This post originally appeared on Marni’s blog Just For The Halibut
Marni Hill – Just about everyone has a TV show they remember fondly from their childhood. I myself have great memories of watching a programme that was very popular in Australia at the time called The Saddle Club. It was innocent enough, about three teenagers sharing their love of riding horses while dealing with the challenges of growing up. Although, there was that particular heart-breaking episode where one of my favourite horses had to be euthanized due to him breaking his leg.
I’ve always suspected that shows especially catered to children are a lot more difficult to write than they may seem at first. There are so many boundaries that can’t be crossed when your main audience is far too young to comprehend certain aspects of life. You generally can’t discuss birth, sex or death unless it’s done symbolically, and the bigger issues in life are left very much alone. But of course, there will always be some exceptions to these unwritten rules of ethics. Some kid’s shows completely ignore status quo altogether, then proceed to set up their own standards.
Are any of us really surprised that a Jim Henson production was one of them? Fraggle Rock was created and produced by adults who wanted to relate to children in a very mature, grown up way. By doing so, Fraggle Rock was able to introduce children to broader, deeper morals, issues and facets of life that the average Saturday morning cartoon simply didn’t have the maturity to do. The following episodes are examples of clever writing, and a sense of boldness to take things a step further that only the Henson team could possess.
Listed in broadcast order:
- Wembley and the Gorgs (Season 1, Ep 2)
It seems to be Wembley Fraggle who is thrown into the deep-end the most often. Considering he’s easily the youngest and most naïve of the Fraggle Five, I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising. Wembley still has a lot to learn about the world. The fourth and final season of Fraggle Rock seemed to have it out for him the most, but even earlier episodes were determined to throw him curveballs.
Within the first 10 episodes of the first season of the show, Wembley faced the first of many big lessons. During Wembley and the Gorgs, said Gorgs enslaved said Fraggle because he was fooled into thinking that the Gorgs truly appreciated the respect he was showing them. Wembley was just trying to please the Gorgs just as he would any Fraggle, because that is the type of Fraggle he is. Wembley just wants his friends to be happy, especially if they are treating him nicely in return. During the failed daring rescue by the rest of the Fraggle Five, Wembley is forced to find a reason in favour of his friends not getting thumped to death. Luckily, he manages to list all of the best qualities of each Fraggle with the simple conclusion that, “They deserve to live!”
Eventually, the Fraggle Five manage to make their escape. Once safely back in the Rock, Gobo and Wembley close off the episode in their cavern, with Wembley tiredly remarking, “I guess sometimes slavery feels like freedom.”
If this was any other kids show, there would have been a much bigger conflict, a lot more emphasis and an entire monologue about the importance of not blindingly following people who seem to be authority figures, and what it truly means to be free. Is a slave still a slave if they are happy? The answer is probably a big, fat YES! Of course they are!
Just how many shows can you think of that blatantly asks kids such mature questions? I don’t think the concept of slavery masquerading as freedom was even taught to me until I was in Year 11 History. I was 16. Fraggle Rock is supposedly geared towards 6-12 year olds (I say ‘supposedly’ because I can name plenty of adults who still watch it). It is clear, that straight off the bat, Fraggle Rock was determined to live up to Jim Henson’s philosophy of not talking down to, but rather talking to children on their own level.
- Marooned (Season 1, Ep 17)
Boober Fraggle is a character most people wouldn’t care to admit they can relate to on a personal level. The main reason for this is because, out of the main Fraggle Five, Boober probably has the most common, and sadly, the most realistic outlook on life. If there is anything Boober is sure of, it’s that death and laundry are utterly unavoidable. There’s no question that Boober is the most adult character, even beating out Gobo’s usually rational mindset. Of course, he wouldn’t be a Fraggle if he didn’t have some kind of quirk, and in Boober’s case, it’s his paranoia, hypochondria and the blatant stubbornness when it comes to leaving his comfort zone. Everything is hopeless. Doom is inevitable.
So you can imagine Boober’s utter chagrin when he is teamed up with the extroverted Red Fraggle in order to go and get his birthday wisdom from The Trash Heap. Marjorie urges him through song to let go of his worries and to just ‘go with the flow’. Boober and Red’s excursion into the Spiral Caverns simply reminds them both that they have nothing in common. Of course, as luck would have it, they come across a Falling Rock zone and end up being tunneled into a collapsed cave. So now, two characters who can barely stand each other, have to keep one another calm and hope that the Greater Forces will assist their friends in rescuing them before their oxygen runs out. It’s not all bad though. Red comes to admit that she is often scared and Boober manages to keep a level head despite his claustrophobia.
