Why I’m Afraid To Watch the New Fraggle Rock

I know, of course, that now that “Fraggle Rock”: Back to the Rock is available, I shouldn’t talk about it without watching it first. But I’m afraid.

I’m afraid that talking about it without having watched it will be hypocritical, and that talking about something about which I do not have firsthand knowledge will make me look stupid. But if I try to watch it, I’m afraid I won’t be able to be objective because almost everything that I’ve found out about it makes me so angry.

I make it a point not to review things that I haven’t seen. So what follows is not a review. I am not making value judgments about what other people do or do not enjoy, nor am I making recommendations about what other people should or should not watch. What follows is merely a subjective account of the feelings I have from the above trailer, reviews, etc. To reiterate, I am NOT saying that other people should not watch the series or judging people who choose to do so. I’m just trying to explain why I feel that I CAN’T watch it.

Reboot

One of the things I really liked about the short form, pandemic-inspired, Fraggle Rock series from what is now two years ago is that it seemed to be in continuity with the original. It felt like we were picking up approximately where we left off. The new series was originally touted as a continuation, so I had reasonable hope that we would find out more about the Fraggles’ lives now.

Drama requires conflict. The original Fraggle Rock is all about conflict resolution. Therefore, the series resolved most of the conflicts among the characters before reaching its groundbreaking conclusion. Making a new series that built on what came before and finding new sources of conflict would have been a challenge — but not, I believe, an insurmountable one.

For whatever reason, the people behind the new show decided not to take on the challenge of finding new, creative ways to introduce conflict to resolve without disrupting the existing continuity. Instead, the new series is a reboot. The Gorgs are back to chasing Fraggles and pretending to royalty. Traveling Matt is venturing into Outer Space for the first time, still sending postcards even though Doozer tubes are apparently still a thing. Gobo is no longer friends with Sprocket. Cotterpin is an architect, but she’s not THE Architect; the original guy is still around, for some reason. Also, she seems to have dyed her hair because it’s brown now whereas before it used to be bright red. Of course, maybe it just darkened naturally into a “nice, handsome auburn” as she matured, like in Anne of Green Gables. But I digress.

Looking at it objectively (or trying to), this approach makes a degree of sense. Probably most of the target audience for the new series isn’t familiar with Fraggle Rock and so would be confused if it picked up right where the other series left off. So from that perspective, it kind of seems reasonable to start back from the beginning and remake the original … Except that we already have the original Fraggle Rock. It still exists and (with a few minor exceptions) holds up just as well today as it did back then. So why not just encourage people to watch the original series instead of reinventing the wheel?

Even the plots of some of the episodes seem to be retreads of territory the Fraggles have already covered in the past. Consider these authentic excerpts taken from Back to the Rock plot synopses:

*sigh* AGAIN?!?!

As a mature, well-oriented adult, I know that Fraggle Rock is a made-up TV show. Of course I do. But there is a teensy-tinesy part of me that believes that it is real. And that part of me was looking forward to catching up with my Fraggle friends and seeing what new adventures they were having. I wanted to know what the Gorgs were up to now that they are no longer the self-appointed rulers of the Universe. I wanted to find out what changes Cotterpin was making in Doozer society as the new Architect. Turning the new series into a reboot not only robbed me of these opportunities, it robbed the Fraggles of their history and character development. I’m so disappointed by it that I could cry.

As more reviews become available, it does kind of sound like the new series is maybe focusing on issues that are more important to talk about now issues that would have been just as important to talk about back then as they are now but weren’t addressed in the original series, for whatever reason. Example: Apparently, late in the series, Fraggle Rock becomes home to two other Fraggle-like species (the previously introduced Merggles and the newly created Craggles), and while I don’t have enough information to know if they meet the United Nations’ definition of refugees, that seems to be the subtext. But that’s the thing; it seems to me that tackling topics that weren’t addressed in the original series and creating new plotlines to bring them to the forefront would have offered opportunities to create new sources of conflict without a complete reboot. Surely, they could have found a way to introduce the premise and the existing characters to people who weren’t familiar with the original while preserving all the Fraggles’ past history. It would have taken some creativity, but it could have been accomplished. For example, I’m currently watching Star Trek: Picard, which does a very good job of letting new viewers know about relevant events from the previous series without slowing down the story too badly for those of us who are intimately familiar with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

My hope for the new series was that it would introduce the original to a new generation. Instead, it appears to be trying to supplant the original, and that breaks my heart because it suggests that the original is somehow inadequate, an interesting historical oddity with no relevance to modern times beyond setting the stage for new content, kind of like the original Star Trek. (Or the vast majority of The Muppet Show. Sad but true.)

