his dark materials
BBC/Bad Wolf/HBO

His Dark Materials: review of the stunning first series

Not many stories get a second chance to be told, and for the longest time Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy looked to be one of the many that had one failed attempt with The Golden Compass. Time has not been kind to that particular film which is regarded nowadays as a failed start to an unmade trilogy. But a decade and a half later, here we are with a worthy adaptation of his first of three books: Northern Lights with a stellar cast, gorgeous effects and beautiful score.

Looking over the whole of this first season, the most striking aspect of it is how it’s less of an adaptation of Northern Lights and more of an opening act of the whole trilogy. It takes aspects from The Subtle Knife and lines up the early steps of Will with Lyra’s journey, putting them on a slightly more even keel than the books did. Whether this decision entirely works will be decided in the second series. Only then will we know whether the extra time given to Will and our world will have any real pay-off. For now, it seems the aim was to have both Will and Lyra have a shared final moment stepping into the unknown to cap off the series, a moment which on its own works despite Will’s portion of the show feeling weaker than Lyra’s.

Lyra’s world is astoundingly beautiful, from the flooded Jordan college to the icy wastes of the North the series is a joy to behold at almost every turn

Part of that is down to the visuals. Lyra’s world is astoundingly beautiful, from the flooded Jordan college to the icy wastes of the North the series is a joy to behold at almost every turn. Will’s is, our world, and while the contrast is effective at times the show is at its most enjoyable when it can be more creative. Lyra’s world has the lion’s share of the show’s action scenes, which are often brief, punchy and focused entirely on the characters, which works to hide any budgetary shortcomings. The only fault in Lyra’s world is the series’ main flaw: the daemons.

It’s clear looking over the whole show that the makers of His Dark Materials never realised how vital the daemons are to the characters and the world as a whole. They often are shunted to the side or not fully realised as individual characters save for a scant few belonging to recurring characters. Had the showrunners been more aware of their significance, especially in the middle part of the series where they’re separation from children is the main crux of the drama, then they may have taken some extra steps to incorporate them and greatly improved the visual storytelling.

In early episodes the pain of the daemons and the people they’re attached to is visceral and traumatic, such as when Mrs Coulter’s monkey pins down Pan, but the show seems to forget this when it needs to remember it the most

There are times where the show does this without a fault, in early episodes the pain that they and the people they’re attached to are in is visceral and traumatic, such as when Mrs Coulter’s monkey pins down Pan, but the show seems to forget this when it needs to remember it the most. It’s a disappointment in a show which otherwise seems to have a very strong grasp on its characters.

The cast of His Dark Materials has from the beginning been one of its greatest strengths and every week has brought out a standout performance from at least one of them, which is a fair accomplishment, given the cast of The Golden Compass was more than up to the task despite the film’s failings. Dafne Keen excels as Lyra, fully understanding the character and the range of emotions she’s required to show. Ruth Wilson regularly stands out as Mrs Coulter, easily the most terrifying character in the show, Lin Manuel Miranda is a joy in every scene he’s in, and James McAvoy brings out the complexity and resolve of Lord Asriel. The only weak link, and this is partly is Serafina, played here by Ruth Gedmintas. She feels oddly stilted, unable to really take hold of a role which feels more like a fountain of exposition than a true character. The rest of the cast are excellent no matter the size of their role.

Overall His Dark Materials is a strong opening to what hopefully will be a strong three-year run. It knows its characters, its world and its tone and delivers, capping off TV in 2019 with finesse.

Inspired to watch the series? Start with the first episode Lyra’s Jordan

 

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