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"The Pirates of Dark Water": Avast, Ahoy, and All Aboard!

With its beautifully drawn monsters and bold, evocative landscapes, The Pirates of Dark Water drew me in. This was not an uncommon feature of “high fantasy” shows from the eighties and early nineties—it seems to have been one of He-Man’s main claims to fame—but Pirates distinguishes itself even among its contemporaries. It’s not very well animated, but it’s the kind of show where the stiltedness seems like a deliberate choice, and, if anything, it ends up helping the show aesthetically. All of these factors are supported by an intense visual creativity: in what other series do you get to see a ship made out of bone, an overweight pirate king with an elaborate hair-style and a golden eye, a huge lizard who is also a priest, a “monkey-bird”, and some sort of huge lamprey with a face—and that’s all just during the first fifteen minutes? This is, without any doubt, a very fun show to look at.

The plot is neatly laid out in the introduction. The “alien world” of Mer is being devoured by Dark Water—it’s like quicksand, but evil—that can only be stopped by a young prince named Ren (not that one) by finding the Lost Thirteen Treasures of Rule. At his side is an unlikely but loyal crew of misfits; at his back, the evil pirate lord Bloth, who would stop at nothing to get the treasures for himself.

It’s not very original—I’d imagine anyone outlining a fantasy series involving pirates would come up with something similar—but the amount of mythology and layers and thought that gets put into it is truly impressive. The first episode is a sort of whirlwind of nonsensical events that’s fun to watch but not very engrossing, but once the series calms down a bit it slowly unveils a backstory that is genuinely intriguing.

About that “unlikely but loyal crew of misfits”: In addition to Ren, who is as blandly likable as you might expect, we have Ioz, a professional pirate; Tula, a young girl who is eventually revealed to be an “ecomancer”, and thus able to mentally control plants and animals; and (groan) Niddler, a constantly hungry monkey-bird about whom I can only say that he’s not as annoying as he sounds. None of these characters are portrayed very strongly—they’re basically just vehicles the show uses to careen from one monster or story to another—but they’re never irritating or unlikable either. And many of the vocal performances for these characters are also impressive. Tula, for instance, is voiced by Ariel. As for Bloth and the rest of the villains, they are predictably much more forceful characters. Bloth in particular is magnificent, constantly speaking in an almost supernaturally menacing baritone.

Probably the best thing can be said about the show’s story is that even in its weaker moments it always seems to be exactly the story the people behind it are trying to tell. Similar shows often feel plagued by meddling censors or marketing people. Not so here; even though the series almost certainly faced these kinds of obstacles, nothing ever feels forced or out-of-place and a couple of surprising things manage to slip past the censors. (Watch for the episode where the woman melts).

It’s possible that this free-spirited nature got the show in trouble with higher-ups, or maybe the show’s high aesthetic standards just got too expensive to maintain. For whatever reason, the show disappointingly ends with twenty-one episodes before all of the treasures are even found. This lack of a conclusion is a pretty glaring problem, but the show is still a lot of fun, and this DVD looks and sounds fine. Its only flaw is the price you pay for all Warner Archive releases: there are no extras. But this is a vastly underappreciated show, and I’d encourage newcomers and old fans alike to seek out.

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