However, I suspect that something even more insidious may be behind the decision to reboot: Corporate meddling. Early reports definitely billed the series as a continuation rather than a reboot, but maybe the execs at Apple wouldn’t agree to stream it unless it started all over from the beginning. You’ll never go broke underestimating your audience, after all … but underestimating the audience is antithetical what Fraggle Rock is supposed to be. 

Character Redesigns

Most of the characters look identical to the way they did in the original series, which makes it especially jarring that a couple have been redesigned. Junior Gorg now has bangs for some reason, which is pointless but immaterial, and generally looks younger. Modern technology has given him a greater range of expressions than he had in the past, which is actually kind of cool.

But the character who has gone through the most extensive redesign is Mokey. She is hardly recognizable anymore. I literally didn’t even know that that’s who she was supposed to be until the teaser showed her painting. Instead of her old voluminous sweater, she now wears a green dress. Her hair is longer and pulled back into a ponytail that makes her head look freakishly small. But the biggest change is in her eyes. Her eyelids now have full range of motion, able to close completely, but they no longer come to rest at the top of her pupils. She appears to have had a blepharoplasty that removed the dreamy look in her eyes by lifting her eyelids. It’s that, more than anything else, that makes her unrecognizable.

I tried not to leap to the conclusion that Mokey’s makeover, however extreme it might seem to me, presaged a change in her personality. After all, we human beings get haircuts, and they don’t change us into completely different people. Miss Piggy has gone through multiple redesigns over the years, yet her personality remains more or less the same (unfortunately). Nevertheless, it sounds as though my original fears were correct after all. According to Tough Pigs’ spoiler-free review, the new series “puts a new spin on Mokey,” making her “a less-aloof and more-opinionated Fraggle.”

Mokey is the Fraggle Rock character I identify with the most. She is me when I am at my best. Therefore, while I know it sounds unreasonable — perhaps even arrogant or delusional — a change to her personality feels like a repudiation of my own.

All my favorite characters have been irrevocably altered: Cantus is gone (which I’m actually okay with), Mokey is changed, Wembley is recast … who is there for me to relate to in Fraggle Rock now? “You cannot leave the magic”? More like, “you can’t go home again.”

New and Recycled Music

Despite my trepidation about actually viewing the program, I did listen to at least part of the “original” soundtrack for the series. “Original” in this case is technically accurate but misleading: There are 28 tracks on the soundtrack, of which 13 were written for this series and 15 were written for its predecessor, but all were composed for one Fraggle Rock iteration or the other.

I know that I said before that I wish more of the songs from the original Fraggle Rock had more exposure, but this isn’t the way that I would have chosen for them to get it. In my opinion, remixing and rearranging the old songs and — more to the point — using them in different contexts doesn’t connect the new series to the original. Rather, it creates even more of a disconnect between the characters and their existing history and past development.

And honestly, it comes across as kind of lazy to me. Because they were able to recycle old songs, they only had to write one new one for each episode of the first season of the new series. Working from scratch, Balsam and Lee wrote 31 songs for just the first 10 episodes of the original series, more than double the number that the new composers wrote for the new series. Standing on the shoulders of geniuses and reappropriating their work … something about it feels like cheating to me.

Then again, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe reappropriating old songs involved a lot of unnecessary work. I mean, did they choose the songs they wanted to recycle and then write whole scripts around each one? Or did they write the scripts and then have to go through the back catalog to find a song they could shoehorn in there?

Of course, there are also songs that we as the audience of the original might reasonably have expected the new series to revisit. “Follow Me” was practically an unofficial theme song and the “Doozer Marching Song” was a recurring motif that played an important role in establishing the Doozers as characters. It probably would have been weird if they hadn’t revisited those songs. Furthermore, in one episode of the new series, Red revisits her “Inspector Red” persona, so it makes sense for her to sing “There’s a Lot I Want To Know” again in a similar context.

