Wednesday, March 17, 2010

'What's all the fuss about, Sprocket?'

I've been working my way through Season One of Fraggle Rock on DVD. Which, I guess, makes me like a lot of people, in the sense that I'm fascinated by anything that could be considered formative in my development as an adult. When you reach your 30s, you start to wonder how you got here.

Watching the show today, I can say it's fine children's entertainment. Fraggle Rock endeavours to make kids smarter, not just keep them distracted. The over-arching theme of the series is that all things are connected, and therefore, one both depends upon others, and is depending upon by them, for survival. This applies both to one's friends and enemies. For example, the Doozers live to build, but if the Fraggles do not consume what the Doozers build, the cavern in which both races live will run out of space.

Another Fraggle Rock theme is the danger of uninformed perceptions. There's Uncle Travelling Matt, the Fraggle whose adventures in the human world lead him to misunderstand virtually everything he sees, since he interprets all of it through the lens of Fraggle society. Back in the 'Rock, the Fraggles misunderstand the Doozers because the Doozers are so small and different from them, but to the 20-foot Gorgs, who live outside the Rock, Fraggles themselves are puny and strange.

Bringing it all together, in a way, is Sprocket. Sprocket is a sheepdog belonging to Doc, a human tinkerer whose house happens to be the Fraggles' entry point to the human world. Poor Sprocket, being more or less at eye-level with the Fraggles who scurry by him on various missions, tries in every episode to alert his master to their presence, and always fails. He's the only character in Fraggle Rock who sees things with perfect clarity, but he's the one least able to communicate what he knows. Doc is too easily distracted, and besides, Sprocket can't talk; he can only bark.

Well, he does a lot more than bark. Sprocket's puppeteer, Steve Whitmire, moves the dog wildly from frustration to apoplexy and finally, to resignation. Urgent tugging on Doc's pantleg leads to pleading and pointing at the Fraggle his master can't see. Doc misses the cues, then Sprocket's shoulders sag in failure.

When you can't speak, you need to over-compensate. And yet, while Sprocket's gestures are extreme, he's still a physical construct, not an animated one, meaning his reactions cannot exceed the limits of his body. (As opposed to, for example, Daffy Duck, who can be flattened, stretched, or suffer a blasted-off bill). Sprocket's double-takes, freezes in shock, and squirms of pure pleasure--all delivered with perfect timing and theatrical excess--are staples of his comedy, and they are all classically silent. Alongside all the other lessons I owe to Fraggle Rock, let me add this one: it taught me how funny this unspoken artform can be.

1 comment:

  1. Whitmire is brilliant. When he was chosen to perform Kermit I held my breath, but over the years he's not only done Henson proud, but infused Kermit with his own warmth - not merely trying to copy Henson's work.

    I'm a lifelong Muppet fan. *grins*