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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003)

Through 155 episodes, 4Kids’ 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles managed to maintain a relatively consistent high quality, but not by committing to the tone of the comics – by committing to itself.

The one thing that every good cartoon needs isn’t great animation, tight storytelling, excellent art direction, or appealing characters. Sure, all of those are desirable, and every creative team should aspire to achieve those goals, but the number one thing necessary to a sustainable, enjoyable cartoon is commitment. Cartoons are, almost by definition, so loose and free and unrestrained, that any ridiculous, unrealistic premise can take surprising form and shape if everyone on board commits to the idea(s) and the ideal(s) of the cartoon. Commitment isn’t something you can put on paper or thrust into a few characters. Everyone has to agree to the set-ups AND the various plot catalysts that are inherent in the show’s premise. Everything that does happen, no matter how crazy, has to somehow come back the the core nature of the show and its characters.

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This is a roundabout way of explaining why basically the 2003 version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles managed to maintain a high (well, appealing) quality through its seven season, 155-episode run. Whether shooting the four brothers across space, cyberspace, dimensions, time, pseudo-time, dream-scapes, or whatever crock-pot crazy story the writers cooked up, the show never shied from some core, committed basics: the natural characterizations of the four brothers and their pseudo-father (and their rich, always-potent familial connection); the intense, well-done action scenes; the unique seasonal choices that threw the cast into unique and varies circumstances; the myriad of diverse, outlandish characters that popped in and out of the turtles’ lives. SO much happened in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles during its entire existence, but whatever DID happen, the writers and animators were committed to it. Even its weakest, wackiest premises were given solid, well-told stories: with seven season and one final TV-movie to muck things up, I’d be hard-pressed to declare any season or arc as an abject failure (and I’ll get more into that during this review).

I’m going to put a lot of the show’s success on Chuck Patton and Roy Burdine’s shoulders, the directors of the majority of the episodes (with credit also to the sheer influx of various writers that flowed in and out over the years). Every iteration completely up-ended the show – whether by changing the tone, the designs, the flow of action, the locations, the story-arcs, etc., all at the expense of a (increasingly obvious) shrinking budget and network interference – and Patton and Burdine managed to crank out fantastically energetic, entertaining episodes day in and day out. Even if the Lost Episodes, Fast Forward, and Back to the Sewer episodes disappointed fans (something I’ll get into a bit later), they still managed to produce delightfully watchable television.

All that’s primarily due to the show’s commitment. No matter what crazy event came into the turtles lives, the writers and animators approached it one hundred percent. No matter what insane limitations and forced changes were passed down on the creative team, they bit the bullet and cranked out good work. With cartoon writers these days seemingly struggling with storytelling with a 23-minute timeframe (The current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Adventures of Puss and Boots are two glaring examples), it’s refreshing to watch a show that can handle a solid, straight-forward story with genuinely tight action, real dramatic stakes, impressive characterizations, and actual humorous moments – all done within structurally competent stories and direction.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s major strength probably came from two key aspects: 1) treating the show like a comic, and 2) spending the time to establish every and all major plot changes. The first allows for slick visuals and dynamic animation (including constantly changing aspect ratios, the TV way of mimicking comic panels), particularly around large-scale fight sequences, while the second allows for characters and plot points to breath, particularly important when time/space/dimensional travel becomes a lot more significant. Animators get creative freedom; writers get creative freedom. Combined, the two aspects allow audience members to get drawn into borderline-incredulous storylines. Sure, the basic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story – where Leo is stalked, thrown into April’s apartment; where they all escape to the farmhouse and recover; where they return to New York and finally beat back the Shredder – is there, and smartly drawn out to emphasize the sheer seriousness and intensity of the arc.

When the brothers are warped into some bizarre space war between humanoids and alien-dinosaur people, discover an underground civilization of transformed monsters, battle along side parodies of Marvel/DC superheros, or when sucked into an alternate universe that involves a large-scaled, competitive battle nexus, a la Mortal Kombat – these kinds of stories threaten to completely throw the core nature of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for a loop. But the show maintains its composure, focusing on those two aspects from above, delineating multi-part arcs to ease in the strangeness – mini TV movies, basically. This opens up the door to some pretty crazy, but wildly entertaining stories down the line, both dark and light, and for the most part all intriguing.