I listened to the soundtrack, but I was most interested in hearing the new songs. I didn’t want to get the new versions of the old songs stuck in my head where they might dislodge the originals, so I skipped over most of them. But then I started doing something else while I was listening to the soundtrack, and because I was busy, I listened to some of the reimaginings of the old songs without skipping them over. And for the most part, they stuck pretty close to the originals, making them largely inoffensive when taken out of context. The exception is “Dream a Dream and See,” originally one of the most beautiful Fraggle Rock songs but rearranged into something strange and horrifying. They made it uptempo, they had Ed Helms sing it in a weird character voice … I couldn’t even listen to the whole thing. I had neither the heart nor the stomach for it.

As for the new songs, I don’t remember having any serious issues with any of them. They were all sort of uniformly generic and bland, making them innocuous and forgettable. As I was listening, I kept thinking about what Jerry Juhl said about finding the composers for the original Fraggle Rock:

“I listened to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of songs that were children’s songs. They were bright, cheerful, uptempo, happy children’s songs. And we were looking for Fraggle songs. It was just something different, and nothing seemed to quite play, no matter how talented the songwriters were.”

From the producers’ and puppeteers’ interviews on the Season 1 DVD set

I wouldn’t necessarily say that the new songs seem like they were made with the “sensibility that this is for little children.” They’re not necessarily cutesy or anything; they’re just boring. There’s only one of them that, to my mind, qualifies as a “Fraggle song.” It’s called “One Heart,” and it’s from the last episode of the new season, which may or may not be significant. It’s the only one of the new numbers that grabbed my attention and made me say, “Now THIS is something I could imagine hearing on the original Fraggle Rock!” Listening to it again by itself later, however, I’m not sure it quite reaches that bar. Relative to the other new songs, however, it’s definitely the best.

The Minstrels Troubadours

When the new series was first announced, one thing that I had serious misgivings about was the possibility that they might recast Cantus. Now, I don’t know exactly why I had a problem with the idea of recasting Cantus when I never had a problem with the original decisions to recast Kermit, Rowlf, Ernie, or any of Jim Henson’s other characters following his death. I think it’s because there’s a spiritual dimension to Cantus’ character that is unique to him. If they did go the recasting route, they would have to find someone with that undefinable connection to the metaphysical for me to be satisfied with it. I didn’t have any confidence that the people in charge of making the series would invest the necessary effort to find such a person — if, indeed, such an individual even exists. So it was with a sense of relief that I learned that the itinerant musical group of Fraggle Rock is now led by a completely new character named either Jamdolin or Jambolin (I’ve seen it both ways). I think that was a good call.

Starting in the mid-1800s, minstrel shows were a type of variety entertainment based around making fun of Black people. Obviously, it was a completely disgraceful and totally inappropriate form of entertainment that thankfully died out in the early 20th century. However, the term “minstrel” is much older, dating back to the Middle Ages and used to describe poor knights who supplemented their income traveling around to various courts to provide services, including but not limited to entertainment. Obviously, the Minstrels of Fraggle Rock are modeled after the medieval itinerants and NOT the openly racist variety show entertainers that came along centuries later. Nevertheless, apparently the Minstrels are no longer the Minstrels but the Troubadours, another type of itinerant European musician that came along later than the minstrels.

It’s one thing when Disney tags an episode of The Muppet Show in which Wally Boag cheerfully and unabashedly sings a song that contains a racial slur not once but TWICE in its lyrics as containing inappropriate content. Basic decency requires no less, regardless of the ulterior motive that the ruthlessly self-serving corporation doubtlessly had in complying. To me, anyway, changing the Minstrels’ name is something else since it’s obviously a reference to Medieval minstrels and has nothing to do with minstrel shows.

Now, look … I don’t know what went on behind the scenes when they were making the new Fraggle Rock. Maybe someone raised an objection to the Minstrels’ name and made a reasonable case for changing it. I’m not an expert on cultural sensitivity; I’m just educated enough to know the full extent of my ignorance. But if there was no valid complaint and the name was changed because it MIGHT cause offense, I think that’s a well-meaning but misguided rationale.

The way I see it, most disagreement and conflict in the world results from misunderstanding. Since Fraggle Rock is supposed to be about conflict resolution, I think it should be trying to encourage thoughtful dialogue about whether a term that is offensive in a very narrow, specific context should be avoided in all contexts, even those that are completely and obviously unrelated. I think the new series does its audience a disservice by negating opportunities to have that discussion.

What I do know about cultural sensitivity, I learned from my college mentor. He used to talk about how important it was to “go there”; i.e., have the discussions about important issues that were sensitive or awkward or uncomfortable because not addressing the issues compounded the problem.

