cripple, the Shell Sub.  While the turtles’ sub doesn’t have pincers of its own, it does have its fair share of weaponry, including depth charges and torpedoes, which Donatello decides to fire just as the mini-sub takes hold of the Shell Sub.  Fortunately, the torpedoes aren’t aimed at the Garbageman but behind him, and the resulting explosion rocks the enemy sub without harming the turtles’, causing it to release its prey and go down into an underwater precipice.
  • The brothers return home with a new story to tell.

Continuity and Mythology Notes:

—-

The debacle that was “City at War” ends, and the plot lines it set in place will be picked up again in the “Rogue in the House” two-parter.  But first, we have a couple of episodes not critical to any existing ongoing story or character dynamicsepisodes of the sort sometimes pejoratively referred to as “filler”. Together this episode and “The Golden Puck” make perfect examples of how such episodes can go very well, or go very badly.

We get the bad story first.  “Junklantis” is another Garbageman story, and is in many ways worse than the first.  Despite its strong central conceptan underwater complex built up of scavenged ship parts and other pieces of junk is wonderfully evocative, and almost precisely my jamlike a lot of “City at War”, there’s no attempt here to imbue the story with any sort of spark.  It happens, and then it ends, not even giving the viewer the courtesy of being interestingly terrible or offensive.

Now, the thing about standalone episodes is that they’re in various ways considerably harder to write than arc episodes.  Without the time and space and slack (i.e.: the “we don’t have to focus on this now because it will be dealt with later” factor) arc episodes provide, one is left having to introduce everything in a twenty-one (or forty-two, for dramas) minutes, and oftentimes, that is simply not enough. Just look at Gargoyles and how many World Tour episodes are less than what they could be because they have to introduce character, setting, conflict, and resolution in the space of a single unit, all while involving additional characters who, it could be said, are being shoehorned into the story thanks to a magical island.  Consider how the multi-issue arc is now the standard storytelling unit for comic books. Writing standalone episodes, in short is oftentimes an exercise in compromise, and takes a solid amount of talent to do well.  Therefore, when episodes like these are called “filler”, one can understand why people like Peter Laird may feel offended; a lot of work goes into these episodes, and to not have that recognized can be quite hurtful.

And then there are the episodes where it feels as if the work has been done merely because there was a twenty-six episode order to fill.  They are ones designed to stand alone and which remain standalone because they don’t inspire anything on which to hang a subsequent episode.  How do you get these episodes?  Here are three simple steps.

Give Bad Villain

Probably the main thing holding “Junklantis” down is that the Garbageman continues to be a terrible character, when he doesn’t need to be. It’s easy to see what the writers are going forthe sort of body horror villain embodied by Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Immortan Joe and his ilkbut it requires more style and personality than the TMNT creators are able to bring to bear, leaving him mostly a bore born out of a failure of imagination and fatphobia, with nothing for the audience to hold on to. He could be fascinatinghis philosophy of making something out of what other people have discarded is fertile ground for exploration, and in an universe that is not this one “Garbageman” could have served as a powerful critique of capitalism and the way it ties worth and respect with usefulness.  In this universe, though, the episode displays no interest in being that subversive, and “Junklantis” continues the trend.  He just wants to build an underwater city as a way to accrue power, and while it’s nice that he has a hobby, I’m left wishing there were more to it.

Looking at this episode, I’m wondering just how much the writers actually liked the character, and if he would have gotten an encore if he weren’t one of the big original season 1 concepts.  There’s little sense here that the writers wanted to do anything with him.  So why is he here, then?

Be About Nothing

The curious thing about “Junklantis” is that it doesn’t come out of nowhere: we’ve been dealing with the setup for this episode for a while now, as we’ve watched as Donatello develops both the sub and the way to get it to the river.  It is then somewhat surprising to see the episode that finally see these plot threads come into greater focus end up being such a piece of blah, particularly given that, with several rewrites, it could easily be about something.

