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The Dark Crystal: The Age Of Resistance and the prequel paradox

Photo: Kevin Baker (Netflix)

The following essay contains spoilers for the first season of The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance

The first season of The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance is remarkable. After a charming but clunky opening, the new series quickly develops into a deft and well-paced fantasy epic, weaving together multiple storylines without ever getting bogged down or overly convoluted, and building to a finale that offers a temporarily satisfying conclusion while still hinting at dangers ahead. As Erik Adams noted in his review of the show, these aren’t qualities the series’ big-screen predecessor—more admirable as a labor of love than it is compelling as a work of fiction—is known for. When the prequel was announced, it seemed impossible that this clumsy, well-meaning but agonizingly slow cult favorite could be brought to the small screen without completely reworking its premise. Yet AOR manages to be both faithful to its source and a joy to watch. It’s the sort of thing prequels often promise but rarely achieve: a deepening of existing lore in a way that enriches and expands without ever feeling forced.

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Really, it’s a triumph—one of initially low expectations (I’m sure there were people who believed this would be good; I freely confess to not being one of them), but one that surpasses those expectations by a substantial margin. It’s not perfect, though, and I don’t mean that in the “sometimes the puppets look a bit stiff” kind of way. As good as AOR ultimately is, it can’t escape the shadow of the original film. It doesn’t even really try. The lure of a prequel, at least for the audience, is the chance to revisit a familiar setting in a new light, and, hopefully, new energy, and AOR more than achieves this. It works to reconnect viewers with nostalgia and exploit pre-existing emotional connections in unexpected ways. The fact that it does so without ever becoming explicitly mercenary should be applauded. But it also means stepping in the meta-fictional trap that all prequels eventually find themselves in: How long can the people behind Age Of Resistance pull this off? And at what point will we stop being able to pretend we don’t know where this is going?

The show’s first season concludes on an appropriately triumphant note. After struggling for 10 episodes, the heroes finally manage to defeat the tyrannical Skeksis in a head-to-head confrontation, a battle that pulls in multiple Gelfing tribes and awakens the growing mystical power in Deet, a Gelfling seer. The princess Brea discovers the shard of the Dark Crystal—the focus of the movie’s central quest—hidden inside the mystical glaive and realizes that it’s the key to their continued victory. The Skeksis slink back to their castle, where their mad scientist has developed a new threat. And poor Deet wanders off alone into the wilderness, her new powers as much a curse as a blessing.

It’s very well-handled, the exact right sort of finale for a story like this. The problem is that anyone who knows the original movie knows that those times are going to be very dark indeed. Part of the premise of The Dark Crystal is that nearly all the Gelfling are dead, wiped out by the Skeksis in their efforts to avoid a ruinous prophecy; the show uses this blank slate as an opportunity to expand the elf-life creatures into half a dozen different cultures, all with distinct values and opinions on the world. It works well, but the movie’s heroes are notable for their isolation. All of what we’re seeing on the show will be rent asunder, and while the movie is short and vague enough that there can be some hand-waving (maybe a bunch of Gelfling went into hiding and forgot to tell anyone), there’s still that inescapable fact that none of this is actually going to matter in the long run.

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Stories are as much about the journey as they are about the conclusion, and the creative team behind this one has demonstrated their skill as storytellers. I have no doubt they’ve taken all of this into account in writing the series, and they’ve stressed in interviews that they have a plan for what comes next. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with a downbeat ending, especially when we know it’s only temporary. The knowledge that dooms Age Of Resistance’s noble, well-meaning heroes also assures us that their mission will eventually succeed even if they themselves fail. Thra will be brought back into balance, the Crystal restored, and the Gelfling will, presumably, thrive, so long as Jen and Kira find someone else to share DNA with. (Though, as the movie-sequel-turned-comic Power Of The Dark Crystal demonstrates, that happy ending has its complications, too.) The massive purge of just about every character we’ve come to like on the series will be a bummer, but it could work.

But the way show has handled its lore up until this point hasn’t convinced me it the writers completely grasp the nature of the challenge before them. The very thing that makes prequels so appealing—the illusion of re-experiencing a well-loved tale for the first time—is also what makes them so difficult to pull off. It’s not only that we know the Gelfling will die, it’s that we already know exactly how the Skeksis will be defeated. And as good as the show’s world-building is, it hasn’t managed to escape that.

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Maybe the highlight of the whole season is a diegetic puppet show performed by an outcast Skeksis and his Mystic counterpart that explains the bifurcation of their essential selves that caused this whole mess. Pretty much everything with The Heretic (voiced by Andy Samberg and performed by Damian Farrell) and The Wanderer (Bill Hader and Olly Taylor) is great—funny and weird and a technical tour de force that also manages to convey important information to the viewer without ever feeling like a lecture. (It’s also one of the few times the show manages to accomplish anything new with the Skeksis, who are wonderful villains in a fable, but kind of one-note baddies for an epic fantasy.) But it’s exposition that anyone who’s seen the movie more or less already knows. Oh, there are added details, but the basic fact—the Mystics and the Skeksis were once joined as a single race until they inadvertently broke off a piece of the Dark Crystal, splitting them into their good, peaceful side and their evil, greedy side—is one of the few key pieces of lore the movie has.

Learning it here isn’t boring, because it’s fun to be reminded of things we already know, and a considerable amount of suspense in the show comes from waiting for the Gelfling heroes to discover the truth. But once that truth is delivered, it basically sets the boundaries for everything else. The characters know that the Crystal is broken. They know what happened when it broke. They have the shard. The only thing left to do is something that won’t happen until the end of the film. Unless the show decides to go full Hannibal and start reimagining pre-existing material, it means watching a war in which we know everything that happens but the details. Those details can be important, as so much of the first season demonstrates, but it’s not hard to imagine all the padding and sudden reversals and setbacks that lie in store for a creative work that’s already exhausted its limited opportunities for discovery.

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Again, this could work. The show is well done, and the YA Game Of Thrones vibe it hits is a welcome relief after the drudgery of the adult version. The people involved are passionate and the project demonstrates the rewards of that passion, and if all of this sounds like just a little too much pessimism, well, blame it on the glut of prequels we’ve all been living with these past few years. Age Of Resistance is the form done right, but it still can’t entirely escape the limitations of trying to backfill a finished narrative. The fundamental paradox of all prequels is that the more it connects back to its source, the easier it is to pull viewers in, but the harder it is to tell a story that will be satisfying in its own right. As is, you might be better off watching AOR without ever having seen the movie, but then why is this a prequel at all? The Dark Crystal wasn’t perfect, but it also didn’t end on a cliffhanger or leave behind questions that desperately needed answers. Given how much new material this show brings, it might have made more sense to build a new project from scratch, one that pays homage to the movie without being indebted to it. Spending all your effort trying to hold onto the past means giving up your future. Just ask the Skeksis.

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