August 2-6, 2004
Well, wouldn't you know it! All this time, we've been saying that Henson should put out Fraggle Rock DVD's, and all this time, they've been acting like putting out Fraggle Rock DVD's was just the hardest thing in the world. Oh, we couldn't possibly! they'd say, putting up their feet on the desk. In this weather? Don't be a fool. We'd have to go up to the attic and dig through all the boxes just to find the things, and then we'd have to drag them downstairs, dust them off, digitize them, rejigger the video transfer and cross-fade the mono tracks. Then we'd have to put them on DVD's, and after all that work, who'd buy them? You, and your six sad little friends, that's who. It's hardly even worth getting up for, they'd sigh, and then they'd put their heads down for a long nap. Poor dears, we really worked them to the bone, didn't we? No wonder they looked so tired all the time.
And then, just as they were settling in and really getting used to never making any money ever again in their lives, the company ran into some kind of mysterious financial trouble. I blame evil spirits, personally, either evil spirits or street gangs.
So, strapped for cash, Henson sold off the Muppets, and they licensed what was left of their library to HIT Entertainment, and now, hey presto: Fraggle Rock on DVD. Turns out it wasn't so hard after all! And who's buying it? Me, and my five sad little friends. (One of them got bored waiting, and went off to become a Tobey Maguire fan.)
Anyway, now that they've finally gone to the trouble of putting the show out on DVD, I suppose it's only polite for us to sit down and watch it. So here we go.
A quick spoiler warning: What follows is a commentary, and not a review -- the difference being that I may give away the endings. Therefore, this article is intended for people who have seen these episodes before, or who don't care about spoilers for 20 year old puppet shows. If you haven't seen these and you care, go buy the DVD and we'll meet you back here. (If you're buying it, and please go ahead and do that, just remember: It's available exclusively at WalMart and at the HIT Entertainment website until October.)
Better Than Everything
episode 1: Beginnings
The first episode of Fraggle Rock aired in January, 1983 -- so, to get the context here, let's take a look at some of the other children's shows on television in 1983. Let's see. Gilligan's Planet was on that season, which was a cartoon version of Gilligan's Island, but in space -- and so was The Gary Coleman Show, a cartoon starring Gary Coleman as a guardian angel. In space. Or not in space, maybe, I don't know. They made The Little Rascals into a cartoon that year, too, and Richie Rich, and Pac Man, and Saturday Supercade, which was a bunch of shorts about Donkey Kong and Q*bert. For the first half of 1983, there was The Scooby, Scrappy and Yabba Doo Show, and then in the fall, they changed it into The New Scooby and Scrappy Doo Show. The Monchichis had a show that year, and so did Rubik the Amazing Cube... and don't forget the Mork and Mindy - Laverne and Shirley - Fonz Hour. Basically, 1983 was the year that all the TV producers in the world just said, screw it, we get rich no matter what we do, let's turn any old thing into a cartoon and then pay some Koreans two bucks an hour to animate it.
In other words, 1983 was a terrible year for kid's shows, and a terrible year for TV in general, and frankly a terrible year for the economy and for gay people and for Korean animators and for pretty much everything else in the world.
So try to keep all that in your head when you fire up your Fraggle Rock DVD, that your options as a child at that moment are Rubik the Amazing Cube, Scrappy Doo... and this.
The theme song for Fraggle Rock lasts a full sixty seconds, which is long for a theme song, but in that one minute, there's more creative energy than in all those other 1983 TV shows combined. You start with Doc and Sprocket in the workshop, you go down the hole to the Fraggle caves, and then there's the Doozers, and then there's the Gorgs' garden, and everything is running around and shouting and dancing, and basically, if you like having a lot of television show in your television show, then this is the one for you.
Right from the first moment, you get a sense of how big this show is. The Muppet Show had basically three main sets, and Sesame Street has basically one big set. But Fraggle Rock is full of scenery, and big puppets, and little puppets, and caves and dogs and swimming and everything. How exciting would it be, to be that child in January 1983, your eyes glazing over after another episode of Gilligan's Planet, and then you switch the dial and you see all of this! You'd get the shock of your life.
