A year or so ago I heard the news that there was a Dark Crystal Netflix original TV series in pre-production, and I was not particularly excited. Jim Henson’s original 1982 movie has wedged firmly into cult status and has a devout following. Henson’s genius as puppeteer and creative maestro ensured an entire generation, myself included, were gifted the nightmare fuel that was his illustrious catalogue of creature design, primarily the monstrous Skeksis. I felt it was a story that did not need to be told and that the current overuse of computer-generated imagery over the practical effect would blight the show and further remove some of the magic from the original. Puppets on the big and small screen are not incredibly popular currently and I was unsure of the route Netflix would take in ensuring the authenticity remained loyal to 82’ classic as well as offering something new and compelling for contemporary audiences. I am delighted to say that my scepticism (Skesicism?) was unnecessary and what we have been given is something far better than I could have wished for. An entire world has been built form the ground up to incorporate detailed and layered characters that are far more than just foam and latex, along with a compellingly vast narrative that has some serious longevity.
Serving as a prequel to the 1982 movie, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is extremely faithful to the world building offered in the now almost 40-year-old film. With Netflix gathering some of the world’s greatest puppeteers, writers, set designers and actors to recreate the passion Henson afforded for the original and bring it to a modern audience.
Set on the planet of Thra, the narrative centres around the titular crystal and part reptile, part vulture like creatures, the Skeksis, using the crystal’s regenerative powers to ensure they remain immortal. The cruel beings settled on the planet many years ago, offering to protect the crystal and subsequently inherited authority over the planet’s inhabitants after becoming the guardians of the mystical life-force of Thra. After discovering the crystal no longer provides them with enough restorative energy, the Skeksis then begin to use the crystal in order to drain the life force of the timid race of Gelflings instead. The Gelfling’s consist of seven different clans that live throughout the realms of Thra, all from different habitats and rarely interact with one another. All clans are governed by a matriarch known as the ‘Maudra’ whom leads each of the seven societies. The ‘All Maudra’ is essentaily this worlds Gelfling Queen and rules over all. A Crystal guard named Rian (voiced by Taron Egerton) witnesses the Skeksis dark secret and begins to form a resistance with the help of Nathalie Emmanuel’s Deet, after a prophetic vision of the fall of Thra at the hands of the Skeksis and the growing maleficent Darkening they have caused to spread. She leaves her underground home to travel afar and explain her apparition to the All Maudra and forms a friendship with Rian along the way.
The plot is complex with multiple strands and features a variety of characters, but it never becomes difficult to follow. There is a linear quest structured at the centre and all that goes on around this is beautifully constructed and a joy to watch. The show is vast and demonstrates unimaginably production quality. The original movie consisted of 30 to 35 sets and took three years to make. The Netflix show had over 80 sets and they were given only six months to bring it all to screen and with staggering results. Everything seen is practical from the lovingly detailed built puppets to the lush and otherworldly vegetation and differing environments. All of the production elements and designs from the original movie concepts are reused and modernised with great affection along with new content enabled through modern technical advances. Archived models and moulds were copied and added to new designs, capturing the essence of the movie. Original concept artist, Brian Froud, returned to the TV show bringing with him his son Toby, acting also as creative designer. Toby Froud has a history within Henson’s back catalogue, he played baby Toby, the child stolen by David Bowie’s goblin king in Labyrinth (1986). Keeping with the subject of family, Jim Henson’s daughters, Cheryl (who is also president of the Jim Henson foundation) and Lisa came to the project as executive producers, overseeing their father’s vision remained as intended. The attention to detail in the production is staggering and the intention is clear to allow as immersive an experience as possible. For example, J M Lee, linguist and writer of multiple recent Dark Crystal novels created an entire language for a race of creatures that live alongside the Gelflings on Thra. The Podling’s are a race without the elvish beauty and intelligence of the prior and they live lower in the social hierarchy of Thra. This language is used accurately within the show and saw Lee as consultant.
The aforementioned Thra hierarchy has relatable ties to contemporary social order. It feels intentional how the different social constructs are presented. The behaviour of the cruel, dishonest and corrupt Skeksis replace our own politicians’ machinations and down the order of society the layers are visible. The theme of ‘we are all the same regardless where we are from’ is clear and subtle enough to not feel aggressively sledgehammered into viewers faces. As the different races of Gelflings start to interact with one another they begin to understand they are all one and the same, with a key interest, the salvation of Thra and liberty from the Skeksis.
The voice cast for the series features incredible talent. Along with the aforementioned Tarun Egerton and Nathalie Emmanuel there is a plethora of star power. Anya-Taylor Joy, Jason Isaacs, Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill and Lena Headey are just a few of the actors providing their vocals for the vast array of characters. Simon Pegg in particular is exceptional as cruel and manipulative Skeksis, The Chamberlain. The show was shot with the puppeteers providing the initial voices in order to ensure the puppet made the correct movements with their features and physicality. The actors then watched back footage and overlaid the speech to be redubbed accurately over multiple takes. The end result is stunningly effective and whilst there is no denying that the creatures on screen are puppets, their movements are incredibly lifelike as they interact with their environments, providing a further dimension to the CGI alternative. The way in which the light hits the characters and their facial expressions help to create an emotive spectrum for the viewer to respond to and I feel it works beautifully. Originally, pre-production tests used computer generated Gelflings interacting with practical puppet Skeksis with some CGI overlay, this was rejected due to straying too far from the originals aesthetic and losing much of the magic. The practical puppetry was decided on and the use of CG was only to softly enhance some facial features and provided some of the bigger, freer flowing creatures that could not be solely animatronic, for obvious reasons such as size and scale of movements. The marrying of the filming methods blends seamlessly and there are only a few occasions where the CG chips away at the magic of the puppeteering.
Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is an antidote to modern TV and whilst those who remember the original will find many things to satiate the nostalgia, those unfamiliar with the ’82 classic will not be at a disadvantage. There is a wonderful six-minute opening sequence that gives an exposition drop in order to establish the world and its inhabitants. A slight warning for the younger viewers, though certified as a PG, there are some very distressing scenes that younger (and some adult) viewers may find upsetting. There are elements of horror as the odd eyeball is eaten, and innocent creatures clubbed to death without remorse.
Netflix took a risk when commissioning a Dark Crystal TV show, as an idea it just did not seem to make sense to revert to an analogue way of an almost forgotten art form to tell a story amongst the abundance of current methods. But it just works and certainly stands out from shows of recent years. The amount of lovingly crafted detail and effort in every episode is astonishing and there is one word that springs to mind when summing up my opinion of the show. Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a (in the voice of Skeksis Chamberlain) ‘mmmmmmmasterpiece’
My Rating: ★★★★★
Creators: Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews,
Cast: Neil Sterenberg, Beccy Henderson, Nathalie Emmanuel, Taron Egerton, Kevin Clash, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jason Isaacs, Simon Pegg, Benedict Wong, Mark Hamill, Gug Mbatha-Raw, Keegan-Michael Key