WARNING: Contains spoilers for The Dark Crystal Age of Resistance (2019) and The Dark Crystal (1982)
Yes, another Dark Crystal article. I’ve written two since the show premiered and I will keep writing more until Paul gets the office tranquilizer gun and puts me in “the writer’s room” to calm down (don’t ask – it isn’t pleasant). But, first he has to catch me! And until that happens we are going to dig deep my friends. We are going to explore every nook and cranny of this massive fantasy epic that Netflix and the Henson’s have bestowed upon us. We are going to start with the first three episodes.
The first episode of The Dark Crystal Age of Resistance has a lot to do. Not only in terms of storytelling, but in selling it to the audience. The original 1982 movie was big on imagination but scarce on details. The new writers had to fill in a lot of blanks but make it appear as though the tale (and the details) existed all along. The original was also hugely influential on a lot of people’s childhoods. People who are becoming increasingly cynical about their childhood stories being rebooted or re-imagined. People like me. So, the creators also had to convince a generation of viewers that this was not just a cash grab. And, I think it’s fair to say succeeded on all accounts. But how? What made this series so special?
Characters Are Key
Characters are the heart and soul of any story. You can have a predictable plot and generic directing as long as you have great characters. The characters in Resistance starts off a little thin. While we see them split into unique clans, on their own, the Gelfling are little more than well worn archetypes. Like Rian, the lackadaisical son of a hardened military leader. Together with Mira, his one true love, and Gurjin, his stout-hearted best friend, we see them getting ready to take on monsters and prove Rian’s worth to his father. (Lord, I am exhausted just writing that cliche out) The first episode plays hard on this trio of Rian, Mira, and Gurjin setting them up to be the heroes of the tale. But this is all little more than a narrative sleight of hand.
By the end of the first episode Mira has been killed by the Skeksis, Rian is on the run – framed for her murder, and Gurjin imprisoned by the Skeksis and tortured. This upset does a great job of not only establishing the Skeksis as villain but also puts the audience off kilter. Heroes dead. Cliches torn asunder. Villains ruling with impunity. Anything can happen here.
If you’ve seen the movie you know the Gelfling are doomed to be all but wiped out. But, I mean, Netflix isn’t going to make an expensive kids show about heroes being ethnically cleansed? No, this is a light-hearted muppet romp. And the initial light-hearted nature of the first episode lulls you into a sense that – maybe things will be OK for a while.
That wishful thinking is ripped from you by the end of the first 40 minutes. And if you didn’t think Gelfling genocide might still be in the cards after episode one, episode two crystallizes that doubt. But this isn’t Game of Thrones – dower and dark. It is still a Jim Henson movie, even if Jim hasn’t been with us for almost 30 years. There is hope. Or rather – Hup.
The Hero we deserve….
Hup, the podling with dreams of becoming a warrior, is an absolute scene stealer. Funny, heartwarming, and a little sad. He is so endearing and played so wonderfully by Henson veteran Victor Yerrid. With Yerrid’s earnest portrayal you can’t help but want Hup to become a paladin just as badly as he does, perhaps more. But…he carries a spoon instead of a sword. He gets beaten in pretty much every fight. This isn’t a realistic goal for him. And knowing that – is gutting. But, that is what uplifting fantasy is for. Right? To see the pure of heart rewarded? To know that deep down being good is good enough?
This is the world of the Dark Crystal, though, and things don’t always go our way. I loved watching Victor Yerrid’s performance. It is full of fun and pathos but with a sense of optimistic authenticity that is hard to pull off, puppet or no. If you’ve seen the movie you know where things are headed. But, if we are going to go down a dark path, I am glad we are going down it with Hup.
Deep down we are all little Maudra’s boys…
What is surprising (and it’s sad to call this surprising) was the amount of strong female characters. And not just strong in the sense of capable or heroic, but strong as in well crafted. Kira in the original movie isn’t quite a deus ex machina nor a Mary Sue. In fact, for the times she’s quite a progressive character. However, by today’s standards she skates along the edge both. Age of Resistance spends a whole episode really building up compelling female characters. It then spends the rest of the series truly exploring them.
In fact, the Gelflings have a clear matriarchal society. While this was never explicit in the movie, it does seem to be partly of Henson’s design. Henson brought on the incredibly talented Wendy Midener (now Wendy Froud , part of the talented Froud family including husband Brian and son Toby) to help add a strong feminine influence on the production. This flows through the narrative undeniably. But, there is no single female empowerment scene. No Marvel’s Endgame “She’s not alone” scene. (A scene I still love by the way) This is such an important part of Gelfling culture that it is shown constantly, with no commentary or extra reverence. It exists. Simply and undeniably. And is all the more beautiful for that.
Take Brea for example. At times she feels like a typical fairy tale princess, hot headed and upset at getting her hands dirty. However, her being incensed at having to get dirty comes from a great character progression. Brea and her sisters are a complex group of princess. Like real siblings their faults easily flow to the surface when they are around each other. But so do their strengths They bring out the best and the worst in each other. At worst Brea is naive, sheltered, and impertinent. At best she is cunning, curious, and resourceful.
