Having one of your favourite, most out of this world childhood stories come alive on the big screen can feel like a gift but more often than not it turns out to be a double edged sword. If the series is faithful to the books then you know everything that’s coming and it’s only a short matter of time before you’re dying of boredom. If they choose to go off script so to say and make up new plots you run the risk of seeing that author’s legendary work butchered past recognition (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones). Few if any shows get it right. Luckily, His Dark Materials might just be one.
The first episode of the BBC/HBO series aired last weekend on November 3rd/ 4th respectfully, and to the relief of countless anxious fans who have been waiting for the release since rumours of the new series began back in 2015. While the previous two trailers gave us some idea of what to expect from the cast and sets, the question remains how would the classic His Dark Materials trilogy be interpreted and would it actually be worth watching? I mean how do you top Phillip Pullman’s writing? Can it even be done?
Well, it turns out it can. Only by Phillip Pullman that is, and his work on this show.
For one thing the episode doesn’t begin with our main heroine Lyra Belacqua, as we would expect from the first book, The Golden Compass. Instead, Pullman drew the opening scene from his recent prequel series, The Book of Dust, and while Lyra is there she is no more than an adorable little baby Lord Asriel is delivering to the Dean of Jordan College in Oxford during the Great Flood. In the dramatically tense few moments in which the baby changes hands, Asriel invokes the right of scholastic sanctuary to protect the baby, insisting that she’s not safe in the outside world and must be raised at the college. Which is apparently enough of an explanation for a timid looking Dean to just accept that he’s raising a little girl now.
And just like that, whether you read the books or not, you’re hooked. There are questions that need to be answered and something is going down and we are here for it.
Cut to a young Lyra and her dæmon, Pan, racing through the rooftops and laundry rooms of Jordan college with her best friend, Roger, and only cheating a little bit. It’s fair to say that Dafne Keen is the perfect lovable feisty Lyra we always envisioned. The scene were she tricks the soft-hearted librarian into getting out of class so she can see her uncle was like Dennis the Mennis meets Anne of Green Gables, and just adorable as it sounds.
From there, it looks like the episode is echoing the starting scenes of the 2007 Golden Compass movie, or so we think. As Lyra is spying into the meeting room she sees the wine the butler brought specifically for her uncle being poisoned, but not by some shadowy figure, but by the Dean of Jordan College himself. Remember? That old softy who has raised Lyra all these years is actually a cold-blooded assassin, or something like that. Whatever other surprises lie in store for Lyra and us, it’s clear this is pretty a cut-throat world we’ve wandered into.
Thankfully, Lyra stops Asriel before he can take a sip and as his version of a reward Asriel recruits her to be his spy and to hide and watch the faces in the room, especially when Dust is mentioned. Dust in this world refers to elementary particles, and the theocratic Magisterium that rules over everyone considers it blasphemy to even mention. So when Asriel presents his new discovery to the other scholars their shock and outrage live up to his ominous directions to Lyra. Asriel’s expedition to the North was to study the Northern Lights/ Aurora Lights and by doing so he has shown that not only does Dust not settle on children, but that through it he has found it to reveal a city in the sky, a myriad of parallel worlds. Worlds which the Magisterium does not control. As is typical in academic situations, the room erupts in protest over this new and dangerous discovery. But James McAvoy plays a striking Lord Asriel as he makes very clear: there is a war coming. It’s between those want to live in ignorance and men like them who seek knowledge, and it’s time to pick a side.
They choose Asriel.
Although, to be fair, he really put the final nail in that coffin when he threw their associate, Grumman’s frozen head onto the table. Grumman discovered the properties of Dust as well, and the Magisterium was not thrilled about it. If nothing else, this season is going to be killer if Asriel keeps up this flair for the dramatic.
On the other side of the college the Gyptians are celebrating one of their children,Tony, whose dæmon has settled into a hawk, and marked him as a full man. In all the excitement and festivities Tony’s little brother Billy wanders off and is bound and taken by some mysterious man. Lyra however cannot focus on this new mystery or the rumours that the Gobblers took him, not when her uncle is leaving her once again, off again to the North. Of course, as we see, Asriel knows he has no choice, the Magisterium is onto him already and it’s time to move on.
It is the midst of this heartbreak that Lyra meets a new friend: Mrs. Coulter.
Being raised in Jordan College all her life, Lyra has always been surrounded by men. Kind, intelligent men, but not people who look like her. Marisa Coulter is a beautiful, intelligent female scholar, and everything Lyra wants to be, and when she asks Lyra to come on and be her assistant it’s a dream come true. She even allows agrees to let Lyra bring Roger with her, and when Roger coincidentally goes missing before she can tell him the news Lyra’s hero worship of Mrs. Coulter doesn’t let her connect the dots. In fact, she believes Mrs. Coulter when she assures her they will find him once they’re in London.
But we’re not the only one concerned about Lyra putting her faith into this obvious wolf in sheep’s clothing. Before her bon voyage the Dean and the Librarian sneak a meeting with Lyra to pass on the alethiometer, a rare but forbidden device that resembles a golden compass and is used to find the truth. They tell her to keep it safe and to guard her own council, as they know she is the child of the prophecies and she has a long and difficult road ahead. Although, at the moment, that crown goes to Roger, who ends the episode screaming in a cage.
As far as first episodes go, this was delivered on our every expectation and even surpassed others. Besides the perfectly strong-willed Lyra, and the chilling Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel’s character is more engrossing than he was in the film. Instead of being stoic he’s not only brave and brilliant in this new series, but through almost every scene from tucking her into bed to the postcards we know he’s tender and protective of Lyra, and is primarily concerned for her safety. These small moments of care bring a new depth to the character and make his role more dynamic than we expected. And this was just the first episode.
Flitting between scenes of humour and horror this isn’t an episode you can feel at ease watching and it’s not supposed to be. This is a start of a grand and perilous adventure, and there are still witches, armoured bears, hot air balloons, and Lin-Manuel Miranda to look forward to. From what we’ve seen so far, it seems like this season will be well worth the watch.