And it's not just puppets and scenery. Early on, Uncle Matt narrates a little description of the Fraggles: "Fearless, dignified, intelligent... they represent the very pinnacle of civilization and culture." BONK! And a Fraggle walks headlong into a stalactite, followed by another Fraggle balancing a pumpkin on his nose. This is Jerry Juhl doing the script, and after five years of writing The Muppet Show, he has a perfectly tuned ear for mixing clever lines with basic physical humor.
Am I gushing too much about this? It's hard to watch the first episode without appreciating all this stuff; it's all set up for you to be impressed. The Fraggles sing a song about themselves, and there's just long pans across huge crowds of Fraggle puppets, all moving and dancing, and every puppet looks different. There's seventeen puppeteers in the credits, and every single one of them is working in this scene. They went to town making this show, and they want you to know it.
The main Fraggles all get a couple lines to show off how funny they are, and then Uncle Matt informs Gobo of his decision to travel into outer space -- by singing an original song, "Follow Me."
Every day, the world begins again,
Sunny skies or rain.
Come and follow me.
Every sunrise shows me more and more,
So much to explore.
Come and follow me.
And as they sing, you sit back -- you still being the child of 1983, I guess -- and you say, holy crap. This is a musical. They're setting the tone of the show, and emphasizing a story point, using what can only be thought of as your standard Broadway musical wishing song. Disney would get credit for rediscovering the family musical with The Little Mermaid in 1989, but Fraggle Rock was doing it six years earlier, and they were doing a half hour of it every single week.
And then we get this fantastic Doozer building scene. This stops the show cold for a full minute so we can do nothing but watch the Doozers marching around in their little boots putting in a road, but you don't even notice that the plot has stopped, because the Doozers are magic. I know that there's some kind of radio controlled servo mechanism thingies inside, and I've seen the pictures of Faz Fazakas standing there with half built Doozer guts around him -- but when they show three Doozers marching along in front of Wembley, with no strings or puppeteers or anything, it just looks like magic to me. I can't figure out how they do it.
And then they go out into the Gorgs' garden, and now Gobo is a little tiny puppet, and he runs past Junior Gorg, who's shot from below and just looks absolutely enormous. And then we meet the Trash Heap, who has a hilarious voice and who sings another song, with two funny rats singing background vocals. This is now the fifth original musical number of the episode, not counting the theme, and they even have rats doing background vocals! (Remember: The other show that's on right now is Saturday Supercade.)
And then they do my very favorite thing of the whole episode, the thing that makes you say, yeah, this is a world I want to spend five years in.
Gobo goes back and talks to his friends, and he decides to try going out into outer space to find Uncle Matt's message. And instead of fading out, the camera pans up... and up... past the ceiling, into rock... and then some roots, and what looks like a pipe... then more rock... it's a long pan, it actually takes ten seconds to get up there... more roots, and more pipes... and then up through the floor, to show a scene in Doc and Sprocket's workshop.
They do that all the time as the series goes on, but before we get used to it, I think it's worth taking a moment to appreciate what a brilliant idea that is. I can't think of a single other example of a television show doing something like that -- spending ten seconds on a slow pan from one set to another, to show you the surprising way that these scenes all fit together. That's world building, that's what that is.
Just from watching this one episode, you -- the amazed child of 1983 -- can easily imagine walking all over this new world. They even show you how to do it during the opening theme. You start in Doc and Sprocket's workshop, maybe giving Sprocket a little pat as you walk by. You head through the hole, and down the tunnels, twisting and turning a little bit as you find your way to the main Fraggle cave. (Just follow the sounds of singing and splashing, then turn left.) You say hi to the Fraggles, take a dip in the pool, and then you can either head down one tunnel to Gobo and Wembley's room, or off another tunnel (the one to the right, I think), towards the Gorgs' garden.
You can picture all of this in your imagination right now, can't you? Isn't it hard to decide what you want to do first? Do you want to walk over to the big Doozer construction and watch the Doozers work for a while, or try sprinting across the garden to talk to the Trash Heap? Junior Gorg is lurking right at the end of that tunnel, but there's a cheery fire down in Gobo's room... It doesn't matter what you choose to do. You just want to stay.
