Tuesday 27 August 2019

Guest Post – The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, episode 1 (2019)

The Dark Crystal is one of my favourite childhood movies, one that had a powerful formative effect on me. So the news that there was going to be a Netflix prequel series was not a thing that I had simple feelings about. My friend, frequent collaborator and BERGCAST co-presenter, Jon Dear felt the same way, and when he offered to write about the first episode, which he got to see previewed, I leapt at the opportunity. And unlike most of the posts here, this is more or less spoiler-free.

I was lucky enough to get a ticket to Netflix’s preview showing of the first episode of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance at BFI Southbank last week. There’s a free exhibition here, Into Thra, which runs until 6 September. If you’re able to, do have a visit.

The first thing you notice whenever people talk about their first experience of watching The Dark Crystal (1982) is that they saw it when they were far too young and it terrified and excited them in equal measure. I am not, in any way, an exception to this; decades later, a Mystic bleeding, the Podling having its life essence drained, and the character of Aughra would all remain vivid cinematic memories long after I Put Away (certain) Childish Things.

Brian Froud’s art book The World of The Dark Crystal would ensure the film had a life beyond the confines of its cinematic release and in a time before the near-immediate commercial release on streaming, download, Blu Ray, DVD, video, Froud helped give it the best/worst thing any work of fiction requires, a fan base. So while Age of Resistance will undoubtably appeal to a brand new audience, the oxygen of enduring fandom is a large part of the reason why we’re revisiting the world of Thra at all.

Executive Producer Lisa Henson talks of The Dark Crystal as the work her father was most proud of and it’s not hard to see why, if you’re going to make a world and populate it only with puppets AND back it up with some of the most detailed world building ever undertaken for a one off film that wasn’t an adaptation, it’s clearly something that’s been a labour of love.

I don’t know if making this a CGI series, as many assumed, was ever a serious prospect, but for many more not using Henson puppets would have been unthinkable. And so, in the ever increasingly crowded fantasy genre market, Age of Resistance’s well-trod story of a society’s most powerless, facing overwhelming odds to defeat the unscrupulously corrupt and save their world, their home has it’s USP: everyone’s a puppet.

Of course High Definition can be harsh on puppets but in a world so layered, so well-structured and – important for the fantasy genre – so tactile, it requires far less suspension of disbelief than say, Salacious B. Crumb, Mogwai or (for me at least) Daenerys’s dragons. The Gelflings and Podlings look like they belong there and just as importantly, the Skeksis look like they don’t. I had worried that my adult brain would struggle to empathise with puppets, but the 1982 film still connects me to the child that watched it then, and anyway, I struggle to get through an episode of Springwatch without crying so…

Age of Resistance pushes at the very boundaries of what puppetry might be expected to achieve and I suspect will date it less than a much more CGI-heavy affair. Of course, technological advancements do help with being able to shoot and edit the puppets in a far more dynamic way than was previously possible, and with a high profile voice cast and a technically proficient director in Louis Leterrier, Netflix have made all they can to make this their next ‘event’ series. Nevertheless the artistry of the puppeteers is paramount.

So, a ten part series awaits and no spoilers here (I’ve only seen Episode 1 anyway), not even the story. You get a big info dump from Sigourney Weaver at the start and learn that the world of Thra is inhabited by seven clans of Gelflings – each with their own characteristic and status – who serve the Skeksis, off world visitors to Thra who now act as guardians of the Crystal of Truth after they distracted its previous guard, Aughra, with an orrery. The crystal is “the source of all life”, and on Thra, all things are connected. We have the interconnectivity of people and their environment, and individuals in peaceful, matriarchal societies taking on the powerful and greedy who rule the world. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to recognise that some political allegory might be found with our present time. No mean feat in a prequel to a nearly 40-year-old film.

The main plotlines are driven by the Gelflings Rian, Brea, and Deet, as well as the Skeksis, and the wider canvas the writers have to paint on keeps the pacing up, with more action sequences than I expected. The message I took home was that the youngest are least corrupted and more able to easily recognise that there is far much more that connects us all to our world, and that transcends nation-state or race.

Age of Resistance is a technological triumph but far more importantly resurrects puppeteering as something not just for children’s programmes and comic relief. That huge feat of world building Henson and company did all those years ago may just now be about to get the appreciation it’s long deserved.