I’ve said before that we 80’s-90’s kids are a nostalgic bunch, and when it comes to cartoons, we have much to be nostalgic about: Gargoyles, the DC and Marvel Animated Universes, and for us unironic leftists, Captain Planet.
For the longest time, I’ve had a vague memory in the back of my head of a program from my early childhood, but I couldn’t remember what it was called; I could only recall one scene, and that it was about sailing ships and questing for a bunch of treasures. After a while, I began to wonder if a couple of unrelated childhood memories had just blurred together in my mind.
A couple of weeks ago, a passing reference on Zero Punctuation finally kicked my mental stars into alignment. I wasn’t even paying full attention to the video when I heard the title, and my eyes widened in recognition of the words: Pirates of Dark Water.
This animated series by Hanna-Barbera, running from 1991-93, takes place on an alien water world known as Mer. Young Ren is the keeper of a lighthouse on the shores of his former home, the ruined realm of Octopon. Destroyed, like much of Mer by the spreading plague of Dark Water, a vile, devouring horror of the seas.
The evil pirate Lord Bloth sails to the ruins in pusuit of a castaway prisoner, who reveals with his dying breath to Ren that he is the former King Primus of Octopon, and Ren’s father!
Prince Ren takes up his father’s broken sword and magic compass, to complete his quest: to seek the magical Thirteen Treasures of Rule. These treasures have the power to restore the ruined lands of Mer and drive back the Dark Water.
Ren brings together, to use the show’s phrase, “an unlikely but loyal crew of misfits” including the cynical pirate Ioz, the beautiful magician-warrior Tula and Lord Bloth’s former slave, the monkey-bird Niddler on the good (stolen) ship Wraith. Together they seek for the Treasures, fighting off sorcerers, sea monsters, barbarians, cultists and the unrelenting Bloth, who covets the Treasures and their power over Dark Water for himself.
The funny thing is, I don’t actually have a lot of nostalgia for Pirates of Dark Water; as I said, up until now I thought I might have imagined it. Watching it on the Internet, though, I can certainly understand why people would be.
It evokes a lot of things for me. The sleek, ornamented ships, Arabian Nights clothing and sea monsters make it look like a cartoon version of Ray Harryhausen swashbucklers like the Golden Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts. The sword-and-sorcery setting evokes Krull, Dungeons and Dragons, or sci-fi/fantasy adventure writers like Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. The menace of an ancient evil sealed beneath the seas evokes H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.
It also stands out in the quality of its visuals. Keep in mind that Hanna Barbera was known at the time for limited-style cartoons like Yogi Bear, the Flintstones, Scooby Doo and the Jetsons. It made for efficient and economical production, but the consequence was that their characters never moved more than the minimum necessary. This resulted in characters whose heads seem only informally attached to them, and who run like Riverdance, with upper bodies stock still above legs cycling like windmills.
Pirates of Dark Water looks startling by comparison, but at this point that really is faint praise. In fighting scenes, for example, there’s seldom a sense of impact, of force transferred from one person to the other. Although the ‘choreography’ is pretty good, it looks more like rehearsing a fight, not having one. Similar to this are things like Niddler lazily flapping his wings while carrying a person three times his size. The animation also didn’t maintain well; as the series went on it got less and less subtle. Characters’ physical ‘performace’ sometimes didn’t sync up with intense emotional dialogue. It looks way better than Transformers or Jem a few years before it, but not as good as Captain Planet or Batman: the Animated Series which followed after. The lavish watercolour backgrounds are lovely, but when compared to the bright flat colours of the characters, the effect is that they’re in front of the scenery rather than part of it.
That said, it’s really nice scenery to be in front of: the designs of buildings, ships and landscapes are marvelously variable, and brings across a sense of a huge world of widely-dispersed civilizations, a little bit like Earthsea. Whole ranges of creatures and sea monsters and ships delight the eye. Bloth’s giant ship the Maelstrom, constructed entirely of bone and transporting a pirate army with riding dragons and support craft is particularly magnificent. The show also has catapult-launched gliders, balloons, and bristles with exotic swords, boomerangs, crossbows and esoteric weaponry using venemous sea creatures as ammunition.
Character design deserves great credit; the villains are all so weird and deformed looking they may not even be human – and there are many non-human races on display – Bloth in particular is ogre-like, and Morpho, the Cthulhu-inspired Dark Water cultist genuinely unnerved me.
Better still, none of the three human leads are styled as lily-white Europeans. Ren admittedly looks like a deeply tanned Scandanavian, although a quirk of the art style makes his eyes look somewhat epicanthic, like maybe he had a Japanese grandmother or something. Tula and Ioz are definitely not Western European in appearance. Ioz looks sort of East Asian and Tula, going from her dress sense as well as her looks, could be from just about anywhere between Turkey and Thailand if those places existed on Mer.
What really stood out for me as I watched the show was that the dialogue is startlingly naturalistic and polished, with lots of banter and little character moments. For comparison I watched clips of episodes of She-Ra and Captain Planet, from opposite sides of Dark Water’s era, and their dialogue is comparatively clunky, pedantic and, as I’ve said of Captain Planet before, more like it was written by a child rather than for children. In other words, Pirates of Dark Water doesn’t talk down to kids like many of its contemporaries.
