The Pirates of Dark Water was created by then Hanna-Barbera CEO David Kirschner. The series was set on the alien planet of Mer, which was comprised of 20 seas and varied lands on islands that were constantly being destroyed and created by the planet. The planet one day became besieged by Dark Water; a semi-sentient, domineering force that rose up from the planet’s crust and engulfed whatever it touched. The only thing that could reverse the flow of Dark Water and restore the planet to its former glory were the lost Thirteen Treasures of Rule: mystical stones that were used to keep Dark Water from rising.
|Map of Mer.|
The quest for the Treasures fell on 17-year-old Ren (George Newbern). Ren was the prince of the once technologically advanced city of Octopon, now in ruins because of the Dark Water. His father, King Primus (Peter Renaday), set out to find the Treasures shortly after Ren was born and left him in the care of the lighthouse keepers with his identity hidden to protect him from threats. Primus wound up the prisoner of the evil pirate Bloth (Brock Peters), who sought the Treasures in order to take control of Dark Water and rule the planet with it. Primus escaped and was rescued by Ren, to whom he passed his mission to before he died. Ren tracked the Treasures through the amulet he wore around his neck, and used the half sword his father gave him as a weapon.
|Ioz, Niddler, Ren and Tula.|
Joining Ren on his quest was the monkey-bird Niddler (Roddy McDowall & Frank Welker) from the Island of Pandawa, who saved Ren’s life and became a loyal companion (despite being somewhat selfish and child-like); Tula (Jodi Benson), an ecomancer and warrior from the island of Andorus; and Ioz (Hector Elizondo & Jim Cummings), a mercenary from the island of Tayhoj who never shied away from an opportunity to make some money. Together they sailed on The Wraith, a ship Ioz stole that was imbued with the life-force of the mystical trees from which it was built. The Wraith’s original owner, Joat (Andre Stojka), was set to have a larger role in the series but was dramatically reduced. The crew often received help and information from gamehouse owner Zoolie (Dick Gautier), who worked at one of the ports.
Ren’s primary foe was Bloth and his crew on The Maelstrom, a massive and deadly warship built from the carcasses of leviathans. Bloth’s crew consisted of Mantus (Peter Cullen), his second-in-command and calculating strategist; Konk (Tim Curry), who lost his leg to Bloth’s pet Constrictus and was the only one to ever survive an encounter; and The Lugg Brothers (Earl Boen and Welker), two dimwits who assisted Konk. But, Ren also faced the threat of The Dark Dweller (Welker), the evil creature that created Dark Water. He was served by Morpho (also Welker), leader of his Dark Disciples who was an alchemist researching Dark Water before the Dark Dweller transformed him. Morpho served as a liaison between the Dark Dweller and Bloth.
The Pirates of Dark Water was one of Hanna-Barbera’s few attempts at a serious, straightforward fantasy series. As such, Hanna-Barbera recruited animation houses that could provide high-end animation not usually seen on regular television. Fil-Cartoons provided most of the art for the show, with additional animation rendered by Big Star Enterprises and Kennedy Cartoons. Episodes were constructed in a serial fashion, with each leading right into the next, and contained a subtle message about ecology.
The show actually began as a five-episode mini-series entitled simply Dark Water. It debuted on Fox Kids on February 25, 1991 before moving to ABC for its full series order as The Pirates of Dark Water on September 7th. The original five episodes were re-aired for the first month with some animation tweaks before the all-new episodes began in October. In that time, McDowall had left the show as he was refused a higher salary. Welker took over his role of Niddler, having already been proving the sound effects for the character. The new episodes were also slightly lighter in tone than the original five, although it still retained its overall seriousness. The series’ music was composed by Thomas Chase and Steve Rucker. Sean Roche penned the series’ bible, but only wrote one episode himself. The rest of the show was written by Lane Raichert, Bill Matheny, Kristina Luckey, Laren Bright, Peter Lawrence, Matthew Malach, Glenn Leopold, David Ehrman, Sam Graham, Chris Hubbell, Michael Maurer, Brian T. Gaughan, Kim Costalupes and Mark Kavanaugh.
While the show was a success with older audiences, it didn’t quite reach the younger audiences coveted by the networks to justify the high production costs the series generated. ABC opted to not renew the series for a second season after its initial 13 episodes aired. During this period, Turner Broadcasting was in the process of acquiring Hanna-Barbera and their executives wanted the studio to focus more on their own ideas. Kirschner and producer Cosmo Anzilotti pushed to keep the series going. FOX picked the series back up and a second season of 8 episodes was aired as part of the syndicated Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera.
Unfortunately, the final nail in the coffin for the show came when Fil-Cartoons experienced difficulty in animating the final four episodes of the series. As a result, Hanna-Barbera was unable to meet their airdate deadlines and the series was cancelled in November of 1992. The final episodes wouldn’t air until 6 months later in May, leaving a total of eight of the Treasures found. By that time, most of the show’s crew was working on the production of SWAT Kats and Anzilotti had moved on to Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Jayne Barbera also lost her position as the executive in charge of production as a result of the blunder, replaced by Catherine Winder for all productions following the failed prime-time co-production Capitol Critters.
Pirates received a tremendous merchandising push. Hasbro produced a line of action figures featuring Ren, Ioz, Niddler, Zoolie, Bloth, Konk, Mantus and Joat, as well as The Wraith. They also made a Niddler plush available in two sizes. Marvel Comics began publishing a comic based on the show in November of 1991. Initially slated to be a 6-issue limited series, it was extended three additional issues to allow for an original story. Sunsoft released two video games based on the show: a side-scrolling beat ‘em up for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and a platforming game with RPG elements for the Sega Genesis. Systema also made a handheld LCD game. As part of a promotion with the debut of the show, Pizza Hut offered a Pirates plastic cup with glowing lid as part of their Kids Pizza Pack. Other items included valentines by Cleo, a lunch box by Thermos, Ren and Niddler costumes by Collegeville, an RPG game by Mindgames, watches, wrapping paper, bedding, kites and a t-shirt.
Beginning in late 1991, several episodes were released on VHS. Hanna-Barbera Home Video released the mini-series in United States edited into a single movie, while Hanna-Barbera/Turner Home Entertainment handled the United Kingdom releases of it and two additional episodes. Hungary and Russia got similar releases, but all 13 episodes of the first season were released across 4-5 tapes, respectively. Yekaterinburg Art Home Video handled the Russian release of the show. In 2010, after much fan demand, Warner Archive released the complete collection to DVD as part of their Hanna-Barbera Classics Collection.
Fans of Pirates have always wondered if there was any chance for a resolution to the storyline. When the series aired on Cartoon Network, the network played to these questions during one of their comical commercial bumper segments. They claimed to have a tape of the “unaired episodes” of the show and proceeded to perform a psyche-out with footage of a kitten lapping milk as if someone had “taped” over the episodes. There has also been fan speculation that Kirschner’s film, Titan A.E., shared so many similarities to Pirates that it could be viewed as Kirschner’s attempt to finish the story. With fans having succeeded in getting the show released to DVD, and with constant reboots and revivals of long-dormant franchises, a completion to the story may still be a remote, but not necessarily improbable, possibility.