Hanna-Barbera/Turner Entertainment (1991-1993), Warner Home Video (August 31, 2010), four discs, 462 mins, 4:3 original aspect ratio, Dolby Digital 2.0, Not Rated, Retail: $29.95


Ren and a team of adventurers battle against pirates, dark water, and monsters in order to find the thirteen treasures of Rule necessary to rid the world of Mer from the threat of Dark Water.

The Sweatbox Review:

When the subject of cult animated series from the early 1990s comes up, one of the most mentioned series is the exotically fantasy adventure series The Pirates of Dark Water. The show made its official debut as a five part miniseries in February of 1991 called Dark Water. The show quickly became a hit and was picked up by ABC as a full-fledged animated series later that year. The Pirates of Dark Water was a successful blend of swashbuckling action and fantasy adventure more reminiscent of fantasy shows from the 1980s but with a more modern script keeping it appealing to a new generation of kids used to more sophisticated stories. The show would last for a total of two seasons until it was canceled unceremoniously in 1993 after only 21 episodes. Since then, fans have been clamoring Warner Bros. for a DVD release which many hoped would contain an official explanation to its cancellation and information on how the show would have eventually ended. After 19 years since its debut, the complete series has finally made its way to DVD as part of the Warner Archive program sold exclusively through WBShop.com.

In the first five episodes that make up the miniseries, we are introduced to Ren at his home in Octopon when he finds out that he is the heir to the kingdom and that his late father died on his quest to keep the thirteen treasures of Rule away from an evil pirate named Lord Bloth. Taking up his father’s cause, Ren goes on a quest to collect the thirteen treasures from their hiding places and combine them to rid the world of Dark Water, a mysterious and evil substance that has taken over the seas and destroyed civilizations throughout the world of Mer. He is able to do this with the aid of a magical compass passed down from his father that points into the direction of the treasures. Along the way, he picks up a few allies – a talking monkey-bird named Niddler, a rogue pirate named Ioz, and an adventurous barmaid named Tula. In the miniseries, their main antagonist is Lord Bloth who for years kept Ren’s father in prison in order to find out the location of the treasures which he wants for the power and wealth it would grant him. By the end of the five episodes, and two collected treasures, Ren gets a deeper understanding of his quest, the difficulties he is going to face, and the people he will be traveling with.

In the Fall of 1991, the first official season of the show picked up where the miniseries left off as Ren goes out in search for the third treasure. In this first season of the show (made up eight episodes), we get to know more about the thirteen treasures, who hid them, and we also get to explore more about the main characters. In a crucial first episode,Andorus, we get to learn more about Tula and her past, as well as her new-found powers as an ecomancer (someone who can control and manipulate other living beings). As each episode progresses, we also get to know more about Dark Water, how it first spread and the origin of the thirteen treasures. It seems that each episode introduces a new character who had something to do with Ren’s father and/or one of the treasures. In these short eight episodes, Ren actually finds five more treasures of Rule (totaling 7 with the 2 found in the first five episodes), leading to the season finale showdown in The Dark Dweller where we learn even more about the lord of Dark Water as Ren is forced to go deep into his lair and recover Tula.

With more than half the treasures found by the end of the first season, season two proved to be a challenge for the producers as they tried to figure out a new direction of the show and how they could stretch the storyline, making it last through syndication. The season begins in the episode The Dark Disciples with the return of Ren to Octopon where we get additional insight into the state of his homeland and how Dark Water took over. Throughout the second season, Ren and his crew face a variety of new villains and obstacles including a ghost ship, storms, a plague, and magic potions. We also get further insight into Ioz and his past life in the episode Sister of the Sword. Unlike the first season where the quest for treasures moved along nicely, after another short eight-episode season only one treasure is found, setting up what would have been the third season with the addition of a living treasure in the aptly titled The Living Treasure. Unfortunately, rumored expensive production costs and delays led to the show’s cancellation. In the end, only eight of the thirteen treasures were ever found.

