‘Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock’ Relied on a ‘Fraggle Gaggle’ of Voices to Revive Beloved Series

Ever since Jim Henson‘s music-filled puppet show “Fraggle Rock” premiered on HBO in 1983, the series’ five seasons built a devoted fan base — and there’s no bigger “Fraggle” fan than writer, director, and producer John Tartaglia, who credits “Fraggle Rock” with inspiring him to become a puppeteer. He first saw the show in a hotel room while traveling with his mom when he was 8, and “it just became an obsession from that moment on,” he told IndieWire. “I wrote a very earnest letter to Jim Henson and told him, ‘When I’m 18, I’m going to move to New York City and I’m going to work for the Muppets.'”

It actually didn’t even take that long — at the age of 16, Tartaglia became the youngest person ever to join the cast of “Sesame Street,” and now he’s the creative force behind Apple TV+’s “Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock.” The series takes advantage of updated technology and addresses issues facing children in the 21st century, but it’s extremely faithful to Henson’s original: the characters look and behave the same, the tone strikes the same chord of heartfelt hilarity, and most importantly, the world and its inhabitants feel personal and handmade; while the show employs some digital technology, it’s so subtly integrated that it’s never noticeable and it certainly never detracts from the pervasive sense of magic that makes “Back to the Rock” so charming.

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“So often with reboots there’s this idea to start again from the ground up,” Tartaglia said. “But in my mind, most of the time, if you’re rebooting something, it’s because people love it. With ‘Fraggle Rock,’ the love of the fans has never gone away, so we already have this amazing core that works. My idea was, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s update it.” To that end, Tartaglia assembled a “Fraggle Gaggle” of everyone working on the new version and several of the original series’ creators, performers, and puppet builders. “We had a big forum where we could talk openly about what worked so well in the original series, and what the original creators would have done differently.”

Tartaglia was liberated by the fact that certain things he thought were sacrosanct were, in fact, areas where the original filmmakers thought they could have done better. “Things where we thought, ‘Oh, you could never touch that,’ they would say, ‘Oh no, we always wanted to make that better,'” Tartaglia said. For example, the original creators always wanted to expand the world of the Gorgs, furry human-sized characters who live just outside of Fraggle Rock, and one of the pleasures of “Back to the Rock” is getting to learn more about the Gorgs and how they live — a development made even more enthralling by technology developed since the first “Fraggle Rock.”

'Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock' Apple TV+ Season 2
‘Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock’Apple TV+

Although the design of the Gorgs — like that of the Fraggles and Doozers (6-inch-tall construction workers who live among the Fraggles) — remains essentially unchanged from the original series, the mechanics of what goes underneath the surface are considerably more advanced. While a human actor performs inside each Gorg, the facial expressions are controlled by a puppeteer who has a far greater range of possibilities than the artists who worked on the original show thanks to more advanced servo motors. “In the early ’80s, when servo technology was still pretty new, you could fit maybe two or three servo motors in a head,” Tartaglia said. “Now they’re so much smaller, and you can fit more in there. With the original Gorgs, the eyes could blink and the mouth could move in only one direction. Now, we can do a mouth that can move in different directions. We can do eyes that move right and left. We can make the upper lids and lower lids separate so you get different expressions.”

The servo motors have allowed for more nuance in the characters at the other end of the size spectrum as well. “The Doozers are all remote control, and you could only get a certain amount of movement out of the originals,” Tartaglia said. “With these little teeny servos now you can get so much more head movement. It’s more dependable, and it lasts longer, and you can program them so they’ll do the same motion over and over again, almost like an animatronic at a theme park.” Although “Back to the Rock” does use digital technology, often to striking effect — as in a dust storm sequence that looks completely realistic — Tartaglia says that the filmmakers try to make everything as tactile as possible in keeping with the spirit of the original show. “We try to do as much as possible in camera. We want that sense of contact that I call ‘the Yoda effect,’ where when you saw Yoda touching Mark Hamill [in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’], you knew that that interaction was real.”

'Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock' Season 2 Apple TV+
‘Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock’Apple TV+

Tartaglia not only writes, produces, and directs on “Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock” but also plays several key characters; though juggling the duties can sometimes be overwhelming, Tartaglia says it’s just a logical extension of the all-consuming love he’s had for “Fraggle Rock” since he was 8. “I don’t realize that I’m wearing all those hats when I’m in it,” he said. “It just makes sense that I’m fixing a puppet over here and then going over to stage something. I don’t know how it would feel to do this for a show I didn’t love so much, but I love and know ‘Fraggle Rock’ so deeply that I get made fun of by the other writers. It’s in my DNA, and I just feel so protective of the world. I love when I go home at the end of the day and feel like I’ve been working at the hardest level.”

All 13 episodes of “Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock” Season 2 are now streaming on Apple TV+.

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