Saturday, July 16, 2011

Fraggle Rock season one, episode nine: "The Lost Treasure of the Fraggles" (aired 3/7/83)

It will be interesting to see how this post goes over, for, as far as I know, none of my friends whom belong to the blogging circle that I stay within share this interest.  I've been a fan of Jim Henson's creations and productions, and Fraggle Rock in particular, since childhood.  (Watching The Muppet Show every evening in the house my family lived in until I was three is amongst my earliest memories.)  So, I thought this might be a good subject to write about, in the interest of giving this blog some diversity (and in accounting for the photo that I've appropriated as my user icon!)

Here's a generic still, to establish this post's subject visually (and so that an image shows up next to my blog's title on other people's blogrolls, alerting folk to the existence of this post!):

While rewatching the episode this evening, I realized that I would have to adjust my usual style of reviewing.  With comics (and as would be the case if I were writing about animation or film, which I haven't done yet here), you'll frequently find me focusing on the way that images are composed.  To discuss Fraggle Rock on those same terms wouldn't be fair...and, in fact, I'd end up saying that a lot of it's really crappy.  It's a live-action, puppetry-oriented production that was taped in a TV studio, likely using the kind of setup where you'd find three or four cameras pointed at static sets -- much the way that traditional sitcoms or the local news are orchestrated.  Today, there's plenty of television dramas that could be mistaken for a feature film, and scripted comedies that are shot in a way that evokes a documentary (e.g., Curb Your Enthusiasm).  But thirty years ago, such high production values were far less common, if unheard of.  Prime-time hits like Three's Company or Mork Mindy, game shows, and live-action childrens' variety-esque shows fronted by a host (e.g., Romper Room, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, etc.) weren't going to be mistaken for anything other than television

So, it's important to recognize Fraggle Rock in this context.  The sets, staging, and framing were meant to be functional -- sure, a good deal of craftmanship went into the sets for Doc's workshop and the Gorgs' garden, but that's exactly what we always see them as: sets...not part of the imagery comprised within and inherent a shot.  Add in the condition of the lead players being hand puppets that aren't intended to be seen below the waist, and the shot-framing options become even more limited (and this could have awkward results, admittedly).  But the whole point, most of the time, was to efficiently get what the script called for; if two characters are talking to each other, get 'em both in frame!  Yes, some consideration went into close-ups, low angles to emphasize the Fraggles' perspective when they went venturing into Doc's workshop or the Gorgs' garden, and that kind of thing.  But don't expect Citizen Kane.  After the writing phase, without which there wouldn't be any material, what really drives the show -- what it really depends on -- are the performances -- those of the puppeteers, and the sole on-screen human actor that they played against(Gerry Parkes in the North American version). 

I've owned the DVD box set of the complete series for some time, but have been making my way through it very slowly.  (In truth, it's not always what I feel like watching.)  Amongst the first dozen or so episodes, "The Lost Treasure of the Fraggles" was the one that most impressed me, and the one where I first felt that the series was beginning to click. 

It was written by Jerry Juhl, who'd been with Henson since Sam and Friends in the '50's.  Having been The Muppet Show's head writer, and given that you're almost certain to find that he was the sole writer or one of the writers on Henson's productions from the '60's through the '90's, he basically was THE Muppet writer.  Given that, it's fitting to me that what I feel to be one of Fraggle Rock's first season's best episodes -- one that started to expand the series and elevate it to a new level -- would be one of his.  (It's unthinkable to me, though, that he was one of the writers on Muppets From Space, just as it is that Dave Goelz could've gone through wtih performing Gonzo in that movie.  But, that's a whole other story...) 

My reasons for favoring this episode basically render me a laughable self-caricature: it's about the search for an ancient treasure, with overtones conveying that said treasure is one of mythic legend -- e.g., Red noting that the map dates from "the time of the Third Drafting" (a purposely suggestive bit of dialogue, implying a major, formative epoch of the Rock's distant past), or the Fraggles speaking in hushed awe as they behold "the ancient Treasure of the Fraggles!"  In other words, we're teased that the world in which the series takes place has a rich, expansive history and internal mythology. 

Most episodes -- certainly most of those that had preceded this one -- used the formula of a character having some sort of personal crisis and/or struggle, in the end realizing and reconciling their self-identity -- with some sort of moral intended for the viewer to absorb embedded into the proceedings -- all realized in a cute, quirky way.  That this was the series' prevailing M.O. is one of the biggest reasons I don't always find it appealing to watch.  Even as a kid, I felt that the show's trappings lent themselves to more adventure and that there was the potential for developing an internal mythology...and, yes, I do believe it would be possible to tell a long story of Gobo embarking on braving an epic quest to defeat a reawakened ancient evil that for eons had laid dormant in a cavern deep within the Rock or in the wilds beyond the Gorgs' garden (what's out there, anyway??!!!  There's gotta be more than just Wander McMooch!) without betraying the values that the series was borne of (in the early stages of its conception, Henson said, "I'd like to make a TV show that brings about world peace"[!!!]) and that it maintained, or its heart.  But so many episodes were of the "I can never make up my mind about things and I just feel so bad about how indecisive I am ---> oh, I've realized that that's what makes me, and my friends like me just as I am, so that's what matters!" variety.  "Lost Treasure of the Fraggles" finds a good middle-ground: it concerns a perilous treasure hunt for a relic from the Rock's past (i.e., internal mythology), but is simple and concise, culminating in one of those aforementioned pro-social resolutions.