One of the most remembered features of Pirates, and perhaps one of the reasons it is so fondly remembered today, was the serialized nature of the show’s first season. Since the first five episodes were part of a short-run miniseries, the first episodes easily blend into one another with plenty of cliff hangers and character development. As the story continued in its first season, a mythology was created as character’s motivations, personalities and personal quests became clearer. Each episode actually took Ren one step closer to the next treasure. Meanwhile, we also got to meet new characters and find out how they were connected to the legend of the thirteen treasures, and inevitably to Ren’s past. As mentioned, this changed in the second season of the show where stories could have taken place at any particular time during the show’s first season as there was very little progress on finding another eighth treasure. This was a bit unsatisfying to watch in contrast with the first season, although it was inevitable given the fast pace the show was going. As many fans of the show will remember, after the show was cancelled, it continued in reruns and syndication leading many to keep watching to see if they had in fact missed an episode. Alas, no final episode was ever created and the show fell into syndication reruns.

The episodes are spread out across four DVDs as follows:

Disc One
1. The Quest
2. Dishonor
3. Break Up
4. Betrayal
5. Victory

Disc Two
6. Andorus
7. A Drop of Darkness
8. The Beast and the Bell
9. Panacea
10. King Niddler

Disc Three
11. The Collection
12. The Little Leviathan
13. The Darkdweller
14. The Dark Disciples
15. The Ghost Pirates
16. The Dragon Master

Disc Four
17. The Game Players of Undaar
18. The Pandawa Plague
19. Sister of the Sword
20. The Soul Stealer
21. The Living Treasure

Is This Thing Loaded?

Much like other Warner Archive discs, there are no special features on this set. As a fan, I wish it had some sort of short featurettes or interviews with the creators, like in the recent Saturday Morning sets. Maybe when Warner comes out with a 90’s version of the set, they can include one of these episodes and give us a nice little featurette explaining what would have eventually happened on the show.

Case Study:

Warner Bros. has actually attempted to do a decent job with the cover. It is more or less in line with other “Hanna-Barbera Classic Collection” DVDs with the same cover header across the top of the cover. Unfortunately, the quality of the cover art is another story. The colors are super-saturated and Niddler has what looks like an extra fist coming out of his head. A quick glance at the cover by the artists should have caught this error which is glaringly obvious once you notice it. The back cover features some nice conceptual drawings from the show (or is it from the comic book series?). The show is housed in a standard-size, transparent keepcase with two disc flaps holding the four discs in the series. Each disc comes with pressed disc art listing the episodes on the disc.

Ink And Paint:

The Pirates of Dark Water was filled with colorful and vibrant animation. The show leans towards the bright pinks, oranges, and red colors. The whole design of Mer and the world of our heroes is shot to look somewhat otherworldly and perhaps in contrast to the darkness of Dark Water. Some of the character designs are a bit strange since many characters (particularly villains) are not quite human. As for the quality of the print in this release, it is just about what I expected. The prints included on the DVD are direct video transfers with no cleanup. This leads to some bad video transfers in a couple of episodes where even static lines are present across the screen. However, this is not all bad and aside from a handful of problems throughout the set, the rest of it looks relatively comparable to other Warner Bros. releases. In the end, the quality is closer to a standard cleanup than that found on bootleg copies.

Scratch Tracks:

The audio featured on this set is a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 English track. The show had a superb voice cast and they all sounds good here. They include George Newbern (most known for voicing Superman on Justice League, Frank Welker (the renowned voice actor best known for his work on multiple Scooby-Doo series), Jodi Benson (of Little Mermaid fame), Hector Elizondo (famous television and film actor) and Jim Cummings (of Winnie the Pooh fame along with other Disney shows). The audio track also does an adequate if not astounding job at bringing out the music and sound effects featured on the show. There are no subtitles or alternate audio tracks featured on the DVD.

Final Cut:

The Pirates of Dark Water is probably a prime example of what the Warner Archive series can do for cult animated series. With even some mainstream series not meeting their desired sales target, I can see this as a viable alternative for future animated sets. Sure, the quality is not as good as it could be, but is not all that different when compared to some other recent standard DVD releases from the same period. Make no mistake. This is a bare-bones set, but it is a complete bare-bones set that we probably would never have gotten outside of the Made-to-Order DVD system. This was a show that had a great initial run on television and like most serialized television shows ended before its time. The characters were fun, the quest was intriguing, and it was a shame that we never got to see a real series finale.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?