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Good news for Michael Bay: The geek-o-sphere finally has a nostalgia reboot it hates more than his Transformers movies!

Bad news for Michael Bay: It’s his new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, this past weekend’s number one movie and thus far an easy contender for the worst piece of crap I’ve had to sit through all year — though since the year has a’ways to go yet I expect that could easily change. Not likely to change as soon, though? This is easily the new low water mark for this oft-retooled franchise.

With that in mind, I figured it was about time to look back at the mostly-forgotten single-season television series that previously held the “Worst Version of TMNT Ever” distinction: Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation.

But first, some background…

As we’ve discussed to the point of redundancy in previous installments, live-action genre series aping a B-movie aesthetic was the big non-daytime story of TV in the mid-1990s as one-by-one the budget-conscious junkfood fare that dominated drive-ins in the 60s, grindhouses in the 70s and direct-to-video in the 80s made their way to TV. Hercules, Xena and their legions of imitators dragged Swords n’ Sorcery schlock to the small screen. Red Shoe Diaries, Silk Stalkings and the mighty Baywatch did the same for sleazy softcore. Second-tier superheroes? Nightman and The Flash say hi. Hell, one could even argue that the head-scratching megapopularity of Jerry Springer and the like represented the migration to the tube of dubiously-authentic weirdness-of-humanity “documentaries” like Mondo Cane (NSFW).

Straight-up action movies, though? The appeal of that genre was increasingly how much expensive stuff you could blow up (by contrast, action of the “tough guy, a gun and a catchphrase” brand flourished in the 80s) which kept it off TV as far as grownups were concerned. But action aimed at kids? Pitched to a lower-budget deliberately to allow for maximum combat but very little “violence?” Well, this was the era of Power Rangers…

…which is a story for another time. Or another guy on The Internet.

In any case, the popularity of Power Rangers essentially decimated huge swaths of the kiddie-action market, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — just moments ago (in TV time) the most powerful children’s-entertainment juggernaut on the planet — was the first trophy The Rangers mounted on their wall. Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and Raphael had seen their most-recent movie bomb, sales of their action figures dwindle and their animated series (criticized for violence in its heyday but practically Rainbow Brite compared to the Rangers’ Japanese-imported live-action slugfests) limp to the finish.

But no sooner had Haim Saban — the Israeli musician turned billionaire media mogul who brought Power Rangers to the U.S. — finished mounting the TMNT trophy-head to his wall than was his company getting a Big Idea: Why not revive the Turtles themselves as a live-action series a’la The Rangers?

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The result was 1997’s The Next Mutation, at the time the most ambitious live-action undertaking Saban (with TMNT co-creator Kevin Eastman as a co-producer) had launched without repurposing foreign footage and from its inception the most radical attempt to overhaul the TMNT franchise since the toy company had decided they really did need to at least wear different colored masks. (Though a proposed fourth movie, from which the show borrowed the Next Mutation subtitle, would’ve been even more so.) Remember: The Turtles were damaged goods at this point. Their first generation fans were in high school and college and had largely consigned them to the yard sale or the attic — Mutation was aiming to build a new fanbase from scratch.

The changes? Continue (at least in passing reference) from the continuity of the live-action movies, but build a new team dynamic and a whole new status quo: Trade Shredder and The Foot Clan for a more inhuman set of enemies (human leads aren’t as easily replaced/lowballed as stuntmen in rubber suits) in the form of Dragon Lord and his army “The Rank,” whose escape from a dream-dimension and attempted invasion of the Earth was the overarching meta-story of the series. Other baddies would include a mad scientist, a bald-faced ripoff of Kraven the Hunter, and a Yeti who’d reinvented himself as a gangster.

They wanted to change the Turtles’ signature mask-colors (Leonardo from blue to yellow, Donatello from purple to black) — supposedly to avoid color-key issues with the heavy blue-screen work needed for the show but perhaps also as a way to checkmate “But you already have the purple one!” in the toy aisle. They planned to retool the weaponry: A single straight-sword for Leo instead of twin katanas, tonfa batons for Michelangelo to get around the marketing headache previously caused by nunchucks being banned (and heavily stigmatized) weapons in the UK and some other territories. The color changes didn’t make the final cut, but test footage and promo-shots of Leo’s banana-yellow headwrap made it into the wild and can be briefly seen in some versions of the opening titles.

Oh, and April O’Neil and Casey Jones were both out — again, human regulars being less easy to replace/lowball than stuntpersons in rubber suits. But what to do with April’s now-vacated spot as the lone female main character in an otherwise overwhelmingly male cast? Simple…

They gave the world its first female Ninja Turtle.

