Hi there—I’m excited to be Tor.com’s recapper for HBO and BBC’s His Dark Materials, a television adaptation of the beloved fantasy series by Philip Pullman. I’ll be posting these recaps every Tuesday and will also be offering some additional analysis and meditation for most episodes in separate essays a little bit later in the week. For reference, I have read and enjoyed the HDM books, so there will be some discussion of the source material, but these reviews won’t contain spoilers for the entire series (though they may hint at some of the plot-points down the line, based on my admittedly imperfect memories of what was contained in the novels, so be forewarned).
We begin with some table-setting text that sets up the world as one dominated by an oppressive theocracy called the Magisterium. It also mentions the key piece of information that human beings all have a Daemon-familiar who serves as a manifestation of their soul. And it points us toward a prophecy spoken by the heretical witches of the North that a girl with a grand destiny will come from Oxford…
That last word remains on screen as we open on an Oxford, half-submerged by a Great Flood (a nice detail that was not mentioned in the original text but comes from Pullman’s prequel, The Book of Dust). Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) and his daemon, Stelmaria (voice by Harry Potter and Penny Dreadful’s Helen McCrory) smuggle an infant Lyra Belacqua into the campus of Jordan College. Asriel invokes the right of academic sanctuary, entrusting her to the care of the institution’s Master, Dr. Carne (The Wire’s Clarke Peters), while the searchlights of Magisterium helicopters try to locate them from above.
Twelve years later, a pre-teen Lyra (Logan’s Dafne Keene) and her best friend Roger (Taboo’s Lewin Lloyd), a fellow orphaned-ward of the College, have a race through the campus where their as-yet unsettled familiars transform into various shapes to keep up with the irrepressible children. They end up in the crypts below the college where Lyra muses on why daemons don’t leave behind skeletons when they die but humans do. She drinks some pilfered wine which is not to her taste. The spit-take gives us a smash-cut to…
…Lord Asriel in the far North, photographing (well, photogramming) the Aurora Borealis, excited that he has finally captured…something. He returns to his makeshift research laboratory where an assistant warns him about the blasphemy he is committing in his research. He discusses the need to return to Jordan College, packing up a piece of dark ice as he does so.
The opening titles follow the familiar prestige TV pattern of trying to evoke the central theme of a show through abstract visuals, rather than a parade of characters or locations. In this case, the opening credits have objects disintegrating and reforming into motes of Dust (an important concept, as we discover later in the episode) as well as images of people and cityscapes fragmenting into prismatic duplications (another central conceit of the series).
Back at Jordan College, Lyra tricks her tutor, the campus Librarian, Charles (Game of Thrones’ Ian Gelder), into discussing blasphemy and original sin so that she might lock him in their tiny classroom and escape, scurrying over the roofs and drainpipes of the school to greet her uncle, Lord Asriel. She and her daemon, Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Connor), spy on Dr. Carne’s audience chamber where she witnesses her protector and his butler (Ever After’s Patrick Godfrey) argue over whether or not to kill her uncle. Carne (also called The Master) prepares for the assassination by poisoning a rare vintage of wine. Once he leaves and Asriel enters, Lyra warns her uncle about the assassination attempt. Surprisingly, he attempts to destroy the evidence, shattering the decanter, before asking her if she wants to help out by hiding in a cupboard and watching the assembled professoriate during a talk he’s about to give and noting any reactions they have when he discusses the mysterious “Dust.”
Lyra spies on the talk wherein Asriel shows the faculty a series of photograms he took while on an expedition to discover the fate of fellow Jordan professor, Gruman. The photograms, having been treated in a special chemical bath, reveal that adults are utterly suffused in an otherwise invisible substance called dust (a concept apparently considered to be heretical), while children are not. He ends the talk with a slide that shows a floating, spectral city visible behind the Aurora Borealis. Carne interrupts at this point to tell the professoriate that they should all disregard what they’ve seen, as it is too heretical. Asriel calls the Master out, saying that they should stand for academic freedom even if the Magisterium deems it heretical. He punctuates this sentiment by bringing out the chunk of ice, revealed to be the head of the deceased (and likely murdered) Gruman. The professors, aggrieved at the murder of one of their own, agree to fund Asriel’s next sojourn to the North.