So now you're the child of 2004, or the adult Muppet fan or whatever you are, and tell me: Even today, is there any other place that would be more fun to play in than Fraggle Rock? It's a good thing this is out on DVD now. Our kids need Fraggle Rock just as much as we did back then.
episode 2: Wembley and the Gorgs
The first two episodes of Fraggle Rock were written by Jerry Juhl, who has essentially become a saint to Muppet fans on account of everything that he ever wrote was really really good, and he never wrote anything bad that we ever heard of. We all love Jerry so much that we don't even blame him for Muppets From Space. (I heard it got messed up in the editing.)
One thing Jerry's known for is his sharp character writing, and here's a good example:
Gobo: First up to get the mail, now out to the Gorgs' garden... It's turning out to be a dangerous day.
Wembley: Yeah, but we love it, don't we, Gobo?
Gobo: Well, to tell you the truth, Wembley, sometimes I get sick of it.
Wembley: Yeah, me too.
Gobo: ... You sure do like to agree with a person.
Wembley: Oh, I gotta agree with that! Heh.
And there you have it. That's Wembley. In six lines, you get his whole character: his indecision, his affability, his attachment to Gobo, and his willingness to try anything. That's economical writing. Plus, it's funny, so it's got that going for it too.
In the next scene, we get introduced to all the Gorgs, with exactly the same kind of perfect character sketch.
Pa Gorg: Why are there never any loyal subjects at the palace gates, bowing and groveling?
Ma Gorg: Has it ever occurred to you that we don't have any loyal subjects?
Pa: Ahh... sometimes it gets lonely. Especially if you're the King and Queen of the Universe, like us.
Then Pa finds Junior standing on a crate setting up a Fraggle trap. Pa pushes Junior, and Junior falls on his butt with a satisfying crash. Pa orders Junior to plant the radish sprouts, and Junior makes a cute little frustrated grunt. And that is pretty much the Gorgs in a nutshell for the next five years.
The Gorgs are wonderful. I'm just going to state that as a fact because there are no two ways around it. The eyes, the movement of the body, the voices. They're wonderful. Unlike the Doozers, I actually pretty much understand the basic tech behind the Gorgs, but you don't even notice it when you're watching them. The Gorgs are real.
Anyway, enough gushing, and on with the show. Junior catches Wembley, and all the other Fraggles are upset, so naturally they sing a song to psyche themselves up to go and rescue him. Like all good musicals, they're using the song to highlight a story point, making the moment feel important. It's not just "hey, let's go find Wembley." It feels like a major rescue operation, and it's all thanks to the stirring tune.
Meanwhile, Wembley is making friends with the Gorgs. Like the innocent that he is, when the Gorgs say that they're the King and Queen of the Universe, he believes in them completely. He cheers for the king, and sings for them. They've never met a loyal subject before, and they're completely charmed by him.
The other Fraggles arrive to rescue Wembley, but they're all captured and put in a cage. Gobo pokes Pa Gorg in the nose, and they're labeled "enemy Fraggles." Junior wants to thump them, but Wembley says that they can't be punished without a fair trial. The Gorgs get all excited by this, and they rush inside. Gobo tells Wembley to open the cage, but Wembley says it's okay: They're getting a fair trial!
When the Gorgs all come out in judges' robes, that's the moment when you realize that something very different is happening in this episode -- something that we've never seen before on a puppet show. This isn't just a simple story of a character getting captured by villains and getting rescued, it's something bigger than that.
The Gorgs ask Wembley if the other Fraggles deserve to be thumped, and he delivers an impassioned speech on their behalf, talking about all their special individual talents. "They don't deserve thumping. They deserve good stuff! They deserve to live."
The Gorgs are moved by his speech, so the Fraggles won't get thumped. Pa laughs: "Let's keep them instead, as slaves! They'll bow, and they'll curtsey, and they'll grovel whenever we want 'em to, just like this little one does!" Wembley is horrified, and bites Pa on the nose, letting all the Fraggles escape in the confusion.
Back in Gobo and Wembley's room, Wembley reflects on his experience: "It didn't seem like I was a slave. I guess some slavery feels like freedom. I didn't notice what they were doing to me, until... well, until they tried to do it to you." Gobo comforts him: "Well, that's good, Wembley. Know who your friends are." And that's the end of the episode.
