Things have never been more dire for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When the animated series returns to Nickelodeon for its fourth season on Sunday the heroes in a half-shell will be surfing through outer space alongside a mysterious robot called the Fugitoid -- a name familiar to fans of Turtle lore. But why did Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo leave our galaxy? Well, that's because the Earth was destroyed. Yeah -- the Earth was destroyed.
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" executive producer Ciro Nieli and Donatello voice actor Rob Paulsen discussed the shocking new status quo with reporters at a press event earlier this month at New York Comic Con, giving details of some of the Turtles' new allies along the way.
"Earth is gone," Nieli said, matter-of-factly. "We're in a very beautiful spaceship and we are floating out into the voids of space, and figuring out now what do we do with ourselves. We are on a, I would say, season-long -- or most-of-a-season-long -- mission to figure out how not to just get back to Earth, but to recreate Earth before we get back to it."
The Turtles aren't alone on that ship, however, as Paulsen was quick to remind the press. "And we get to do it with David Tennant," he added excitedly. Nieli and Paulsen praised Tennant's addition to the cast as the alien robot Professor Honeycutt -- a.k.a. the Fugitoid. Nieli revealed that with the absence of Splinter in season four, Tennant's Fugitoid is stepping up a bit.
"He's like pops," Nieli said of Honeycutt. "[He's] kinda the uncle for a while."
Paulsen expressed his excitement over having Tennant in the cast, stating that the acclaimed "Doctor Who" actor's readiness to join the show speaks to the quality of the "TMNT" material. "I watch him in a show called 'Broadchurch,' in which he's just wonderful," Paulsen said. "He's a terrific actor. And when we found that he jumped in with all sorts of excitement, that he was really thrilled to be part of the Turtles, it was just thrilling. I think that speaks really highly of what [executive producer] Brandon [Auman] and Ciro have done, because the quality of the show is, objectively as I can say it, undeniable. However, when you have people like David Tennant and Ron Perlman and Zelda Williams and folks like that whom they approach [to be on the show] and say, [snaps] 'absolutely,' that speaks really highly of [the show], the fact that they want to do it. It's a pretty remarkable franchise."
Nieli also praised Tennant's performance, saying, "A lot of times we'll cast a character and there are some adjustments that you make, either in the design or through post [production] to really make them come together -- and it does always come together really great," he said. "The David Tennant/Fugitoid combo, like, it just kinda blew my mind. It was one of those things that just came together like, so perfectly. It works. When I saw it I was like, 'Holy crap.'"
Tennant isn't the only new addition to the show for its outer space season: Zelda Williams, Keith David and Lucy Lawless will all have a part to play in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
"Zelda Williams, who's great, is coming on as Mona Lisa," Nieli said. "Keith David is coming on as -- what's his actual alien name? It's G'thraka, but I call him Sal Commander, so I never say G'thraka. Mona Lisa's [alien] name is Ik'thba." Nieli was also excited to have a member of director Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" franchise on the show. "She's great, and I'm excited about her just in general," said Nieli of Lawless, who is part of the current "Ash vs. Evil Dead" TV series. "Having someone that's part of the Raimi world right now is huge. I'm a huge 'Evil Dead' person."
The odds of some "Evil Dead" references popping up in relation to Lawless' unannounced character are high, considering the references the "TMNT" team sneak into episodes. Paulsen referenced these references, dubbing them, "all the little side things that you guys throw in there very subversive, cool stuff."
Nieli detailed one Easter egg: "They're in the Statue of Liberty, what if we put some Dr. Venkman graffiti in there? I know some of the Southern California Ghostbusters crew guys and the whole boards blew up, so now we have Ghostbusters/Turtles fans." The producer expanded on the idea, saying that he likes "the idea that Raph's watching John Carpenter movies, because it makes you relate to Raphael more. He's a real dude."
Paulsen and Nieli don't worry about the references going over the heads of some of the show's younger viewers, which is part of "Ninja Turtles'" mission statement of not talking down to kids. The show itself can get grim at times, with Splinter being stabbed and Earth being destroyed, but Nieli feels that grimness is integral to the show.
"It comes down to the relative stakes and the morality of the situation," Nieli said. "Yeah, we killed Splinter and these are the gratuitous details of how that all happened, sure. It almost seems like a gratuitous, selfish, awful thing to do an audience of children, but I think when you look at it complete within the context of the episode, there's almost a morality tale there that I think is really important for kids to understand. I think to not do it at times would almost be irresponsible. I think that these characters live in violence, and [to behave like], 'Oh it's just funny and cartoony,' I think that's far more irresponsible than it is to show the outcome, although grim and dire, of what comes from that."
The Turtles have come a long way since their original animated series, which debuted in 1987 and rarely dealt with mature themes. Paulsen was actually part of the original series as the voice of Raphael, meaning that he's now voiced two of the four Turtles. Paulsen revealed that he almost didn't get his current gig voicing Donatello -- because he didn't even think to audition.
"The opportunity 25 years later, thanks to Ciro and Brandon, to get another ride in the Turtle Van, I have to tell you that I was almost a victim of my own ageism," Paulsen said. "It didn't occur to me -- I'm not a celebrity talent... I go to work every day and I go home, but I forget that people really do pay attention. It didn't occur to me that the people making this latest iteration of the show grew up watching everything I did. So when they said, 'Would you like to read for Donatello?' I said, 'Absolutely, but I'm 55 years old.' And it didn't bother them, I was the one that had a problem with it because I thought, 'Well, they can't possibly want me.' So it was a great lesson for me."
The fourth season of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" debuts at 11 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 25 on Nickelodeon.