There is a problem that plagues most prequels, how to create tension when you know the fate of the characters? It’s a valid question. Much of a story’s conflict and intrigue is based around the question of a character’s arc. When you actually know the trajectory much of the drama is lost. So how do you combat that?
The series initially side steps this by presenting the story in an undefined past. We know that the Gelfling will eventually fail, but we don’t know how, when, or why. We are introduced to so many complex Gelfling that the story has a lot of opportunities, lots of places to go. And the show goes about this brilliantly.
Exploring the Skeksis
The Skeksis, however, are another story. By processes of elimination when know what will happen to most of the Skeksis. There are Skeksis that are in the movie and there are Skesis that are not. Those that aren’t are clearly fair game for untimely deaths.
For the most part when we see the Skeksis, be it in the show or in the movie, the are relegated to the Crystal Castle. So, whether we realize it or not, we make the connection that the entire world of the Skeksis exists within the castle walls. The writers add an extra dimension to the Skeksis to free themselves from this prequel conundrum by breaking that connection..
The first step is the omission of an important Skeksis. SkekUr, who becomes the new Emperor in the opening scene of The Dark Crystal movie, is nowhere to be seen. This means there are Skeksis outside of the Castle. There is nothing to say that this is not true for the movie as well. Just because the movie focuses on this particular group does not mean that is all there is. The show further emphases this by adding Skeksis who live outside the Castle.
Episode 4 introduces us to one of the series best, and most frightening characters: SkekMal -The Hunter. As his name implies, Skekmal is a Skeksis who lives for the hunt. He does not concern himself with the material world that has consumed the other Skeksis. He is more at one with Thra, but in a dark and violent way. Covered in bones and filled with a savage determination he is a presence to behold. The action sequences that result from his existence are technical marvels in the world of puppetry.
These added elements add a level of mystery to the Skeksis. Are there other Skeksis colonies? How many Skeksis are there? How did others come to leave the castle? What is the history and significance of these facts? This becomes important because the Skeksis plan is revealed by the first episode. Adding mystery and depth keeps them from being pantomime villains.
I Swear to God I Will Choke the Life Out of This Puppet if She Doesn’t Listen to Her Sister.
The writers continue to pile on depth and complexities to the story via the Gelfling. Rian is still on the run. The Chamberlin’s lies have helped contain the threat of Rian’s secrets but cracks are starting to form. Rian’s story is spreading and some Gelfing are starting to listen. Others, like princes Seladon, remain loyal the Skeksis. Deep seated emotions and character motivations causes friction between Gelflings and Gelfling tribes. This political intrigue mixed with emotional storytelling is one of the most compelling aspects of the show.
I swear, you will never become more enraged by a puppet than being confronted with Seladon’s willful ignorance and spite. She is such a fantastic antagonist. You want to hate her, but there is a complexity to her motivations that make you pity her as well. The writers have outdone themselves with this character. It is such a delicate balancing act and they pull it off with grace.
Helena Smee’s performance is stunning here. She conveys an amazing range of emotion for Seladona. I was so captivated by this character that I forgot she was a puppet. How a human being makes a lump of foam, rubber, and wires convey fear, anger, greif, jealousy, and can evoke such reactions from the audience like pitty and rage – is beyond me. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s voice acting matches the performance to perfection. It is mind blowing to know that such a detailed performance is the result of a complex collaboration. The mix or writing, puppetry, and vocal delivery is seamless. When you step back for a moment, and forget about magic creatures and faraway lands and childrens stories being told, and look at the shear artistry that is on display here – it is staggering. This is museum quality art being passed off as mere entertainment.
A Chamber of Secrets
Brea, daughter to the All Maudra, discovery of the chamber below the castle in Ha’rar is as fun as it is engrossing. There are so many fantasy elements at play in the chamber that really distill what is great about the Dark Crystal. The whole franchise takes traditional fairy tale elements and instills a new sense of weirdness and wonder.
There is a trial a character must overcome. We’ve seen this play out again and again since Theseus and the Minotaur. But a blending of magic and technology lies at the heart of it making it feel so new. The prize at the end subverts our expectations beautifully. It isn’t just some magical item, but a character. Lore, a creature made of stone who has the equivalent of a stone record player etched into his arms, is fantastic. It is this last subversion of expectation that harkens back to other Henson productions like The Labyrinth or the original Dark Crystal. His introduction is akin to Ludo or Aghrua. He seems threatening at first but we learn of a gentleness that rests below that frightening exterior. In fact, Lore is a character who Henson wanted in the Dark Crystal movie. The technology in 1982 simply wasn’t good enough.
Aughra and the Mystics.
Augra becomes a more important character. It is here that the Dark Crystal takes one of its biggest risks and reaps the rewards for it. Aughra is a compelling character in the movie, much for the same reason Yoda is in Empire Strikes Back. She is weird, wise, and shrouded in mystery. Most of what we know of her is through these indirect characterizations. The show strips away that ambiguity.
Aughra becomes a mixture of Gandalf and Mother Nature. She is the most powerful being and is almost the embodiment of Thra. As we learned in the first episode, she was tricked by the Skekisis who play on her curiosity and thirst for knowledge. She is given the power to mentally explore the secrets of the universe. In exchange she leaves Thra unguarded and at the mercy of the Skeksis. Now, Augrah is set upon a path of redemption. This creates a fascinating balance between deepening our understanding of Thra and the mythology, while creating more mysteries. Aughra’s backstory is so dense that revealing parts of it only creates more mysteries.
This also leads to the introduction of the first Mystic. The Uru/Mystics are a vital part of the Dark Crystal lore that have been largely absent from the show. As Ahgura begins her redemption we meet the Archer UrVa. UrVa is the other half SkekMal the Hunter. The scarcity of the Mystics have made them all the more intriguing. And seeing UrVa in action is a delight. The idea of a warrior monk style Mystic works so well. I would watch an entire series of UrVa. Like Kung-Fu with David Carridne but with puppets.
At Aughra’s urging, Rian, Deet, Brea, Hup, and Lore head to the mysterious Circle of the Suns to learn how to defeat the Skeksis. It is here we meet even more great characters. Bill Hader and Andy Samburg are phenomenal as the Heretic and his counterpart the Wanderer. A Skeksis and an Uru who have put their differences aside and are working together to return to their natural state. Those who have seen the movie already know about the great conjunction and the splitting of the Urskeks into Uru and Skeksis. But, the show had to deal with it at some point. So audiences are treated to the most meta piece of storytelling ever – a puppet show in side of a puppet show that is dropping exposition to both audiences while talking about the importance of stories and unique art in our lives.
Honestly, the show just keeps getting better and better with each episode. Tune in next week-ish for the last installment of our spoiler filled reviews of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.