'His Dark Materials' Gets Off to a Slow but Promising Start in the Premiere (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for His Dark Materials Episode 1, "Lyra's Jordan."]
The conclusion of Game of Thrones has left a gap in the market for prestige TV fantasy drama, and HBO is hoping to fill that hole with the wondrous His Dark Materials. It's another multi-layered adventure adapted from a popular book series, though one that is less beheadings and incest and more airship blimps and talking animals.
I'll admit up front to not having read the Phillip Pullman novels from which the series is based on. I'm coming into this series as a complete neophyte. However, I am aware that His Dark Materials is highly regarded, especially for its fantastical world-building and vivid imagery. I'm also conscious of the fact that, while family-friendly, the books deal with some meaty, intellectual themes and deep theological arguments—elements entirely absent from the 2007 movie adaptation, The Golden Compass, which I have seen and did not rate.
It's safe to say the first episode of Jack Thorne's (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) adaptation is far more arresting and weighty than The Golden Compass—even if it is mostly an hour of table-setting. We don't get a true sense of just how expansive this universe is yet, as all the talk of mystical energies and other worlds is restricted to closed-door chatter and grainy photographs. This very much feels like the journey before the journey. Still, the premiere has a lovely steampunk-ish vibe, with blimp-shaped airships hovering above the looming spires of Oxford's art deco-inspired architecture.
Running across the rooftops of those impressive buildings is Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), a rebellious orphan girl who was put into the care of Jordan's College when she was a baby. Keen brings the character to life with charismatic energy, proving that her impressive film debut in the Wolverine send-off Logan was no fluke. Lyra is an agent of mischief, inquisitive and cunning, and above all else, daring. She is both a nuisance and a charm to the stuffy teachers of Jordan's College, where she was granted "scholastic sanctuary" (an ancient tradition that protects individuals and educational institutions from persecution).
Lyra is also an adventurer and is endlessly fascinated with tales from the North—an obsession which only grows stronger when her uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), returns to Oxford with newfound discoveries. The commanding Asriel claims to have evidence of a mysterious substance called Dust, which perhaps holds the gateway to hidden cities in the night sky. These bold assertions cause panicked whispers amongst the scholars of Jordan's College as they threaten to topple society. The claims are of particular concern to the Magisterium, the ruling Church authority, which denounces heresy.
Despite Asriel's refusal to bring Lyra with him as he travels back North, she is drawn into the conspiracy nonetheless, almost as if it's her destiny, which, according to an old witch's prophecy, is very much the case. It's made abundantly clear throughout the episode: Lyra is important. And when her best friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) suddenly disappears—perhaps related to a series of child snatchings at the hands of the covert Gobblers—she sets about on a journey of her own to find out more.
Guiding Lyra on her expedition is the curious Mrs. Coulter (an enigmatic Ruth Wilson), the most glamorous member of the Magisterium. An adventurer in her own right, Mrs. Coulter is clever and classy but somewhat of a puzzle. She shares an affection and kinship with Lyra, and her promise to help her on her mission appears heartfelt. But there is something forbidding lurking behind her spellbinding smile. Her kindly demeanor masks a dangerous ambition, and right now, it's unclear whether she's attempting to overthrow the regime or working on its behalf.
The other big selling point of the series—and cause for concern—is the daemons. As explained in the pre-credits info-dump, in this world, each human has a talking animal companion (called a "daemon") which represents their soul. These animals can change form until eventually settling once a child reaches puberty. This conceit could have come across poorly or cartoonish on TV, but, for the most part, the daemons comfortably fit into the story without being distracting. It helps that the CGI is reasonably impressive. The creatures are not hyper-realistic, but they're rendered well-enough to be expressive. Lyra's daemon, Pan, is particularly effective when in weasel form, and Mrs. Coulter's golden monkey is brilliantly menacing.
The entire concept of daemons is fascinating once you get past the initial "look at the cute polecat" stage. It allows for self-reflection and self-discovery as characters essentially grapple with their own conscience every time they converse with their animal counterparts. It fills you with hope that this version of His Dark Materials is going to burrow into the themes present in Pullman's work. Not just the exploration of self, but the quest for truth (and the control of truth), orthodoxy, religious and government censorship, and challenging the status quo (all topics brought to light by Asriel's discoveries).
It's a solid season opener, even if we've only just begun to scratch the surface of the story's potential. As I mentioned previously, we don't yet have a real sense of the show's universe, as the majority of the episode is spent in Oxford at Jordan's College—which makes it feel a little bit Harry Potter-lite at times. And some of the concepts, like Dust and daemons, are somewhat hard to grasp for a novice. It reminds me of HBO's Watchmen, which can be similarly baffling to newcomers at times, though at least that series has a brand new story at its core, which provides a hook outside of the comic book references—whereas His Dark Materials is working almost entirely from the book.
However, as the story moves out of Oxford and into the larger world, I hope the series not only finds the time for explanations but also creates a genuine sense of wonder, the kind of which is praised so highly in Pullman's work.
-Another mysterious element to get our heads around is the Golden Compass, which is given to Lyra by the school's Master, Dr. Carne (Clarke Peters). It's a compass which apparently guides one towards the truth, though the fact it came from the Master, who tried to poison Lyra's uncle, makes the item questionable at best.
-I'm not quite sure what to make of the Gyptians storyline just yet. There's some fantastic actors involved, including Anne-Marie Duff (Shameless UK), James Cosmo (Game of Thrones), and Lucian Msamati (also Game of Thrones), but it felt very "distracting side-plot," especially now we know the Gobblers weren't behind Roger's disappearance (he's seen caged up aboard the airship at the end of the episode).
His Dark Materials, Mondays, 9/8c, HBO