A lot of fans disliked the fourth season take on Leonardo, who became a darker, more emotionally-distant brother after the crazy events of the third. I thought it was a bold choice; the show clearly didn’t take Leo’s view as gospel, and the remaining brothers/Splinter tried desperately to help him. It was a real challenge, and it worked well, making Leo’s breakthrough all the most satisfying. It unfortunately led to The Lost Episodes, which didn’t originally air at first. They were released after the Fast Forward season, and it’s clear why. It feels like the creative team wanted to try a “Turtles, but in school” set-up, but also attempted to go for the strangely popular Dragon Ball Z fanbase. Clearly cobbled together in a rush, The Lost Episodes are, while not awful, definitely way out the creative team’s range. But they try, and the very attempt makes it a lot more watchable than it has any right to be. Still, The Lost Episodes are by far the weakest season.

Fast Forward, meanwhile, definitely feels like network interference. Throwing a cast of familiar characters into the future was always a go-to move to try and revitalize a series. It’s also a bit more sillier, with Serling’s robotic annoyance, Constable Biggles uselessness, and Mikey’s more mischievous, goofier behavior taking up more screen time. But the writers, being professional, still make the most of it, with some solid, tense episodes and pretty intimidating villains. That season’s potential was also cut short, with a bunch of episodes left on the storyboard wall as Back to the Sewer debuted. It has the same tone as Fast Forward, more or less set up to finish up the series on a high note. Even though that season also was clearly cut short, time-and-budget-wise (nothing comes of the first episode’s “three Shredders” set up), the season is still relatively strong, its characters still on point, and its stories still well told, with a rushed but wonderfully resonant finale that sums up the entire season as a whole. “Wedding Bells and Bytes” exemplifies the show’s core strength – it’s constant commitment to whatever change comes its way.

The glowing praise here can’t mask the show’s few flaws, which are, while tiny, rather significant. The main one is that every single villain is a mustache-twirling figure of evil of some type, heavy on exposition and rants with little in terms of development. They do try to explore Stockman a bit, but his life story comes a bit too late, his massive ego way too ridiculous to pull back from. (Bishop’s arc overall is much better, although he’s was so much more entertaining as a villain). Stockman’s literal, constant dismemberment is also disconcerting, as being the only major minority character on the show; watching his hubris, submission, and destruction to others is a bit uncomfortable to watch, time and time again. Poor treatment of female characters is also the show’s flaw. April is established as a scientist but only occasionally exercises that level of intelligence; her training by Splinter never results in anything, either (Karai, on the other hand, fares better). Generally speaking, the characters are second-fiddle to the scope of the show, which is fine, but major players like April and Stockman deserve better.

Yet despite the flawed characters, changing premises, shifting tones, and various character designs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles never really lets up, constantly chugging out engaging episodes and real character moments that remained at a high caliber. The series ended its run (and celebrated its 25th Anniversary) with “Turtles Forever,” a fantastic, high-energy trip down memory lane, with the 2003 team meeting up with the 1987 team and battling 2003 Shredder, Karai, 1987′s Shredder, and 1987′s Krang. It’s filled with cameos and references to the various versions of the franchise, culminating in a self-referential (and self-deprecating) battle with the 1984 Mirage Comics version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s hilarious and amazing, with top-notch animation and clever touches, making it one of the best parodies/homages in ages. It also makes a fantastic capper to a fantastic show, a distillation of a series that ran its paces and constantly delivered.

Turtles forever, indeed.

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Wait Till Your Father Gets Home

In the episode “Help Wanted,” Harry Boyle has to let his truck driver go after yet causing another accident due to his poor eyesight. Yet for some reason, everyone around Harry gives him gruff about this. He was such loyal worker, they claim, but no one seems to acknowledge the fact that he was terrible at this job and a threat to people’s lives, let alone Harry’s self-made business in selling cookware. Things grow to absurd levels as characters push Harry’s search for a new truck driver into what we might categorize as “social justice warrior” territory; his new worker has to be representative of African-Americans, or gay people, or women, implying that this egregious pursuit for political correctness goes against the “oh-so-simple” fact that Harry is just looking for the right man to do the job. At no point does this episode suggest that one of these minorities could be a fit; he’s hiring a truck driver, so anyone with a license and a modicum of experience could do it. Laughably, Harry is coerced to go to the government to assist in finding a minority hire; the government rep he meets with is portrayed so incompetently that Harry – white, male, middle-class, Protestant American Harry, who is the only person in this world that has any sense, hahaha – has to basically coach him through using his own census machine.