Speaking of which, I really, really like the ending.  By all rights, I should account for how this episode's lighting choices swayed my impression of it.  I'm sure that all of the low-key and dark lighting can be attributed to the episode's director, Perry Rosemond.  E.g., when Gobo and Red discover the map in a dusty, cobweb-draped, long-abandoned cavern (ah, credit to the prop/set folk!).  The ghostly, ethereal ambience gives this scene the gravity that's what taking place is the revealing of a primordial, near-mystical secret, and the tone is one of mystery, with a tinge of forebodingness, and a certain sanctity.

The spookiness is exacerbated when the quest leads Gobo and Red into near-pitch black tunnels.  Then, when they wind up in the Gorgs' garden, it happens to be nighttime -- they just can't escape a prevalence of ominous shadows.  The map leading them to the Gorgs', of all places, is a strange turn of events, for the whole thrust of the quest -- considering the terror-inducing dark tunnels and the close call experienced in almost falling off a steep ledge -- is that these two Fraggles' are faring alien, remote, dangerous territory.  And though the Gorgs are alway a threat, their garden is part of the Fraggles' everyday life, so my kneejerk reaction is that it's antithetical to have the trail wind up somewhere that Gobo and Red could've used a familiar, oft-used route to get to.  However, it being nighttime -- which is atypical for a Gorgs scene -- gives the sense that is a place that we/the Fraggles know well, yet somehow it isn't --kind of its reflection as seen cast in a murky creek.  I don't know if that was the idea, but I guess it works, when one looks at it that way.  And the moonlit ambience reverts to a more "mysterious", less "scary" conceit ("scary" being how the scene in the pitch-black tunnels was characterized).  Really, the low-to-dark lighting may have been overused throughout the episode as a whole, and perhaps could have been relegated to a couple select scenes.  Anyway, one way or the other, the sense of trepidation and caution that persists once the Gorgs are in play is valid, as, again, the Fraggles always remain wary of the Gorgs. 

And so, let us tackle the climax of the episode, where the true nature of the treasure is revealed, and the Fraggles realize that althought they hadn't acquired the expected "diamonds", they're "rich" because they have each other.  (Say, that parallels the outcome of certain Uncle Scrooge stories!.  Unfortunately, I can't find the entire episode online anywhere, but I'm glad that this scene's on YouTube.  Unfortunately, embedding's disabled for it, so I'll just have to link to it -- give it a watch, if you're so inclined.  I realize it may be sappy -- especially out-of-context, deprived of the scenes that built up to it.  But I really like the solemn, peaceful tone imbued by the candelight (again, low lighting!) and the gentle, softly-song melody.  Another part of what makes it work for me is the design and construction of the music box -- the reserved turning of the wheel evokes the sense that what we're looking at is a remnant of the world's earliest mechanics/first machinery.  And although it's made of what looks like is meant to be silver or gold or some such metal, it's not extravagant, but carries the air of dingified welding/forging craftsmanship.  (Clearly, this is all nothing more than my interpretation and/or coming up with analogies for what I see on the screen!)  Good choices were made in the timing in cutting to the close-up on this "treasure".  (See!  I did that some consideration was given to classic, basic, conventional film technique!)  Kudos to Rosemond for this whole scene.

One of the other things that really sold me on this episode was that it's the first, in my opinion, where the Doc-and-Sprocket framing sequence and the "postcard from Uncle Matt" segment perfectly complemented the main plot: the latter satirizes greed (with Matt, in typical fashion, misunderstanding human currency), while the former involves Doc's struggle to unlock an antique treasure chest that he's brought home from a "rummage sale".  To make this relatable to some of my friends, alongs the lines of Gyro Gearloose, Doc (played by the aforementioned Gerry Parkes) is a scatterbrained, eccentric, humble inventor who lives in his cluttered workshop.  Unlike Gyro, he doesn't seem to be particularly good at inventing, though.  Like Gyro, he has a non-human sidekick: his dog, Sprocket (performed by Steve Whitmire and Karen Prell).  Like Helper, Sprocket is very energetic and active, and remains aware of much that goes on around them that his companion is oblivious to, being so wrapped up in his work...but Sprocket is far more bratty and needy, and far less resourceful, than Helper.  More so than Gyro and Helper, Doc and Sprocket are both, each in his own right, stuck in his ways and insufferable...though Sprocket wins out as the one one's more often driven to his wits' end by his owner's idiosyncrasies. 

