There is a moment in Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance—a prequel to Jim Henson’s beloved Dark Crystal movie (which is great but you do not need to have seen it before this)—where two ancient characters are recounting an important tale to our heroes. It’s about the beautiful land of Thra, and an event many years past that caused an imbalance and blight within the crystal that stands at the center of their world. All of the answers they seek will be “brought to life by that most ancient and sacred of arts…” they’re told, with a dramatic pause as the character looks right at the camera and breathes out: “Puppetry!”
“Oh nooo!” our heroes groan, and one immediately falls asleep.
That is the bias that Age of Resistance acknowledges it’s up against—but folks, get over it. Allow this incredible production to sweep you away in an epic fantasy journey, one that is able to so much more deeply and fully explore the world Henson and Frank Oz imagined with the original film. You can liken it to Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones or any high fantasy series you like, but after ten magical hours it truly stands on its own as a gorgeous, innovative, emotional, joyous, and exceptional wonder. If that sounds hyperbolic, it’s only because that’s exactly the kind of sincere enthusiasm the show engenders. Get past any hesitance over the puppets (which are actually outstanding), turn subtitles on to help you remember all of the character names, and immerse yourself in this incredible world.
That world, it should be noted, is inhabited largely by Gelfling, an elven-ish people who populate Thra via seven distinct clans (only a few of which we get to really know, for now). They live alongside the Podlings, small potato-like people who speak their own language and who really love beer and dirt. There are many, many more creatures in Thra, but the Gelfling deal the most with the Skeksis, who arrived on the planet ages ago and became Lords of the Crystal, using its powers to make themselves immortal while subjugating Thra. The former protector of the crystal, Aughra (who fans of the movie will remember as a key figure) has been busy being asleep, essentially, while she astral projects through the universe to uncover its secrets in the hopes of bettering her world. And yet, while she slumbered, the vile Skeksis began to abuse this gentle land and its inhabitants in brutal ways.
Directed with a vibrant energy by Louis Leterrier, everything in Age of Resistance, is alive, skittering and scurrying along the edges of the screen, pulsating or glowing or growling. There’s an exceptional amount of sonic vibration, including squeaking, squawking, and squealing, especially from Podlings, who are the first inhabitants we meet in Thra before being introduced to one of our three charming heroes. Those three—the warrior Rian (Taron Egerton), the gentle Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel), and the scholarly rebel Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy)—each begin in very different parts of Thra, but are slowly drawn together by the formation of a quest to stop the Skeksis. There is a fellowship that develops, of course, but not until halfway through the season. And yet, there is no rush; every corner of Thra is bursting with life and interest, and exploring each section through the lens of these characters and the friends they make along the way is enthralling.
But no one steals the show quite like the Skeksis, the large and looming Big Bads. As I wrote in my recent revisiting of the film, the Skeksis are “massive, grotesque and wizened vulture-like creatures reminiscent of the inhabitants of Versailles—if those inhabitants were already dead.” They heap massive amounts of adornments and armor and baubles upon their skeletal lizard frames to make themselves feel beautiful and powerful, though they are anything but. An outstanding cadre of actors including Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Jason Isaacs, and Awkwafina really go for it with these portrayals (which is true across the board), working hard to craft voices to complement this magical land.
The Skeksis go by names like Chamberlain, The Collector, The Scientist, The General, and Scroll-Keeper. It’s worth noting that the Skeksis are also exceptionally gross. The tactile nature of these practical creations is on full display as they spend time farting and slurping and vomiting and wailing and drooling. But they can be funny, too, like when they rag on each other (“I eat when I’m stressed.” “You must often be stressed.” “All the time!” ::raucous laughter::), but in another moment they will become mired in darkness: “Gelfling want to be ruled. Gelfling are weak. Gelfling are small. And Skeksis are forever.”
Like The Dark Crystal movie, Age of Resistance seems at first like it’s for kids because, well, puppets. That’s not necessarily true then or now. Age of Resistance can be funny and joyful, but it can also be vicious and very scary (even for this adult). It’s also a devilishly smart series, especially when it comes to the wordplay among the Skeksis (“The fibrous viscera continue to reject revivification!”) The twists and turns that the series takes emotionally over ten episodes (that hover around 45 minutes each) succeed by embracing tropey expectations and subverting them. It helps, too, that the characters are fascinating and easy to love. Thanks to Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s outstanding script, Age of Resistance is surprising, funny, sad, and heartwarming all in turn. The pacing is swift but metered, throwing a lot of mythology in at the start, and then slowly adding more over time, making it accessible even for those who don’t immediately want to sort the heroes into warrior, rogue, and mage classes. The themes presented are familiar in many ways, from fictional tales like Avatar to the horrific, unfortunate realities of colonialism and even genocide. It is, ultimately, an epic journey for existence.
And it’s one that is told through the ancient and sacred art of puppetry.
As for that puppetry, the series is clearly committed to making most of its effects practical, and that attention to detail permeates everything. There is seamlessly integrated CG, mostly for backgrounds and to smooth out some of the action sequences (of which there are, perhaps surprisingly, many. You’ve never laughed harder than seeing a puppet flung). The creation of this whole world is so fascinating that even when I viewed some of the episodes that were unfinished (in terms of background or CG) and could see the puppeteers and blue screen, I was never taken out of the world. If anything, I was even more drawn in by what an astonishing production this is from top to bottom. There is some truly great TV in this Peak era, but even shows I love I no longer have time to watch more than once thanks to the glut of hundreds of shows a year. But friends, I made time to watch the first and last episodes of Age of Resistance twice (in the same day, even), and cannot wait to go through this season again and share it; there is so much more to see in every single frame.
I could write 10,000 words on my feelings about each creature in Thra, and how the series provides so much fidelity to the original movie in terms of tone, aesthetic, and story (including true gender equality). The series does eventually address everything that the film does in terms of mythology and the prophesy of what is to come, so while Dark Crystal remains the end point, there is still so much to explore in this world for seasons to come. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of this beautifully layered world, with its dreamcasting and cozy villages and nurlocs and forged weapons and Maudras and landstriders and gruenak and “Podling justista!!” Seek out as few of the story points as you can beforehand, and be delighted by the reveals. For those who dare to let Age of Resistance overwhelm you, there will be nothing better this year.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance premieres Friday, August 30th on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her on what is now a Podling fan account, @keeneTV