Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (initially known as Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles in some European countries due to controversy at the time, and retroactively also known as TMNT 1987 or just TMNT ’87) is an American animated television series produced by the studio Murakami-Wolf-Swenson and the French company IDDH. The pilot was shown during the week of December 28, 1987 in syndication as a five-part miniseries (launching on 84 stations and being played twice a day) and the show began its official run on October 1, 1988. Since then the show and franchise has become a worldwide phenomenon. The series featured the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters, created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. The property was changed considerably from the darker-toned comic, to make it more suitable for children and the family.
The initial motivation behind the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series was that, upon being approached to create a toy line, Playmates Toys was uneasy with the comic-book characters’ small cult following. They requested that a television deal be acquired first, and after the initial five-episode series debuted, the California toy company released their first series of Ninja Turtles action figures in the summer of 1988. The two media would correspond in marketing style and popularity for many years to come.
David Wise and Patti Howeth wrote the screenplay for the first five-part miniseries. When the series continued in the second season, comic artist Jack Mendelsohn joined the show as the executive story editor. Wise went on to write over seventy episodes of the series, and was executive story editor for four later seasons as well. Wise left the series partway through the ninth season, and Jeffrey Scott took over as the story editor and chief writer for the rest of the show’s run.
The show was in Saturday morning syndication from October 1, 1988 to September 9, 1989, and became an instant hit. The show was expanded to five days a week and aired weekday afternoons in syndication in most markets from September 25, 1989 to September 17, 1993. Starting on September 8, 1990 (with a different opening sequence), the show began its secondary run on CBS’s Saturday morning lineup, beginning as a 60-minute block from 1990 to 1993, initially airing a couple of Saturday exclusive episodes back to back. There would also be a brief “Turtle Tips” segment in between the two episodes which served as public service announcements about the environment or other issues. There were at least 20 “Turtle Tips” segments that were produced and aired. Beginning in 1994, the show began airing as a 30-minute block until the series ended. The series ran until November 2, 1996, when it aired its final episode.
The show helped launch the characters into mainstream popularity and became one of the most popular animated series in television history. Breakfast cereals, plush toys, and all manner of products featuring the characters appeared on the market during the late-1980s and early-1990s. A successful Archie Comics comic book based on the animated show instead of the original black-and-white comics was published throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Action figures were top-sellers around the world. By 1990, the cartoon series was being shown daily on more than 125 television stations, and the comic books sold 125,000 copies a month.
The origins story in the 1987 television series deviates significantly from the original Mirage Studios comics. In this version, Splinter was formerly human, an honorable ninja master named Hamato Yoshi who studied art history as a hobby. He was banished from the Foot Clan (a Japanese dynasty of ninjas founded by one of his distant ancestors) after one of his students, the power-hungry and seditious Oroku Saki (who resented Yoshi’s leadership within the clan and aspired to usurp him), set him up for an offense against a visiting master sensei. One day, Saki pinned Yoshi’s dogi to the wall with a knife, preventing him from kneeling before the sensei, which was seen as an insult. When Yoshi removed the knife, the sensei was again insulted, believing that Yoshi was drawing the blade in an attempt to kill him. Disgraced, Yoshi left his native Japan and relocated to New York City without a penny to his name. Now homeless, he was forced to live in the sewers with the rats as his only friends. Meanwhile, Saki is given command of the Foot Clan, which he corrupts and transforms into a criminal organization.
Some time later, Yoshi adopted four turtles after they were accidentally dropped into the sewer system by an unnamed boy, who had recently bought them from a pet store. He returns from his explorations around New York City one day to find the turtles covered with a strange glowing ooze. This substance caused the turtles, who were most recently exposed to Yoshi, to become humanoid, while Yoshi, who was most recently exposed to sewer rats, became a humanoid rat, and was given the name “Splinter” by the turtles. This, and the following Archie TMNT Adventures comics (which is loosely based on the 1987 cartoon series), is the only origin story in the TMNT franchise in which the Turtles come to Yoshi before being exposed to the mutagen. The television series also differs in that Yoshi himself becomes a rat, whereas in most other versions, Splinter is Yoshi’s pet rat and becomes humanoid after being exposed to mutagen. This is also the only version in which the Turtles become fully grown immediately after exposure to the mutagen, whereas Splinter raises them from infancy in other versions.
