'The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance' Captures the Essence of Thra
A Crown Jewel for Netflix
Another world, another time... 37 years ago, The Dark Crystal was released. It was a Jim Henson film with absolutely no humans onscreen, just pure puppetry. It felt familiar, incorporating tropes seen in such franchises as The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. But it was also alien, with its own mythology regarding such beings as the evil Skeksis and the mystical urRu. It truly did feel like another world, a strange one with charm. And now, people get to experience more of it onscreen via the Netflix prequel series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
For this review, I will talk non-spoiler thoughts for a bit. The section that contains spoilers is labeled for your safety.
One of the questions that comes up is the order in which people should experience The Dark Crystal media. Since this is a prequel series, watching the 1982 film first would mean that the viewer knows the ending and that, in the long term, the series has to end a certain way. Some who watched the film first were also confused when, at the start of the series, there was no mention of the Mystics, and the narration made it seem like the background lore had been altered. A couple of Mystics show up later, and the seventh episode explains the background lore in the way that longtime fans are familiar. Some people also get skekVar the General confused with skekUng the Garthim Master, who is in the film but said to be away from the Castle in the show.
So while some may experience some confusion for a few hours, I would still suggest watching the film first. The revelation regarding the Skeksis and the Mystics is better to experience in the film first, and watching the series would spoil it. To those who did not grow up on the original film, it might very very slow paced watching it for the first time. But it is only an hour-and-a-half. And it is so mind-blowing watching the film and then seeing how craftsmanship has evolved for the show.
Some have also asked if there are any books that would be good to read prior to the show. Chronologically, the graphic novels The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths come first. These three volumes are essentially the origin story for the world of Thra, and nothing in the show contradicts them. (There is even a mention of Raunip's Pass in the sixth episode, with Raunip being Aughra's son in Creation Myths.) Those who choose to read them should watch the film first. But one can understand the show without reading them.
There are also the recent YA novels by J.M. Lee titled Shadows of the Dark Crystal, Song of the Dark Crystal, Tides of the Dark Crystal, and Flames of the Dark Crystal. These follow Gelfling characters such as Naia, Gurjin, and Kylan during the time period in which Age of Resistance is set. It feels like these were intended to tell their side of the story while the show focused more on perspectives of other characters like Rian. But the events depicted on the show are vastly different from how they happen in the books, including how Naia and Kylan meet Rian, what Aughra is up to, and how the battle at the end of the last novel plays out.
So I would suggest watching the show before reading these books so that you are not too distracted trying to figure out how things fit. I know I was for a bit, before deciding to just give up and enjoy the show. It reminded me of when I had trouble figuring out how two versions of the Clone Wars from Star Wars could work together. I would say that a weakness of the show is that, without knowledge of the books (which don't even fit perfectly to begin with), it feels like characters from them come into different points of the story from out of nowhere.
Thra Comes Alive
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is the most impressed I have been with visuals in a TV show or movie since seeing James Cameron's Avatar in 2009. Skillful puppetry is utilized to the fullest, and the backgrounds feel real even when they're green screen. Here, we see a Thra that is full of lush landscapes and majestic mountains. Thra feels as real as Middle-earth does in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. It really sank in when I saw Gelfling riding Landstriders on ice in the first episode.
We also get to know the Gelfling clans at their peak. To those who may not be familiar, they feel somewhat like a cross between elves and halflings. The women can have wings, and the Gelfling live in matriarchal societies led by Maudras. Each of them live in different environments, such as mountain, forest, and swamp. In general, they are meant to be the protagonists of the story as they are unknowingly oppressed by the Skeksis who corrupt the Crystal of Truth. But there is some nuance to them. They are capable of being misguided, and there can be political intrigue, a bit similar to what Game of Thrones is known for by audiences. And even the music conveys that medieval fantasy vibe. Viewers might be annoyed by the choices of a certain Gelfling of royalty, but it moves the plot.
This show really touches upon how, even when truth of corruption comes to light, people would not want to believe it at first because they have grown so used to a particular way of life and a specific set of beliefs. It conveys the universal message that evils should not just be ignored. Rian finds proof of the Skeksis draining Gelfling of their essence, but people don't want to believe it and are willing to believe the lies that the Skeksis spread since it conforms to what they believe to be true. It's really nice to see that the Gelfling princess Brea questions authority as she searches for knowledge. Even a Podling named Hup (who aspires to be a paladin) gets to accompany the Gelfling Deet on her quest, a path that intersects with those of other Gelfling heroes. And Aughra herself also has an active role in this series, which is great. She feels very much like the Aughra of the film.
When it comes to the Skeksis, it's easy for those very familiar with the film to recognize the Skeksis from the film. For the most part, the voices of the familiar Skeksis feel spot on. Simon Pegg probably does the best job as skekSil the Chamberlain. Mark Hamill does not quite nail the voice of skekTek the Scientist exactly as it is in the film, but his voice still suits the character here. The greatest departure in the voice acting is Jason Isaacs as skekSo the Emperor. Here, the Emperor has a deeper voice to match his now menacing look. It's not what I would have extrapolated from what we got of him in the film, but I suppose one could say that it makes sense because he's younger and healthier here. I'm not bothered by it. We also get acquainted with Skeksis that did not originate from the film, but in order to talk about them, I'd have to delve into spoilers. So here's your spoiler warning.