This emotional sibling conflict often pushes Brea (and her sisters) into fascinating circumstances. Combined with her internal struggles, she is a compelling character. She is so easy to love, not despite her flaws, but because of them. Her discovery at the library and the besting of the soothsayer (played by the perpetually amazing Eddie Izzard) are great moments of triumph for the character and the audience. They feel earned. So, when she is forced to go wash Podlings and help the poor for a year, we feel her frustration. Puppeteer Alice Dinnean-Vernon is brilliant with her performance. As Brea, she floats effortless between poise, disgust, nobility, humility, anger, humor, and graceless curiosity.
It is much the same with Deet. What starts off as a pure hearted, down to earth heroine, becomes much more. It isn’t that she ceases to be those things. Or that those things are necessarily challenged. In fact, Deet is one of the strongest, most self assured characters in the show. It’s that we get to see that resilience play out in so many ways that it stops being a narrative crutch and evolves to defining character trait. She is the Captain America of Thra. Which makes her fate, that we glimpse as she bonds with The Sanctuary Tree, all the more grim.
We see Deet, infected with the Darkening, the blight of Thra, coursing through her eyes. Her face gaunt and hallowed. She looks possessed. Demonic. What’s worse, we know she saw it too. She knows that if she helps the world of Thra, she is dooming herself. We don’t get to see the real brilliance of Becky Henderson’s performance until the later half of the series, but she shines here too. Deet’s journey is very much our journey. Henderson’s portrayal is imbued with the sense of wonder and eagerness that we have as viewers. She wants to see and touch and experience everything she encounters. Henderson brings that out with such lovely little touches of frenetic energy balanced with a sense of gentle admiration for Thra.
Keeping the “dark” in Dark Crystal
The original movie didn’t shy away from scary stuff. I showed The Dark Crystal to my kids (all under ten) and none of them made it through the movie. At some point it became too scary for them. Be it Garthem attacks or Augra’s brisk nature or any number of things – The Dark Crystal can be scary AF. This is because Jim Henson never talked down to kids. Complex issues were always present in all of his creations. Age of Resistance lives up to this legacy. Deet, the animal loving Gelfling of the Grottan Clan is viciously attacked by animals infected by the Darkening. It’s fairly brutal and a little scary. But that has nothing on the peeper beetles.
These creatures the Skeksis use as torture devices, that fest on the eyeballs of living creatures, had my son running out of the room. (He has refused to watch any more of the show for now) It is a brilliant scene in which the Scientist is tortured for his failings. The scientist sits helpless, head bound in a cage, watching as a small creature devours his eye. We see the last thing he ever does out of that eye, the creature looming close and then – blackness with the sound of slurping and munching. It is dark and highly reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. The series continues on this path. Venturing deeper and deeper into unnerving with each episode. Eventually it got to the point that I double checked the rating to make sure it wasn’t PG-13. Which is great, children’s stories don’t have to be all sunshine and lollipops. The Dark Crystal is never cruel or indulgent in its darkness. It is just suitably layered
“Keeping up Foreign Relations…”
The complexities of the Gelfling/Skeksis culture is brilliant. The Skeksis are initially seen by the inhabitants of Thra as benevolent rulers. Almost godlike in the way they “care” for the Gelfling. But, the veil is wearing thin. The Skeksis demand a tithing of the Gelfling each year. The Skeksis greed is so great that they refuse to see reason or show mercy when people cannot pay the tithe. We see the unrest this builds towards the Skeksis, but also within the Gelfling clans. This is the real seeds of rebellion, what allows the Gelfling to question their grotesque overlords. Eventually. The Gelfling naivety is also at the crux of this conflict. A conflict that we know will lead to their downfall. So many of them believe, deeply, that the Skeksis are there to help. And it is a painful and moving thing to watch fall apart.
The Skeksis prey on this naivety in wickedly wonderful ways. The Chamberlain resumes his role as master manipulator from the film. Convincing the Gelfling that it was Rian who murdered Mira is one thing. But to make them believe that he is diseased and that dreamfasting with him (the Gelfling method of sharing memories) will spread the illness is insidious. Many of the Skeksis characters in the original movie where little more than background characters.
The Chamberlain is one of the few characters that is a lead in both the movie and the series. Frank Oz gave an outstanding performance in the movie. Every movement is imbued with the slimy, contemptuous, and predatory nature of the character. Warrick Brownlow-Pike does such a good job reenacting Oz’s interpretation of the character that feels just like the movie. To put that into perspective, that would be like someone redoing all of Michael Jackson’s music videos and getting every dance step right, and then adding a few more. It is really cool to watch. Simon Pegg’s rendition of Berry Dennan’s voice for the character is also impressive. (Doubly so since I didn’t know he could do voices) I can’t go as far as to say it is pitch perfect, but combined with Brownlow-Pike it is lovely to watch. From a stance of shear artistry, bringing a character back to life from nearly 40 years prior is astounding.
Which really, is the only way I can describe this whole series….astounding. It isn’t that it is just a good story. Which it is. Nor is it simply a great addition to a cherished part of my childhood. It’s that too. What really makes this amazing is the level of collaboration and artistry. It is so rare that you get to see this many top of their class artists working together and all bringing their A-game. Prop and costume makers, puppeteers, painters, actors, musicians, artisans of all kind. It is a staggering piece of theater. And if you thought episodes 1-3 were good. It just gets better.
What was your favorite part of the Dark Crystal series so far? Tell us in the comments below. And keep an eye out for our next spoiler filled installment.