Saturday morning cartoons got a little more grown-up with the debut of Hanna-Barbera’s Pirates of Dark Water in 1991. Blending sci-fi with swords and sorcery, the show had more in common with Japanese anime than it did with other Hanna-Barbera properties, including the similarly-themed Galtar and the Golden Lance.
Originally aired as the five-part miniseries Dark Water, the show began in the ravaged kingdom of Octopon on the planet Mer. A strapping young teen named Ren discovered a battered old man washed up on the shore near his lighthouse. The man turned out to be King Primus, former ruler of Octopon and Ren’s father. The entire planet was menaced by an evil liquid being known as Dark Water. In the past, Dark Water had been held prisoner by a ring of thirteen treasures, but somehow the entity managed to escape, and it sent its servants to scatter the treasures.
Around the time of Ren’s birth, King Primus set out on a quest to recover the treasures and defeat Dark Water, but after collecting only eight of the thirteen, he was captured by the pale-skinned pirate Bloth. Bloth hoped to gain the treasures for himself, giving him power over Dark Water, and therefore, all of Mer. King Primus escaped Bloth’s ship, the Maelstrom, and spent the last of his energy finding Ren, his only surviving heir.
Ren accepted his father’s dying charge to return Octopon to its former glory, but he was soon kidnapped by the winged monkey-like creature Nibbler, one of Bloth’s slaves. The pirate tried to feed Ren to the sea monster Constrictus, but Nibbler, seeing a chance to escape, saved Ren and joined his quest. The two heroes later gained two additional warriors: Ioz, an ill-tempered mercenary/thief and a former member of Bloth’s crew, and Tula, an “ecomancer” from another world, whose actions and motives were often shady. Together, the four set sail aboard The Wraith, seeking out the thirteen treasures and fighting the many minions of Bloth.
Departing from traditional Saturday morning cartoon methods, Pirates of Dark Water was presented as one continuous quest, with treasures, clues, and new allies picked up as the series went along. Unfortunately, despite the show’s appeal to older audiences, the kids just weren’t watching, and production was expensive (nearly twice the traditional Saturday morning cartoon’s budget, thanks to the elaborate animation). Due to the high costs and some behind-the-scenes staff turnover, the quest was abruptly cancelled after only thirteen episodes. Viewers got to see eight additional episodes when the series moved to The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera in 1992, but no new shows were produced.
Pirates of Dark Water was only slightly ahead of its time—other shows like Fox’s X-Men would soon make teen cartoons economically feasible—but it was enough to sink this promising series.