Forty years ago this week, the world was introduced to one of Jim Henson’s most creatively ambitious and deeply personal productions: Fraggle Rock. And thanks to the success of its ongoing follow-up series, Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock, it seems like 2023 is on its way to becoming the Year of the Fraggle. So to mark this milestone anniversary, we here at ToughPigs are embarking on a new five-year project, where we’ll review all 96 episodes of the original series around their 40th anniversaries, taking us all the way to March 2027. Hey, it worked once before, right? So let’s make a Doozer and get right to work!
Original air date: January 10, 1983
Being that I’m writing this for ToughPigs, it’s obvious that I have a passionate interest in Jim Henson and his creative work. But as much as I adore The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock has always been a bit of a blind spot for me. Sure, I know enough about the main characters and a few of the songs, but I haven’t really seen many of the episodes. Shamefully, my DVD box set of the show remains on my shelf, still wrapped. I figured that if I’m going to be part of this long-term series, I should get acquainted with the world of the show, and the best way to do that seemed to start at the very beginning. “Beginnings,” to be exact.
And I have to say, for a 24-minute episode, they really laid a lot of the groundwork for the show in its first episode to be aired. For those who aren’t familiar with it here’s a quick synopsis: Doc decides to turn an unused room into his workshop. Meanwhile, Uncle Matt is cataloging the outer reaches of Fraggle Rock, not realizing that the soon-to-be workshop is just beyond that. He finds a tunnel, which is blocked off. When Doc picks up a crate, the obstruction is removed, and Matt sees a golden opportunity to explore Outer Space, better known as the human world, and Uncle Matt becomes Uncle Traveling Matt as he sets off. He enlists his nephew Gobo to pick up the postcards he sends from his journeys, but there’s danger in doing this, as Doc’s faithful dog Sprocket seems to notice the Fraggles while Doc himself remains oblivious. With assistance from his pals, Wembley, Mokey, Red, and Boober (and a hideous red sphere known to us silly creatures as a ball), Gobo evades Sprocket and retrieves the first postcard.
Unsurprisingly for a first episode, we get a lot of what would help form the show going forward. We get a bit of the personalities of the “Fraggle Five,” including Gobo’s adventurous spirit, Red’s competitive enthusiasm, and Boober’s general fear of most things. We also learn of the importance of Marjory the Trash Heap, who would often help the Fraggles figure things out, and how Sprocket often sees the Fraggles, but Doc doesn’t. Even the Doozers and their love of construction (and appreciation when the Fraggles eat their work, allowing them to build all over again) get a quick glimpse. But on the macro level, it’s not quite as obvious on the outset that all of these worlds depend on each other, and there isn’t a whole lot of social commentary yet, but we’ve got a whole series to explore that. This is about setting up the premise of the show, and I’d say it does that rather well.
While watching this, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must’ve been like to be watching this back in 1983. It certainly feels like it came from Jim Henson. Like Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, it’s rooted quite a bit in the real world thanks to Doc and Sprocket, but so much of it takes place in locations never seen before. You certainly wouldn’t see a celebrity guest star palling around in the Gorgs’ garden. This was kind of a big swing at the time! With The Dark Crystal coming out just weeks before, I wouldn’t blame anyone feeling that Henson was starting to pull away from bringing the fantastic, like an eight-foot-tall bird or an eccentric Nordic gourmand. But here’s the thing: it still feels uniquely Muppet-y. The humor’s still there, the music is fantastic (and entirely original at that), and most notably, the characters feel fully-realized. Who hasn’t felt reluctant to do a big task like Gobo, or felt competitive like Red, or just wanted to hide from it all like Boober?
According to Muppet Wiki, at Muppetfest many years ago, Dave Goelz said about the casting: “They looked at the performers, and picked out our flaws, and made characters out of them.” And that’s what makes it all work: the Fraggles are us. The Gorgs are us. The Doozers are us. Even Marjory’s rat pals Philo and Gunge, strange as it may seem, are us. And once you can see yourself in these characters and worlds, you can absorb the messages they’re trying to convey, and maybe apply them in your own life. But there has to be a first step, and this handles it beautifully. Now that the exposition is out of the way, let’s get ready for five years of deep dives!
Strongest Moment: I love how Uncle Traveling Matt completely ignores Gobo’s hesitancy towards undertaking the arduous task of retrieving postcards, and Gobo just accepts his fate. Not every life-changing decision is an epic moment of choice, but in the end, it makes him all the better for it.
Weakest Moment: For all we do establish, I feel like the Gorgs get shortchanged in this one. We see Junior as a big, lumbering threat to Gobo, but the idea of the show is that none of these “worlds” are bad. Perhaps misguided at times, but never deliberately evil.
MVF (Most Valuable Fraggle): A character that quickly became one of the emotional cores of the show, Gobo enters the series with a bang, and his quest to become a brave explorer of his own begins.
First Appearance Of…: Gobo, Mokey, Wembley, Boober, Red, Doc, Sprocket, Uncle Traveling Matt, Junior Gorg, Marjory the Trash Heap, Philo, Gunge, the Doozers, Outer Space, the postcards, and Fraggles and Fraggle Rock in general. Did I mention this is the first episode?
Most Classic Moment: Uncle Traveling Matt taking those first steps into Outer Space. A recurring segment is born.
Musical Highlight: In addition to being introduced to, well, everything, this episode manages to have not one, not two, but THREE classic Fraggle Rock songs: “Hip Hip Hooray,” “I Seen Troubles,” and a personal favorite, “Follow Me.” It just reaches to that voyager’s heart of mine and says, “I see you and I know you.”
Coolest Puppetry Effect: Oh, to be young in 1983 and see the Doozers for the first time! Sure, there were big Muppets back then like Big Bird and Sweetums, but to see that much articulation in such a small character must’ve been mind-blowing.
Darkest Moment: Boober’s already talking about death and pestilence thanks to his book of superstition. I’m sure he’ll mellow out, right?
Fraggle Lore: According to Uncle Traveling Matt’s journal, Fraggles believe that Fraggle Rock is located at the center of the universe. The name came about because “it is a rock and Fraggles live there.”
Obscure Character Watch: Given that this is the start of the series, we don’t see many obscure characters, but we do get a rare look at Matt’s outfit when he’s not exploring Outer Space. He’s quite the dashing fella!
One More Thing… Since I don’t have a huge base of Fraggle knowledge to go off of, I turned to Muppet Wiki (as I often do) for research. An interesting thing I learned about this episode is that even though it was always planned to air first, they decided to film this in the middle of the production order for season one, so that the Muppet performers could get to know their characters. I think it was the right decision, because the performances feel so natural by this point.
Okay, One More Thing… In English, this episode has been titled both “Beginnings” and “The Beginning…” depending on what format you watch it. But the best one has to be the Japanese title seen below, which translates to, “What Kind of Place is the Outside Land?” It’s a great teaser of the adventure that would unfold.
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by Matthew Soberman – Matthew@ToughPigs.com