Image Credit: Netflix
Before I watched *The *Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, the word “puppet” brought to mind Kermit dejectedly playing the banjo, or Sooty wordlessly tapping his wand. I thought this was puppetry; a child exclusive genre which instantly stops being believable when you know it’s just some guy’s hand up the puppets bum. Ironically, the show itself pays homage to the boredom associated with puppetry in episode seven, when The Heretic (Andy Samberg) and The Wanderer (Bill Hader) reveal they will explain the history of the planet Thra through “the most ancient and sacred of arts … Puppetry” which is met by rolling eyes and groans from Rian (Taron Egerton) and Brea (Anna Taylor Joy).
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance knocked my puppet-snobbery socks off. Muppet creator Jim Henson was the inspiration for this dark and intriguing show which is a prequel to Henson’s 1982 film The Dark Crystal. The Netflix show holds true to the 80’s vibe by keeping it a “Puppet Only” production (alongside some incredible stop-motion). However, there is some subtle CGI used to inject a life-like spark into the Gelfling characters.
Do not fear, you do not need to have seen the original film to understand and enjoy the 2019 series. The opening omniscient narrator (Sigourney Weaver) fills you in with, “Another World. Another time. Another Age. Thra … At its center the crystal of truth … the source of life.” We discover the Crystal is damaged, corrupted by the evil Skeksis overlords and an unstoppable sickness is spreading.
The show is a slow burner and takes its time over ten, hour long episodes to entrench the watcher in the fantasy world of Thra. The show has been criticised as a Netflix bloat but I feel the over-stretched narrative is a necessary sacrifice to achieve the rich level of world building, quite unlike anything else on TV. Amusingly, Age of Resistance may be one of the most tangible and human worlds out there. The sets have been hand-crafted to accommodate the puppetry. In certain scenes it really feels like you are stepping into Thra, as the camera pans over strange frolicking creatures accompanied by Daniel Pemberton’s swelling score. You can tell that this series has been a thirty-year long love project for the creators.
There is a Tolkien inspired level of civilization construction, including a matriarchal society ruled by the All-Maudra (Helena Boham Carter) governing seven ethnically-distinct Gelfling clans. The show realises the potential that a fantasy world has of mirroring and subverting our reality. Topical issues such as fake news, gender politics and classism are interwoven in the show's narrative backbone. The hints to our own world increase the sense of realism and we begin to accept that these puppets are “alive.”
The puppets are in danger of an emotional blankness, as their faces can only portray perpetual surprise but their compelling characterisation is duly (and dually) credited to their puppeteers and voice actors. A fun game is to look over the cast-list before the first episode and try matching the voices of Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Jason Isaacs and Awkwafina to their greedy vulture-like Skeksis characters. Characters who wouldn’t look out of place scheming for the iron throne.
The highlights of the series are when the Skeksis take centre stage. Snapping at each other or gorging on feasts, they initially appear like a children’s villain. However, this image quickly breaks when the Skeksis produce a 1984 inspired torture device: strapping a metal cage onto SkekTrek and unleashing an eyeball-munching creature. Later, instead of burying a fellow Skeksis they string him up in their throne room turning him into a huge puppet. This level of narrative self-awareness adds a complexity to the show.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance just kept on giving, the Netflix documentary behind the scenes was particularly insightful. Although, if you don’t fancy fully nerding out on the “fantasy world of Thra” the voice actors are more than reason enough to start watching. Be warned, you may end up impersonating Simon Pegg’s Chamberlain who schemes in third person like an evil Yoda.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is now streaming on Netflix.