To underline this episodes abhorrent point, an African-American gentleman stops by to sell magazines. Harry politely declines, which for some reason compels Harry’s family – the hippie and comically overweight daughter Alice, the hippie and lazy son Chet, and even the loyal but frustratingly misguided Irma – to call him a bigot. Just so we’re clear, this show’s approach to affirmative action policies consists of the belief that white men has to accept all offers from minorities, practically or not; otherwise, those damned young liberals will call you racist. In desperation, Harry re-hires the dangerous worker to drive his truck again, accidents, mortality rates, and liabilities be damned, since Harry is just so sick and tired of fending off those interfering activists.

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Dear readers of Total Media Bridge: it is with great restraint when I say that Wait Till Your Father Gets Home is vile, lazy shit.

But let’s back up for a bit.


Wait Till Your Father Gets Home

In 1971, All in the Family changed television. Produced by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, the CBS hit show nailed the provocative changing landscape of the 70s, engaging in the heady and serious topics of feminism, sexual assault, racism, and sexuality, through engaging characters, tightly-woven stories, and top-notch comedy. It topped the Nielsen ratings for five years in a row and cemented itself as one of the most important and influential comedies of all time. Practically every show today takes its cues in some way or another from All in the Family, including The Simpsons and Family Guy.

Hanna-Barbera is a difficult company to categorize. The two animators brilliantly streamlined animation for the low-budget realm of television through simple techniques like recycling backgrounds and covering up characters’ necks. Their hit shows bring a lot of charm to its characters too; there’s an aesthetic verve to shows like Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, and even Space Ghost that stand the test of time. They’re also incredibly, undeniably lazy. All three shows have been incessantly recycled into other awful, broken shows (Jabberjaw, Magilla Gorilla, Shazzan for example). And the company has been co-opting live-action (and itself) hits for ages. The Flintstones is a stone-aged knock-off of The Honeymooners. The Laverne and Shirley in the Army show gave the the two female stars a talking pig for some reason. Wacky Races just cobbled together past characters in what might be charitably called the first “shared universe.” Hanna-Barbera quite frequently just grabbed whatever that was out there and repackaged it in sub-par, if striking, animation.

So it comes as no surprise to see Hanna-Barbera co-opting All in the Family with Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, which ran in syndication on NBC in 1972. Starring Tom Bosley as head-of-household Harry Boyle, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home sought to snatch, in animated form, the kind of edgy provocation surging through America that All in the Family was thriving in. The set up was similar, too: Irma was the Edith, Alice was the Gloria, Chet was the Meathead (Mike). They were also given a younger son, Jamie, and a dog. That might have been the largest amount of creativity and thought put into the show; beyond that, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home is utter, utter crap.

This may come off a bit biased, as the show is clearly espousing a more conservative viewpoint, a direction that runs counter to my own politics. It also may seem like I’m speaking from a contemporary point of view, beyond the show’s temporal setting. I assure you, I’ve taken all of that into consideration. I can watch All in the Family and relate with Archie Bunker, despite his abject bigotry. The writing is sharp, the direction is fantastic, the acting is nothing short of incredible, and, most importantly, the show understood all the angles of a debate. Wait Till Your Father Gets Home doesn’t give a fuck about the issues. Harry Boyle, according to this show, is the oh-so-poor victim of a growing scourge of progressivism, forcing him and his self-made image/business/family through inconvenient assaults on his personhood and American righteousness, via the most laziest arguments ever.

The rundown of “Help Wanted” is a perfect example of the show’s misguided narrative; “Permissive Papa” is even worse. Alice wants to date a boy who exhibits nerdy and hippie-esque attitudes, which has Harry thinking of the boy as a potential pervert. So he sets Alice up with a typical conservative middle-class boy instead. When she returns on her date, disheveled, Harry becomes angry, thinking the first boy sexually assaulted his daughter. As he should be. But when Alice revels it was the second boy who attacked her, Harry only reacts with a big “Ooops” for interfering in his daughter’s love-life. To be clear, Harry was going outright kill the hippie kid for non-consensually touching his daughter, but the supposed “normal” kid gets a pass. And never mind the actual attack on, and the well-being off, his daughter, as the whole thing is just gleaned over.

Wait Till Your Father Gets Home 27 Permissive Papa

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The show possesses a direct, single-minded approach to Harry and the “persecuted” role of the white middle-class male, truly believing that it’s everyone else encroaching on his normal lifestyle. Everyone else – women, activists, gays, the government, hospitals, and ESPECIALLY kids these days – are just in the way and just don’t get it, man. Certainly not to say that there weren’t problems with the more aggressive set of “liberals” in the 70s, but to completely ignore their good points and/or their genuine struggles is uncanny. Sure, there’s Chet, who refuses to get a job and lazes around the house, only to go to the soup kitchen to feed the poor a few times a week. Yes, there is a problem there, but could the show at least pretend that there’s some value in the boy’s charity? Not so. Harry can only shoot out snarky comments, which are supposed to be ironically funny (coupled with the worst laugh track in history), but come off more dickish and insensitive.