So in this show, we get to see a few Skeksis who've been depicted in print media make their onscreen debut. One of them is skekMal the Hunter. He has made appearances in the YA novels that take place during this time period. I love the idea of a Skeksis who wears a bone mask and prefers to do his own thing, hunting away from the Castle. Seeing him come to life onscreen was a delight. He truly does feel like a menacing opponent to the Gelfling. It was also a dream come true seeing his counterpart urVa the Archer make the jump to the screen. (Pun not intended.)
We also get skekVar the General, who is a rival to the Chamberlain in Age of Resistance. In Creation Myths Vol. 3, he was the ambassador to the Gelfling and wore a helmet that seemed to have either ivory or wings. I wish that aspect of the design could have been incorporated here, but he still looks great in his armor. In Age of Resistance, he has a rivalry with Chamberlain, whose place by the Emperor's side he takes. And what's compelling about this rivalry is that we get to see just how cunning and determined the Chamberlain is to get what he wants, right down to the moment when he kills skekVar and makes it seem like a Gelfling did it.
This rivalry is somewhat reminiscent of the rivalry that the Chamberlain has with skekLach the Collector in the manga books Legends of the Dark Crystal (which does not really fit with the show since, among other things, it shows skekVar and skekLach still alive during the Garthim War). In the manga, skekLach is a male tactician who captures Gelfling. But in Age of Resistance, skekLach is a female who collects tithes. I did miss the aspect of skekLach being called a Collector because of the collecting of Gelfling, though I knew there had to be a public reason for skekLach to have the Collector title. I could see why the creative team would have dialed back skekLach's active role since it would've seemed redundant with such determined fighters like skekVar the General and skekMal the Hunter. But I just wish that she had more to do other than gross out the audience. It felt like skekLach didn't really have much to do apart from having mucus spill out of her nostrils, and her death in the finale felt tacked on after we'd already gotten the deaths of skekVar and skekMal.
The biggest surprise was skekGra in the seventh episode. I had heard of the Conqueror, but he has never really had focus in other media. So it caught me off-guard to see that he's become a good Skeksis, hence the title Heretic. I've always wondered whether Skeksis are just always evil, but it seems to not be the case. I thought Andy Samberg brought funny comedic levity to the role. It felt very much in the vein of meeting this Jedi warrior Yoda and seeing how silly he can be. And I love the idea that skekGra is living with himself in a sense, as his urRu counterpart urGoh the Wanderer is his roommate. Voiced by Bill Hader, the slow urGoh makes for a good contrast to skekGra, who wants to just speed things up and get on with it. They present their own little puppet show to the Gelfling heroes as they explain the history of how the urSkeks split into the Skeksis and the urRu and then send the heroes off on a quest to get the Dual Glaive. And their creation, Lore, is a work of art who does not look out of place for this world.
We still have yet to see a couple other Skeksis onscreen. skekLi the Satirist and skekSa the Mariner are described as being elsewhere. The Gelfling protagonists in the YA novels do encounter them, but since the show contradicts those books, then what those Skeksis are actually up to during the events of Age of Resistance is anyone's guess. But I do think that we would see them if season two happens. And I believe we'd also see skekNa the Slave Master, skekShod the Treasurer, and skekUng the Garthim Master, all of whom appear in the film but are described as being away from the Castle during the show. By the time of the film, skekGra, skekLi, and skekSa have to die, along with their urRu counterparts.
When it came to the emotions of the puppets, I was very convinced. Rian's reactions to the deaths of his father and Mira are very believable. However, part of me feels that he moved on from Mira pretty quickly as he formed feelings for Deet. And with the darkness now within her, Deet's future is in question. The vision from the Sanctuary Tree at the end of the eighth episode shows Deet sitting on a throne in the Castle of the Skeksis. We also get what seem to be glimpses related to the original film. It seems possible that a character on this show might be the mother of Kira since the Gelfling is shown carrying her child surrounded by trees. And we do see the Crystal being healed by someone who looks an awful lot like Jen from the film. I do think we're closer to the film than we initially believed since characters say throughout the show that it's been a thousand trine since the Crystal cracked.
Whatever the case, I feel that we need at least a second season. I would love to see a lot more storytelling like this, but it feels like only one season would really be needed to tell of the Garthim War prior to the film, now that we've seen that each one is a combination of Gruenak and Arathim. But if Age of Resistance is a hit, who's to say that there might not be other shows telling tales of the world of Thra? We could see adaptations of other print media. Or we could see new stories that the show makes me wonder about, such as what skekGra the Conqueror was like before he changed his ways. Or even what the world of the urSkeks is like. This world is ripe for storytelling, and I am here for the ride, especially if it's anything like that amazing carriage sequence in the fifth episode. This show is beautiful and thought-provoking.
For me, it can sometimes be more difficult to rate a season of a show than it is to rate a movie. But I know where I stand with this season of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Like I've said earlier, there are moments where certain characters feel like they just get thrown in from nowhere without us spending enough time with them. And there are moments where I think, "Well, why didn't this character do that?" But overall, I love this show. It's a dream come true, and I'd give it the following rating.
9.75/10 - A groundbreaking and worthy successor to the 1982 Jim Henson classic. It is truly amazing that we live in this age where we can immerse ourselves in the world of Thra in this manner!