To the degree that TMNT fans think about The Next Mutation at all, Venus de Milo (yes, the guys are all named for artists, the girl is named for an art object, because of course she is) tends to be the martyr for everything else it did wrong — which was a lot. It’d be nice to say that she gets a raw deal, that the reflexive misogyny that seems to permeate so much of fandom for 80s/90s nostalgia properties has rendered a promising addition to the series to the pop-culture dumpster. But the truth is, while Venus isn’t the sole flaw of the show… she’s pretty terrible.

In fact, you could practically teach a class on how not to add gender diversity to an all-male franchise just using Venus as an example. She gets an exaggerated feminine musculature (compared to the guys, who are all bruisers) and strikes model-girl poses despite it being at odds with what she has of a personality. Inexplicable turtle-breasts –on her shell, no less? — you bet she’s got ’em. Cheezy new-age psychic powers in lieu of weapons? Of course — you can’t expect her to lift something! To their credit, they did somehow resist the temptation to give her a pink mask (though that was the plan for most of pre-production) instead opting for a light-blue one… that she ties into a french braid that hangs down to her waist. And that’s just the obvious aesthetic stuff. (Oh! They also go the obvious heavy-handed “love this great new character!!!” route by having her defeat The Shredder — for good! — using her mind powers on her first mission. Because no ever resents that kind of thing…)

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Venus’ backstory is that she was in the same bowl and mutated by the same ooze as the original four, but raised separately and in secret by a Chinese mystic who taught her mind-powers. This is used to establish her two main character traits: She’s “exotically” Orientalized (exaggerated pan-Asian accent, undercuts her own intelligence by comically misunderstanding Western idioms a’la Ziva from NCIS) and she’s the Team Buzz-Kill — in fact, on some of the promo posters her “catchphrase” was “I keep the boys in line!” On a team made up of four wacky slapstick martial-arts comedians, the one woman… is the boring serious “eat your vegetables!” Den Mother. It’s like they wanted everyone to hate her.

Well… not everyone. Since a female character cannot be conceived as existing without being the romantic interest to someone, The Next Mutation opts to blow up the entire status-quo of the main characters in order to make it “okay” for Venus to be potentially romanced by one of her adoptive brothers; as Leonardo reveals that, being ordinary pet-shop turtles, none of them were ever actually blood-relatives. Granted… that actually makes sense, but it’s hard to ignore that an ostensible children’s show devotes an entire scene (staged as Venus and Leo awkwardly flirting under moonlight, even!) to two characters carefully explaining to the audience: “Don’t worry — if we eventually hook up, it’s technically not incest!” And yes, the plan was to have Leo and Raph fight over her.

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The Next Mutation got a lot of press, decent ratings and a full season order of 26 episodes from Fox… but it didn’t last. The studio and the network wanted another Power Rangers level merchandising machine, and the show wasn’t drawing old fans back into the fold or driving new ones to buy up the new toys (the hoped-for embrace of Venus by young girls failed to materialize rather profoundly). Fox declined to renew the show for a second season, leaving a plot-thread teasing the return to top-villain status of The Shredder unresolved and new TMNT adventures absent from film and television for the first time since 1987 — an absence that would remain until a new animated series launched in 2003. Today, the series is mainly remembered for a crossover episode with the Power Rangers.

The franchise’s official website actually opted to finish out the story informally in the form of letters from all of the Turtles detailing post-Next Mutation adventures involving the final defeats of all of their major villains… but as of 2000 all reference to Venus outside of casual mentions in the other Turtles’ letters were scrubbed from the site and from anywhere else such removal is possible. Supposedly, this was the result of original TMNT co-creator Peter Laird (who is said to harbor a specific resentment of Venus) acquiring total ownership of the characters and imposing a “No female turtles, ever!” mandate on the property. I’ll be honest: That feels like overkill, to me.

Looking back over Next Mutation in light of the staggering awfulness that is the new (Laird-approved and girl-cooties-free, I might add — ahem!) theatrical “face” of the franchise… it still isn’t very good. But it’s looking a lot better in hindsight. Even with Venus hanging around being exactly unlikable enough to almost cancel-out the goofy sexism that contorts her role in the story, it at least feels vaguely akin to characters and world as they’d otherwise been known. It has that goofy retro-sincerity that made the better early Power Rangers seasons work, and there are even moments where you can see how Venus might have eventually been made to work.

In the end it’s almost a shame — for awhile there this series’ profile actually benefited from the infamy of being the worst TMNT ever. Now that Michael Bay and Jonathan Liebesman have stolen that title rather decisively, The Next Mutation just goes back to being one more Ninja Turtles revamp that didn’t really work.

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