Joe: I love that this episode begins with a huge prologue, reminiscent of the prologue in the Black Panther movie that set up Wakanda for an audience unfamiliar with the lore of the comic book series. Like Wakanda, Thra is not a commonly known place for a large segment of the Netlfix-watching population. One could easily just jump into the story, and still do fine following the action on the screen, but that prologue really grounds the viewer into a specific moment in time. Even veterans of Dark Crystal lore will be planted firmly into one moment in the complex history of the elaborate fantasy setting. It also created this lush, visual language that clearly identified the major players, and the stakes before the story began. There are the Skeksis, the Mystics, the Gelflings, and Aughra, and at the center of everything a Crystal of Truth that carries inside of it the energy of all living creatures of Thra. Even in the original film, a lot of this was not made abundantly clear, and the audience is thrown into the deep end, and expected to just pick it all up as we go. We do, of course, but I feel that it saves a lot of time and energy for the audience to have this in-depth prologue, before the puppets arrive on the scene. So, instead of trying to figure out the order and shape of civilization, we can just dig into the characters and the gorgeous scenery of this alien, fantastical world.
And what glorious puppets! In Atlanta, I have been blessed to encounter a skeksis puppet in the “flesh” at the Henson-supported Center for Puppetry arts, and it was a showstopper of detail and exquisite detail and even more exquisite detail. The Skeksis are masterpieces of the puppetry arts. They are visually stunning alien beings brought to life by brilliant performances with these huge, tortured, heavy footfalls and twisted gestures and wicked grace. The gelfling and podlings have also been dramatically improved since the original, with more facial movements and expressions, and a subtle use of CGI to enhance the emotional cues of the puppets. I adore how the aliens that live on Thra seem to be actually alien to the rest of the world’s design and movements. The Skeksis’ and Mystics’ very movements don’t align with anything else in their stolen world. The way nature and Gelflings and Podlings move, down to the tiniest gestures, are so distinctly different that it enhances the sense of wonder that the Gelflings must feel for those twisted, ancient giants with beak noses that rule their land. It works to enhance the sense of space and order in their universe.
E: Except on the Gelflings? That’s always been the biggest barrier for those who don’t love the original. The Skeksis are amazingly intricate while the Gelflings, by comparison, seem flat. Big doe eyes and mouths that only whisper.
Joe: I don’t know if biggest barrier is apt. It is a barrier, but the high fantasy strangeness was, I thought, the bigger barrier, and the lack of human characters, at all. Certainly, in its own time, the creators struggled to bring more emotional resonance out of the puppets with the technology they had. What we have now is subtle CGI enhancing the puppets and their movements and gestures, which, I think, finally strikes that balance between what is possible with a puppet, and what is possible with CGI.
Eric: The subtle CGI was absolutely seamless. I knew it was there, but it was never distracting. After a while, I forgot I was watching puppets–for the most part. The story, I think, was that good. It’s funny how reading this as a novel. I wouldn’t even bat an eye, but I’m almost hypercritical of non-human characters on screen. I mean, they’re all anthropomorphized, to at least some extent–save the cute little dogs with rows of teeth that roll around everywhere, so what’s the point? Why puppets?
Joe: The first episode is going to quickly sort people into the sort of people who can follow a story primarily about heroic elf-like creatures brought to life with puppets in an elaborate and aggressively strange and magical new world, and the sort of people whose eyes glaze over at the first sweeping shot of Meera and Rian dueling with staffs into a brief make-out session on the high balcony of the Skeksis’ twisted palace. The people who are able to suspend their disbelief a little are going to experience a roller coaster ride of emotions. The series is being described in terms like Game of Thrones, and I see that. The facade of the culture and the society operates in a completely different film than the one the antagonists are actually in. This is a creeping horror show, where all of civilization will be sacrificed to the vanity and corruption of the Skeksis. I mean, literally all of it. Every building, every family, every heroic character is gone by the beginning of the Henson film of which this series is a prequel. The gelfling play politics and sibling rivalry on the deck of the Titanic, obeying the rules of the fantasy world that was constructed for them by their Skeksis lords.
Eric: It was painful to watch, that sinking ship. I knew that this emotional core had like, gravity, when they were playing politics and I was actually groaning. Having watched the original a few days before, I knew exactly where the ending was going. It’s almost like…today’s politics and global warming.
Joe: It is an excellent metaphor for our own world. Does anyone really know what it’s like inside the boardrooms of oil executives? Does anyone know what these men who would burn the world down. We live inside an American Dream believing someday we could be the winners, but the people who have already won have their own opinions about maintaining their place among society’s elites. The harm that companies do to each other, where companies eat companies and make a mess of the little lives beneath also remind me of the way skeksis conspire and collude and backstab and manipulate the laws of nature and oligarchy to their own ends. Does anyone really believe that the people who move their money around into various semi-legal tax havens all over the world care one whit about the common man’s American Dream? I think not. Right now, in the news, Liberty University is being accused of being a religious front for a real estate hedge fund. They take student dollars, who seek a holy and appropriate education, and turn it into gifts for friends and relatives and lucrative deals. How is this not the Skeksis? What happens inside the inner sanctum is sacred, and the oaths and tribal loyalties keep the truth of the culture hidden…
Eric: “We do not ride upon the railroad. It rides upon us.” The backbone of capitalism is the ability to pay workers less than what they are worth. Or to exploit them in any way they see fit. Wasn’t it Gillette that made like $60 million in profits then cut everyone’s pensions to save $3? Long live the company. There’s no such thing as taking care of workers or passing on profits. It just doesn’t happen.
Joe: We’re getting off track into politics, but it’s hard not to do that because the show is so brazenly political. The planet Thra is being extracted. Gelfling are conditioned not to believe this is even possible, and lose themselves into tribal and personal disagreements. And yet… Deet discovers a truth. Rian discovers a truth in Meera’s horrible and gruesome evaporation into a resource that is like a shimmering oil rendered white and magical with the viscosity of fuel, the glowing energy of it. Deet, underground, sees the damage being done to her world, and is wounded by the rising natural disaster. In the halls of high power, even among the elite gelfling, information is kept secret and hidden from prying eyes, because it is too dangerous even for the children of the most powerful gelfling in the world. This is not a show about little gelflings magic fighting and puppets. This is a show intended to teach us an important lesson about the Skeksis that walk among us. Episode 1 lays that ground. The only ones who can save the world have to be believed to do so, and even with the power of dreamfasting, where experiences and witnessed events can be directly shared person-to-person, they realize that the world prefers not to believe in them.
Eric: It’s always easier, more convenient, to believe the lie. As a parent, this one was hard to watch. Then I looked at my debt and the way we are almost forced to spend the congealed energy of our labor, which we call money, to power big business. Starting a resistance, let alone a successful one, as we see in Thra, is difficult. Even with Aughra, it feels like they don’t have a chance. Again, because no one really takes it seriously. When Rian and co. finally reach the mystic and the excommunicated Skeksis, they relate the news with puppets. Comic relief, sure. Satirical. On-the-nose. But there’s a disturbing truth there. What this show is an allegory for is life or death stuff, but the only way the audience might do something is after watching a show with puppets.
I wonder if anyone is listening.
Joe: Hey, this is episode one! The puppets inside of the puppets is a much later episode! We haven’t even met Hup! Or Lore!
Categories: TV shows