Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By Derek May:
YIN: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
The original 1982 film The Dark Crystal was never one in heavy rotation on my watchlist as a kid. In short, it pretty much just freaked me out. Now, sure, back then just about every kids movie was full of dark, scary, and surprisingly adult things, but this one was different somehow. Maybe it was the vile, emaciated birdlike Skeksis or maybe it was the fact that, honestly, I had trouble making sense of what all was happening. So when Netflix decided to revive the franchise as a prequel series, I wasn’t as excited as some of my contemporaries who recall the film with greater fondness. But, I was intrigued by the desire to recreate the magical puppeteering techniques of the old masters and the opportunity to dig in to and clarify some of those murky plotpoints.
With its release last month, the wait is over; but has it been worth it? Yes and no.
If you’re hardcore into the lore of the franchise, you’re likely to relish some of the intricacies and details explored in this entry. We learn that there are seven clans of Gelfling scattered around Thra, their homeworld, and they don’t all get along. They serve under the thumb of the Skeksis, a group of less than a dozen creatures who have been given the task as caretakers of the Crystal of Truth, and apparently control of the planet with it. The show explores various power struggles amongst both Gelflings and Skeksis, enough to allow cracks in their respective power for others to take advantage of. Meanwhile, a malevolent “darkening” is spreading throughout the land, threatening all life. And so, we’re heading for an inevitable clash between the groups for control, for power, and even for life itself.
It all sounds very dramatic and intriguing, and in many ways it is. But it’s a slow burn—quite often too slow. Though only 10 episodes in length, it really feels like it might have been better served with 6–8, as only the most devoted may have the patience and recognition to see where it’s all headed. That finale we already know, of course, from the film, which starts from a broken Thra and the Gelfling pair who rise up to save it. Thus, we know the series must be a downward spiral. That can either be fascinating or depressing depending on how invested you are in the characters and how well the story is laid out; unfortunately for us, neither quite rises to the occasion.
The Skeksis seem the most developed, but even there we’re given mostly placeholder stereotypes, as you can tell from their titular monikers. A few stand out, such as The Scientist (Mark Hamill) and The General (Benedict Wong), but the best is that sneaky sod from the film, The Chamberlain (Simon Pegg). Most of the time, the characters shout grandiose proclamations at each other with little true substance. There is some political maneuvering and backstabbing to keep things interesting, but the mutual goal is clear: the Skeksis want to extend their lives, and their rule, forever.
They do so by draining the life essence of the Gelfling, who seem more than happy to give their lives in subjugation until they are asked to do so literally. The distinction is honestly somewhat weak, not unlike the effectiveness of the Gelfling as the Skeksis’ guards (seriously, they are the worst guards ever. All of them.). When hero Rian (Taron Egerton) learns the nefarious secret after losing his closest friend (and only truly believable relationship), he struggles in vain for several episodes before being taken seriously. The sheer stubbornness and/or obliviousness of several characters is immensely frustrating, oftentimes a result of presenting them once again as stereotypes rather than as independent characters, with each simply reflecting a limited role or view rather than being fully developed people.
Add to that the lack of substantial relationships between the Gelfling. There are few scenes of true, heartfelt interaction. Instead, we get plenty of jokes, gags, and mugging cuteness. While it definitely picks up in the later episodes, by that point the damage has been done. In addition, there’s a pseudo love triangle that doesn’t quite pay off and more than a few aspects lifted (i.e., stolen) from other films (*cough*Avatar*cough*).
Credit where it is due, the best scene of the entire series for me takes place in Episode 5 (“She Knows All the Secrets”). In it, The Chamberlain and Rian have a true face to face confrontation, not of swords but of words, and we see the true manipulative power of The Chamberlain as he just about coerces Rian into seeing things his way. It’s an amazing scene, with several philosophical and ideological discussions, and challenges both characters on a fundamental level. Unfortunately, we don’t get anything that deep for the rest of the series. But it demonstrates that the capacity is there and that the potential within these characters is but being scratched at the surface.
All that being said, the show is a remarkable and glorious tribute to the sort of old-school puppetry my generation grew up on. The visuals are stunning, and the blend of in-camera work and supplemented CGI is seamless. Modern technology is capable of creating animatronic faces with far more emotive qualities, but given the choice to stick with the original designs, the performers do an admirable job squeezing the most out of each countenance. No surprise, the Skeksis in particular are given a number of subtle additions that really raise the bar, such as flicking tongues and gooey noses.
For fans of the original film, the series definitely fills in several blanks and expands the world to reflect a lively and expansive ecosystem and social order. We meet dozens of new characters to supplement the old, providing opportunities to show off the various cultures and provide plenty of roles for name actors to voice. However, so much time is spent showing off what they can do that much of the intimacy is lost. Despite the vastness of the world, the story itself is small and straightforward. Time might have been better allocated to more of those scenes like I mentioned above rather than grandstanding the visual spectacle. I say all this because in truth, the ingredients are all there! There are moments and aspects to each of the main characters that make you really wish to know more, to delve deeper. Some of them seem potentially quite fascinating, and I don’t think it would take a Herculean effort to give them proper due.
Should the series prove successful enough to warrant a second season, I hope they take this to heart. I truly want to be a fan of this beloved franchise, but I can’t help feeling that some of the same issues I had with the original are creeping in 37 years later. Let’s honor Jim Henson not by replicating his methods but by bringing his vision to life properly, on a level he might only have been able to dream of back then. With all the obvious talent that went into bringing the world of Thra back to life, I say make sure we do it justice, or leave it be.