And you have to admit that that is pretty remarkable. A puppet show, for kids, and the pro-social message of the day is: "Some slavery feels like freedom." Now, as far as I recall, the take-home messages from other shows of the period were things like "Don't tell lies" and "Eat healthy food." So this complicated little reflection on slavery and freedom... it just blows me away. Plus, it's only episode two, which makes you wonder what they have planned for the rest of the season.
As the show goes on, the Gorgs get more sympathetic -- especially Junior, who emerges as a real hero -- but here at the beginning of the series, the Gorgs essentially represent the unfair use of power. The Gorgs are the Big People -- the people in the world who can do anything they want because they're rich, or powerful, or because they have the guns. The Gorgs think that they rule the whole universe, just because they happen to be bigger than everybody else.
But they're not good at being in charge, because they have no real respect for the creatures that they're supposedly "ruling." They expect to be served and flattered, but they don't give anything back. They don't protect the smaller creatures or take care of them, and it doesn't even occur to them that the "little people" have their own dreams. The Gorgs may be big, but they're parasites; their idea of "leading" is to live off the work of people who are smaller and weaker than they are.
In 1983, somebody watching this episode might use that metaphor to think about what was happening in South Africa, when it seemed like apartheid might never end. They also might think about Reagan's America, when the gap between the upper class and everyone else was obviously widening.
These days, there's some useful echoes in this episode if you think about America's role as the strongest power in the world. When America invades Afghanistan and Iraq, are we rescuing innocent Fraggles from the parasitic Gorgs ruling those countries? Or are we acting like Gorgs ourselves?
Hey. Just a second. You just started thinking about that question, didn't you? You were reading that last sentence, and you took a moment to ask yourself: Is America acting like a Gorg?
That's the power of a good metaphor. A metaphor is a problem solving tool; it helps you to think about a complicated problem in a new way. This episode is an example of why Fraggle Rock can be more than just a series of life lessons for kids -- if this is a useful metaphor for kids, then adults can also use it, for adult problems.
The Gorgs might be the bullies at school, but they might also be a mean boss, or an abusive boyfriend, or the Taliban. It's a good thing we have Fraggle Rock, to help us figure it out. For all we know, there might be Gorgs everywhere.
Not with a Bang
episode 3: Let the Water Run
So let's say you're writing an episode of Fraggle Rock. How would you get started? Well, if you're Jocelyn Stevenson, who wrote the final episode on this Fraggle Rock DVD, then you start it like this.
Doc is up on a ladder, working on the water heater in the workshop. He wipes off a pipe with a rag, but then the rag slips out of his hand and falls smack onto the head of Sprocket, who's waiting below. "Nice catch, Sprocket!" Doc calls cheerily, as Sprocket does a slow take to the camera. "Now hand me that adjustable wrench, will you?" Sprocket breathes a heavy sigh, shakes the rag off his head, and grabs the wrench for Doc.
And that's how you write a TV show, if you start with completely adorable characters like Doc and Sprocket. The first item on your outline is "Impossibly Cute Sprocket Moment." Which can't be that hard to write, because Sprocket is impossibly cute. Once you've got that out of your way, then you're off, and from there it probably pretty much writes itself.
At least, that's what I'm imagining right now. I'm very envious of other writers at the moment, because they don't have to do what I have to do, which is to go out in front of people and criticize a Fraggle Rock episode.
That's a hard thing to do, because here I've been watching this all week, and obviously really enjoying it all over again. Plus, this episode is so sweet and well-meaning that criticizing it feels like poking at a bunny with a stick just to make it jump.
Then again, what did the bunny ever do for me. Gimme that stick.
Here's the plot of the episode: Doc fixes the water heater. (You're riveted already, aren't you? You've moved to the edge of your seat.) Meanwhile, Red is putting on a swimming show for the Fraggles, and Pa Gorg is taking a bath. (See what I mean? You might want to make out your will before you watch this episode, just in case you die from the excitement. This is gonna be twenty-two minutes of pure bath-taking action.)
