Knock-Offs

Ninja Turtles Rip-Offs, Case Study #3: Battletoads

Technically Battletoads counts as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knock-off, but still it’s one that managed to become something entirely in its own right. Battletoads is rightly remembered as one of the best games in the history of the Nintendo Entertainment System, a game that starts off as a slightly off-kilter beat-’em up but then goes through an amazing array of stages and challenges that made it feel like at least several different good (if hard as hell) games in one. It says a lot about the quality and creativity of the game that it’s considered a classic in spite of the fact that it’s so frustrating it tests the limits of human reaction times, as anyone who survived the obstacle course race levels can tell you.

It was also one of the few video games from the time that was a natural for spin-offs, but it never launched a franchise. Why? Now who could take a simple but perfect idea like “Three video game designers end up in a parallel universe where they become anthropomorphic toads teamed up with a scientist and wage an endless war against the sexy villain the Dark Queen” and screw it up so badly the show never gets past the pilot stage?

…Ah.

The first thing you might notice, besides the “minimalist” animation so typical of DiC’s artistic style, is the crappy beach music that serves as the intro. That’s because the show is meant to take place in Oxnard, California. Now I have to admit localizing the show is kind of a nice touch for a kids’ animated show (even if the pilot could have taken place in pretty much any upscale American beach community)…if it weren’t for the fact that this is a show based on a game about amphibians beating up humanoid rats on distant planets. We’ll get to that. First, let me share some of the skillful exposition between Professor T. Bird and Princess Angelica that opens up the show:

Oh no, the Dark Queen has found us again!

Then all is lost!

No, Princess Angelica! You are the last star child of the blood! The Dark Queen will do anything to get your galactical amulet!

First, damn that is some bad exposition. Second, I’m not sure how telling someone that their bloodthirsty nemesis “will do anything” can help stave off pessimism. Third…galactical? Really?

With that set-up fresh on our minds, we meet our protagonists, three gang members who hold a terrifying stranglehold over their Oxnard high school. At least, that’s sort of the impression we get from their first scene, with the principal angrily ordering them to not hang out with each other ever again. Really, though, since this is a sub-G-rated show, their only “crimes” are that they are really clumsy and constantly spout a 60-year old’s idea of contemporary youth slang like “psychotronic.” So, yes, the show really wants to give us a trio of outcasts and troublemakers, except the anti-social thugs we get make Oscar the Grouch look like a hard-edged badass.

And, you know, it’s this decision to make the show “relateable” that really sinks it down to the ninth level of one-shot series Hell; not the slapdash plot full of holes, not the godawful animation, and not even the general “can we get a paycheck now?” feel of the whole thing. Seriously, when in the history of entertainment did “Make it more relateable to the audience!” ever turn out to be a good piece of advice? Maybe what Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings needed was a streetwise but harmlessly mischievous fifteen-year old from Brooklyn, and the recent reboot of Star Trek was missing a time-displaced, wisecracking Italian-American grandma from late 20th century New York. (Well, okay, that last one would have been awesome…). The point is, kids don’t care about being able to relate! After all, the original game was titled Battletoads, not A Few Hipster Doofuses Being Lamely Passed Off As Social Misfits By Lazy Writing.

Fortunately, if the viewer isn’t amused by the slapstick antics of our “heroes,” then we have Princess Angelica and Professor T. Bird going to some ruins for the “genetic essence” (*snicker*) of the original Battletoads. With a device that enables them to teleport through anything electronic (so why did they have ships at the beginning of the episode? Oh whatever), Angelica and T. Bird wind up at a convenience store where they run into the misfit trio. Of course, they had decided to give the “essence” (*snicker*) of the legendary Battletoads to the first people they found, which is really the only clear hint we get at exactly why Angelica’s intergalactic kingdom has fallen to the Dark Queen and her family has been wiped out. Thus we get our heroes’ unlikely origin story (oh, and here they can change back to their human form whenever they want; yay heroes who don’t have to face any complications!) and their battle cry, “Let’s get warty.” Look, I know they couldn’t make it “Let’s get horny,” but when it comes to sexual innuendos you should either put up or shut up.

