The Pirates of Dark Water was a forward-looking cartoon series that first aired from 1991-1992. Dark Water was created under then Hanna-Barbera president David Kirschner, and it was his main goal as president. At the time, American animation was in a Dark Age from which few original ideas emerged. The Pirates of Dark Water began to change this by attempting to blend popular Japanese anime themes and style into traditional American animation. The show was also innovative in that it appealed to an older audience than the vast majority of American cartoons at the time. Sadly, The Pirates of Dark Water was slightly ahead of its time and was unable to capture much of its target demographic, or much of any demographic for that matter. Due to high production costs and behind the scenes staff turnover, The Pirates of Dark Water was cancelled rather abruptly. Only 21 episodes were aired and the story line was never completed.

Each show began with the dramatic reading of this introduction:

“The alien world of Mer is being devoured by dark water. Only Ren, a young prince, can stop it by finding the lost thirteen treasures of Rul. At his side is an unlikely, but loyal crew of misfits. At his back the evil pirate lord Bloth, who will stop at nothing to get the treasures for himself. It’s high adventure with the Pirates of Dark Water!”

The story begins as Ren, a young son of a lighthouse keeper, rescues a stranger foundering in the rocks near his home. In a profound coincidence, this stranger turns out to be his true father, the great King Primus. Ren is the rightful heir to the kingdom of Octopon and must undertake his father’s quest to save the planet, Mer, from the evil and mysterious dark water. Ren is given a magic compass crystal that guides him in his quest to find the Thirteen Treasures of Rul which alone can defeat the dark water. Ren picks up several cohorts who help him with his quest using their unique specialties. There is Ioz, an ill-tempered mercenary/thief and a former member of Bloth’s crew; Tula, a shady “ecomancer” woman from another world; and Nibbler, the lovable and comical winged monkey-like creature whose taste for manga melons is insatiable. Unfortunately, the Dark Water is not the only enemy Ren and the gang must fight against. A pirate ship captained by the evil Bloth is also aware of the treasures and seeks to control the dark water for his own gain. Departing from traditional Saturday morning cartoon methods, the Pirates of Dark Water was presented as one continuous quest, with treasures, clues, and new allies picked up as the series went along.

Walking the line between adult and children subjects presented a few unique challenges to the creators of the show. The characters, while engaging in the very brutal and adult environment of Mer, were held to the American moral code for children’s shows stating that they could not kill anyone outright. To get around this constraint, Ren was supposed to have a higher virtue meaning that he would not kill, no matter how evil his adversaries were. An even more constraining aspect of developing a teenage oriented show was the language used by the characters. The so-called pirates were unable to swear at all! Having pirates without their infamous penchant for vulgarity was not an option so the show’s creators created their own “swear words.” When a character was angry or despairing, instead of saying “goddamnit!” he would say, “Noy Jitat!” Instead of calling someone a, “fuckin idiot!” one would call someone a, “Jitatin fool!” My personal favorite was, “cheap-talkin' monkey bird!”(I still use this phase to this day, showing just how “cool” I am…) These phrases became a hallmark of the series and allowed the characters to talk like pirates without calling down the censor’s red pen.

Though the story was never finished and the show was not initially popular, The Pirates of Dark Water continues to show up from time to time on television, most notably on Cartoon Network. The Pirates of Dark Water helped to pave the way for more mature oriented cartoons in America in a time when animation was deemed to be the realm of young children and without serious merit. Other shows such as the X-Men sprang up and proved that teen-oriented animation was economically feasible.

The Pirates of Dark Water was made into a fairly decent Sega Genesis game. The story has also achieved some revived popularity in the form of role-playing adventures, attempting to pick up where the series left off.

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