A lot of big crazes passed me by when I was a kid. I only ever owned three Star Wars figures, and I couldn’t quite see what the fuss was about. I only played a couple of Fighting Fantasy books. I never owned a Transformer, and I could live without The A-Team. It’s safe to say I wasn’t into fiction, film and TV to a very big extent. I was happier mucking about with my model railway or my ZX81.
One thing really did capture my imagination, though, and that was The Dark Crystal, a 1982 fantasy film made by Jim Henson, entirely with puppetry and animatronics. It tells of two Gelfling, Jen and Kira, the last of their race, setting out on a quest to defeat the evil, parasitic rulers of their land, the Skeksis, who dwell in a castle containing the mysterious Crystal, the source of all power on the world of Thra.
I found out about the film by reading a Sunday supplement magazine article about it, not long before it was released. It contained a lot of pictures of the film and it sounded great, so I badgered my parents to take me to see it. I didn’t regret that! I was completely sucked in to the strange, haunting and visually stunning world Henson had brought to life.
The film became a cult classic, but didn’t do particularly well, mainly because people didn’t really know what to make of it, and couldn’t believe this dark, often scary, film came from the creator of Kermit and Miss Piggy. It’s just about as different from The Muppet Show as it’s possible to get. I was aware at the time that the film only just scratched the surface of the world created for it.
Fast forward almost thirty-seven years, and I happened to be looking at the magazine rack in my local shop. On the front of a TV guide, there was a little picture of something that looked like a Gelfling! I picked it up, browsed through the pages, and was absolutely gobsmacked to discover that Netflix had made a ten-part TV series as a prequel to the movie! The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance premiered on August 30th this year. Finding this out made me literally bounce off the walls with excitement, given that it was such a treasured childhood memory.
Prior to the release of the series, I did a couple of things to get myself ready, and the first was to view the original film again, after quite a few years. I was struck once more by the amazing otherworldly atmosphere, the glorious ghastliness of the Skeksis, and the wonderful environment everything is set in. Unfortunately, though, quite a few things aren’t that great, in particular the rather lifeless and unconvincing nature of the Gelfling characters. They were clearly the hardest creatures to pull off convincingly, which is probably why there were only two of them. They were hamstrung by a poor script and, in a couple of places, some utterly dreadful voice acting. One contemporary review described Jen as a “Ken doll” hero, and I can see where they’re coming from. These complaints aren’t huge, though – I recognise a work of genius when I see one.
I had to spend a couple of days in London just before Age of Resistance hit the screens, which happened to coincide with a promotional exhibition at the British Film Institute on the South Bank. Plenty of puppets, props and sets were on display, and I have to admit I turned into bit of an emotional wreck seeing them all. It left me hugely excited about the new series, which I started watching on my flight back to Edinburgh, and finished a few days later.
Before I even begin to get into discussing it, I’ll start by saying it was an extraordinary surprise that this show even got made. I’m amazed that a not-hugely-successful film made almost forty years ago has spawned something so ambitious. It runs to around nine hours – the original film was only an hour and a half – and it’s all made using very similar puppetry techniques, with absolutely minimal CGI. It shows that the market for this sort of thing is far bigger than it was in the past, and I’m just so happy that someone has blown the dust off the world that Brian Froud designed.
I won’t discuss the plot too much, as I’d strongly urge you to dig into the show yourself, but right from the opening moments, I was stunned. They got everything incredibly right. Thra was eye-poppingly gorgeous, as alien and strange as ever, with the Skeksis just as foul, selfish and cruel as before. The huge difference this time around, though, was a world full of Gelfling – loads of them, in seven distinct clans. This time, they were voice-acted brilliantly by a really strong cast, and the puppetry had moved on leaps and bounds. In this show, set some time before the film, the Gelfling and Skeksis peacefully co-exist until Rian, a Gelfling castle guard, witnesses them do something utterly horrible. He manages to escape and alert others, including Brea, a princess of the ruling clan, and Deet, a Grottan Gelfling who lives underground, and the three begin a rebellion against Skeksis rule.
It was always obvious in the film that the Gelfling had a history and culture we barely witnessed, and it’s so good to see their world come to life at last. It’s a world of conflict and tension, as well as humour, wonder, magic and whimsy, and it all comes together absolutely brilliantly. Standout character for me was Deet, who was full of goofy enthusiasm, passion and energy, who was everything Kira should have been but wasn’t.
The plot develops quite slowly over the first few episodes, but it really gets into its stride from episode 5 onwards, and leads to a thrilling conclusion with a bit of a cliff-hanger – which leads me to hope there will be another series, preferably without another 37-year wait. It explains and places into context many of the events of the film, but there’s so much more (hopefully) they can do with where it’s heading.
It was all just glorious for this big fan. I just can’t describe how happy and emotional it’s all made me! Apparently it’s all been pieced together from various published works on the lore of Thra that have appeared over the years, primarily a YA series of novels, and much of the artwork and concepts developed by Brian and Wendy Froud – they were involved in the series along with their son Toby, who is famous for being Toby the baby in Labyrinth!
I’m keen to immerse myself more into the world of Thra, and I hope this series will revive interest and make people appreciate it for the wonderful thing it is. I did just re-read the original movie novelisation, which is quite strong and better than the film in places, with plenty of lore thrown in, and greatly enjoyed it.
The world we live in can be pretty horrible at times – it’s glorious that things like this exist to lift the gloom, and give me hope and happiness. This is the absolute pinnacle of creative genius, and I ABSOLUTELY BLOODY LOVE IT.