Anyway, the Dark Queen’s goons also have the power to teleport through Earth’s electronic appliances. The Battletoads are able to fend them off, but become aware of the precariousness of their situation. Luckily the one sympathetic teacher from their entire school grants them use of his lavish beach house (damn, Scott Walker was right!) before literally walking out stage left. Thanks, Mr. Plot D. Vice! Of course, knowing that their enemy already knows their location (somehow) and that they can pretty much effortlessly come to Earth anytime they like, the Battletoads let Princess Angelica get a job as a waitress at a doughnut shop, a plot point that exists just to make sure the heroes are distracted while the McGuffin gets snatched. Also it does seem that the Dark Queen is going through a lot of trouble when apparently all she needs to do is tear the amulet off Angelica’s neck, unless maybe her interest in Angelica is something…more…?

Well, it all leads to the Battletoads basically going through the last level of the video game, but having a much easier time of it, and destroying the source of all the Dark Queen’s power, which somehow manages to make a little less sense than most of the rest of the plot. Now really pissed off, the Dark Queen rallies “the last of her power”, which just means sending one classic UFO-style ship to Earth. (By this point, the Dark Queen’s dread empire seems only slightly more impressive than Angelica’s “star child” credentials). Admittedly, the animators fell flat on the job in depicting the Dark Queen’s home world, but it says a lot about why the pilot failed when the climactic battle against the galactic tyrant takes place in a suburban shopping mall. In the end, the Dark Queen is driven off, the crotchety principal is forced to give the trio some respect, and the closing scene promises that this is only the “beginning” but, thankfully, they were wrong.

If you want to see how bad the animated series is, just compare it to the comic published in Nintendo Power, which instead had the Battletoads as performers in a virtual reality game who get turned into the Battletoads when one of the game’s programmers, Silas Volkmire, turns on them. Sure, the comic was only meant to be a commercial and it’s got more than its fair share of cheese, but it sets up two villains, Silas Volkmire and the Dark Queen, and gives them motivations beyond just capturing an unexplained McGuffin; creates a basis for future stories like the Battletoads finding out how and why they were transformed; and even hints at a larger backstory (specifically Professor T. Bird and the Dark Queen being an item in the past, which is a fun bit of in-universe slash for you). So in the end a short in-house commercial did a better job of setting up a series than the actual pilot. Still, at least it seems like one animator out there got some joy out of the pilot, if the design of the Dark Queen’s tower is any indication.

 

And that makes it all worthwhile.

 

 

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – The Romans (1965)

As soon as the TARDIS lands, it falls over in a pit. Next time we see the crew the Doctor and Ian are in a Roman villa dressed in togas and eating grapes while reclining on sofas. They’ve been resting in a small village miles away from Rome for more than a month and telling the locals that they are “villa-setting” for a Roman general off on campaign in Gaul. On their way to the village marketplace, Vicki complains to Barbara about the lack of adventure, but Barbara advises her to be thankful for the vacation. Unfortunately, they are spotted by two slave traders, Didius and Sevcheria. They assume from eavesdropping on their conversation that Barbara and Vicki are Britons and thus superb candidates for slavery. The Doctor decides to head off to explore Rome and invites the bored Vicki to accompany him, but, irritated at Ian and Barbara, tells them that if they want to go to Rome they can go themselves. That night Sevcheria and Didius invade the villa and abduct Ian and Barbara.

