Sometimes the most effective sci-fi and fantasy stories take place in a world that looks like our own, but is different in key ways. Philip Pullman’s hit novel series His Dark Materials takes place in such a world. But the more you get into it, the differences come into sharp focus. After a 2007 film adaptation of Pullman’s novels (The Golden Compass) failed, HBO and the BBC have partnered on a new series from the same material. Read on for more…
HIS DARK MATERIALS: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: An overhead shot of Oxford during The Great Flood, and a helicopter speeds overhead.
The Gist: During the Great Flood, Lord Asriel Belacqua (James McAvoy) brings a baby, his niece Lyra, to the door of Jordan College, and puts her in the hands of Dr. Carne, aka “The Master” (Clarke Peters), and claims she needs “scholastic sanctuary.” “Outside the school, she’s not safe,” Asriel tells The Master.
Twelve years later, we see Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) racing around the college with her friend Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd), who is also an orphan, and their daemons. What are the daemons? Every human’s soul or “inner self” is represented by a daemon, in the form of an animal. During a person’s adolescence, the daemon changes form until it “settles” involuntarily into its final form, signaling the person’s coming of age.
Lyra is an adventurous and defiant child, especially as she takes lessons from Librarian Scholar Charles (Ian Gelder). But when she gets word from her daemon Pantalaimon (Kit Connor) that her uncle Asriel is back from exploring in the north with his daemon Stelmaria (Helen McCrory). She sneaks into The Master’s study and sees that he’s poisoning the wine he’s going to offer Asriel. She jumps out and keeps him from drinking it, telling him its poisoned. He’s happy to see Lyra but isn’t surprised that The Master is trying to kill him. What he found up north is something that the ruling Magisterium doesn’t want people to know.
He presents to the college’s benefactors what he found: A city, hidden in the Northern Lights. He wants more money to explore it further, and gets it over The Master’s and The Librarian’s objections. While he doesn’t trust The Master, Asriel tells the Master to find a place for Lyra outside the college. The wealthy Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) takes Lyra on as her assistant, but she insists that Roger comes with her. When she can’t find Roger, it becomes apparent he’s been grabbed, maybe by the Gobblers, a somewhat mythical group that has been blamed for the disappearances of children in the nomadic Gyptian tribe.
Our Take: There is a lot — a LOT — to wrap your head around when you watch His Dark Materials, especially if you’re unfamiliar with Philip Pullman’s young-adult fantasy novel series. Despite an introductory paragraph that mentions the fact that the world this first episode takes place in is like our world but isn’t, the idea of daemons, the presence of the Magisterium, the witches that challenge the Magisterium, and the child that might change everything, we still found ourselves trying to figure out the world we were looking at.
Perhaps it’s because we just don’t have the mindset for this kind of show. It’s not like we thought HDM was a silly cheesefest like Apple TV+’s See. At least the acting in HDM is excellent and the characters have names we can spell. But there’s just so much we had to send through our “just what the eff is going on?” filter, that we couldn’t give the actual story our full attention and appreciation.
Dafne Keen more than holds her own with McAvoy and Wilson (and, we assume, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who will show up in a subsequent episode) and plays Lyra like the headstrong girl she is, but in a way that makes you believe that she’s trying to break out of her cloistered upbringing. She’s restless; she holds her uncle to his promise to take her on one of his northern missions, and chases his about-to-lift-off airship when she realizes he’s again going to leave without her.
We give showrunner Jane Tranter and her staff credit for making such a complex story as clear as it is, especially as things get more complex in the episodes to come. There’s space to fill in some of the details here and there, like why a particular daemon ends up in the form it ends up in. For instance, Mrs. Coulter’s daemon is a monkey, while Asriel’s is a white tiger. The daemon for Gyptian teen Tony Costa (Daniel Frogston), whose brother Billy (Tyler Howitt) is kidnapped by the Gobblers recently settled into hawk form.
But since we know that kids’ daemon’s switch, it’s hard to follow what Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon is doing; we think she’s a tiny white ferret, then she’s a larger brown weasel (or is that Roger’s daemon?). It may reflect Lyric’s mood, but it’s confusing to uninitiated viewers like us.
Sex and Skin: Nothing.
Parting Shot: Lyra takes off in an airship with Mrs. Coulter, headed to London. Mrs. Coulter promises they’ll set out to find Roger there. Meantime, the Gyptians head down the canal towards London to look for Billy. Then we see Roger in the back of a car, banging on a caged window screaming for help.
Sleeper Star: It’s a compliment to the show’s effects staff to say that we don’t notice that the daemons are CGI. It feels like a completely natural part of this world, whether we see them up close or from far away.
Most Pilot-y Line: Nothing stands out.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Despite some of the confusion about the world’s details, His Dark Materials is still a well-paced, well-acted way into Philip Pullman’s universe.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, FastCompany.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.
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