It has taken me a while to work through this show on Netflix because I kept getting distracted by other things (Good Omens, Picard, etc.). However, I have now seen the whole thing and I’m glad I did. Like most people of my, ahem, advanced years, I greatly enjoyed the movie despite the cheesy plot because the look of the thing was amazing, and because the Chamberlain was such a sleazy villain.
The new version has all of the same advantages and disadvantages.
So yes, the plot is more of the same cheesy fantasy tropes that we’d laugh at if they turned up in a novel. But there are Henson puppets, Brian and Wendy Froud are back on the creative team to make sure that it all looks amazing, and we have several decades of improvements in puppetry and film technology to make it even better. Plus an all-star cast many of whom grew up on Henson puppet shows and loved the original movie as much as we did.
Much credit should go to whoever at Netflix made the decision to go with a full puppet show. The Henson company had been quietly developing the Dark Crystal property for some time before the TV series became a thing. Their initial proposal to Netflix was to go with CGI because a 10-episode TV series done all with puppets would be fantastically expensive. Netflix had some trials done, and after a quick look said that CGI was out of the question as it didn’t look like Dark Crystal. It was puppets or nothing.
They were absolutely right.
So all of the gang is back together, except many years earlier. Thra is still heavily populated by the Seven Clans of Gefling. The Skeksis have yet to discover how the drain Essence from their subjects. And Mother Aughra is off in a dream world exploring the galaxy, which is how the Skekis got her out of the way so that they could take over.
But wait, I hear you say, we know from the film…
You have all seen the film, haven’t you? Well if you haven’t, the statue of limitation on spoilers has well and truly expired. Tough.
…we know from the film that Jen and Kira are the last two Gelfings. Goodness know how they intend to repopulate Thra with that shallow a gene pool, but there it is. All the others are dead. So this TV series is going to end in tragedy, isn’t it.
Well, yes and no. There may yet be some retconning done. The current 10-episode season ends with a whole bunch of plot points unresolved. They are clearly hoping to get a second season out of it. And there is no guarantee that everyone will die at the end. The Mystics and Mother Aughra have to survive. But this is not a story in which the Chosen One saves the world. That was the story of the movie. This is a story about people rising up against Fascism.
Oh noes! Politics in our fantasy!!!
Yes, of course. There is always politics in fantasy, and those politics generally reflect the time in which the story is written. The plot of the TV series sees the rule of the Skeksis become ever more tyrannical, and the Gelflings arguing among themselves as to the best way to cope with this.
There are, as I noted, seven Gelfling clans. All of them have a matriarchal culture, being ruled over by a Maudra. One of these seven queens is chosen to be the All-Maudra, and that is usually the Maudra of the Vapra clan. The current All-Maudra, played by a very queenly Helena Bonham Carter, has three daughters, and they form a key part of the cast. Seladon, the eldest, is a career politician like her mother. She believes in doing whatever is necessary to keep the Skeksis happy. Tavra, the next eldest, is not expected to inherit the throne and enjoys being a princess with little thought of the problems of politics. Brea, the youngest, buries herself in books, and there she finds things that disturb her kind heart greatly.
Elsewhere we have three other key characters. Rian is a young soldier who is one of the first to discover the extent of the perfidy of the Skeksis. He is made outcast for speaking up. Deet is a Kira-like young woman from the cave-dwelling Grottan Clan who is sent topside by the mystic Sanctuary Tree because bad things are going down. And finally Hup is a brave, if very innocent, young podling who dreams of being a knight.
There is much adventuring to be done, and many plot tokens to be gathered. All seven Gelfling clans need to have a place in the story. The Chamberlain has to be his usual, sleazy self. And The Scientist has a greatly expanded role, made good use of by Mark Hamill. There are also some brand new Skeksis and Mystics.
Much of the plot concerns whether the Gelflings should appease the Skeksis, rise up in open warfare, or find some more covert way of fighting back such as whatever on Thra passes for throwing a ring into a volcano. Seladon’s appeasement strategy doesn’t go well, but then neither does the bravery of Maura Fara of the Stonewood Clan. One of my favourite bits of the season is where Seladon has a Cersei moment to try to bring the rest of the Maudras into line. Rian does much better at that particular task, through cunning use of a Labour Party slogan. If only it had worked as well for Jeremy Corbyn
I won’t be able to think of the Skeksis again without thinking of Boris Johnson and his Cabinet. And now you are infected with that image too.
That’s too much of the plot already, though. If you have access to Netflix you should go and watch it. If not, I’m sure it will be available on disc soon. It might be cheesy, but it is gorgeous to look at.
Having watched it, you should also watch the “making of” documentary which takes you behind the scenes and into the Henson creature shop. Brian and Wendy feature heavily, as does Toby Froud who is now very much not a cute baby. Cheryl and Lisa Henson get lengthy interviews, as do Jason Isaacs (The Emperor) and Simon Pegg (The Chamberlain). It is a thoroughly joyous documentary and reminds me strongly of some of the extras on the original Lord of the Rings films. The attention to detail that the crew put into creating the puppets and their world is just astonishing.