Years before the events of the original movie, the Skeksis and Gelfling live in peace. Until palace guards Rian (Taran Edgerton and Neil Sterenberg) and Mira (Alicia Vikander and Helena Smee) make a horrifying discover. Their Lords are using them as batteries, draining them to extend their lives. And they are hungry…
This is, by a colossal margin, the most gorgeous TV show you’ll watch this year. Every single frame is beautiful and Thra as a world is a heady, vibrant and intensely, viscerally dangerous place. Everything is alive and everything is physical and real and that gives the action a hard, brittle edge that you’re probably not expecting from a show starring puppets. That edge in turns acts as a lens to focus the characters. The Gelfling are beautiful, sweet, naive and fragile. The Skeksis resemble nothing more than eight foot tall exploded birds. All of them fascinating to look at and, as the series continues, all of them infinitely more complex than we’re first led to believe.
That’s never truer than with the three leads. Rian is joined by Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel and Katherine Smee) and Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy and Alice Dinnean). Rian is a warrior, Deet an animal handler and part of the Grottan tribe who live underground. She’s compassionate where Rian is impulsive, strong where he’s weak and is the most interesting character by some distance. Emmanuel does an incredible job showing her unique form of passive strength and the physical acting from Smee is superlative. Likewise Alice Dinnean and Anya Taylor-Joy as Brea. A bookish princess with all the privilege that implies, she’s the brains of the group where Deet is the heart and Rian the muscle. Except Rian is also horrifically traumatized by the string of dreadful events he is forced to witness, Deet is battling sensory overload at being above ground and Brea is trying to work out her relationship with officious older sister Seladon (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Helena Smee). Each is bowed under the weight of expectation and obligation and getting out from under that weight is what defines the show. The Gelfling are a deliberately broken people and as each of them becomes bigger than their initial place in society, those breaks begin to heal. In this way, the writers’ room expertly combines personal stakes with world shaking ones and ensures each story has weight and meaning. Everything from the astoundingly sweet Podling paladin Hup (Victor Yerrid) to an apparently throwaway monster glimpsed in the first episode has importance. Everything on Thra is connected. Everyone on Thra matters.
That goes double for the Skeksis who are a vast, spiky revelation. Their design work is where the team really cut loose, skekVar in particular is wonderful, looking like a pissed off Corvid/bear hybrid. The skeletal avian villains are shrill, absurd, terrifying and exude danger in every way. None more so than skekVar (Katherine Smee, Kevin Clash and Benedict Wong) and skekSil (Warrick Brownlow-Pike and Simon Pegg). The first is a glowering, hulking presence and the second is Iago with a beak. Pegg has never done better work than he does here, simultaneously locking into the original performance and finding depths that the extra hours allows him to explore. Arguably the best scene in the series sees skekSil and Rian share an increasingly tense coach ride together as skekSil explains exactly how the world works and the horrific choice Rian faces. Brownlow-Pike’s physicality and Pegg’s charming, inveigling, relentless delivery are chilling in the very best way for us and the worst for Rian.
On top of all of this, the show is a complex narrative that serves multiple causes and bows to none of them. It’s a horrifyingly timely environmental fable, a needed response to the performative cruelty of Game of Thrones at its worst and a story that centers compassion in a time where that is all too often ignored. It’s also just startlingly good storytelling and one of the best productions Netflix have ever financed. Regardless of whether you know the original movie, this is fantasy storytelling at a level it often reaches for but doesn’t always achieve. Extraordinary in every way.
Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Season 1 is on Netflix now