Yoshi raises the four turtles as his sons and trains them in the art of ninjitsu. He names them after his favorite Italian renaissance artists: Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (Donatello), Leonardo da Vinci (Leonardo), Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (Michelangelo), and Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael). In most versions, the Turtles tend to go by nicknames Don/Donnie, Leo, Mikey/Mike and Raph, but in this version they are always addressed by their full names. Each Turtle wears a mask over his eyes with a distinctive color (whereas in the original Mirage comics, they all had red masks): blue for Leonardo, purple for Donatello, red for Raphael, and orange for Michelangelo; and they are each trained in the art of a distinct weapon, with Leonardo wielding katanas, Donatello wielding a bo staff, Raphael wielding sais, and Michelangelo wielding nunchuks (which were later replaced with a grappling hook, although the nunchuks still appeared on occasion).
Oroku Saki eventually leaves Japan and tracks Yoshi to New York City, where he intends to destroy him once and for all. It is also around this time that he begins working with Krang, a disembodied alien brain from Dimension X who ruled his native realm with an iron fist until he was stripped of his body and banished to Earth. Saki takes on a new pseudonym, “The Shredder”, donning a suit covered with razor spikes, and complemented by a long cape, a metal samurai helmet, and a metal mask over his mouth. Since leaving Japan, his ambitions have grown from usurping leadership of the Foot Clan, to world domination. To this end, Krang provides the Shredder with a vast array of powerful technology from Dimension X, including the Technodrome, and funds most of his schemes throughout the series (in exchange for building Krang a powerful new android body, which he eventually does by the end of season 1).
It becomes clear early on in the series that the mutagen which transformed the Turtles and Splinter into their new forms was dumped into the sewers by Shredder in an effort to murder Yoshi, as he had mistakenly believed it to be a deadly poison rather than a transformative agent. After several years of training under Splinter, the Turtles set out to find whoever is responsible for their transformation, and upon learning that Shredder was behind it, they vow to put an end to his ongoing criminal career and restore Splinter back to his human form, despite the risk that they themselves could be de-mutated and changed back into ordinary turtles, thus losing all of their humanoid abilities. Along the way, they befriend Channel 6 news reporter April O’Neil after rescuing her from a gang of street punks (among them were Bebop and Rocksteady in their pre-mutated forms) who had chased her into the sewers. The Turtles, who had rarely left the sewers prior to meeting April, also began to take on the role of semi-vigilante crime fighters, operating outside of the jurisdiction of law enforcement, much like Casey Jones. Despite this, they frequently have to deal with citizens misunderstanding them, which is due in no small part to the efforts of Burne Thompson, April’s employer, and Vernon Fenwick, a Channel 6 cameraman, who distrust the Turtles and frequently blame them for the trouble that Shredder and Krang cause. As a result, they mainly have to rely on April (either via Turtle-com, or Channel 6 news reports) to inform them of crimes in the city, and to counteract Burne and Vernon’s smear campaigns against them with her own news coverage of the Turtles, portraying them as a force for good, although doing so frequently lands her in trouble with her employers and various criminals throughout the city. Reluctant to expose themselves to the outside world, the Turtles usually wear disguises whenever they leave the sewers, although this is slowly relaxed as the series progresses and they gain the trust of the broader populace, whom they have saved from Shredder and other villains on many occasions. Even at Channel 6, the Turtles befriend secretary Irma from the second season onwards.
Shredder, Krang, Bebop & Rocksteady (two street thugs who were mutated into a humanoid warthog and rhinoceros respectively, after being exposed to Shredder’s mutagen and the aforementioned animals, which were stolen from the zoo), Baxter Stockman (an inventor who is briefly employed by Shredder until he is sent into Dimension X, where he is accidentally transformed into a mutant fly by Krang, who had intended to execute him; ever since then, he has sought revenge against both the Turtles and Shredder/Krang for his transformation and for attempting to kill him), and their legions of Foot soldiers repeatedly try to destroy the Turtles and take over the world. Much of their quest for world domination hinges on repowering the Technodrome (Krang’s mobile fortress, and their base of operations) and bringing it to the Earth’s surface, as it was either buried deep under New York City (season 1), stuck in Dimension X (seasons 2 and 4), embedded in the Earth’s core (season 3), stranded in the Arctic (season 5), or at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean (seasons 6 and 7). However, their plans always fail, often landing the villains in humorous predicaments. Some episodes feature other, usually minor villains, such as the Rat King (a homeless man living in the sewers who has control over rats and believes that he is one himself; he considers all other species inferior and aspires to establish a rat-controlled government above ground), Leatherhead (a mutated Florida crocodile who speaks with a Cajun accent), Slash (a savage, humanoid mutant turtle with brute strength and low intelligence; he was Bebop’s pet turtle before he was exposed to mutagen), General Traag and Granitor (two high ranking Rock Warriors who are loyal to Krang and command a vast army in Dimension X, which Krang often tries to bring to the Earth in order to conquer it), and many others. Some episodes also involve the TMNT getting themselves and the city out of a mess that one of the Turtles (usually Michelangelo or Donatello) inadvertently cause.
