About a month ago now, I guess, a new short-form series featuring the Fraggle Rock characters was announced. Redundantly titled Fraggle Rock: Rock On!, it premiered its first five-minute episode three weeks ago. Premise: the Fraggle Five use new radish-based technology in the form of “Doozer tubes” to communicate with each other, and with Traveling Matt, remotely.
Before the series premiered, I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, Fraggle Rock is precisely the right content for this peculiar moment in history because it’s all about meeting adversity with courage, compassion, and yes, even joy. On the other hand, one of the most wonderful things about the original Fraggle Rock is that it’s almost completely timeless. If they make a new, obliquely topical Fraggle Rock series, I wondered to myself, isn’t it going to lose that timeless quality?
Obviously, from a practical, Doylist perspective, I completely understand the need for the puppeteers to work distantly from one another. But from a Watsonian view, why would the Fraggles have to be in isolation? Wouldn’t you think that living underground would be an effective quarantine?
Then, of course, there was the big question: What of Wembley?
I watched the first episode online, and it answered a lot of my questions and alleviated some of my misgivings. But only some.
The driving creative force behind the series appears to be John Tartaglia, who not only performs Gobo but also writes and produces it. He wrote about it at length on Instagram, and it’s hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. I’m very impressed with his writing for the new series. Despite the Doozer tubes and the isolation (neither of which has been explained yet, but I don’t think it’s strictly necessary), it feels like no time has passed since we last got a look inside Fraggle Rock. It’s interesting how every time they let the performers have creative input on a project, it turns out to be some of the best-quality content. You’d think they would do it more often.
You can’t really tell because the voice appears identical, but it is not Kathy Mullen performing Mokey but the chameleonic Donna Kimball. It’s always sad when a recast happens, but in this case it’s entirely reasonable. And also, as much as I love Kathy Mullen as Mokey, I do think that Donna Kimball has a somewhat better singing voice.
Frankie Cordero, better known as the adorable Rudy on Sesame Street, is credited as the “voice of Wembley.” There’s no puppetry credit, but presumably it is John Tartaglia. Both do passable Wembley impressions, and if I didn’t know what had gone on, I might not have noticed that anything was different, at least not at first.
As far as dialogue goes, Cordero’s speaking (and grunting) voice as Wembley is pretty good, although it sometimes gets rough and hoarse and sounds something more akin to Rudy. However, his singing voice is not up to par at all, which may be the reason that he only gets one line to sing in that song. As for the puppetry, John Tartaglia (if indeed he is the one doing it) remembers that Wembley is supposed to have facial expressions, which is an improvement from the last time they let someone who isn’t Steve play Wembley. But the expressions seem very deliberate and premeditated, not natural and spontaneous.
With that said, neither of them are terrible. In a way, I wish they were. It would make it so much easier to make the case that they shouldn’t do this without Steve. I love that they can make Fraggle content that’s in continuity with the original series, but I kind of hate that they can do it without him. Because if performer consistency doesn’t matter, if characters can be recast for no good reason, what other Jim Henson philosophies can we just ignore or dispense with?
(To be clear, that is not intended as a criticism of John Tartaglia. He’s not the problem.)
Ultimately, despite its flaws and limitations, the new Fraggle series accomplished in its first five minutes what “Elmo’s Play Date” couldn’t achieve in nearly half an hour.