Why you should catch up with His Dark Materials
James R | On 22, Dec 2019
Season 3 premieres at 7pm on Sunday 18th December 2022. This is a spoiler-free review based on Season 1 of His Dark Materials.
“Time may change me, but I can’t trace time,” wrote Davie Bowie in 1971. Almost 50 years on and the changes that happen to us as we grow up are as painful, joyful, eye-opening and universal as they were then. Pretty soon now, everyone’s gonna get older, and there’s not a jot we can do about it. It’s a hard truth to tell a child, but that’s where His Dark Materials stands apart from so many fantastical works of fiction: Philip Pullman’s remarkable trilogy of novels isn’t just about kids unearthing a world of surprises, but also the very question of coming of age, from innocence and puberty to self-awareness and the freedom of self-determination. It’s Garden of Eden-level stuff, made all the more striking by its fiercely atheist philosophy. CS Lewis, it ain’t. In short, it’s not the kind of thing that you casually bring to the screen.
Chris Weitz found that to his peril in 2007, when the feature film The Golden Compass hit cinemas to decidedly underwhelmed reaction. The underrated, but misjudged, blockbuster trimmed the anti-religious undercurrent, leaving fans unsatisfied and newcomers nonplussed. Rest assured, though, that the BBC and HBO have made no such mistake in their lavish, eight-part adaptation of the first book, Northern Lights. Scripted by Jack Thorne, it clings close to Pullman’s original text, both in word and spirit, resulting in a complex, challenging but immensely satisfying watch.
We begin in Oxford, but not as we know it, where young orphan Lyra (Dafne Keen) chooses to run away from books and instead spend her days atop Jordan College’s rooftops with her best friend, Roger. But things are conspiring just on the edge of her understanding: children are going missing, snatched by mysterious figures that whispered rumours call “gobblers”; her uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), is carrying out outlandish research that people are willing to kill for; and at all times, the church state, called the Magisterium, rule over the country with a stern gaze. In between them stands the charming Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), whose role in all this is yet to be revealed (unless you’ve read the books), but promises to whisk Lyra away to safety.
Dafne Keen is brilliantly cast as Lyra, bringing an adventurous fierceness that’s kept in check by an endearing innocence. Like all children, she initially depends upon the grown-ups around her to make sense of the world, blindly trusting their explanation of events. The journey she goes on navigates not only the treacherous waters of heresy and magic, but also the even more dangerous path of discovery and knowledge, as she longs to learn more about what’s going on for herself.
The adults are also note-perfect. An enigmatic McAvoy brings conviction and gravitas to the formidable but noble Asriel, who recruits Lyra to spy for him with a conspiratorial twinkle, albeit not enough of one to stop him feeling estranged and unknowable. The show is stolen, though, by Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter, who is imperious and charismatic to everyone she meets. She doesn’t walk through this universe; she glides, adorned in gorgeously designed costumes that pick her out in any room. Only behind closed doors does that facade fade ever so slightly, as we glimpse a pang of melancholy or worry – elements of what’s to come brought to the character from the off by Wilson’s magnetic, rounded presence.
That ability to insert future revelations into current concerns is the kind of storytelling Jack Thorne excels at. From Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to Let the Right One In and A Christmas Carol on stage to This Is England and The Fades on screen, he’s a master of condensing complex details into tiny chunks, then peppering them throughout the script without sacrificing pace or character. The important object that is the Alethiometer, for example, enters early on but doesn’t distract from the plot, while Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) is our portal to another existence where we meet Will Parry (Amir Wilson), one of the stars of book number two.
The only exception is an exposition dump at the outset, which is perhaps unavoidable to make clear one crucial detail of Pullman’s novels: humans in this world are always accompanied by dæmons, animal companions that are essentially manifestations of their souls. Lyra’s dæmon is Pan (voiced by Kit Connor), and mostly takes the form of an ermine, but can shape-shift until she becomes an adult, then will settle into a fixed form. (Coulter’s dæmon is a shimmering, golden monkey.)
Dæmon’s are central to the themes of maturity and identity, weaving the fantastical elements of His Dark Materials with something more grounded and human, and director Tom Hooper gets the look of them just right. The expensive budget is put to good use rendering the believable backdrop of this other-worldly Oxford (complete with blimps and armoured bears), but His Dark Materials starts consciously small: the majority appears to have been devoted to the CGI bringing these creatures to life, and they flit through the frame seamlessly, interacting with their humans with a tangible, corporeal feel. (Many of the extras notably don’t have visible dæmons, perhaps because there is a limit to said budget, but the central cast are compelling enough to stop that being a distracting concern.)
The opening episodes do a huge amount of heavy lifting in a short space, with each of these elements given just enough time to form the foundations for reaching much higher. From Lyra’s friendship with Roger to Mrs. Coulter’s all-knowing guidance, as she tries to shape Lyra into a woman who can stand up to a patriarchal institution, every detail convinces, rooted in Keen’s quicksilver curiosity.
