His Dark Materials Recap: “Lyra’s Jordan”

His Dark Materials Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials (BBC/HBO)

HBO & the BBC’s lavish adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy series is off to a fine, visually stunning start.

Let me start with a full disclosure: I’ve never read Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials series. I have a passing familiarity with the plot, inasmuch as it’s a sort of flip side to C.S. Lewis’ pro-Christianity Chronicles of Narnia (which I did read, albeit long ago, before the dawn of time). I saw the ill-fated 2007 film adaptation of the first book in the series, The Golden Compass, one of several failed attempts at recapturing that Harry Potter moneymaking magic, along with Eragon and The Spiderwick Chronicles. As far as the BBC and HBO’s collaborative adaptation, there’s no skin in the game for me as far as whether or not an actor is right for a certain role, or if an important plot point was left out. It exists solely on its own merits.

Though I feel slightly lost at sea after the first episode, it’s an exciting prospect to be able to explore this world for the first time, without the expectations that come with being a devoted fan of the books. It’s a bit early on to say definitively what works and what doesn’t, but one thing is certain — you’re not likely to have seen a more visually dazzling TV series this year than this one.

His Dark Materials takes place in an intriguing world, another world “both like and unlike your world,” that exists in the present, but is a curious amalgam of Victorian steampunk and London in the 1940s. Airships are the preferred method of transportation here, in a world that values education and formality, and both encourages and fears the exploration of other planes of existence. It’s also a world in which humans have talking animal companions known as “daemons,” who act as companions, protectors, and spiritual beacons. Adulthood coincides with when your daemon settles on how it’s going to present itself.

In the first episode, directed by Tom Hooper, we meet our heroine, Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen, bringing the same unsettling intensity to her performance here as she did in Logan), an orphan sent to live at stodgy, old-fashioned Jordan College by her explorer uncle Asriel (James McAvoy). At first blush, Lyra seems like a typical YA fantasy novel heroine, a little tomboyish, stubborn and scrappy. But there’s something going on behind her eyes, both sorrow at never really having a family beyond the instructors at her school, and a fierce intelligence that could do a lot of good if guided by the right hands, or cause utter devastation if led down the wrong path.

Uncle Asriel rarely visits Lyra, as he’s on a mission to discover more about “dust,” a strange material that seems to have achieved consciousness. Much to the shock of the other scholars at Jordan College, the dust even seems to be the pathway to a hidden city. This information is so unsettling that one of the scholars, the Master (Clarke Peters), attempts to poison Asriel, but is thwarted when Lyra spies on him. The Master’s intentions are good, however — in doing away with Asriel, he may be sparing Lyra from a terrible destiny, one in which she will commit an act of unforgivable betrayal.

Fate proceeds as planned, however, when Lyra is taken under the wing of Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), who has the clothes, hair and arched eyebrows of a film noir femme fatale, but comes on sweet to Lyra, offering her an opportunity to travel with her as an assistant, doing the same kind of research as Asriel. “All we can be is scared for her…and scared of her,” the Master says, privately, before gifting Lyra with an alethiometer, a compass-like object to which the user asks questions to gain truth and insight.

Much of the first hour of His Dark Materials is given over to world-building, and what a feast for the eyes this world is.

Lyra leaves with Mrs. Coulter the same day that her closest (and only) friend at Jordan College, Roger (Lewin Lloyd), disappears, one of several kidnappings of children in the area. Reassured by Mrs. Coulter that they’ll find Roger, Lyra takes off on the first real adventure of her life, as her airship ascends into a sky far too blue and perfect to be anything but deceiving.

Not surprisingly, given it’s the premiere episode in a TV show based on an elaborate fantasy series, much of the first hour of His Dark Materials is given over to world-building, and what a feast for the eyes this world is. Even the relatively staid setting of Jordan College is a dark fairytale playland of gargoyles and mausoleums, where children run freely among open caskets and skulls on display. If upcoming episode previews are any indicator, it only gets more astonishing from here, as Lyra learns more about the origins of “dust,” and the destiny the Master and the other scholars are trying to protect her from.

The episode reveals just enough to be interesting, but not so much that you don’t find yourself wanting to know more, about how the alethiometer works, about the Gyptians, Romani-like people whose children are gradually disappearing, and the mysterious, not yet seen “Gobblers,” who are taking them away. If you’ve read the books, you know how all this plays out. If, like me, you haven’t, it’s both exciting to see how it will all unfold, and unclear if what’s obviously a massive universe of ideas and concepts won’t end up collapsing under the weight of its own ambition.

If His Dark Materials lacks anything so far, it may be a bit of humor and whimsy, but here it makes sense. Magic exists here, but it’s a purposeful magic, not the kind to entertain children at birthday parties. Childhood itself doesn’t seem to be sentimentalized — the real accomplishment comes in reaching the age of reason, when you can be told and understand real, hard truths, both about the world, and yourself. “She’s special,” Roger says about Lyra, to which Asriel cynically replies “Everyone’s special.”

Random Thoughts:

  • James McAvoy must have been delighted to speak in something a bit closer to his real accent, rather than the odd, Gary Cooper-esque accent he used in It: Chapter Two.
  • Also, McAvoy’s hair in this is a thing of gray-streaked, rakish majesty, and I am here for it, as the kids say.
  • Continuing a fine HBO tradition, the opening credits sequence is nearly as elaborate as the show itself.
  • Lyra’s desperation for something even remotely resembling a family, as exhibited as when she tricks Asriel into carrying her into bed, and later throws her arms around a non-plussed Mrs. Coulter, are among the show’s most touching moments so far. Given the Master’s warning about Lyra’s betrayal in the future, one can guess that it’s tied up in her innate desire to feel needed and wanted.
  • What do you think your daemon would be? I’d love to say mine would be something cool, like a hawk or a panther, but I’m pretty sure it’d be something largely useless, like a horseshoe crab.
  • So who can I write to get a new adaptation of Firestarter made with Dafne Keen playing Charlie McGee? That kid looks like she could burn a building down with her mind.
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