While this scenario is merely a variant of a common TV troupe, the song ‘The Friendship Song’, and the conversation following it, touches upon death in a much deeper tone than most children’s programmes would dare. They seem to recognise that death is imminent, you’ll never know when it could happen and you can only really hope that the people you love will be by your side when it comes about. Dave Goelz and Karen Prell give a very emotional performance, just as touching as it is heart-breaking. Every small movement made by the two Fraggles shows a level of vulnerability that even a great writer like Jerry Juhl would not be able to convey in words.
Red: What do you think it’s like- to die?
Boober: I don’t know Red. I don’t think anybody does.
Happily, everything works out perfectly in the end. The rescue team gets Boober and Red out of the cave just in the nick of time and the two are able to move on with a new appreciation for each other.
- The River of Life (Season 4, Ep 3)
All hail, Boober and Sprocket!
Environmental episodes of any given show always come with the same message- nature is precious and if we don’t do our bit to take care of the world properly, we are all doomed! This message is not the reason why this particular episode has made the list, but rather the intricate, quiet and heart-wrenching way the three ‘worlds’ of Fraggle Rock are shown to be on the brink of devastation. Water from Outer Space is just as important as the radishes from the Gorg’s Garden. Doc’s battle with temptation puts three other species at risk in a ripple-effect that if not corrected, will have devastating consequences.
Luckily for the Rock, there were two unwitting heroes who unknowingly worked in tandem. The first saviour is Sprocket, who, terrified for his friends behind the wall does his best to deter Doc from signing the contract that would lead to complete contamination of the Rock’s water supply. Why would Sprocket care about the money when there are the lives of the creatures he adores at stake? If only Doc could understand that there’s life beyond that hole in the workshop!
Meanwhile, Boober Fraggle, our second hero, is concerned by a strange smell coming from the water. Junior Gorg’s precious radishes have turned rotten after a watering, Ma and Pa are going for a frolic in the creek and the Fraggles are determined to beat the heat with a good swim. To Boober’s horror, he realizes something is terribly wrong and tries to warn his fellow Fraggles before it is too late, but alas, they have already dipped themselves into the pollution. With every Fraggle in the Rock bogged down with a throat rot, Boober is the only one left standing- the only one who can save the day!
Back in the workshop, after a brief argument, Doc gives Sprocket an ultimatum; if he can prove the existence of life beyond the hole in the wall, Doc won’t sign the contract with the waste disposal company. Sprocket’s begging here was crucial, as it buys Boober more time to come to the same conclusion- let the Silly Creatures know that the Rock is there. After determining this wasn’t the fault of the Gorgs, who else could be at fault?
As this is a Season 4 episode, it is arguable that the time had finally come for Boober to finish off his character arc. Everything he had come to learn about being brave and embracing his fears was now being put to the test. Well, I’m glad to say that Boober came through beautifully, despite his impulses to shove himself into a rock and hope that it all works itself out. With Sprocket still begging and stalling, Boober edges towards the hole in the wall with a plea that Dave Goelz pulls off in one of his greatest performances. The plea is full of pain and sadness from a simple little Fraggle who doesn’t want to die.
But this is Fraggle Rock, so of course this all ends happily! Boober comes to the conclusion that the Silly Creatures are mad because Gobo had been ‘stealing’ his Uncle’s postcards, so he gathers them all and places them at the hole in order to return them. This of course, leads to Doc discovering that there may be life behind the wall after all and immediately tears up the contract, much to Sprocket’s joy and relief! Fresh water is flushed into the Rock and the Fraggles (somehow instantly) regain their health and all is right with the universe once more.
- Gone, but Not Forgotten (Season 4, Ep 7)
Death is a topic that most kid’s shows will either try to avoid or simply allude to, and if they do decided to breech the topic, it’s done in a much more diluted way. Very few shows are brave enough to tackle it head on. As I mentioned earlier in Marooned, Boober and Red openly discussed death, but Fraggle Rock took it one step further in this episode by having Mudwell the Mud Bunny die on-screen right in front of the show’s most innocent character. Wembley, once again, has a dark fact of life shoved right under his nose- and he has absolutely no idea how to deal with it.
The entire episode explores Wembley’s ‘coming of age’ as it were, beginning with his first ever solo overnight hike. Wembley proves to be forward-thinking by being absolutely prepared for anything he might come across, bringing his maps, pick-axe, change of shirt and….cookies!