Wait Till Your Father Gets Home fares the worst with feminism and women rights. (It’s right there in the title of the show – only the father will solve THIS problem once he gets home, I’ll tell you what!) It’s as if the writers had no conception of why exactly women were all “up in arms” back then – because, well, they didn’t. Alice gets a lot of shit, but it’s Irma who gets the worst of it. First of all, she’s wildly inconsistent. One episode, she’s acting like an idiot, the next, she’s smart as a whip. Irma constantly gets caught up in random issues – charities, or the idea of working, or keeping up with random, snooty neighbors – and always fucks things up, leaving Harry to put her in her place and solve everything. My favorite bout of laziness, though, has to be the show’s attempt to make Harry’s “ding-a-ling” a thing – Archie’s “dingbat” to All in the Family’s Edith. Hilariously they only use it one episode.

Lest some of you think Harry is too conservative and, perhaps, missing the point, the show introduces Ralph, a conspiracy-minded ultra-conservative who’s insane ideas are meant to be the extreme versions of Harry’s ideals. “See?” the show asks. “Harry is middle-of-the-road compared to Ralph’s militant extremism!” The show’s writers are terrible, though, so while it might seem Ralph’s extremism is heavily exaggerated for comic effect (kinda like a proto-American Dad), but save for a few comic moments he just comes off racist and idiotic. Which raises the question: why does Harry even hang out with him? Harry clearly hates the guy. Because this show is insufferable.

The entire (liberal) world is out to get Harry, who is just trying to be a normal middle-aged white guy with his own business! Why is every single person, with their “issues” and “concerns” and “opinions” always on his case? Why can’t people just leave him alone? These liberals are always interfering in his life, forcing Harry to spend a lot of money, money that Harry constantly complains he never has. He’s buying pools to impress neighbors and dresses to constantly make Alice happy, despite his complaints about prices and costs and extravagance. Yet he never actually puts his foot down on buying these things. The show tries to present Harry’s financial middle-class issues as a real thing but never follows through. If Harry lacks the money to buy something, then he should be unable to buy it. The show wants to present Harry as a run-of-the-mill, check-to-check member of the underclass, yet he’s somehow able to “scrape together” enough funds for the most lavish of expenses. It’s as if Fox News went back in time and animated a show.

If you can call it “animated.” Wait Till Your Father Gets Home might’ve been tolerable if the art was decent, but let’s be frank: this show looks like shit. Inconsistent character models and terrible walk cycles are placed upon legitimately unfinished backgrounds and washed-out colors. With a bit of effort, the unfinished look could’ve come off as a unique artistic aesthetic (and, to be fair, some of the nighttime visuals have a bit of a style to them), but even basic artistic concepts are failed here. Doorways and thresholds are unfinished, with linework not even reaching the top of the screen. Very little thought or effort was put into this program, and it shows.

The worst part of Wait Till Your Father Gets Home is the absolute casualness of its politics it exudes. Provocative-if-lazy shows at least attempt to shock or be edgy, but Wait espouses its crap with an unearned and misguided confidence in its worldview, presenting “shocking” elements only for the great Harry Boyle to crack wise, then tell you how it really should be. It’s The Newsroom before The Newsroom was a thing, but without the hint of a creative/technical mastery of the form. Wait Till Your Father Gets Home has no redeeming value; there’s a reason that only about six episodes have been re-aired within the last twenty years.

Actually, I’m only somewhat wrong; there is one thing that’s kind of well-done (aside from Dan Adams guest-star appearance, who was funny despite the awfulness of the episode he was in): Jamie. In a surprising bit of prescience, the show seemed to predict the 80s generation’s focal concerns for money and greed, portraying the young kid as sort of a savant who treats allowances with the business acumen of an up-and-coming Wall Street executive. But make no mistake: Wait Till Your Father Gets Home puts in the most pedestrian of efforts in order to ride the coattails of All in the Family, making a show that’s lazy, offensive, indigenous, ugly, and flat-out stupid.

At least Hanna-Barbera’s other animated efforts had a talking animal.

