This article originally ran on March 16, 2018 on Mike Podgor’s Monsters of Multimedia.
Our next batch of monsters really need no introduction, but they’ll be given one anyway. Since 1984, they’ve been applying various tenets of ninjutsu in a very teen-aged reptilian way with a sharp detour into pizza antics in 1987. They are, of course, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and you probably have some idea of who they are and how they came to be. In the unlikely case you don’t, they’re four reptiles who were mutated into monstrous humanoid abominations with extraterrestrial ooze and taught to be silent killers by a giant humanoid rat. They use these skills to battle a man covered in knives and other sinister folk. It’s very straightforward, and they’ve had something like eight different ongoing comic series since their inception along with a multitude of mini-series and one-shots, six feature films, three different animated series, a live-action series, and two anime OVAs. There’s also been enough merchandising to create a dwarf planetoid. They get around, is what I’m saying.
The subject of today’s article is the first episode of the third season of their 2012 animated series, titled “Within the Woods”. Our dramatis persona for this episode:
- Leonardo! Songs (well, song lyrics) have been written about his leadership prowess. He wears a blue mask, uses twin katana, and is probably the most skilled ninja of the bunch. As this episode begins, he is recovering from some injuries so terrible that his voice actor changed to Seth Green.
- Donatello! He rather famously “does” machines, which equates to being a gifted light sci-fi scientist who is good at all science but is especially good with, well, machines and gadgets. An engineer, then. He wears a purple mask and uses a bo-staff with a knife in it. He’s voiced by Rob Paulsen, who voiced a different turtle in 1987 but it doesn’t wind up being as weird as you might think.
- Raphael! He’s justifiably known for his attitude but is less cool but crude and more just generally angry about almost everything forever. Fittingly, he wears a red mask (making him the only Turtle to never change his mask color) and stabs things with twin sai. While his ninja skills rival Leonardo’s, his temper typically gets in the way. He is voiced by Sean Astin.
- Michelangelo! He’s supposedly a party dude but while he’s certainly laid back, he seems more like someone who is super into comic books and video games. He wears orange and manages to use his nunchucks without hurting himself. He is voiced by Greg Cipes.
- April O’Neil! As is typical for any iteration of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, April is their token human friend. In this series, she’s a teenage girl who has grown tired of being unable to do more to help the Turtles and is training to be a ninja. She also has burgeoning psychic powers, and is voiced by Mae Whitman.
- Casey Jones! A sports-themed vigilante who is surprisingly effective and astonishingly reckless, which makes sense considering he’s a teenage boy. He and Donatello feud over April. He is voiced by Josh Peck.
Now, you may be asking yourself: why is Mike Podgor writing about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? As far as monsters go, there’s probably scads of better examples out there. The reason, hypothetical reader, is that this specific episode has monsters about. Also, if I choose to write about this series again in the future, I can simply link back to this article.
The episode beings with our heroes fleeing New York City as it’s being overrun by aliens and evil ninja with Leonardo having been beaten into a coma. They wind up on April’s family farm, which are all plot points you may recognize since variations have been used in the original comics, first live-action movie, and 2003 cartoon. No one is very happy about this predicament, but three months pass before the first commercial break and Leonardo awakens from his coma, greatly improving everyone’s morale and leading Donatello to creating a mutagen-based elixir that will supposedly help Leonardo heal faster. This proves to be a bad idea almost immediately, as Raphael takes Leonardo out to train and he immediately vomits the elixir all over the ground. This is how the episode’s narrative arc is introduced: will Leonardo be able to overcome the injuries to both his body and morale by the end of the episode?
This is also how the episode’s villain (later dubbed the Creep by Michelangelo) is created, as the elixir seeps into the ground and somehow creates a plant-based monster who shifts the episode’s tone from “children’s cartoon about dealing with trauma” to “slasher film” with enough tension and jump-scares to scar most children emotionally. He begins by cutting the power to the farmhouse, leading Raphael to go chop some firewood. Things do not go well for Raphael, as the Creep captures him. Raphael’s disappearance leads Leonardo to send the others out to look for him, splitting them up by species.
Team Human (April and Casey, in case you forgot) starts off poorly with Casey badgering April for information on why their blossoming romantic relationship seemed to have cooled. The answer is simple: their families are back in New York, which is overrun with aliens and ninja. Romance is the furthest thing from April’s mind. They’re both distracted when April’s spider-sense goes off. Team Turtle is having similar difficulties, with Donatello extremely worried that Casey and April are going to take advantage of their alone time to “do what human teenagers do” which Michelangelo doesn’t understand. Their conversation is cut short by the discovery of a shed. It’s filled with gardening implements, along with an enshrined bottle of Leonardo’s discarded elixir and a flora-fied Raphael. Before they can make any sense of the situation, they’re beset by the Creep who trusses up Michelangelo and chucks a pitchfork at Donatello’s head, barely missing him.
The screams of the turtles alert April and Casey, though it does not do them a lick of good. The Creep makes short work of both of them and steals Casey’s hockey mask, because there was no longer any reason for the writer (Brandon Auman) to hide what he was trying to do. April flees while Casey is taken out, but is completely unable to escape the Creep despite the monster moving at what can best be described as a brisk walk. She does manage to reach Leonardo, barely able to warn him of the danger before the show references Evil Dead:
Now everyone but Leonardo is captured. They’re all alive, so far, though the Creep has drained Raphael of his mutagen and turned him into a pile of vegetable matter. It’s clear he intends to do the same to the other Turtles, though there’s no indication of what he has in store for the humans. It’s probably murder. In any case, Leonardo decides that he must overcome his limitations to rescue them. While he’s still physically frail, his spirit is renewed, and he’s able to free everyone after stabbing the Creep right in the face. It’s allowed because he’s a plant. Also allowed: everyone trying to beat the Creep to death with the gardening implements from the shed. If you think that this works, you’re unfamiliar with what this episode was trying to homage. After another brief battle, the Creep is subdued and Donatello manages to undo the damage the Creep caused. Unfortunately, they have to spend the next several episodes dealing with the after effects of Donatello’s mutagen elixir.
While the episode adopted a slasher motif and used a plant-based monster so that their heroes could beat it to death in a kid-friendly manner, the basic plot and character concept were pulled from an arc in the first volume of Mirage’s Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic. The arc involved a leech draining some of Raphael’s mutagen and becoming a humanoid dubbed the Bloodsucker with the same motivations as the Creep. The change was probably due to blood being a taboo subject in a children’s show, but considering how the Creep was a plant-based Jason Voorhees shows how much the show could push pass any censors.
The Creep is an odd addition to this show, and like most of the characters that showed up during their time on the farm, he never appeared on the show again nor did he get an action figure. Unlike his slasher inspiration, he was actually able to be stopped. This does not diminish his status as a monster, and he deserves more recognition as one of this series’ more frightening creations. Not only was he able to take down a group of combat-capable characters with little effort, but he did so while establishing definite stakes and tension. The episode itself also deserves high marks, since at no point does it sacrifice the narrative momentum of the series or wink too heavily at its referencing. All in all, a good effort from the series and the Creep himself. We shan’t see his like again, and by that I mean a humanoid plant-creature styling himself off Jason Voorhees who takes down the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.