Through most of the series, the episodes featured a recurring background music which reflected the mood of the situation, as well as ID music for settings such as the Technodrome, the New York City sewers, Channel 6, etc.. The soundtrack was composed by Dennis Challen Brown (credited as “D.C. Brown” and later as “Dennis C. Brown”) and Chuck Lorre. Lorre recorded the theme song (and performed the spoken parts) and became a successful television producer. The performer of the song was James Mandell (aka Miles Doppler). To date the soundtrack has never been released for retail.
The Channel 6 News theme music also appeared in the Turtles in Time video game.
Casting for the show took place in Los Angeles. During recording of the voice acting, all the main cast recorded together. According to Renae Jacobs, voice-actress of the reporter April O’Neil, working together “was great for camaraderie and relationships. We played off each other…there was a lot of ad libbing.”
Also according to Jacobs, the actors frequently undermined the efforts of the show’s creators to make the show grittier and more serious, instead embracing silliness and jokes for both children and adults.
They [the Turtle voice actors] were kind of like the Marx Brothers, The Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, Burns and Allen and all of those wonderful, fabulous old radio personalities and early movie personalities all rolled up into one. Those guys put the heart and soul into those turtles and came up with those personalities.— Renae Jacobs, Interview
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
- Leonardo (voiced by Cam Clarke) – The blue-masked turtle who wields two katana. He is the leader and commander of the Turtles and is the closest to Splinter. He is the most serious, level-headed member of the team, who values his leadership.
- Donatello (voiced by Barry Gordon in most episodes, Greg Berg in six Season 3 episodes and one episode of the European side-season) – The purple-masked turtle who wields a bō staff. He is the scientist and intellectual of the team who is constantly tinkering with various inventions. Donatello’s capabilities in science and technology have been key factors for the Turtles’ successes in their battles with Shredder and other villains.
- Raphael (voiced by Rob Paulsen in Season 1-9, Thom Pinto in two Season 3 episodes, Hal Rayle in the European side-season, and Michael Gough in Season 10) – The red-masked turtle who wields two sai. Although Raphael is depicted as angry, impulsive, and violent in most other TMNT media, he is the comedian of the team who often comes out with sarcastic and witty remarks in the 1987 series. He provides comic relief for the show, constantly breaking the fourth wall.
- Michelangelo (voiced by Townsend Coleman) – The orange (sometimes yellow)-masked turtle who wields a pair of nunchakus, which is later changed to a grappling hook. He is the goofy, fun-loving “party animal” of the team who often speaks in surfer slang, and is the source for many of the show’s catchphrases, such as “Cowabunga!”. More so than any other Turtle, he is obsessed with pizza and enjoys experimenting with various toppings, even when the other Turtles find it gross. He is also considered to be the least intelligent member of the team, especially by Raphael.
- Hamato Yoshi/Master Splinter (voiced by Peter Renaday in most appearances, Townsend Coleman in two Season 5 episodes) – A strict and wizened sensei who used to teach Oroku Saki, until the latter set him up for an offense towards his master which he did not commit and was exiled from the Foot Clan. Since then, he has lived in the sewers of Manhattan as a homeless man with the rats and his four pet turtles as his only friends. Upon being exposed to the same mutagen that changed the turtles into their present anthropomorphic forms, Hamato Yoshi transformed into a humanoid mutant rat (as he had most recently been exposed to rats) and trained the Turtles in ninjutsu. It is later revealed that one of his distant ancestors is the founder of the Foot Clan.
- April O’Neil (voiced by Renae Jacobs) – A brown-headed TV reporter from Channel 6 News (later a freelance reporter in Seasons 9 and 10) who discovers the Turtles’ home in the sewers and befriends the TMNT. She is frequently kidnapped by Shredder and other villains, usually as bait to lure the Turtles out of hiding.
