By Andrew R. Chow
August 29, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a new series on Netflix, is perhaps not meant for viewers who don’t readily identify as fantasy nerds — nor for the faint of heart. The series features curiously named species like Gelflings and Skeksis, macabre violence, entangled mythology and callbacks to a 37-year-old film. Oh, and all the characters are puppets.

But the series has also drawn rave reviews for its world-building and production value: Collider called it “one of the greatest fantasy stories of our time.” And the voice cast is unimpeachable: Helena Bonham Carter, Andy Samberg, Mark Hamill, Awkwafina and Taron Egerton all contribute their talents to the series.

Before you dive into Dark Crystal, here’s what to know about its history and fictional universe.

What is The Dark Crystal?

The Dark Crystal is a 1982 film conceived by Jim Henson, the inexhaustible creator of The Muppets. At that time, Henson was at the height of his career and churning out hugely popular television shows and films centered on Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of the Muppet gang. But in the late ’70s he dreamed of creating a world much different from their amiable slapstick chaos.

“What Jim wanted to do, and it was totally his vision, was to get back to the darkness of the original Grimms’ fairy tales,” Frank Oz, the film’s co-director, told SFGate in 2007. “He thought it was fine to scare children.”

In 1976, Henson had come across the work of illustrator Brian Froud, who was known for his vivid and sinister creations of fantastical creatures. After meeting, the pair began work on a story that would resemble Lord of the Rings in scale and tone. On the planet Thra, the conniving birdlike Skeksis seek to maintain control over the rest of the kingdom; due to a foreboding prophecy, they massacre the altruistic, elf-like Gelflings one by one. But one young Gelfling, Jen, escapes the Skeksis’ grasp, and embarks on a hero’s journey to end their reign.

While Henson threw himself into the project, producers and financiers were skeptical about its marketability. According to Henson’s daughter Lisa, he was told that he could only make The Dark Crystal if he also made two bankable Muppet films. Those would become The Muppets Take Manhattan and The Great Muppet Caper.

Why was The Dark Crystal groundbreaking?

While the Muppets are cartoonish and stylized, the world of Thra is incredibly lifelike. Henson and his team took five years to make the movie, employing cutting-edge puppetry design and technology. Some puppets were radio-controlled, while the hulking Skeksis were controlled by six puppeteers each. “It’s into the same bag as E.T. and Yoda, wherein you’re trying to create something that people will actually believe,” Henson said in a 1982 interview.

The film was billed as the first live-action film to feature just puppets and no humans. And while it received mixed reviews, it had an outsize impact on many artists, including Guillermo del Toro and David Bowie.

Why is a spinoff being created now?

At the time of its release, Henson was open to expanding the world of The Dark Crystal: “I think we could set another story in the same world, but we probably wouldn’t necessarily use the same characters,” he said in the same 1982 interview.

In the mid-2000s, more than a decade after Henson’s death, the film’s screenwriter, David Odell, began work on a script for a sequel. But that film became stuck in development hell and was ultimately scrapped. “Everyone was scared of it,” the director, Louis Leterrier, told The New York Times this year.

But in 2017, Leterrier and the Jim Henson Company joined forces with Netflix for a prequel based on the extensive notes that Henson and Odell had left behind for the original film. They aimed not to use new computer technology, but instead build and paint all the puppets and sets by hand. (CGI was used to enhance some scenes or erase puppeteers from the shots.) The sprawling and intricate craftwork added up to “the biggest puppet production ever mounted,” according to Lisa Henson, who is the chief executive of the Jim Henson Company.

How does the new Netflix series relate to the film?

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is set on Thra many years before the events of The Dark Crystal. The Gelflings are far more numerous than they were in the film, but live in subservience to the Skeksis, who maintain power over the Crystal of Truth, the source of all the world’s life.

The Gelfling community is peaceful and orderly, with matriarchs running society. But corruption runs through the power structures, and three young Gelflings soon discover the wicked and dishonest means through which the Skeksis have come to rule. The trio begins a campaign to overthrow them, and the plot unfolds with plenty of betrayal and death, taking on themes like greed, class conflict and even climate change.

And while the cast of characters is mostly different from that of the original film, there’s at least one familiar face: the astronomer Aughra, who is the embodiment of the planet and who played a pivotal role in assisting Jen in the film.

Who plays these characters?

The central Gelfling trio is voiced by Nathalie Emmanuel (Game of Thrones), Anya Taylor-Joy (Split) and Taron Egerton (Rocketman), while other Gelflings include Helena Bonham Carter, Lena Headey, Alicia Vikander and Eddie Izzard. The malevolent Skeksis include Awkwafina, Keegan-Michael Key, Mark Hamill and Andy Samberg.

Will the world of The Dark Crystal continue to expand?

It’s certainly possible. “I’d never say never because there is an exploration of a world inside the planet of Thra,” Lisa Henson told Forbes last year. “It’s a world of fire, there’s an inner sun and there is another race of Gelfling-like creatures called The Firelings, so it’s all very cinematic. It wouldn’t make a bad movie at all.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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