When Netflix announced that it would be doing a “Dark Crystal” series, the reaction was twofold and extreme. There were the diehard fans who couldn’t believe that they were getting another chance to dive into this world, and the neophytes who had no idea what they were talking about. For the latter group, the two most pressing things to know about the 1982 film are that it’s the result of Jim Henson building out a complex and surprisingly dark fantasy world populated by puppets built on a scale like never before (not even by his own legendary standards), and that it in turn inspired an intensely devoted fan base that exists to this day. In returning to “The Dark Crystal,” Netflix’s ten-episode series embraces both these factors, making for one of the most ambitious and immersive TV events of the year.
For those who are wary that not being devoted to “Dark Crystal” in the 37 years since it debuted will make this series a completely impenetrable experience: Trust me, I was also skeptical that I would understand a single thing, let alone become someone who diverts casual conversation for twenty minutes to gush about the emotional resonance of a Podling puppet. But as conceptualized by Jeffrey Adliss, Will Matthews, and veteran producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, “Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” simultaneously acts as a gift to fans packed with Easter eggs and a powerful primer for the uninitiated. (Though as a note to curious parents: No, neither “Dark Crystal” nor its TV adaptation are quite appropriate for young children.)
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Crucially, the series acts as a prequel to the catastrophic events of the movie, which picked up on a devastated planet with the imperious, vulturesque Skeskis picking over the carcass. Over 10 episodes, “Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” introduces the world they destroyed and carefully unpacks how it became the husk of the movie. It builds out the mythology of the original “Dark Crystal,” revealing hierarchies and the truth of how the Skeksis first unraveled. As a band of determined Gelflings (the plucky underdogs of “Dark Crystal) mount a growing rebellion against Skeski rule, the show travels to verdant forests, glittering deserts, and icy castles. It flies on the backs of jaw-dropping creatures, dives into glowing caves, stages fearsome battles — and all, it must be said and underlined, with practical sets, puppets, and minimal CGI.
As detailed in the show’s (excellent, feature-length) accompanying making-of documentary (“The Crystal Calls”), “Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” went through several stages before production in which the creators tried different combinations of puppets with CGI characters. The test footage in which a puppet Skeksi faces off with a CGI Gelfling does, in fact, show exactly how uncanny even the best CGI can be, and how much more texture and personality a great puppet can lend a moment. Even when the Gelflings’ mouths don’t quite match the voices (an admittedly common occurrence), the way they move and react still feels more tangible than their CGI counterparts would have been. As the documentary reveals, the sheer scale of opening the “Dark Crystal” universe open in this way required a staggering amount of work (and money), and the effort shows onscreen. The level of detail in the puppets and their surroundings is, to be blunt, astonishing. Still, “Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” would’ve been nothing more than a technical feat without a story and characters to match, so it’s to the writers’ credit (not to mention the voice actors’ and impressive puppeteers’) that the interwoven stories are equally compelling.
Fans of the movie will recognize the villainous Skeksis, who went mad with power after discovering that they could live longer and better off Gelfling “essence.” But they will be greeted by a murderer’s row of new voice talent bringing them to life, including Simon Pegg (as the simpering Chamberlain), Jason Isaacs (as the bombastic Emperor), Harvey Fierstein (as the drooling Gourmand), and Mark Hamill (as the conniving Scientist). Awkwafina and Andy Samberg bring a more overtly comedic sensibility to the proceedings as The Collector and The Heretic (respectively), but it works. The Skeksis are both power-hungry monsters and, as the show emphasizes with elaborate set pieces and dizzying camerawork whenever they get into a frenzy, completely ridiculous. That they have managed to convince the entire world that their greed is acting in everyone’s best interest is the show’s hardest-hitting tragedy.
The Gelflings, by contrast, are almost painfully earnest, with the main heroic trio made up of classic archetypes. Rian (voiced by Taron Egerton/puppeteered by Neil Sterenberg) is a classic reluctant hero with an edge of petulance; lovely Deet (voiced by Nathalie Emmanuel/puppeteered by Beccy Henderson) embarks on a perilous journey in order to save the animals and fauna she’s cared for all her life; Princess Brea (voiced by Anna Taylor Joy/puppeteered by Alice Dinneran) finds herself at the center of everything when her sharp eye and curiosity lead her into dangerous waters. It takes several episodes for their stories to intersect in a meaningful way, but when they do, it’s a satisfying payoff that brings the far flung threads of the show together. It also helps that the show takes pains to make the world of the Gelflings more fully realized by portraying all their different belief systems, strengths, and prejudices. “Age of Resistance” even manages to make its world more progressive than most televised fantasy bothers to, as it includes same-sex couples (including Deet’s fathers) and leans on a matriarchal society (which is, as the series makes plain in increasingly horrifying fashion, made up of rulers as petty and noble as any other ruling lineage would be).
With its stark divisions between heroes and villains, gorgeously rendered world, and loving embrace of fantasy’s longest-standing tropes, “Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” is a prime example of how television can do fantasy right — and how potent the combination of nostalgia and Netflix’s deep pockets can be. But the most essential part of the series’ success is that in order to work (both figuratively and literally), it had to take its time. It had to deeply consider every move and twist; it had to make sure even the smallest digression would be worth it. Even someone with no connection to the source material can appreciate the high-wire balancing act it took to pull something of this scale off with such guts and grace.
“Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” premieres Friday, August 30 on Netflix.