On the way to Rome, the Doctor and Vicki find the corpse of a musician. Vicki thinks the man was killed by robbers, but the Doctor disagrees, noticing that the musician’s lyre was left next to the body. A centurion comes across the Doctor while he’s holding the lyre and mistakes him for Maximus Pettulian, the murdered musician. Suspecting that the centurion knows something about the murder, the Doctor plays along, and finds out that Pettulian has been scheduled to perform at the court of Emperor Nero. While staying the night at Assysium, the centurion confronts the mute assassin, Ascaris, who killed the real Pettulian. The centurion chides him for failing to carry out his orders to kill the musician and tells him to rectify his “mistake.” The Doctor fights off Ascaris, who flees through a window, and Vicki finds that the centurion has left too. Despite Vicki’s misgivings, the Doctor decides to keep heading on to Nero’s court. Meanwhile Ian is immediately sold and placed as a rower on a galley while Barbara is taken to be sold at a slave auction in Rome. Barbara is purchased by a man named Tavius, who felt Barbara was worth helping because he saw her being kind to another slave. Tavius tells Barbara that he works for the imperial court and that she will be assigned to be a servant to Nero’s wife Poppaea, the cushiest position a slave could hope for. Although he’s sympathetic to Barbara’s plight, he also warns her that any attempt to escape would also lead to an automatic death sentence. Ian is saved when a severe storm sinks his ship; only him and a fellow slave he befriended, Delos, survive. Despite Delos’ protests, Ian vows to go to Rome and try to find Barbara, and Delos agrees to accompany him. Their expedition is cut short as at Rome both Ian and Delos are promptly arrested and condemned to fight in the arena. Ian quickly finds out that their opponents will be live lions.

Vicki and the Doctor are brought before the Emperor, who right away orders the Doctor to play. Cleverly the Doctor claims he can’t play unless he takes inspiration from Nero’s performance, flattering him and avoiding a concert. From several conversations with Tavius and finding that he had the centurion who previously tried to kill him murdered, the Doctor deduces that Tavius is convinced he’s supposed to play a key role in a conspiracy against Nero. Barbara finds that her job isn’t as comfortable as Tavius promised; Nero wants her as a lover and Poppaea suspects that Barbara will prove to be a serious rival. Vicki stumbles across the lab of the official poisoner of the court and later eavesdrops as Poppaea purchases a poison from her to put in Barbara’s drink at a major banquet planned tonight. Vicki confesses to the Doctor that she switched the poisoned drink meant for the “slave” with Nero’s drink. Warning Vicki that she cannot change history, the Doctor rushes over to warn Nero about the poison. Later Nero asks the Doctor to perform for his guests at the banquet. The Doctor pulls an “emperor’s new clothes” trick on Nero by telling him he composed a new piece that could only be heard by “the most sensitive ear” and proceeds to “play” the lyre without making any sound. The trick backfires, though, by exciting Nero’s resentment. He also plans to take out his anger by having an impromptu fight at the arena – and ordering Delos and Ian to instead fight each other to the death for his personal amusement. Also he arranges to have lions set on the Doctor during his next performance.

During the fight, Delos gets the upper hand but refuses to kill Ian and instead tries to assassinate Nero. During the resulting confusion with Nero’s guards, Ian and Delos escape and Nero figures out that Barbara knows Ian. He kills a guard in front of a terrified Barbara because “he didn’t fight hard enough.” Fearing for her life and realizing that Nero is using her to trap Ian, Barbara turns to Tavius, who was just ordered by Poppaea to get rid of Barbara. Tavius promises to help Barbara escape with Ian while also warning him what Nero plans for “Pettulian.” Elsewhere the Doctor and Vicki come across Nero’s plans for “New Rome.” Tavius interrupts “Pettulian” about the plan and says he must assassinate Nero right away. After Tavius leaves, Nero comes in and asks him to perform in the arena. In their conversation the Doctor shocks Nero by dropping hints that he knows exactly what Nero is planning, but while they talk the Doctor accidentally sets fire to Nero’s plans. At first Nero is enraged, but starts screaming “Brilliant! Brilliant!” once he realizes he can rebuild the city however he wants if he sets fire to it. During the confusion that night caused by Nero starting fires across Rome, Delos flees to go to his home in Greece and Ian and Barbara, after the latter is rescued from the palace, head back to the villa. Barbara and Ian arrive at there with the Doctor and Vicki showing up later, so the Doctor and Vicki assume that Barbara and Ian had been resting idly at the villa the entire time. Later, while the Doctor pilots the TARDIS, Vicki asks the others if the Doctor actually knows how to fly it. Barbara answers, “Yes”, and Ian adds, “Sort of.” Vicki notes, though, that the Doctor has been at the controls for hours. Concerned, Ian asks the Doctor if anything is wrong. He replies that the TARDIS has been caught in some kind of field and is being dragged down…

