Many years ago I read the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman and got really sucked into his alternative universes/religious dogma narrative. I was super excited to see that the BBC/HBO had decided to make this into a TV series after the less than stellar film adaptation so I dived straight in and watched it as it was released one episode as a time.
Lyra (Dafne Keen) lives in a universe where humans are connected to “daemons” who appear in the form of animals and act as a kind of out of body soul. Lyra has spent all of her young life at Jordan College in Oxford where she was left by her uncle, explorer Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). Lyra explores the college with her best friend, Roger (Lewin Lloyd) and dreams of adventure.
A visit from Lord Asriel, who has been investigating the mysterious substance “dust” sets off a series of events that sees Lyra meeting the powerful Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson), Roger, along with a number of Gyptian children disappearing and Lyra being entrusted with a priceless artefact.
Now Lyra will have to go on a bold and terrifying journey that will involve armoured bears, witches, aeronauts and discovering that everything she thought was true might have been a lie.
In the meantime Magesterium official, Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) has been crossing over worlds and investigating Will Parry (Amir Wilson). Will’s father went missing when he was very young and may have had some important information Boreal needed. Information he’ll stop at nothing to get.
I thought the world-building in His Dark Materials was excellent, as was the casting and performances. Dafne keen is wonderfully plucky as Lyra but manages to keep her vulnerability and her drive to love and be loved intact. Ruth Wilson brings real intensity and malice to Mrs Coulter, who is a complex and frightening character and McAvoy is great as the laser focused Asriel. The supporting characters are great too. The Magisterium officials are creepy and sinister, the Gyptians are earthy and bold. I loved Lin-Manuel’s Lee Scoresby and Joe Tandberg voicing Iorek Byrnison.
I felt like the efforts to make it Game of Thrones-like, from the theme song to the way it was shot was too obvious. The story stands up on its own without needing to be a version of something else. I also wanted the daemons to be a bit more obvious and present. I am not sure that viewers who had not read the books would understand just how important and ubiquitous the daemons are in Lyra’s world. I get that it was probably a CGI nightmare but it is pretty much critical. I imagine that Will’s story will become more exciting in the second season but I was much less interested in him than in Lyra.
The main themes of the show are very much around the control of information, who sets the value of an individual and on how the loss of innocence in adulthood strips away one’s humanity. There’s also a look at the nature of sin and whether right and wrong are absolute and who determines those concepts.
All of that said I would still highly recommend this to any fantasy fans. It’s a far better interpretation of this universe than the film and I was left on tenterhooks desperate for the second season after a brutal cliffhanger.