I mean, consider the fact that Junklantis, if you take away the “attacking and dismantling ships” bit, is simply the turtles’ mode of existence in a larger scale: isolation and relative comfort made possible by scavenging.  Consider that Junklantis, if indeed sustainable, could actually be quite attractive to a lot of people.  Consider the fact, taken for granted here, that a scavenging-based underwater community is possible only because of the pollution that characterizes the waters surrounding Manhattan.  An episode based on that could easily end up being preachy, but it at least would have been about something.  It would give writers a starting point from which to build something worthwhile, instead of forcing them to go through the motions and give us the most bog-standard story possible.

Go Through the Motions

Now, an episode made out of empty calories can be great funCowboy Bebop, to give an example, has loads of episodes that don’t advance the larger story but are nevertheless fantastic fun. And this almost seems like it could be the case for the first part of the episode, where, we get some solid characterizations and interactions.  The scene in the freighter is…fine, and the scene where the Shell Sub is unveiled is quite fun. Once the sub gets in the water, the scene where Don finds the S.S. Putney and the brothers spot the underwater truck is effective as a way to add mystique, mystery, and interest to the setting.  Once Junklantis is revealed, however, the episode falls apart. There’s no sense of the scale of the operation, and the threat it represents is far too abstract to elicit any sort of emotion, both because the Garbageman has never really been convincing as a villain and because the series fails to properly establish the consequences of failure. Yes, a cruise ship will be destroyed, and people will likely get killed…and?  Yes, we should care about people; still, storytelling relies on showing and not telling, and the fact that “Junklantis” doesn’t even bother to give us a glimpse of the people whose lives are in danger is precisely the sort of thing that helps bring this episode down. Worse still, that lack of detail is everywhere: an underwater base made out of scavenged materials should be a visual feast, but the artistspossibly because they know we won’t be seeing a lot of itfail to imbue Junklantis with any sort of character.

Are people uncommonly harsh when judging non-arc episodes?  Maybe so.  However, if showrunners aren’t putting as much care into these episodes as they do the ones that advance ongoing arcs, then that response becomes natural. This isn’t always the case with TMNT (or Gargoyles) but when it happens, it’s very disappointing. In this particular case, it gives us the series’ lowest point to date.

Random Thoughts:

  • In contrast to the various combatants in “City at War”, we have to assume that many of the people in the wrecked Sharktopus, and at least some of the people in Junklantis did not survive the turtles’ engineered assault, meaning this episode has a considerable body count.  Of course, we don’t see them during the moment of the demise, which apparently makes all the difference.
  • While we’ve seen episodes exclusively focused on individual turtles (“The Unconvincing Turtle Titan”, “The King”), and episodes where groups of turtles split the A- and B-plots (“Monster Hunter”) his is the first episode where we see something that will become a trend in the show’s third season: splitting off the turtles into pairs, and have the episode be just about that pair.  While partly a pragmatic movewriting for two turtles is much easier than writing for fourit also allows for combinations and interactions that aren’t possible when all turtles are together, and can therefore be quite interesting. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that the turtles are far more interesting as a group than the gargoyle trio, and a large part of the reason why this is the case is because we see a whole lot more of them in this kind of dyad. We get to see how Michelangelo’s interactions with Raphael are different from the ones with Donatello are different from the ones with Leonardo, and that helps make them all stronger characters.
  • This is, thankfully, the last we’ll see of the Garbageman. He was actually slated to appear in the season 5 episode “Nightmares Recycled“, but that episode was scrapped during production due to, apparently, being irreparably unsuitable for the target audience. That episode, it has since been revealed, would have attempted to give the Garbageman some of the dimensions and weight he currently lacks, by revealing that he is in fact Hun’s twin brother and that they were previously cojoined. While I have no idea what the final script looked like, I’m of the opinion that the episode getting scrapped was a blessing for all involved.  Yes, the Garbageman needs to actually be a character.  At this point, however, it would take more than a single episode to repair what is wrong with him, and linking him to an existing, much more solid character seems like it is more likely to weaken Hun than it is to strengthen the Garbageman.  As an arc?  Maybe.  A single story?  No.
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