His Dark Materials aired their first episode Sunday night on the BBC, with the premiere coming Monday night to HBO. The highly-anticipated show adapts Phillip Pullman’s trilogy of YA fantasy novels. The first season draws upon the first book The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights if you are in the UK) along with elements from Pullman’s recent prequel The Book of Dust.
What did we think of the premiere of His Dark Materials? Read on to find out in our review from a long-time fan of the books. Please note, we will stay spoiler-free in this review, but elements of the books will be discussed.
Image via BBC One/HBO
His Dark Materials Is Not Game Of Thrones So Let’s Just Get That Out Of The Way Right Now
The first thing we should do, when discussing His Dark Materials is this: Stop. Comparing. It. To. Game. Of. Thrones. I’ve seen a number of other reviews negatively comparing His Dark Materials to Game of Thrones. Yes, they are both high-budget fantasy series adaptations on HBO. But the similarities end there. The two fantasy series are so wildly different that it does an injustice to His Dark Materials to expect another Game of Thrones. This might be an issue with HBO’s marketing of the show, as they try to retain their fantasy fanbase. But it is important to remember that this show was produced by Bad Wolf in conjunction with the BBC. Rather than pander to GOT fans, the show is clearly attempting to be faithful to the books and bring His Dark Materials to life in a way that draws in adult viewers, while remaining (somewhat) family-friendly. And in the first episode, they succeed in doing just that.
His Dark Materials Series Premiere Focuses On Character Relationships
His Dark Materials revolves around the character of Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), a young girl who lives at Jordan college in Oxford. When her best friend Roger is abducted by the mysterious ‘gobblers’ Lyra is determined to rescue him. Her journey is set against the backdrop of the mysterious Dust that reveals other worlds, and a domineering religious institution that seeks to restrict this knowledge.
The opening of the first episode shows the character of Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) delivering an infant Lyra to the college and invoking ‘the right of scholastic sanctuary.’ The college is a haven that is (mostly) safe from the interference of the strict religious government – the Magisterium.
James McAvoy as Lord Asriel | Image via BBC One/HBO
A Child Of Prophecy (Although We Shouldn’t Know That Yet)
It is evident that Lyra is in danger from the Magisterium, and those reasons should be unclear. Unfortunately, the expository text that leads into the episode immediately reveals one of the major elements of the series. A prophecy “about a child with a great destiny.” That child is clearly Lyra, and the prophecy is something that viewers should learn about at the same time she does. Giving this information away at the beginning of the first episode is a baffling decision.
This opening text works both for, and against the premiere episode. It tells us about the bond between humans and daemons. We learn that the Magisterium controls the world. It lets us know right away that this is an epic fantasy (prophecy=epic fantasy). But did we need to be told all of this immediately, rather than learn these things for ourselves? Part of the joy of this story is discovering the world through Lyra’s eyes. The opening text is helpful for non-book readers, but also feels a bit lazy, and unnecessary. Most of this information can be gleaned from the first episode alone.
A Well-Rounded Cast Shines In The Premiere Of His Dark Materials
The premiere of His Dark Materials has a few pacing issues. It starts a little slow, but deftly sets the stage for what is to come. Veteran genre actor James McAvoy is excellent in the role of Lord Asriel, suitably intense and enigmatic with a single-minded focus on his goals. He displays a tenderness in regards to Lyra when she is unconscious of it. When she is awake, he is stern and aloof.
Ruth Wilson as Marisa Coulter | Image via BBC One/HBO
Ruth Wilson is also well-cast in the role of Marisa Coulter. Another enigmatic figure, she is kind and charming with an undercurrent of ruthlessness. There is sadness in her eyes when she hugs Lyra, but there is also a thread of malice in her voice. Wilson does an excellent job embodying complexity of Marisa Coulter. Both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are incredibly complicated (and important) characters in this series. Their actors bring a sensitivity and complexity to these roles that are necessary for the various twists and turns we will experience with them along the way.
There are a few notable character actors in the first episode that will have more time to shine as the series progresses. Game of Thrones veteran James Cosmo plays the gyptian elder Farder Coram. The gyptians search for a missing boy who has been snatched by the mysterious ‘gobblers.’ The gyptians are a bit out of place in the first episode, but they are a compelling cast of characters that will have larger roles to play as the show continues.
Image via BBC One
Daemons and Dust Are Vital To The Story
It is clear from the outset that this show will explore parallel worlds. The stellar opening credits (loaded with hints for what is to come) make that clear. The setting is a world similar to our own, but different in major ways. The most obvious difference comes in the form of the daemons. These beings are external manifestations of the soul, that take the form of animals.
A daemon has the ability to shape-shift into different animals when an individual is still a child. Lyra’s daemon – Pan – constantly shifts into various forms, most commonly seen as a white ferret. When puberty hits, a daemon settles into a final form that is indicative of the individual’s personality. Lord Asriel has a snow leopard named Stelmaria. Marisa Coulter’s daemon is a golden monkey who never speaks. The librarian has a gecko named Serena who finds books for him. We understand that daemons are important. So why do only the main characters have them?
I do have a quibble with the lack of visible daemons in the world. There are several prominent characters (like Ma Costa) who do not have any identifiable daemon. In the background of the world, we see people walking around crowded train stations, filling college rooms and city streets. But we do not see many daemons outside of the main characters. It feels like an important world-building detail was scaled back in order to save on CGI budget. My other issue is how human the daemons sound, their voices should be more animalistic. In the beginning of the premiere, it is difficult to discern whether Pan is speaking to Lyra, or if that is Roger’s voice we are hearing in the scenes where they race through Jordan College.
Lyra & Pan | Image via BBC One/HBO
A Coming Of Age Story In The Guise Of Epic Fantasy
Another thing that separates adults from children is how the mysterious Dust affects them. We learn that Dust can be seen (with a special type of photography – I have a lot of questions about the magical photochemistry of this world). Asriel reveals that Dust emanates from adults, but not children. This revelation causes a lot of furor amongst the scholars, who are aware that these are somehow heretical ideas. There is clearly history and controversy around Lord Asriel’s research, this drives the conflict of the first episode. By not explaining Dust, viewers have a mystery to unravel.
Lyra also receives a mysterious artifact called the ‘alethiometer’ (the titular golden compass). The kindly scholars at Jordan College say that it will tell her the truth, but also refuse to explain to her how it works. There are two overarching statements in this episode. First, there are some things that children are better off not knowing. Second, there are some things that children are going to have to figure out on their own.
The Alethiometer | Image via BBC One
The books are a coming of age story, wrapped up in an epic fantasy. The show sets up that path in the very first episode. Lyra is a tenacious and highly intelligent child. Dafne Keen plays the role of Lyra with all of bright-eyed curiosity necessary for the role. However there is also a sullen air about her, one that foreshadows the onset of puberty and her transition from child to adult. And that is really the heart of the story, Lyra’s growth and maturity will literally change the world around her.
His Dark Materials Will Span At Least Two Seasons
Overall, the first episode of His Dark Materials sets up a complex and nuanced fantasy world, with compelling characters. A second season of the show has already been filmed, so there will be plenty more to see from the world of His Dark Materials and I look forward to finally seeing this series done right.
His Dark Materials airs Sunday nights on BBC One, and Monday nights at 9pm on HBO. The first season of this limited series will span eight hour-long episodes.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.