Choice Quotes

The Doctor: “I am so constantly outwitting the opposition I tend to forget the arts…the gentle arts of fisticuffs.”

Continuity Notes

The Doctor claims that he personally taught the “Mountain Mauler of Montana” how to fight. (I think it’s actually meant to be a reference to the boxer Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler of Colorado, which would place the Doctor in the northwestern United States around the 1910s, but in my admittedly brief search I haven’t found any verification of this theory.)

There isn’t an extended discussion of time travel theory in this serial as there was in “The Aztecs”, but when Vicki jokes that the Doctor is responsible for the Great Fire of Rome the Doctor replies that if he didn’t give Nero the idea to try to burn down Rome someone else would have. This is completely consistent with what we’ve seen in the “historicals” so far; history cannot be changed because some other event or circumstance would cause the “to-be-changed” event to occur anyway or prevent the time traveler from carrying out their purpose. This is actually similar in a way to Igor Novikov and Paul Horwich’s thoughts on the possibility of temporal paradoxes.

Comments

All the past “historicals” we’ve seen so far fudged historical fact, but this is probably the first “historical” that eschewed most attempts at historical accuracy. The Rome and the Nero presented here are taken straight from the popular imagination, fueled by the lurid and sometimes borderline surreal accounts left by Suetonius and Tacitus (the scene where the Doctor fools Nero by playing on his artistic vanity really sounds like an anecdote Tacitus would have written down). At least they showed Nero playing a lyre while Rome burned, rather than a fiddle. Another novelty in this serial is that, for the most part, it’s meant to be funny. Rather than the expected “crew getting separated and then meeting together” aspect, the Doctor and Vicki keep narrowly missing Barbara in Nero’s palace. Except for Barbara and Ian’s traumatic escapades, there’s rarely any real sense of danger, and the Doctor comes across as being more in control of the situation than ever before. I suppose following two subsequent serials that involved the near-genocides of entire races the showrunners thought the audience deserved a break in the tension, even if such a break still involved the prospect of a sick elderly slave being fed to lions and a man being impaled on a sword.

Unfortunately, the seriousness of Ian and Barbara’s side of the serial does undercut the farcical elements. Also while almost all of the other “historicals” tended to have some thematic bonus – “Marco Polo” had both the titular historical figure and Lady Ping Ciao struggle successfully against the burdensome obligations placed on them, “The Aztecs” raised the question of whether or not historical atrocities could or should be prevented and the dilemma of what one person can do against a barbaric practice embraced by their culture, and even “The Reign of Terror” benefited somewhat from trying to convey what it’s like to live when politics are literally a matter of life and death – but, even though this episode skirts around the cruelty of Roman slavery and of the style of autocracy practiced by Nero, there’s no real room for any thematic explorations to go and the plot feels rather thin as a result. Still, it is a fun, cleanly paced serial, and Derek Francis, who was a veteran of the “Carry On” series, pulls off a pretty good Nero.