- Irma (voiced by Jennifer Darling) – Channel 6’s clumsy, dating-obsessed secretary who debuts in season 2. She is a friend of April who later also befriends the TMNT. Following the destruction of the Channel 6 Building in season 8, Irma is slowly phased out of the show. A similar character would be used in the 2012 series.
- Casey Jones (voiced by Pat Fraley) – A violent, impulsive, and overzealous street-fighting vigilante who is friends with the Ninja Turtles. He fights using sports equipment and wears a hockey mask.
- Oroku Saki/The Shredder (voiced by James Avery in Season 1 to the first half of Season 7, Dorian Harewood in four Season 3 episodes, Pat Fraley in one Season 3 episode, Jim Cummings in one Season 5 episode and most of the European side-season, Townsend Coleman for the second half of Season 7, William E. Martin from Season 8-10) – The nemesis of the Turtles and Master Splinter. He is usually the main villain in other media, but in this series Shredder always, against his will, has to take orders from Krang, although their relationship evolves over time into more of an equal partnership (with Shredder even risking his life to save Krang on numerous occasions). His real name is Oroku Saki, a member of the Foot Clan in Japan and a student of Hamato Yoshi/Splinter. Saki was jealous of Yoshi’s leadership within the Clan and sought to usurp him. He responds by framing Yoshi for an offense towards the sensei and has him exiled. Shortly afterwards, Saki takes control of the Foot Clan and transforms it into an army of crime under his command. Along with Krang, Rocksteady, and Bebop, he is the primary antagonist of the show until the end of season 8, when the Technodrome is destroyed and they are all banished to Dimension X. Although he and Krang return for 3 episodes in the final season, they are eventually sent back to Dimension X, and they are not seen again for the rest of the series. Their fate after being transported back to Dimension X is unexplained, although it is assumed that they would have eventually perished or found their way back to Earth.
In the United Kingdom, TMNT was originally released under the name Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (TMHT). This was due to the controversy surrounding ninjas and related weapons such as nunchaku at the time. The intro sequence was heavily edited because of this, replacing the word ninja with hero or fighting, using a digitally faded logo instead of the animated blob, and removing any scenes in which Michelangelo wields his nunchaku, replacing them with clips from the show. Scenes of Michelangelo using his nunchaku were likewise edited out of the episodes themselves, which led the American show runners to drop the weapons from the series entirely in the third season in order to make the show more appropriate for the international airings. The weapons were replaced with a grappling hook called the “Turtle Line” that served as Mikey’s signature weapon for the rest of the show’s run. The word ‘ninja’ was also edited out of any speech within the show, often leading to some awkward sounding dialogue.
IGN named TMNT as the 55th best show in the Top 100 Best Animated TV Shows. While the story diverged heavily from the original conception of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with the universe of the original Mirage comics, the 1987 television series is largely the most notable and popular incarnation and drove the franchise to the phenomenal status it would achieve in popular culture. Co-creator, Peter Laird, has publicly shared his distaste with the show on numerous occasions but has also acknowledged that it was extremely successful with and beloved by its audience and, while he would have preferred a different approach to the material, it might not have been as popular as what was produced. Retroactively, the cross-over film Turtles Forever established a common multiverse continuity between all Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles variations that existed at the time of the 25th anniversary of the original Mirage comicbooks, primarily focusing on this series, and those of the 2003 animated series. Therefore, while not part of the original canon of the Mirage Turtles, the series can be considered part of the wider official turtles canon.
At the time, the series was criticised by various groups for its commercialism, blaming it for markering TMNT action figures and other toys, and violent content.
Originally, the series was released to VHS tapes and laserdisc between 1988 and 1996 by Family Home Entertainment while airing back in the late 1980s-early 1990s. Meanwhile, the UK, videotapes were released using the “Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles” censoring title. Starting in April 2004, DVD releases began in region 1.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Magazine was a children’s magazine published quarterly by Welsh Publishing Group, Inc during the height of TMNT popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was officially licensed by Eastman and Laird and available by subscription.
The $1.95, 32-page magazine featured articles about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a variety of other subjects, including an article on the last page of each issue spotlighting a real life turtle species. Mirage Studios staff artists such as Dan Berger and Jim Lawson provided a majority of the covers and spot illustrations. A pullout poster was available in every issue and was painted by Mirage Studios artist Michael Dooney.