In this episode, we see that the water connects the three worlds -- the workshop, the Fraggles and the Gorgs. Junior Gorg pumps the water from the well, which drains the Fraggles' swimming hole. To get more water, the Fraggles bang on the pipes, which lead down from Doc's workshop. Doc hears the pipes banging, and he turns on more water -- giving the Fraggles and Gorgs a fresh water supply.
Now, that is a brilliant premise -- that the different critters are interdependent on each other, in ways that they don't even recognize. They created a very complicated little toy ecosystem for this show, and over the course of the series you find out how all the connections work -- the Doozers can't make Doozer sticks without the Gorgs' radishes, but the Gorgs can't water their radishes without Doc's water, which they wouldn't get without the Fraggles' pipe-banging. It's both an environmental message and a cross-cultural one -- you can't hurt one group, or one part of the planet, without ultimately hurting everybody, even if you don't know all the connections between the thing you're hurting and the things you care about.
Unfortunately, in this episode at least, that lesson is delivered to you straight from the series bible, with almost nothing in the way of plot or entertainment.
It starts strong, with a spunky song by Red, and then a funny Gorg scene with Pa playing general. Then Ma says that it's time for Pa's bath, and Junior goes out to the well to pump the water.
It's at this moment that inspiration starts to fail, and you get dialogue like this:
Mokey: I just love the Pipe-bangers, don't you?
Wembley: Well... yes, I do!
Mokey: I love the way they bang the pipes!
Wembley: Bang the pipes!
Mokey: And then the water rushes --
Mokey: Into the pool...
Mokey: Oh, it's so, it's so...
Mokey: Wet! Yes. Thank you.
Wembley: Oh, look! Here come the Pipe-bangers!
Which is sort of, essentially, thanks for playing. And then the Pipe-bangers make their big entrance, which is basically the first slow moment of the entire DVD. For a minute and a half, they do nothing but bang the pipes, and then Doc turns off the water, and the Fraggles wait around for the water that doesn't come. They don't even have an up-tempo song to sing or anything.
They just wait... and that pretty much sums up the next fifteen minutes. Junior goes to the well for another bucketful of water, but the well's run dry. He tells Ma that there's no more water, but Ma tells him there must be water. He walks out to the well and pumps again, but there's no water. He comes back into the house to tell Ma. Pa tells Junior that there's always water, and sends Junior back out. At a certain point, it starts to look like the whole rest of the episode is just going to be Junior walking from the well to the house and back again.
Then we cut back to the Fraggles, and Red is in despair -- without any water, she can't do her swimming show. She leans up against the wall and sighs. To pass the time, Gobo reads her a postcard from Traveling Matt, in which Matt discovers that opening umbrellas makes it rain. Red's desperate to get an umbrella, and Gobo says that he's seen one in "outer space," so Red goes up to the workshop to get one. Then she has to dither back and forth around the hole, because she's too scared to go out, and she has to ask Gobo to go get the umbrella for her. He does, and then the Pipe-banger bangs the pipe with it. This sequence lasts approximately forever.
I'm not deliberately trying to be contrary or anything, but this episode doesn't have the same kind of juice for me that the other two did. I think my problem is that despite the various activities going on, the characters aren't actually doing anything about the problem. The only real action in the episode is that Gobo steals Doc's umbrella. Besides that, everybody is just standing around and waiting for the water to come back -- especially Junior, who is literally doing exactly that.
At the end of the episode, Doc turns the water back on, and everybody has water again. Red gets her swimming show, and Pa Gorg gets his bath. Red and Gobo think that getting the umbrella solved everything, but really they could have just waited around for a while and done nothing, and Doc would have turned it back on anyway.
As far as I'm concerned, this whole episode is just series bible stuff. The interconnection of all the species is very clever, but it's background -- and illustrating it like this doesn't make for an inspired episode. This is sort of a land use survey of Fraggle Rock, and not really an exciting adventure.
It's nice to establish that this is the way the world works, but there's a lot more fun to be had than you can find in this episode. That's why we need more episodes to be released on DVD, so we can see what other stories can be told here.
Hey, HIT Entertainment! We've watched these three episodes now; we're done with them! Can we have another DVD, please? Soon?
I'll just sit here and bang pipes until I get one, so you might as well hurry up.