Furthermore, if the musical group is going to have a new leader (which I think is the right call), and a new name (which I don’t agree with but am willing to listen to any reasonable argument in its favor), and a new musical style (several reviews have said that it is now more ’70s funk than folk), why bother having the same group at all? The other members of the group are the same as before, but they probably all had to be rebuilt anyway. Why not just come up with a completely new group of itinerant musicians? After all, they seem to be making this show primarily for people who don’t know the original Fraggle Rock, who won’t know the difference anyway.

In fact, instead of revamping Mokey, I wish that she had gone off to join the Minstrels, as was suggested that she might do one day in the original series episode “Mokey and the Minstrels,” and then the Minstrels ascended to some higher plane of existence, never to be seen or heard from again and leaving the all-new Troubadours to try to fill in the void they left behind. That’s my headcanon from now on.

Celebrity Involvement

The thing I found really off-putting in the short-form Fraggle Rock series was the celebrity cameos. At first, I could tell that they were trying to make the interactions organic to the Fraggle mythos, but then the rationale got flimsier and flimsier until it seemed like they weren’t even trying to have the Fraggles interact with famous Silly Creatures in a way that made any kind of sense at all and were just pandering in a blatant attempt to try to get audiences’ attention.

To my knowledge, there’s only one example of that kind of blatant, borderline-exploitive celebrity cameo in the new series, in which the Foo Fighters apparently give a concert performing a Fraggle song to the Fraggles? For some reason? I don’t understand it at all; somebody please explain it to me.

For the most part, the celebrity involvement is more subtle, with big names dubbing the voices of Fraggles and other puppet characters that are being performed on the floor by silent puppeteers. And it’s so the opposite of what the Muppets/Fraggles are supposed to be about that it’s infuriating.

At this point I hear the echoes of pedantic Muppet fan voices in my head whispering chastisements to me. But Mary, they say insidiously, “Age of Resistance” had celebrity voices dubbing puppet characters, and you didn’t have a problem with that! No, but the original Dark Crystal was an exception to the usual rule in that most of the characters in the movie were dubbed by other voice actors after the fact, and I respect the precedent set in the source material.

But Mary, the smugly insistent voices continue to sibilantly hiss, there were singers who dubbed puppet characters in the original Fraggle Rock, so how is this any different? Well, in the first place, the singers were just that, singers: they didn’t dub dialogue. Second, while Sharon Lee Williams apparently did release an album of her own at some point, it appears that she was primarily a back-up singer and doesn’t appear to have ever been a big-name celebrity in either Canada or the U.S. So, not the same thing at all.

It’s not that I have any objection to the individual celebrities themselves, who include original Hamilton cast member Daveed Diggs as Troubadour leader Jamdolin (or Jambolin) and Ed Helms, whose talent I have admired since he started on The Daily Show nearly 20 years ago, as one of the Craggles. It’s the principle of the thing that I object to, not the individual celebrities.

With the exception of Ed Helms, the celebrities contributing character voices appear to be people of color, which was probably an attempt to add more diversity to the cast, an effort that I completely support. But I’m guessing that there are probably puppeteers of color in Canada and the United States who could have added diversity while still preserving the Muppet/Fraggle ethos.

Replacement Wembley Performer

The puppeteer who is performing Wembley now, Jordan Lockhart, appears to be one of those puppeteers of color whom I was just referring to. And that makes it a little awkward to say anything negative or critical about him, especially since I haven’t actually seen much of his performance. So I just want to say, on the off-chance that he or his fans are reading this: It’s nothing personal against him. I’m sure he’s a lovely, talented person, and I would have had critical things to say about anyone playing Wembley who is not Steve.

[ETA: Lockhart gave an interview to Tough Pigs on one of their 50 million podcasts, and I couldn’t even listen to it for 10 minutes before I got so angry that I had to turn it off. It might warrant a separate blog post, or it might not, but suffice it to say, I no longer care about trying to pre-emptively appease him or his would-be defenders.]

I know basically nothing about Lockhart. His Muppet Wiki page is very sparse. He’s Canadian, he’s six years younger than I am, and apparently he played the title character on a short-lived Canadian puppet series produced by JHC called Hi Opie! I tried to look up some clips from the series on YouTube, but I didn’t get many hits. Based on his long ears, Opie seems to be an animal character of some sort, but the sort of animal he is supposed to be is unclear. From what I saw of him, Opie appears to be an annoyingly high-pitched and upbeat character that makes Elmo look like Oscar the Grouch, but maybe I’m unfairly inclined to be uncharitable.

