The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are like the 'Star Trek' of Generation Y: derided by critics, and yet beloved by fans; written off by entertainment executives, and yet repeatedly resurrected in multiple media; initially assessed as a fad, and yet still making waves 30 years later.
Since their first appearance in a May 1984 one-off comic book funded by monies from a tax return, the anthropomorphic bale* has appeared in three animated series, four feature films, an anime, numerous RPGs and video games, a live concert tour, and of course too many subsequent comic books to count! (Not to mention a rumored fifth film in 2014.)
Of all these incarnations, the most different (and, arguably, the least beloved) would be 'Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation,' a T.V. series that aired for only one season on Fox Kids in the late '90s. The first proper release of this series on home video in North America (in two volumes: the first releasing in September, the second to follow in early 2013) by Shout! Factory gives us occasion to look at this footnote of television history again (both literally and figuratively), and decide for ourselves where it fits in the TMNT universe (and in the broader media-scape).
For starters, the series is non-canonized, and thus officially, does not fit anywhere. Chronologically, it is supposed to take place after the events of the third live-action film. However, a myriad of discontinuities has been pointed out by fans, most notably the fact that The Shredder, who himself mutated into a "Super Shredder," and was ultimately defeated in the second film, is alive again, and is no longer in his mutated form.
In addition, several concepts were officially included as part of the 'Next Mutation' mythos that were incompatible with, if not diametrically opposed to, the larger TMNT establishment. Most famously or infamously, depending on one's point of view, was the character of a fifth, female turtle named Venus de Milo. Also, in a development stemming from her inclusion, Leonardo is given the occasion to state in an early episode that none of the turtles is biologically related. The writers of the show established this fact right away so as not to rule out a possible romantic relationship between Venus and one of the other four man-sized bipedal tortoises. (Thankfully, this romance never matriculated!)
The series is equally notable for all the new elements it brought in as well as for all the traditional elements it left out. As far as enemies go, Shredder and The Foot Clan, for all the fuss that was made about them, are given but a minute role to play. The new villainous duties fall on a roughly analogous bunch, Dragonlord and The Rank, along with a host of minor villains, most notably Silver (the last Yeti), Vam-Mi (an ancient, reawakened vampiress from the Far East) and Simon Bonesteel (a rare animal poacher who has grown rather eccentric (read: crazy!) from years of living his isolated lifestyle). And as far as allies go, fans will notice, with disappointment, the absence of April O'Neil and Casey Jones.
Besides the obvious backstory changes, the criticisms most heavily weighed on 'The Next Mutation' are the lack of production values, the alternately stiff acting/overacting and the ludicrous dubbing of some of the actors' voices (most notably, Vam-Mi's henchmen Bing and Chi Chu). My personal opinion (although I have not yet found a way to confirm it) is that 'The Next Mutation' was purposefully filmed (and subsequently produced) in an intentionally "pop art camp" style, similar to the 1960s Batman T.V. series. If so, this would go a long way in explaining why (1) the creative minds behind the show took it so seriously and (2) the public didn't get it. Ultimately, of course, the show flopped, and was cancelled after a sole season of 26 episodes; too bad, as the writers seemed to promise The Shredder a bigger role in season two, and had at least hinted at the inclusion of April and Casey.
After all is said and done, fan reaction to 'Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation' will always be divided. And the release of the series on DVD is certainly not going to change that. No: if anything, it is just going to add fuel to (both sides of) the fire! But it is important, I think, because it allows Turtles' fans to re-view the series (and younger fans to see it for the first time) and make up their own minds. Because--whether you love it or loath it--just like the rest of the TMNT universe, it's here to stay. And, unless something even more left-field comes along (which, I suppose, is conceivable), 'NT:TNM' remains the most unique manifestation of what may be the most unique cultural phenomenon of our lifetimes.
Until next time, "Cowabunga, dudes!"
*A group of turtles is called a bale.