Revisiting the Aquaman TV Pilot: Mercy Reef

With production due to begin on the Aquaman movie in May, we revisit the 2006 TV series pilot.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

We live in times where superhero stories have been told from every possible perspective. There’s the gritty, Dark Knight-style take on Arrow, buoyant yet thoughtful fun in The Flash, a workplace sitcom in Powerless. The inundation of superhero stories contributes immensely to the juncture we’re in known as ‘peak TV’, and network execs are spending a great deal of money and time trying to locate any untapped angle. While Arrow effectively set the ball rolling when it came to the DC TV universe, it would be remiss not to mention Smallville.

Back in the mid-noughties it was the biggest superhero show on the air (partly down to the fact it was the only live-action superhero show around) and, at the time, seemingly the only one for the time being. It had the ‘attractive yet non-threatening, racially diverse cast of a CW show’ before The CW was even a thing, and its innovative nature informs a lot of what that network’s superhero shows do today. Smallville’s continued success over the decade it was on makes it all the more surprising that a spin-off was never given the green light, and that what is known as the Arrowverse didn’t actually kick off in the mid-2000s. Except that it almost did, with Aquaman.

The calculating, ever-changing nature of Greg Berlanti and the talented folk at The CW has resulted in a television universe where nothing is accidental. Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen dropped into Arrow for a few episodes with the intention of paving the way for his own series; the titular Legends Of Tomorrow were all seeded throughout other DC TV shows, and Supergirl eventually joined the Arrowverse in a formal capacity after a lot of meta references on her own show. These characters all cropped up with an eye to future success for the network but in 2005, despite the fact Smallville had five acclaimed series under its belt and no end point in sight, a spin-off had never been considered.

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further reading: Aquaman Review

That is, until the season five episode, Aqua, which – and you can see where this is heading – featured a major appearance by Aquaman himself, then played by American Idol star Alan Ritchson (because it was 2006 after all). Aqua had never meant to be a backdoor pilot but the high ratings for that particular episode and warm reception to the character gave The WB cause to ponder a spin-off. Less than a month after Aqua debuted, in November 2005, The WB signed off on a pilot, tentatively titled Mercy Reef, and production was slated to start in early 2006.

As you would expect, the story of The WB’s Aquaman TV show does not end well, although there was never any sign of trouble in paradise (literally) throughout its production. Piping hot up-and-comer Justin Hartley, latterly best-known for his roles in This Is Us and Smallville, was enlisted as a new iteration of Aquaman because the network was fearful of getting mired in the continuity of Smallville if they used Alan Ritchson’s take on the character. Additionally, a promising cast for the pilot was assembled and behind the camera was Smallville veteran director Greg Beeman. Smallville co-creators, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, even penned the script and it seemed that all systems were go for another Smallville-sized hit.

What’s most interesting about the entire Aquaman pilot affair is that it is, with all honesty, it’s not that bad for a pilot episode. There have been far worse shows that have continued past their first episodes and although it has a fair few problems, it’s not completely unsalvageable.

It doesn’t stray far from the expected path, establishing Aquaman, alias Arthur Curry, as a buff beach bro who goes by the name, A.C. The writing does a pretty on-the-nose job of explaining A.C.’s origins, opening on the disappearance of his mother when he was a little boy, at the hands of a villainous siren. There’s even a mysterious glowing pendant. It’s all very ’00s.

Flash-forward a decade and A.C. is coasting through life working in a dive shop in Florida, doubling as an animal rights activist in his spare time. Naturally, this status quo is disrupted by the reappearance of the siren that took his mother, and all is explained in one big info-dump by an enigmatic local lighthouse keeper, McCaffery (Ving Rhames gets to spout deliciously overripe dialogue like “Destiny is like a riptide, you never know it’s pulling you in until it’s too late”) who claims to hail from Atlantis. He announces that A.C. is the exiled prince from Atlantis and the siren is trying to bring him back for execution.

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By the end of the pilot, the monster-of-the-week is slain and A.C. has now embraced his birth name, Orin, and his vague destiny as protector of the seas. McCaffery agrees to train A.C. and then leaves him with a copy of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 to read (I’ll leave someone else to unpack that one), and the opportunity to stare out at sea. It did everything a pilot episode needed to do (save for revealing Hartley’s Aquaman suit, although the approach taken in the pilot suggests A.C. may not have been a conventional superhero, nor might he have assumed the name ‘Aquaman’) and while there were kinks that needed to be ironed out, there was undoubtedly potential. But, to great surprise, the pilot episode never made it to air.

The explanation behind why Mercy Reef never got past its first episode seems superficially simple at first. Despite the support behind it and mounting hype around the filmed pilot, it was commissioned at a time when The WB was in a transition period. Around the time of Mercy Reef‘sconception it was announced that The WB and UPN would merge to form The CW that we know now, and, surprisingly, the fully-formed CW passed on a full Aquaman series. It’s an explanation of sorts but there has been no further information as to why the network declined to produce more episodes, and it’s unlikely we’re going to get it 11 years later (although a tell-all interview with Gough and Millar would be a fascinating read). All we can do really is speculate about why Aquaman never happened.

The most logical reason for the cancellation is budget. The pilot episode is remarkably stuffed with CGI – from its almost entirely animated villain to its dramatic, sea-based opening and climax – and you can see why a network would panic. With so much action having to take place at sea, even low-budget filler episodes would cost a sizeable amount. This isn’t taking into account the price of rendering villains each week and the inevitable moment when A.C. returns to Atlantis and The CW would have to shell out a small fortune to mock it up. So, while it was never outright cited as one of the reasons for the show’s failure to launch, it’s obvious that it was a big contributing factor.

Another reason might simply be taste. As tame as the pilot is, it may not have been enough to commission the remainder of the series. Gough and Millar seemingly shopped around a few other networks and despite a lot of rejections they nevertheless persisted. Unfortunately, Mercy Reef never found a new home but because Gough and Millar were so passionate about their newest brainchild they put the pilot on iTunes. It gained some traction from its online release, being subsequently released on the Xbox Games Store and a couple of obscure TV networks, but all for naught. The final nail in the coffin seemed to be when Justin Hartley was offered a tidy consolation prize in the form of a part on Smallville as Oliver Queen/Arrow, a role he recurred in up until the series’ conclusion, rendering any further attempts to expand Aquaman moot.

With no concrete explanation for why Aquaman never made it past the first hurdle, it’s hard to come to any conclusion besides this being a bit of a missed opportunity. Boasting a budget bigger than most networks would feel comfortable with, it’s clear that while Aquaman was a nice idea it just wasn’t sustainable for a full run. Possible storylines for the 13 episode first season would have included A.C. battling pollution and, predictably, evil oil corporations, which suggests the series would have been a kind of superpowered successor to Baywatch. The full series might have been dross but going by Aquaman’s maiden voyage, there was definitely potential. It’s a crying shame it wasn’t given the proper chance to prove itself.