Aquaman (2006 television pilot)

Posted: July 30, 2014 in Aquaman, Arrow, DC, Smallville

Comic-Con International in San Diego has recently wrapped up its 2014 programming. This year, there was a huge focus on comic-based television. The fall TV schedule brings us The Flash, Gotham, Agent Carter and Constantine (plus iZombie as a mid-season replacement). Combine that with returning shows Arrow, The Walking Dead and Agents of SHIELD and it seems that the box office dominance of comics is making it’s way to the small screen. They’ve always had a presence in television (dating all the way back to George Reeves as Superman) but it’s only recently that it’s become so accepted in the mainstream. I realize shows like Batman: The Animated Series and JLU were popular and critically acclaimed, but they failed to capture the general public in the same manner that we’re currently seeing. In fact, almost every live-action comic-based show in the last 15 years failed spectacularly.

That’s not entirely fair. Some of those shows weren’t even given a chance to live long enough to fail. Which brings us nicely to Aquaman, the unsold pilot. In October of 2005, Aquaman guest-starred in an episode of Smallville (coincidentally, one of the few comic shows to succeed on the air). His appearance, and the buzz surrounding it, gave the show its highest ratings of the fifth season. Energized by the character’s newfound popularity, producers of Smallville immediately began working on a spinoff series focusing on the teenage years of the future king of Atlantis.

LDP and Ving Rhames? And this show didn’t
 immediately go to series??

Initially the show was to be called Mercy Reef and focus on a young Arthur Curry as he discovers the truth about his ocean-dwelling origin. Quickly, it was decided that the show would have no ties to Smallville and a new A.C. was cast. Justin Hartley was chosen as the lead and he joined a rather eclectic supporting cast, including Lou Diamond Phillips as Arthur’s authoritative father and Ving Rhames as another displaced Atlantean (spoilers!). Originally, the show set out to mimic the slow-burn, story-behind-the-story mythology of Smallville. However, that was abandoned in favor of a more direct adaptation of Aquaman’s origin. Overall, I think that was a wise choice. We’ve seen Smallville before and, for it’s many faults, it did well enough and became mildly iconic. To try and ape that style in hopes of success seemed like an obvious and terrible idea. So the series became less an origin (in fact, that’s wrapped up pretty nicely within the pilot) and more about the journey a young hero takes on the road to greatness. Similar in intent (but not style) to Batman: Year One. I realize that the two premises don’t sound markedly different, but it’s a question of the character’s development. It’s the difference between Arthur becoming Aquaman and him already being Aquaman but learning how to be better at it.

The opening gives us a glimpse of young Orin and Atlanna, his mother, in the midst of a storm and plane crash. Flashing forward, the show finds Orin (now known as Arthur) rescuing caged dolphins and getting into trouble with his father. He learns that he has a connection to sea life and is unsure what exactly that means. Eventually he comes into conflict with Nadia, a siren sent to execute him. He discovers that his mother was murdered by the siren while they were attempting to flee their home, Atlantis. With his newfound powers, he is able to defeat her and rescue his captured friend.

Also featuring Adrianne Palicki, The Patron Saint of
unreleased/delayed programs…seriously, look it up.

The show would have gone on to explore Arthur’s reconnection with his Atlantean kingdom while being tutored in his growing powers by Ving Rhames’ character and also dealing with threats from the land dwellers. All in all, pretty much what you’d expect from a “Young-Aquaman” show. In fact, before its release, Mercy Reef was retitled simply Aquaman, likely in an attempt to further distance it from pre-conceived ideas that it was “Smallville in the ocean”. Pre-release buzz was huge and the show was expected to be a shoe-in for the new CW network’s initial line-up. Unpredictably, the network passed on the series before it even aired the pilot.

However, the show refused to die. In the months following the CW’s decision, the pilot was released on iTunes and immediately shot to the number one spot (and on Xbox Live to similar results). Shortly after that, it was given away as an exclusive bonus disc with the purchase of Smallville season sets at Best Buy. And in 2009 it was included as a special feature on the Blu-ray disc of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Thus, even though it was never aired as intended, it is now readily available.

“Pleasure to meet you Aquaman, I’m Aqua-…oh yeah.”

Response to the show has generally been mixed to positive. As with almost all pilots, there is definite room for improvement, but the cast and overall story structure are routinely praised. Perhaps the greatest success to come from this failure was the rise of Justin Hartley. Almost as soon as it was discovered that the show wasn’t on the fall schedule, the Smallville show-runners announced that he’d be joining the sixth season as Oliver Queen/Green Arrow. He continued to play the role for the remainder of the series and became a fan favorite. Ironically, his character teamed up with Alan Ritchson’s Aquaman a handful of times.

In the end, Aquaman is an odd case of a show failing for no real reason. When it actually was released digitally, it was an unquestionable success and critically, was praised far more than comparable shows of the era. It seems that the only thing keeping it from long-term success was the reluctance of the network. Sadly, as far as stumbling blocks go, that’s pretty much the biggest one. Remember the classic TV series The Sixth Gun? No? Exactly. So in that regard, the fact that this was given an official release at all is a minor miracle. Now, if only Justin Hartley could guest star on Arrow as another hero…

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