Let’s clarify up front that this will be a review of just the pilot episode of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. There will be spoilers for that one episode, but not the rest of the series. Truthfully though, no one can spoil this series. I could tell you, scene by scene, everything that happens in this episode. I could read out the transcript even, word for word. It would not matter. The written word is wholly inadequate to convey the sheer majesty of what has been accomplished here. The breathtaking visuals. The sweeping score. It is beyond epic, and I’ve only seen the first of ten episodes.
“Another world. Another time. Another age.” This is how the Myth-Speaker, a narrator voiced by Sigourney Weaver, begins The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. But this is a world we are familiar with: Thra, the planet circling three suns, with a dark crystal as its heart, the Crystal of Truth. There are many elements from the original movie that are carried over into this prequel series. The Myth-Speaker’s initial 3-minute monologue brings new viewers up to speed and clarifies a few elements that have been added to the backstory by several novels and comic book series over the intervening years.
For one, Aughra has been promoted to a goddess type figure. She is the protector of the Crystal and shepherdess to all the creatures of Thra. The Skeksis are now presented as a space-faring race who came to Thra a millennium ago and tricked Aughra into appointing them protectors of the Crystal. No mention thus far of the Mystics, their good counterparts. Other familiar creatures, like the Podlings and Landstriders, have also made an appearance.
In the movie, there were planned to be seven Skeksis, modeled after the Seven Deadly Sins, but along the way two more were added to round out their numbers at nine. In the fully flushed out mythology of the books and comics, there were originally 18 urSkeks who came to Thra and split into the Mystics and Skeksis. Various Skeksis have been banished from the Palace of the Crystal now and then, and so for this installment of The Dark Crystal, there are only eight Skeksis.
The Gelflings are present in full force in this prequel. We are told there are seven tribes of Gelflings, but so far we have only gotten to know three of them as we follow the three Gelflings who will become the heroes of Age of Resistance: Brea, a princess of the Vapra clan, scholarly Gelflings who live in the mountains and rule over the other six tribes; Rian of the Stonewood clan, a warrior race who protect their Skeksis lords at the Castle of the Crystal; and Deet of the Grottan, a gentle clan who live underground in perfect harmony with all of Thra. There’s an unavoidable melancholy watching all of these Gelflings, knowing that sometime soon their entire race will be whittled down to just two representatives.
The events of Age of Resistance begin at the end of a time of relative stability. The Skeksis have been ruling of Thra for an age, and the Gelflings revere and serve the Skeksis. As the oath of the palace guard goes, “We protect the lords. The lords protect the Crystal.” In secret, the Skeksis have been draining life energy from the Crystal to rejuvenate themselves, and the well has just recently run dry. With their survival at stake, The Emperor (voiced by Jason Isaacs) has tasked The Scientist (voiced by Mark Hamill) to find a solution. Already though, their actions have corrupted the Crystal of Truth, and through it that corruption has spread to Thra and all of its creatures.
One of those is a spitter (a kind of spider creature) that escapes its cage in the Palace of the Crystal. Rian and his lover Mira discover the spitter and decide to hunt it down themselves to impress Rian’s father, the Captain of the Guards. They track it down to the catacombs in the bowels of the castle, where Gelfling are forbidden. Mira uses her wings to glide down and follow the spitter alone, while Rian scrambles to catch up.
Meanwhile, in those same catacombs, The Scientist has tried an experiment with the Crystal, feeding it electrical energy and causing it to take, rather than give, life essence. He thinks he has failed yet again, but The Chamberlain (voiced by Simon Pegg) suggests that they could siphon off the energy as it is being drawn up. But they would need to feed it a creature full of essence: a Gelfling. Mira conveniently comes along and gets caught by them. The Skeksis are all convened and the experiment is performed. Rian comes upon the scene too late, and watches in horror as Mira is evaporated and turned into liquid essence, which The Emperor greedily consumes.
In the mountain city of Ha’rar, representatives from all the Gelfling clans have come for the tithing ceremony, along with two Skeksis, The Collector and The Scroll-Keeper, who come to receive the tithe. Princess Brea is allowed by her mother, the All-Maudra (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter), to attend the ceremony for the first time. She is appalled when members of a farming clan are brow beat into giving up a personally valuable pendant as their tithe. They are unable to meet their normal commitment because a “strange blight” has befallen their land. She later finds her mother wearing that pendant, because the Skeksis gave it in turn to her after the ceremony.
Deet is attacked by normally peaceful animals she is feeding in the Caves of Grot and in her flight, she stumbles upon the Sanctuary Tree. The Tree reveals to her that the animals are being driven mad from the Darkening, an infectious contamination within the Crystal and all of Thra. She is given a vision of a dark future and given a quest to warn the rest of the Gelfling clans. She sets off for Ha’rar to warn the All-Maudra.
Like all good fantasy, The Dark Crystal: Age or Resistance has a little bit to say about the real world in our present moment. There’s an obvious message of environmental stewardship, with the Skeksis drawing power out of the planet and corrupting the environment through their actions. But the political undertones are more intriguing. The “generosity” of the Skeksis is nothing more than a redistribution of wealth, keeping the Gelfling clans fighting for the scraps. The Vapra clan benefit from the arrangement, so the All-Mother turns a blind eye to the obvious injustice of it all.
You can hardly believe the repulsiveness and obvious contempt of the Skeksis. Yet the Gelfling love and revere them. The parallels to a certain presidential figure are really pounded home in The Scroll-Keeper’s little speech at the tithing ceremony:
“Why? Why do Gelfling hurt us so? Skeksis give so much and ask so, so little! It breaks our hearts. Sad! So sad!”
Sad, so sad. Now who says that all the time in quips of 140 characters or less? Hmm.
When Rian is discovered by the Skeksis and gets away, The Chamberlain reassures The Emperor with the following words that play out as a voice over for the final montage scene of the episode:
“We are Lords of the Crystal, yes? Even if Rian talk, none will believe. They will shun him. Cast him out. How can they not? To believe him is not to believe themselves.”
Part “class warfare,” part “fake news”. Only one Gelfling knows the truth.
While I was watching the episode, I found myself glancing at the clock starting around midway through, not because I was bored, but because I was convinced that the episode was going to end soon. There was just so much content, and it was all so vivid and engrossing. Surely the hour had to be up. Yes, there are some moments, especially at the beginning, where muppet-ness of the Gelflings’ movements is distracting, but they are fleeting at best. Everything else about this is majestic. I’ve watched it multiple times now and even listened to it in the car (audio only, I assure you), just to get a better experience of the musical score. To think that there are 9 more hours. I’m really looking forward to it.