The word “Dust” keeps blowing about, each time adding intrigue to this fascinating world. That spell only becomes more compelling as the chapters unfolds – bookended by teasing opening titles that will delight fans of the books – and Lorne Balfe’s grand soundtrack swells in scale to fit the escalating drama. The result is an epic adaptation of a daunting piece of literature that refuses to imitate any other franchise; this unique piece of fantasy TV has the ambition of Game of Thrones, the mythology of Narnia and the scope of The Lord of Rings, but with a soul that’s all its own. Staying faithful to its source for all eight episodes, this start of a mammoth trilogy promises to stand the test of time.
Where to watch online in the UK:
– “It’s been quite a journey to get here,” Lyra tells Lord Asriel, when she finally catches up with him in the final episode of His Dark Materials. She’s not kidding: not only has she gone from the relative safety of Oxford all the way to icy climbs Bolvanger and beyond, but she’s also learnt that Asriel is her father, not her uncle, and that Mrs Coulter is her mother. Neither have been honest with her since her birth, only reinforcing her need, and her drive, to make it on her own – and make sense of everything on her own. Dafne Keen has been remarkable at capturing every step of that steep learning curve, from the pride of discovering Asriel is her father to her anger at him not being the hero she imagined – the act of betrayal that the prophecy predicted for Lyra turned out to be unwittingly bringing BFF Roger to Asriel, only for him to kill him by separating him from his dæmon.
– Separating people from dæmons is the secret work of the General Oblation Board (the “GOB”lers), run by Mrs Coulter. Ruth Wilson, brilliantly, conveys the conflict at the heart of her quest, as she tries to rid the world of the original sin that is Dust, which descends upon people once they hit puberty and their dæmons stop shape-shifting. On the way hand, it’s an attempt to make the world better for her daughter – but, when Lyra sneaks into their factory in snowbound Bolvanger to rescue Billy Costa and Roger, she’s scared enough about the actual harm her quest causes to stop Lyra going anywhere near the severing blade.
– The reveal of Billy Costa post-operation as a “ghost” in a nearby village marks a slight change from the book – not only has the zombified Billy replaced another character, but he also isn’t holding a fish in an attempt to replace his dæmon – but the tragedy of what happens to those who are severed only grows in weight over each episode. “I like that you changed my life,” says Roger to Lyra, before Asriel whisks him away. Even the grown-up Sister Clara (Morfydd Clark), who has been severed, is eerily detached and borderline brainwashed.
– Lyra’s battle to liberate Bolvanger also introduces the key player of aeronaut Lee Scorseby. Lin-Manuel Miranda proves to be perfect casting as the gung-ho mercenary, knowing the difference between what’s wrong and right, but also knowing what he’s worth. His interactions with witch queen Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) spark with a fun chemistry, and his banter with King Iorek Byrnison is also a joy.
– Speaking of which, a shout-out has to go to Iorek. Voiced by Joe Tandberg, the armoured bear has a wonderfully moving arc, given he’s a CGI polar bear, going from drunken and disgraced as a village blacksmith to taking on rival armoured bear Iofur in a fight cunningly orchestrated by Lyra. The decision to focus on Dafne Keen’s intrepid hero when Iorek rips Iofur’s jaw off, so we don’t see it happen, only added to the visceral brutality of their ritual combat, reminding us that, while Iorek and Lyra have an intimate bond, he’s still a hulking, violent bear. Where The Golden Compass failed to make its action convincing in search of a family-friendly certificate, His Dark Materials’ restrained use of blood makes it all the more effective here (see also: Serafina saving Lyra with a lethal show of power during the battle of Bolvanger).
– The other major difference between His Dark Materials and The Golden Compass is how it’s already thinking in terms of more than one season: rather than go with a straight book-by-book adaptation, Thorne’s screenplay brings The Subtle Knife in parallel with Northern Lights – a natural step for a show about multiple universes.
– Whether other shows might just tease a fragment of The Subtle Knife’s set-up, His Dark Materials (note the title) gives Amir Wilson his fair share of screentime to make an impact as Will, establishing him as a worthy future protagonist, given his resilience in the face of bullying and determination to help his mother, Elaine (Nina Sosanya). Nina also gets the chance to do more with Elaine than in the original book, really capturing her mental health struggles and her uncertainty (and strength) in the face of the cunning Lord Boreal, who is seeking Will to find out more about his father, who has also travelled between worlds. Even the difference between Lyra’s and Will’s worlds are strikingly subtle, with Will’s recognisably ours and notably not populated with dæmons (Lord Boreal’s snake briefly appearing is a creepy touch.)
– With Will on the run from the police after accidentally killing an intruder working for Lord Boreal (who’s seeking letters from Will’s dad about his arctic explorations), it’s perhaps inevitable that he should stumble upon a gap between universes – and, with nowhere else to go, steps through at exactly the same time Lyra does, as she goes after Asriel (who uses the energy from Roger’s intercision to open up a bridge between worlds). It’s a moving, tantalising, thrilling conclusion that leaves you desperate for Season 2.