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – The Rescue (1965)

When the TARDIS next lands, the Doctor mistakenly asks for Susan to open the doors, causing Barbara and Ian to feel sorry for him. Outside the Doctor recognizes their surroundings as the planet Dido, which he had visited once before. While the Doctor stays behind, Ian and Barbara move on, coming across a city that appears to be in ruins. Before they can investigate further, they come across a being called the Koquillon, who traps Ian, the Doctor, and the TARDIS by using some sort of weapon to create an explosion and then shoves Barbara off a cliff. The Doctor identifies the Koquillons as the natives of the planet, but is confused at the hostile reception Ian and Barbara received since the Koquillons have a very hospitable and peaceful culture. Meanwhile Barbara is rescued by Vicki, whose ship crashed on Dido months ago. The only other survivor besides Vicki is a man named Bennett, whose injuries keep him bedridden. Vicki explains that it’s the 25th century and that the same Koquillon Barbara encountered has been keeping them prisoner, threatening that if they stray far from the ship the other Koquillons will kill them, just like they, according to Bennett, killed the other crew members. Their only hope is a rescue ship that is supposed to arrive soon. Vicki’s father, who was moving with Vicki to another world after the death of Vicki’s mother, was among those who died.

Ian and the Doctor, who make their way around the obstruction through a cavern, eventually come across the crashed ship too. Vicki becomes upset when Barbara mistakes Vicki’s “pet”, a creature indigenous to Dido, as something threatening Vicki and shoots it with a gun, but the Doctor is able to calm her down and manages to get her to explain more about the situation. His curiosity piqued, the Doctor insists on meeting Bennett and forces his way into his room. Inside the Doctor discovers a recording of Bennett’s voice, demanding to be “left alone”, and finds a trapdoor leading into an underground complex. There, in a giant meeting hall, the Doctor runs into the Koquillon, which is of course Bennett in disguise. Answering the Doctor’s demands for an explanation even as he walks menacingly toward him, Bennett explains that he had murdered one of his shipmates and, in desperation, not only caused the crash on Dido but also used a weapon that can cause explosions from afar to massacre the rest of the crew and wipe out the Koquillon race, who were relatively few in number. Since Vicki had remained at the ship the entire time, Bennett set up the disguise to have her as a witness that would, after they were rescued, claim that the Koquillons were the real culprits. The Doctor shouts that Bennett must be insane to kill so many people just to save his own skin, a diagnosis Bennett is happy to verify by viciously attacking the Doctor. Luckily the Doctor is saved by two actual Koquillons, who rescue him and kill a terrified Bennett. After recovering from Bennett’s attack, the Doctor, Barbara, and Ian all agree to invite Vicki along. Vicki, who admits that she doesn’t really have anywhere else to go, happily agrees.

Continuity Notes

It’s the first time since “An Unearthly Child” that there’s a new companion. Also for those nerds keeping track of “lost adventures”, the Doctor has been to Dido at least once before.

Our Future History

The means of time travel has been discovered by the 25th century. Also interstellar travel is commonplace enough that people go to new planets just for the sake of finding work.

Comments

The main problem, of course, is that the episode is blatantly a sales pitch for the new companion, Vicki. It’s clear the showrunners were still committed to the show’s original formula and felt a replacement for Susan was absolutely necessary. Luckily the Doctor didn’t end up with another young waif for a relative; instead we have a plucky orphan from the 25th century, who finds the TARDIS a more than feasible alternative than staying behind on a planet where the natives are probably not all that inclined toward being polite to any representatives of the human species. It’s especially distracting since the entire script seems to be written like an audition: here’s Vicki grieving over a dead pet! Here’s Vicki lashing out at Barbara! Here’s Vicki warming up to the Doctor! At least the script is honest enough that it sets up that the Doctor misses Susan, Barbara and Ian realize that the Doctor misses Susan, and so they’re happy when a suitable replacement comes across their path.

Honestly I’m being more of the typical sarcastic Internet critic than I need to be with this one, since, for a story built around a remit, it’s not bad at all. In fact, it deserves to be remembered as arguably the first episodes where the Doctor is truly front and center. Not only does he solve the mystery du jour, but for the first time he gets into an actual brawl with the villain (he loses, but still…). All in all it’s a good couple of episodes with an interesting set-up and so far Vicki doesn’t look like she’ll just be a clone of Susan or, God help us, embody Susan at her worst; it’s just hard to ignore the producer-driven mandates behind the scenes and take the story fully on its own merits.

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