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – The Pirates of Dark Water

Pirates of Dark Water made one last attempt at a fantasy-themed cartoon as the appeal of the genre died out – and went out in in spectacular fashion.

Part of the reason I’ve been watching shows like Men in Black: The Series, Project GeeKeR, and Road Rovers is because I’m curious about the rise and fall of the (serious) action cartoon. The Legend Of Korra’s move to online pretty much signaled the end of it, and only Disney seems to have any type of commitment to the genre – safely channeled through their acquired Star Wars and Marvel properties, of course. Between the early 90s to the middle of the 00s, though, creative and original action ‘toons dotted the landscape, and it’s been a treat (of varying degree) to watch them and ponder their influences and status on animated programming. The DCAU has been written about extensively, which is also why I’ve been searching for the one-offs, the shows that came and went with little fanfare.

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Pirates of Dark Water was one such show. Released in 1991 on both Fox and ABC (it looks as if there was some inter-network tweaking), creator and showrunner David Kirschner presented show about three disparaging personalities on a global quest to stop the mysterious “dark water” from engulfing the planet. This world, called Mer, was meticulously designed and detailed, heavy on its self-created mythology and world-building, evoking an almost-Tolkien level of fascination. The 80s were filled with fantasy-based content, which was incredibly popular with young audiences – movies like Labyrinth, The Secret of NIMH, and The Never-Ending Story, and shows like The Adventure of Gummi Bears – and Kirschner sought to bring that genre’s best and most creative elements to the show.

Unfortunately, the budding new genre of the 90s were superheros and futuristic cyberpunk, which the DCAU thrived at. Fantasy died out, which left Pirates of Dark Water fending for itself. Even so, Kirschner, with his team of writers and animators, created an amazing program, with the kind of tight, inter-connected plotting that would make Joss Whedon jealous. Mer and the characters within it are well-developed and wildly appealing, with the appropriate amount of backstory to give them all a strong sense of motivation.

Pirates of Dark Water tells the story of Ren, a young boy who discovers he’s a prince after his father crashes on his home island of Octopon. A pretty crazy set of events leads Ren to discover questionable allies in Ioz, Tula, and Niddler on a massive quest across the planet to find the Thirteen Treasures of Rule, while being chased by a massive pirate ship called the Maelstrom, headed by the one-eyed scourge named Bloth. It would be easy for the show to simply throw the cast into conflict with Bloth in various episodes, but Pirates of Dark Water sets up, little by little, a fully fleshed out world of creatures, species, civilizations, characters, and locations that gives the show a flavor not often seen in even live-action shows.

All of this is cleverly laid out in the first five episodes. Essentially a full-on TV movie, “The Quest” through “Victory” is a remarkable bit of storytelling. Unlike the four/five-parters of the Disney Afternoon series, which were more or less stand alone episodes with an overall plot connecting them, the Pirates of Dark Water TV movie pilot builds with important bits of information which informs characters actions and behaviors in previous and subsequent episodes. We learn about the Maelstrom and its own internal, chaotic “world” of prisoners and monsters (known as the Bilge). We also learn about various characters like Teron the ecomancer, Zoolie the playful but tough gamehouse manager, and Joat, the former owner of the Wraith (which is stolen by Ioz). The pilot is filled with great reveals and secrets that keep the action movie and the plot lively. Events like Ioz’s constant greed and Tula’s betrayal ensure that internal conflicts among the crew is as constant as the external ones.

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First and foremost, the plotting of the show is fantastic. It’s not deep, like Gargoyles, or even Project GeeKeR, so there’s little thematic relevance. Pirates of Dark Water’s primary concern is bringing its world and its characters to life, so we learn about things like Tula’s home and its destruction. We learn Ioz’s relationship with Teron. We learn about Niddler and his race of monkey-birds, a species treated as low-class citizens at best, and slaves at worse. One of my favorite details is how the show handle the titular “dark water.” It’s not even mentioned until the third episode, in a casual throw-away line from Ioz, and it’s in the middle of the first season where we learn about true nature of the dark water – which is controlled by a powerful creature called the Dark Dweller. Yes, even villains are given history. Bloth’s henchman, Konk, lost his leg to the dangerous creature of the Maelstrom, and apparently was the only pirate to survive an encounter with it. Later in the series we learn about Morpho, an alchemist who tried to study dark water but became a monstrous slave to it. There’s also Cray, a woman wracked with jealousy over a failed relationship with Ren’s father. This implies that Primus, the heroic king of Octopon, was not exactly on the up and up, as some relationships between him and others are shown to be toxic, which introduces a grey area to an already multifaceted show.

