This review contains mild spoilers for His Dark Materials: Season 1, which has now aired in its entirety on HBO in the US and BBC One in the UK.
The BBC and HBO co-production of His Dark Materials got off to a strong start this fall, with an opening hour that set an epic tone and impressive visual standard for what was to follow. But the thematically-bare 2007 adaptation had those things going for it as well; the real question this new adaptation faced was whether the showrunners would finally bring the story to life with the same sense of danger, maturity, and grandiosity provided by Philip Pullman’s prose. In that respect, with some storytelling stumbles and concessions made so the story could thrive on a TV budget, the first season of His Dark Materials is largely a success.
The show does a remarkable job in keeping a number of different stories moving forward simultaneously – Lyra’s central quest of rescuing her best friend Roger from the clutches of the Magisterium, Mrs. Coulter’s hunt to recover Lyra, Lord Asriel’s experiments, Lord Boreal’s world-walking machinations – the show smartly chooses how and when to highlight these various stories and by the end, weaves all those threads together into an intriguing web that we’re only just beginning to understand by the end of the first season.
His Dark Materials hits the ground running by building out a rich, textured fantasy world in a relatively short amount of time. Lyra’s alternate reality of daemons, dust, aeronauts, witches, panserbjorn, and aleithiometers never comes at you too quick to understand what you’re being faced with, and some of the mysteries still surrounding the more out-there elements (like a compass that tells the truth) end up making the series all the more engrossing. His Dark Materials is content to show its hand at its own pace and that kind of confidence keeps the show worth coming back to.
What makes Lyra’s fantasy world work especially well is the inspired choice to pull forward story elements from the series’ second novel, The Subtle Knife. His Dark Materials makes no secret of the fact that other worlds exist in the same space at the same time, and that means that our “real world” (tragically devoid of daemons as it is) is also connected to Lyra’s. That brings us to Will Parry. The series’ second protagonist, not introduced until the Subtle Knife, is a huge presence throughout Season 1, a move that will pay dividends later on in terms of storytelling economy. Will’s struggle to maintain a home life with a mentally ill mother ends up grounding the story through its many discussions of souls and prophecies, but in a way that adds perspective to those bigger conflicts.
Of course, Lord Boreal’s ability to walk between Lyra and Will’s worlds and his obsession with Will’s missing father John suggest that Will may have a part to play in the show's overarching prophecy himself. With a few of the key players all seemingly through the looking glass by the end of the season finale, how the events in each of these worlds relate to each other is one of the more exciting mysteries left to unravel as the show moves forward.
His Dark Materials is certainly aimed at a more general audience than HBO’s other recently-concluded fantasy epic, but it never flinches in its bleaker moments. This is a show where children are not safe from soul-destroying kidnappers, where a person can be killed by crushing their adorable animal avatar in the palm of your hand, where a religious government can claim any violation of human decency in the service of an almighty Authority. Like the books, this show may feature kids as lead characters, but that doesn’t make the world(s) they’re moving through any less dangerous.
Dafne Keen does an excellent job of rolling with the emotional ups and downs of Lyra’s journey, channeling both her good humor and her fury in equally compelling measure. Amir Wilson’s Will Parry is far more understated, a kid just trying to do the right thing and keep his family together, but given that Lyra and Will’s paths are destined to cross, these opposing personalities could provide material for some great interplay between Keen and Wilson going forward.
The adult cast are fantastic foils for their younger counterparts. Ruth Wilson has the heaviest lifting to do and her intensity has kept Mrs. Coulter feeling like the most fearsome woman in any world. The hypocrisy of how Coulter treats children other than her own has made Lyra’s disgust with her all the more palpable. James McAvoy is clearly having a blast playing Lord Asriel’s righteous wrath and entitlement, and we accept his radical motivations in part because of how committed McAvoy is to making them feel real. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby provides great comic relief – a smartass Texan Han Solo who genuinely respects Lyra’s spunk and cares about her safety.
His Dark Materials’ first season impresses throughout with its gorgeous production design, visual effects, and music. From the scholarly warmth of Jordan College to the technicolor dreamscape of the frozen North, every locale Lyra travels to feels alive and beautifully realized. Lorne Balfe’s orchestrations give the already grand world of His Dark Materials an even more sumptuous feel, with every faction of characters getting a distinct musical voice. The all-important daemons always feel like real and present characters, as do Iorek Byrnison and the other armored bears.
The daemons do, however, see His Dark Materials straining against its budget in the most obvious way. For as crucial as these second-halves are to the characters of Lyra’s world, there are times when their conspicuous absence distracts, no doubt due to the price it costs to render a VFX animal for each human in a shot. On top of that, the rules of daemons are left murky enough to be convenient to the plot when necessary (like when Lyra needs Pan to become a bird to see over a ridge), but not clear enough to help us understand why Pan couldn’t just transform into an elephant and stomp Mrs. Coulter’s creepy gold monkey to death when they fight.
And while many of His Dark Materials’ successes come from how accurately it adapts the novels, that devotion to the text does lead to some pacing issues. The season’s penultimate episode, “The Fight to the Death,” somewhat derails the stakes after the exciting battle at Bolvangar, and the sea-faring Gyptians that aid Lyra through much of the season don’t really come into their own until episode 5, “The Lost Boy.”
His Dark Materials’ first season is a confident, exciting fantasy adventure, full of weighty threats to its lead characters and stakes that reverberate through its multiple worlds. Even though there are times when the scope of the story slightly exceeds the bounds of what its budget is capable of, the BBC and HBO have done an impressive job giving Lyra’s (and Will’s) adventures the adaptation they deserve.