Fraggle Rock: Let There Be Rock Review
I used to be scared of the Gorgs. Daft I know, considering the more likely bogeymen I could have affixed my childish fears onto but in my defence I was young, and it always seemed to me that the Fraggles took a rather flippant attitude on the matter of Gorg-avoidance. Did the small residents of Fraggle Rock not realise that with that great big dunder-headed lummox (his father’s words) Junior blundering about through his garden death by Gorg-foot was at times mere inches away? And then there was the matter of his parents, his cross-looking father and odd-looking mother, who never inspired in me much confidence, and made me wonder what they might ultimately do with any Fraggles Junior managed to catch. Or even if they didn't bother, the idea of being Junior's pet... oh the trauma of it all! As a result, every time I watched an episode it was always a relief when a Fraggle raid on the Gorg vegetable patch for radishes ended successfully and they back in the safety of the underground caves. Watching it back now, the extensive use of green screen and studio-bound nature of the Gorgs’ garden does somewhat take away from any apprehension the modern, more sophisticated viewer, might have, but at the time… no, no, it was the only time in the company of Jim Henson’s muppets that I worried.
Of Henson’s biggest three series - The Muppet Show, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, this latter is arguably the least, having neither the anarchic brilliance of the Muppets nor the memorable characters of Sesame Street. Thematically it sits squarely in between those two other shows, combining the pure entertainment drive of Kermit and co with the desire to impart simple life lessons ala Big Bird and his friends. As with all of Henson’s oeuvre it’s a very moral show with a simple heartfelt message to impart, namely that the world is full of different types of people and that it’s only when we learn to appreciate and embrace that diversity that we’ll truly be able to live in a fully-functioning society. All the various social strata that live within Fraggle Rock depend upon each other for their very survival, only they don’t realise it and instead find each other incomprehensible and/or nuisances. The opening titles make this very clear: while the Fraggles themselves exclaim the only sensible way of living is to “dance your cares away” and leave those “worries for another day” the Doozers, the small mining creatures who inhabit the caves with them and spend their days mining for radishes and Doozer Sticks, would much rather “work their cares away” although they’re quite happy to let the Fraggles get on with their frivolous lifestyle. (At first this seems a rather unfair arrangement: the Fraggles spend their time lolling about doing nothing constructive while the Doozers work their guts out, but that’s just their individual cultures, and as both sides are eminently satisfied with the arrangement there’s no need to quibble). Meanwhile above ground the Gorgs, giant but simple beasts, farm the land the Fraggles and Doozers live under, and in his lighthouse the human Captain, played by Fulton Mackay, and faithful dog Sprocket keep the whole society safe by watching out for danger, as well as unwittingly passing on postcards from Travelling Uncle Matt to the other Fraggles. (In Britain at least: in other countries the human was played by different actors to reflect that nation's proclivities, a sign of the dedication Henson had for the show: in the US and Germany Sprocket's owner was an inventor, for example, while in France he ran a bakery). Such is the fairly complex society the puppets live in, a fully-functioning world acting as a microcosm for our own.
As a metaphor it is crude but gets its message across, and also allows the writers to draw analogies between all the different strata of their society and their problems. Each episode is a simple morality tale and the seven episodes on this disk, all coming from the show’s second year, are very representative of the series as a whole. Most focus on just one character and a dilemma they find themselves having, with secondary stories involving the Gorgs and the Captain underlining whatever ethical quandary the Fraggle is facing. For example, in Red’s Club Red, the most annoying of the main characters, decides she’s tired of not being the leader of their group and forms her own gang, only to discover that there’s a lot more to leadership than just bossing other people around, while upstairs the Captain tries to decide who should be in his new bird-watching club, only to discover it’s harder to get people involved. It is by drawing these parallels that Henson is able to forward his theory that we are all basically the same: we have the same hopes, fears, problems and solutions, and that no matter how different we are there’s a lot more that binds us together. Although inarguably a simplistic take on the complexities of modern society as a belief it’s not a bad one to aspire to, and results in a very honourable show with good intentions and plenty of useful life lessons to impart to the younger members of the family
For the older viewer there’s less reward to be had, but it’s still not boring to watch. The main characters are by far the most anonymous of any of those coming from Henson’s productions, and beyond the Gorgs which so traumatised my childhood it’s difficult to believe that many of the Fraggles themselves long stayed in the memories of the casual viewer. However, individually they are not without charm (hell, they’re muppets, how could they be anything but charming?) and as ever are voiced with enthusiasm by a group of talented artists, many of whom came over from The Muppet Show. The contrast between the Gorgs’ outside farm and the underground environs of Fraggle Rock itself means that, coupled with the extensive use of primary colours, the look is never dull. Visually there’s always plenty going on, with these characters inhabiting a real world – as well as the main characters in the foreground, there’s often plenty going in the background giving the illusion of a living, breathing system. The musical numbers are up to the usual Henson high standard; the choreography that accompanies them is always impressive, given the number of puppets that are on screen and the synchronicity between them all, while the songs themselves are like the characters, not especially memorable but always pleasing while they are on. It also helps that, in Henson’s own words, there is such variety in the styles of music used, from “calypso to country, rhythm and blues to rock to reggae to everything in between.” But you know what the Muppets are like already: there’s no need to say anymore.
