By 1986, the Martial Arts Commission, under the guidance of the UK government, had established new guidelines for the sale of equipment designed to prevent it falling into the hands of minors. Two years later, 14 ninja-style weapons were banned in the UK, including swordsticks, blowpipes, footclaws, and knuckledusters to name just a few as part of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order 1988.
While there were similar concerns over the popularity of ninja weapons among kids in the U.S. with the New York Times running a piece on the dangerous “throwing star” fad of the time, it never amounted to any formal legislation like what was seen in the UK. But that wasn’t enough for some. They didn’t just want to prevent kids from seeing or purchasing ninja weaponry; they wanted to ban the word “ninja” altogether, and one cartoon in particular was about to fall foul of this new crusade.
According to The Tribune Magazine, from as early as 1986, British politicians were raising concerns over “Ninja-style toys, which are marketed as suitable for children from the age of three upwards” that “when used, or adapted, can become an offensive weapon.” It was against this backdrop in January 1990 that the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series first aired in the UK, nearly three years on from its U.S. debut and with several notable changes.
The most obvious came with the name, which was updated to the seemingly more palatable Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. This, in turn, required the show’s intro sequence and iconic theme tune—written by Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre—also having to be altered significantly to remove any mention of ninjas. One of the most significant changes in the episodes themselves came with the character of Michaelangelo, who wielded nunchaku in the U.S. version of the cartoon. Rather than replace these weapons with a more acceptable alternative, however, censors opted to simply cut any sequences involving nunchucks altogether, reducing the character’s role in the process.
By the time the show’s fourth season rolled around, showrunners had taken the decision to replace the nunchaku with a “Turtle Line” grappling hook. Eager to avoid any further controversy whatsoever, the BBC also moved to excise any mentions of the word “ninja” while phrases like “let’s kick some shell” and “bummer” were also omitted. It was an odd decision, not least because the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics had been in circulation for several years by then, complete with the same vernacular, while the toy line featuring all of the quartet’s original weaponry had already hit the shelves.
The decision to remove the word “ninja” from all episodes didn’t just impact UK broadcasts either. The same edited versions of episodes also aired in countries like Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Norway. Though later iterations differed, the original run of episodes would only officially revert back from Hero Turtles to Ninja Turtles in 2009, following the release of the first two seasons on DVD.