Apparently, Lockhart is doing both the voice and the manipulation of the puppet, which is generally what I prefer. Based on the limited material I’ve seen, he seems to remember that Wembley is supposed to have facial expressions, which is encouraging. Although I haven’t seen the series, I have listened to the soundtrack, and I wasn’t impressed with his voice work, but whatever.

When you listen to Steve or Matt Vogel or anyone who has taken over a Muppet character from an original performer, they all talk about how important it is to have known the performer from whom they are taking over, and how difficult it is for them when they don’t have that opportunity. Do Steve and Jordan Lockhart know each other? I don’t know if they’ve ever worked together, and Lockhart’s Wiki page doesn’t have a list of his credits. Even if they’ve met, they probably don’t know each other really well. [From the podcast interview, or at least the part I listened to before I had to turn it off, Lockhart didn’t sound as though he had ever met or even talked to Steve.] I don’t know how well Steve and Frankie Cordero know each other either, but at least I know that they’ve moved in some of the same puppeteering circles.

More than anything, I think it’s the fact that there’s a Wembley replacement that keeps me from watching the new series. No matter how good Lockhart may happen to be, it won’t be my Wembley, and I don’t think I can ever get past that because Wembley is the Fraggle I love the most. He is very real to me, more so than any of the other Fraggles.

Doc

Obviously, if they were going to do any sort of Fraggle Rock iteration since the passing of Gerry Parkes in 2014, they were going to have to create and cast a new version of Doc if they intended to keep that element as part of the show. And I don’t have any objection to the new Doc being a woman or anything silly like that. However, I do think that, as long as they were going to make her completely different from the old Doc, they should have leaned into that and made her a completely different character with her own name. A new Doc makes sense for a reboot; a completely different character would have made more sense for a continuation, which is what this series was supposed to be.

Apparently, they call the new character “Doc” because she is a grad student working on her doctorate in some sort of ecologically related science field. And while I don’t object to that, it does make me wonder exactly what audience demographic this show is supposed to be targeting. Little kids barely know what college is, so how invested can they be in grad school requirements? I was in college before I understood what grad school required, if indeed I ever did.

Fall From Grace

In Judeo-Christian mythology — as well as works derived from it, such as Paradise Lost — God puts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and gives them one command: not to eat the fruit of a particular tree. When they disobey, not only is it their fall from grace, but all humans born after them are burdened with the mark of original sin from birth. It’s not that they’ve done anything wrong themselves, but they’re responsible for the mistakes of their progenitors, and there’s very little they — we — can do about it except to just try to do the best we can with the situation we’re in.

The way I see it, the original Fraggle Rock series, and its characters, existed in a state of grace. However, in not staying true to the principles behind the original series by applying the lessons that it taught behind the scenes, the people responsible for the new series have committed a grave transgression. And as a result, the Fraggles have fallen from grace. It’s not that the Fraggles did anything wrong themselves, but they’ve been marked with that original sin, through no fault of their own, and now they can never be free of it. In my view, everything related to Fraggledom from now on is tainted by that rank hypocrisy.

I truly believe that, with one notable exception, everyone involved in making the new Fraggle Rock did so with the best of intentions. They saw everything that is going on in the world, and they thought that maybe Fraggle Rock could help, a new Fraggle Rock designed to address the problems that are prominent in the world today. And they were so eager to get it made and to get it out as soon as possible that they made some compromises that undermined the project’s integrity. I said once that the world needs Fraggle Rock now, and I still believe it. However, I am not convinced that it needs NEW Fraggle Rock, and I am even less convinced that it needs fallen Fraggle Rock.

So I’m not afraid to watch the new series because I think I won’t like it. I’m afraid that it is going to change my perspective on the original series in a negative way. I don’t want to see the prelapsarian Fraggle Rock from a fallen point of view.

More than that, I’m afraid that it WILL make a positive impression on me the way it seems to have on every other Fraggle fan in existence. I’m afraid that I WILL like it in spite of all the concerns that I have outlined here. And if that happens, I will feel like worse than a hypocrite. I will feel disloyal. To be clear: I’m NOT saying that people who like it should feel disloyal; I’m just saying that that’s the way I would feel.

Disloyal to Steve? Yes, partly. But also disloyal to the “real” Fraggles that I am convinced exist somewhere. Maybe in a hole underground. Maybe on an ideal plane. Or maybe just within my own mind.

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