The seven episodes on these disks are all much of a muchness. Personally speaking I responded most to Junior Sells the Farm because of its odious villain, The Day the Music Died which was rather poetic, and Invasion of the Toe-Ticklers which begins as an apparent homage to Star Trek’s classic episode The Trouble With Tribbles before veering off on a much more dramatic course. If there’s a dud to be had it’s Boober’s Quiet Day but only because it feels as though the moral is hammered home once every two minutes in a particularly unsubtle manner, which grows a little wearying after a while. For the record, here is a brief synopsis of all seven episodes included on the disks:
Red’s Club - Red decides to form her own club, but discovers it’s far harder to be a leader than she thinks.
The Secret of Convincing John - Determined to become more assertive, Wembley turns to Convincing John, a Fraggle who can convince anyone to do anything, for advice, not realising that behind the façade John is as uncertain as anyone else.
Junior Sells the Farm - Rather a self explanatory title this: Junior sells the Gorg farm. The dunder-headed lummox.
The Day the Music Died - The Ditsies, the small creatures whose luminescence lights Fraggle Rock, begin to die, threatening to plunge the Rock into darkness.
The Doomsday Soup - Boober accidentally creates an invisibility potion when mixing the wrong ingredients for his soup, but the Fraggles soon discover that magic comes at a price.
Boober’s Quiet Day - Boober’s mischievous id comes to life and persuades him to tell a little white lie so that he can have the day off. Only thing is, Boober quickly discovers that one lie leads to another, then another, then another…
Invasion of the Toe Ticklers - Again, a bit of a self-explanatory title, but the invasion could prove deadly for Mooky when she finds herself trapped in a cave.
Each show has a huge amount of thought put into it and the story parallels are always well thought through, neither too patronising nor too complex for its young audience. In that way, it’s a far more sophisticated educational tool than Sesame Street, a moral counterbalance to that other’s dedication to hard facts. I was disappointed recently to discover that my nephew, aged fifteen, had never heard of this series before – although he's well versed in The Muppet Show and Sesame Street – and I did consider it a shame that the show has been rather forgotten by subsequent generations of children, especially here in the UK where it isn’t really rerun very often. Although its sentiments are at times a little too twee, it’s a very decent show with universal values that, with its central message of living together in harmony, is more important today than it’s ever been. Together with its clever scripting, continuous exuberance and attractive puppets, it’s difficult to imagine what child wouldn’t like it, and it’s good to see it’s finally finding a new audience on DVD. Even more so now I’ve been able to exorcise my fear of the Gorgs.
The current title is the fourth Fraggle compilation issued from Hit Entertainment, following on from titles Fraggle Rock: Dance Your Cares Away, Fraggle Rock: Let the Music Play, and Fraggle Rock: Shake, Fraggle and Roll all released last year. Unlike those, this is a double DVD set with seven episodes and one documentary spread across two dual-layered single-sided disks. Disk One holds the episodes Red’s Club, The Secret of Convincing John, Junior Sells the Farm, and The Day The Music Died and Disk Two the remaining three.
The Main Menu on each disk consists of a static picture of the Fraggles posing accompanied by the theme music playing. The four options here are: Play All Episodes, Select an Episode, Sneak Peak! and The Hit Parade. If one doesn’t select an option before the theme music ends the first episode on the disk automatically begins to play which is never a feature I’m keen on. Sneak Peak plays two trailers for other Hit Entertainment releases, in this case Barney in The Land of Make Believe and Thomas and Friends: Calling All Engines! while the Hit Parade leads to a larger selection of Hit Entertainment trailers aimed at the youngest members of the family, with titles including Bob the Builder, Pingu and a band of frankly terrifying musicians calling themselves The Wiggles. Once again if one isn’t quick enough in selecting which trailer one wishes to watch they start to play automatically.
None of the episodes are subtitled and none have chapter stops.
Awful. Looking like a transfer from a second or third generation VHS copy, these episodes have a faded, fuzzy look, with huge amounts of grain layered over everything. Colours are pale while backgrounds are indistinguishable blobs, and huge amounts of detail are just lost. Regarding the digital conversion there are artefacts aplenty and examples of edge enhancement, resulting in a deeply unenjoyable viewing experience.
Okay for what it is. The soundtrack isn’t crystal clear but perfectly listenable to, the only real regret being that the many songs don’t pack the aural punch they should do.
Down at Fraggle Rock (48:27)
One of the principal attractions of this excellent documentary is that it is presented by Jim Henson himself. He guides us through just about every aspect of production, introducing us to the voice artists and puppeteers, showing the latters’ techniques as well as the mechanics of how the puppets work, and on through to the musicians composing the songs for each week’s episodes and the various differences between the different Docs around the world. He also talks at some length about the philosophy behind the show, and what he and his team were trying to achieve with it. Illustrated throughout with a superb medley of well-chosen clips, this is just about the perfect documentary accompaniment to the series and is unreservedly recommended.
A generally excellent series gets a very disappointing DVD. The design of the disks is lazy and highly commercial – do we really need all those adverts on both disks? – and the video transfer is appalling. The inclusion of the documentary is a step in the right direction but everything else about the disks themselves is inferior fare. That said, at least seven episodes for the low asking price is good value for money but everything else? Let's just say the Doozers would not be impressed.
Last updated: 04/07/2018 06:21:55