Like every episode, this episode ends with a Doc-Sprocket scene that caps both the subplot played out in the framing sequence devoted to them and the episode as a whole.  We open with the surprising sight of Doc, in the dark (that dark lighting thing again!), wearing a hard hat and about to take to the antique chest with a jackhammer!  I found this to be the funniest, most unexepected moment of any episode thus far.  Doc finding that the treasure is "what we wanted most all along" echoes the Fraggles' realization, but the nature of the treasure in Doc's case keeps the momentum of this coda's comic absurdity (begun with the sight of the jackhammer) going.  The irony of Doc's satisfaction (I'm not going to spoil what he finds inside the chest!) is certainly not lost an exasperated Sprocket!  More praise for Rosemond's for this scene's highly-charged execution, and seamless fusing of the absurd and the tender.

Alas, I have no means of showing you said wonderful closing scene.  The best I can do is give you a different taste of the charms of Doc and Sprocket.  (Alas, another case of embedding being disabled!)


  1. Ryan:

    You’ll probably never convert me to Fraggle Rock, just as Chris Barat (over at his Blog) will never convert me to Kimba the White Lion or Richie Rich … and, at my own Blog, I will create few if any converts to Huckleberry Hound, 60's Sci-Fi TV, or Old Warner Bros. Movies – where such an interest does not already exist in the reader. Nevertheless, we Blog on, championing our personal favorites, because they are special to us!

    In each case, it all comes down to a combination of personal tastes and the fabled “time when you grew up”!

    No, I did not “grow up” in, or anywhere near, the time of the Warner films I blog about (…That’s actually a more recent – or recently revived – interest, aided largely by the coming of the DVD!… But the standard I carry for Huckleberry Hound and ‘60s Sci-Fi TV is certainly born of that.

    You write: “So, it's important to recognize Fraggle Rock in this context.”

    I find it so very interesting that I apply more or less the same caveat to discussions of Huckleberry Hound, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, etc.

    And, someday, folks will be applying that to DuckTales… and even SpongeBob!


  2. Joe,

    In each case, it all comes down to a combination of personal tastes and the fabled “time when you grew up”!

    So true!

    at my own Blog, I will create few if any converts to Huckleberry Hound, 60's Sci-Fi TV, or Old Warner Bros. Movies – where such an interest does not already exist in the reader.

    Don't be so sure! All the way back in WTFB, you piqued my curiosity about Irwin Allen's shows, just as Chris did for Kimba...and to this day, it remains piqued! (Watching the complete run of a TV series is a commitment, so the years have gone by with a lot of stuff that I've been interested in left untouched. I'm wayyyyy behind on watching Kimba so as to keep up with Chris' posts!)

    Re: the early Hanna-Barbera cartoons -- as a child, I enthusiastically watched them on cable and in syndication. But since the time when I was a teenage, I've consistently not felt very amicable toward them. I can appreciate Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, et al as sort of being archetypes of very dry, produced-using-limited-animation-for TV, baseball-and-apple-pie funny animal shorts. (Really have a hard time recalling what I ever found appealing about The Flinstones or The Jetsons, though...but I'm still such a fanboy, I can more than hold my own in a discussion about continuity issues between all the Flintstones and Scooby-Doo spin-offs!)


  3. Hey Ryan,

    Growing up, I missed seeing "Fraggle Rock" for some reason. There was that little complication of not having a TV post-age four(fundamentalist upbringing and all and not wanting the Devil to attack the formless little-kid brain cells in my mushy mind), but you'd think I would be acquainted with it on some level. Maybe I'll use your reviews as motivation for finally checking it out.

    I did notice that they've released "The Best of the Get Along Gang" on DVD. The only reason why that show didn't make me stab myself with a sharp object as a little kid is because I wasn't yet familiar with the concept of using a sharp object to stab one's self.

    Isn't that ironic? The most nonconformist person you might ever meet...and I was watching the "Get Along Gang" at the impressionable age of three...



  4. Pete,

    Even if you had TV, you had to have HBO to watch Fraggle Rock's original run. My family didn't subscribe...and, boy, did I envy the family down the street who did! I finally got to watch the series when it was in rotation on TNT in the very early '90's...and, believe me, I ate it up!

    Hey, I understand -- I watched Care Bears! But I must point out, Fraggle Rock is classier than Care Bears, Get-Along Gang, and their ilk. Sure, in my adult life, at the end of a work day, I'm more in the mood to watch The Office or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but I'll always think highly of all of Jim Henson's creations.

    Really glad you enjoyed the review! I don't plan to review every episode, or anything like that, but I'd like to write something about at least a couple more. So ... well, see ya around the blogs! ;)