The characters give all that plotting the weight to carry it. Primus’ history isn’t the only thing that gives the show moral ambiguity. Ioz, for example, has a sense of loyalty but lacks commitment. He’s the literal embodiment of “honor among thieves,” as he’s willing to go after Tula after her betrayal (later clarified), and avenge her presumed death later in the series. Still, he still will risk his life and reputation chasing after errant gold, like in “The Ghost Pirates,” when he’s held captive by some female pirate spirits after boarding a ghost ship for its booty. (An aside: I love that the leader of the ghost pirates keeps Ioz only on basically fuck him for all eternity.) Tula, too, is no saint, despite being essentiallythe love interest. Her betrayal is a real shock, but well-established, as she’s revealed to be a warrior sent to save Teron from Bloth’s clutches. There’s Niddler, who is probably the most loyal to Ren, and has a real tragic backstory, what with his treatment as Bloth’s former henchman and his race being treated so poorly. The show, unfortunately, really struggles with balancing the tragic elements of the monkey-birds with Niddler’s comic behavior. It reeks of network interference, emphasizing Niddler as a goofball and a glutton to appeal to kids. (I think Kirschner didn’t mind a little bit of comic antics from Niddler, but the overbearing-ness of it seems to be pressured during the Fox/ABC switch. Niddler is perfect in the TV movie, but becomes an annoyance for the most part during the actual series).

The animation is a bit stilted, with stiff movements and clunky action, particularly during action sequences. But the art direction and strong music cues create a strong impression of intensity during those scenes. The backgrounds are the show’s real selling point. Places like Octopon and Andorus are extremely well detailed, given a sense of history just by how they look. (These two places also make great contrasting visuals, as they transform from ruinous to vivacious due to the actions of the main crew). Even the inside of the Maelstrom feels alive, beyond the crazy monsters and desperate prisoners that thrive beneath it. If anything, just the look of the show is fantastic, and worth watching just to witness the vibrant art and unique blend of classic pirate fantasy with a slight science-fiction jolt (the Constrictus is such a H.P. Lovecraft-based design that it’s impossible to deny).

The show does have some flaws, beyond the animation and Niddler. Some of female characters fall flat, particularly in the first season. Once Tula is revealed to be an ecomancer (more on this later), she becomes very passive, despite the reveal that she was a warrior from Andorus. The extremely interesting Avagon, who knows more about Ren then she lets on, is unfortunately killed off. And despite being a fairly decent episode, the depiction of Cray could’ve used some work. Luckily, these flaws seemed to have been noticed by the Pirates of Dark Water team, and most of them are fixed within the second season. Tula’s warrior backstory returns, making her both an effective fighter (again) and a decent mage, of sorts. More female characters are introduced – mostly villains, but effective ones. Niddler’s comic antics are also toned down somewhat, making him a lot more tolerable. This might be the first animated show to really “fix” the show with a second season, instead of doubling down on the more kiddie aspects.

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In some ways, Pirates of Dark Water is really a show about environmentalism, about the idea of caring for the planet, handled in a more creative and entertaining fashion, more so than something like Captain Planet. While a lot of shows wore the message of planetary protection on its sleeve, Pirates of Dark Water tied it directly to a legitimate adventure. The connections are clear: dark water is pollution, tied into the corruption of the “world,” and it’s up to the people, despite their differences and diversities, to come together in some way to fix it. The show strongly suggest that people like Ren – individuals – indeed have the power to save the world. There are those forces who seem uninterested (“The Game Players of Undaar” is a good example), and there are those actively encouraging it (Bloth, the Dark Disciples), but keeping the planet pure is an effort worth pursuing. Committing to that effort can restore the world’s natural beauty, like with Octopon and Andorus, and end the corruption of the planet and its people.

Unfortunately, neither FOX or ABC was committed to the show. After two solid seasons, the show was cancelled, with only seven treasures discovered and some major mysteries still left explored (the biggest disappointment? Definitely Bloth’s threat to Ren way back in “Victory,” suggesting that he isn’t human, but something else entirely). While it’s sad that the animation world moved on, paving the way for the excellent Batman: The Animated Series and the DC cartoons spawned from it, Pirates of Dark Water made a rousing, final effort to show that fantasy was still a viable genre. It took until the first Lord of the Rings movie to bring fantasy back into the public conscious, and with The Hobbit films currently going strong, perhaps one day more people will give this series a second chance.

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