Unfortunately though, none of these essential items are useful in the event of a rock-fall burying and knocking you unconscious.
And that’s where Mudwell the Mud Bunny, the rarest creature in the world comes in. He rescues Wembley and nurses him back to health. The two bond over their love for certain games and joke around all night. They seem to be a perfect pair of friends. The next morning, however, Mudwell rudely dismisses a very confused and rattled Wembley from his cavern. Wembley returns to his friends feeling incredibly distraught about the whole thing, but after opening up about it (only after Gobo sits on him), Gobo suggests he return and confront Mudwell. When Wembley does exactly that, it turns out that Mudwell had a very good reason for doing what he did. His mud life-cycle had finally come to pass and it was time for him to return to the clay. Before Wembley can grasp what was happening, Mudwell lies down and dies.
It’s not as if characters haven’t died onscreen during other children’s programmes. Much like in Marooned, it was the way Wembley learns to deal with the death of a friend that sets it apart. Wembley’s puppeteer, Steve Whitmire does a brilliant job of guiding the character through four of the five stages of grief. At first Wembley is in denial, then Boober tries to help him deal with his anger through a screaming session. By the time Mokey sets up her weird death ceremony, Wembley is deep into the depression stage. It’s not until after a hilarious chat with the World’s Oldest Fraggle that Wembley finally starts to accept that Mudwell is gone.
Where Marooned contemplated the death of oneself, Gone but Not Forgotten contemplates the appropriate way to say goodbye in the event of a death of another. The entire thing is very confronting, but it teaches kids (and perhaps adults too) that death doesn’t mean the people you love will stop being a part of you once they’re gone. There’s also a wonderful lesson in accepting that grieving can take a lot of time, and that’s okay. That if anything, is one of the most important messages a show could bring to its audience, regardless of the demographic.
- The Gorg Who Would Be King (Season 4, Ep 22)
What exactly is out there in the universe? How big is it? How wide? How far? Junior Gorg certainly wants to know! The universe does exist, but does Junior understand it enough to be able to rule it as King effectively? The Nirvana Tree losing the last of its leaves is the least of Junior’s problems!
Eating the last Nirvana leaf in his panicking causes Junior to shrink down to Fraggle-size. Unsurprisingly, he is mistakenly chased by his parents down into Fraggle Rock and the third phase of the show’s ultimate interconnection comes to pass. The first two phases were Uncle Travelling Matt breaking the boundaries by heading into Outer Space, and then Sprocket finding his way into the Rock later on. These actions were the beginning of all three ‘worlds’ coming to recognise their dependence on each other; something I will touch on in another article.
And surprise, surprise, guess which Fraggle happens to be the one to help Junior out?
For the third time on this list, Wembley is a key figure in the show’s exploration of deeper themes. But this time, instead of being the student, Wembley is the one offering guidance. After his experience of dealing with death (and breaking the racial boundaries between Fraggles and Doozers), it seems that the Fraggle who was so innocent and impressionable in the beginning is now ready to pass on his hard-earned wisdom to another character who was just as naïve, if not more so.
After finally meeting The Trash Heap, a funky song about standing alone and a very informative chat with Cotterpin Doozer, Junior finally understands! The Fraggles rely on the radishes grown in the Gorg’s Garden for food, the Doozers also need the radishes in order to fulfil their life’s work of building, which of course the Fraggles eat, which clears the way for more Doozer structures to be made, giving the Doozers their reason for living. Even if it took a while for Junior to realise, he and his parents need the Fraggles for friendship, which pretty much brings everything to full circle.
I honestly can’t think of a world in another kid’s show that is just as carefully thought through and put together. Junior seems to agree, and after saving the entirety of the Rock from being blown up by Pa, he scolds both of his parents for their narrow-mindedness and not bothering to step back and actually see the bigger picture. How many kids have wanted to do exactly that? Plenty! But they don’t because that type of confrontation is seen as very adult.
If any episode of Fraggle Rock is a perfect example of why the show’s writers have my absolute respect, it’s this one. Writer Laura Phillips (who funnily enough, also wrote Gone, but Not Forgotten), finished Junior’s story arch on a high note that can only be applauded for looking past any cliché traps that most other shows would have fallen into. Instead of taking the Crown and vowing to be a kind ruler, Junior accepts it, then immediately ends the reign of the Gorgs and the ignorance that comes with having leaders that don’t bother to look further than their own noses. Junior finally understands the universe and the Gorg crown becomes nothing more than what Doc misinterprets as an oddly shaped meteorite.