The main characters themselves are surprisingly nuanced. Ren is the Hero, always running to the rescue and doing the right thing, but in a way that brings him across as naive as much as principled. Ioz is a bit of a chauvinist and rogue who proves the line from Curse of the Black Pearl, that ‘piracy itself can be the right course.’ Tula wouldn’t be caught dead acting like a damsel in distress, and has cunning and gumption enough for the whole crew. Niddler stays consistently a step above the annoying, comic-relief team pet by having genuine traumas in his backstory. Bloth is smart, pragmatic but affable and with an honourable streak that makes for a more complex villain than, say, Megatron. The protagonists generally do develop, subtly, as time goes on, with Ren getting more savvy, Ioz more softhearted, Tula more trusting and Niddler more courageous, though the arcs are still very slight and unambitious.
This is backed up by the voice actors: Ren is voiced by George Newbern, later Superman in the DCAU’s Justice League series and beyond. Tula’s actress, Jodi Benson, had previously voiced the star of Disney’s Little Mermaid. Bloth is played by Brock Peters, known to Trekkies as Captain Sisko’s dad and Admiral Cartwright in the fourth and sixth movies, and has henchmen played by Tim Curry and Peter ‘Optimus Prime’ Cullen! Roddy MacDowell played Niddler in the pilot episodes, whereupon Frank Welker took over. Hilarious, considering Welker would much later hold the role of ‘Nibbler,’ another ravenous alien creature, in Futurama! Since, as usual, he also plays a ton of supporting characters and animals you can play ‘Spot Frank Welker’ while watching if you know what to listen for.
In general Pirates of Dark Water is working toward the state of later shows like Batman: the Animated Series, in that it’s aimed at kids but can also resonate with adults. Notably, it occasionally uses words like ‘die’ and ‘kill’ which were utterly off-limits in many contemporaries. To give the show a bit of grit, the writers created a set of fantasy-language curses. There are several blasphemies against Mer’s gods but also words that are clearly taking the place of ‘damn’ or ‘shit.’ It reminds me of one of my favourite shows: Farscape, which is famous for its alien swears. A key thing to remember though, is that Farscape’s fake swears were mainly meant to be funny; Dark Water’s were meant as a worldbuilding device and to darken up the setting, but some of them just sound goofy to adult ears. ‘Noy-Jitat’ sounds like an honest foreign language, but when Ioz exclaims ‘Chongo-Longo!’ the dramatic tension abruptly turns to dust. Not helping is that, as the show went on, these went from occasional punctuations to every second word of the dialogue. The dialogue is further undermined because, although well written, the short episode length often requires the actors to speak their lines quite quickly, making them seem rushed and halfhearted.
The worldbuilding is undisciplined. Part of what pulls you into Avatar: the Last Airbender is a clearly defined world for you to explore and learn about. In Dark Water, though, while there are one or two places revisited, we never see a world map and get a sense of the scope of things. Every island seems to have a completely different ecology and civilization, which is usually seen once and never again. There are so many one-off sapient creatures that the world seems overstuffed, vague, and less real.
But Pirates of Dark Water’s biggest drawback is that it didn’t finish. The show was cancelled with only eight treasures accounted for. Funnily, looking back, I remember now that I wasn’t sold on the show because I didn’t like the idea of a multi-episode story arc. I was too young to understand times and dates well enough to reliably keep abreast of it. With thirteen treasures to hunt down, I could have easily missed a lot and it turns out I was right to be wary. If they’d made it three treasures, or seven or some smaller, resonant number, that might have been safer. More problematically, though, the treasures became increasingly spaced out by filler episodes. It became more like the episodic one-adventure-at-a-time show that was standard back then instead of sticking to its guns.
My feeling is that Pirates of Dark Water was a show before its time. It clearly foretells the calibre of the DCAU, Gargoyles or Avatar, but it doesn’t actually reach that level itself. The animation standards weren’t equal to the story the creators were telling and there was little prior experience in mythology arcs, character development or refined worldbuilding to draw from. I also think the cast of protagonists is too small to create the kinds of complex dynamics that drive fanfiction and fan shipping. Speaking of shipping, the Wraith itself looks awesome, but characterizing your ship – the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean, Moya in Farscape or Serenity in Firefly – is, I believe, essential for this type of story. But the Wraith’s really just a mode of transport in practice. I also just think Wraith isn’t a very punchy name.
Pirates of Dark Water does not evoke nostalgia for me, but in a way I wish it did. It certainly deserves nostalgia, despite of missed opportunities. Much as I grumble about remakes, I wouldn’t mind remaking Pirates of Dark Water, because it’s a chance show all that’s been learned, from the age of Transformers to the age of Legend of Korra, and truly realize its ambitions. Regardless, I’m glad to have recovered this lost memory, and to memorialize a sign of things to come from my childhood.
Sail away, sail away.