In the canals of Oxford, we witness the coming-of-age ceremony of Tony Costa (Daniel Frogson), whose daemon has just now settled into a stable form—a hawk. Tony and the assembled crowd are (the problematically named) Gyptians, a nomadic, river-going people reminiscent of Roma and Irish Travelers. Benjamin De Rutyer (Simon Manyonda) explains that the ring they forged for the ceremony comes from silver contributed by the whole Gyptian community while Tony’s mother, Maggie (Shameless’ Anne-Marie Duff), encourages her son to be better to his little brother Billy (Tyler Howitt). Billy, meanwhile, has run off and is apprehended by a man with an aardwolf daemon.
The lecture over, Asriel removes a sleeping Lyra from her hiding place and tucks her into bed, noting her devotion to him in the form of postcards and newspaper clippings on her wall, which she has decorated with a map of his travels. She wakes up and asks him if they can still trust Carne. Asriel tells her that he doesn’t trust anyone.
Carne and Charles discuss the failed assassination attempt. While both men are averse to murder, Carne believes that the death of Asriel will take the Magisterium’s eye off of Jordan College. Carne has consulted an alethiometer—a contraband, oracular device that tells the truth—which has told him that Asriel and Lyra are both personally in danger as well as being the cause of great danger to come. Charles wants to protect Lyra but Carne says that they have done all they can. They must now be scared both for and of her.
Roger and Lyra discuss the disappearance of Billy Costa and Roger blames “the Gobblers,” a group of boogeymen that Lyra doesn’t believe in. He then tells her that Asriel is leaving via airship and she runs out to beg her uncle to take her North with him. He refuses. She asks if the airship he’s traveling in was anything like the one that killed her parents and he tells her that theirs was smaller. Lyra leaves, furious, and Roger tells Asriel that Lyra is special and more capable than Asriel thinks. Asriel responds that “everyone is special” before taking off and leaving Oxford behind.
Back among the Gyptians, their king, John Faa, and an elder, Farder Coram (played by Game of Thrones alums Lucian Msamati and James Cosmo, respectively) discuss the disappearance of Gyptian children—now including Billy among their number—and the need to go to London to try and recover them from the Gobblers.
We then get our first view of the harsh, modern heart of the Magisterium where Father Garret (David Langham) and Lord Boreal (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Carnival Row’s Ariyon Bakare) discuss Asriel’s heresy and Jordan College’s complicity therein. Garret instructs Boreal to find out the truth while keeping the whole of the affair quiet. He is warned especially to keep his mission away from a mysterious “her.”
“Her,” we assume, is Mrs. Coulter (Luther’s always impeccable Ruth Wilson) introduced here as a sinister socialite and adventurer from a rival college. She and her simian daemon come to a Jordan College dinner, where the Master introduces her to Lyra. Roger attempts to get Lyra’s attention but she is enraptured by Mrs. Coulter, who charms her with stories about the North and its armored bears and Tartars. By the end of the evening, Mrs. Coulter offers to make Lyra her assistant and take her away from Oxford. Lyra agrees but only if she can bring along Roger, a condition which Mrs. Coulter grudgingly accedes to.
While Pantalaimon and Lyra debate whether or not Roger actually wants to leave Oxford with her, Roger himself is clearly doomed to be the next kidnapping victim, as we see the Gobbler’s aardwolf stalking him down the halls. Lyra is ushered into the Master’s chambers where Carne and Charles present her with the alethiometer (which gives the first book of the series its American title: The Golden Compass). They tell Lyra that she is free to leave Jordan College with Mrs. Coulter and imply that while the socialite has Lyra’s best interests at heart, their young ward may need the alethiometer to help her find her own way through the world outside of Oxford. Lyra tries to find Roger to no avail. Increasingly distressed, she goes down into the crypts where Pantalaimon suggests that perhaps he was taken by the Gobblers.
John Faa speaks with the Costas, telling Maggie that it is clear that Billy has not simply run off but was taken by the Gobblers. She is distraught but comforted by the idea that the Gyptians will travel to London to try and rescue him, along with the rest of the stolen children. At the same time, Lyra asks Mrs. Coulter about Roger and the Gobblers. To her surprise, Mrs. Coulter tells her that the Gobblers are quite possibly real, that the state police will be of no help in locating Roger, and that, if they do exist, the Gobblers are probably located in London, where child kidnappings are common. She pledges to help Lyra find Roger.
Lyra attempts to consult the alethiometer about Roger but to no avail. Seeing no other choice, she boards the commercial airship to London to serve as Mrs. Coulter’s assistant. Lyra has brought the illegal alethiometer with her, and Mrs. Coulter’s daemon seems to suspect as much. As the airship rises, Lyra notes that the Gyptians are heading south along the canals.
The episode ends with a shot of a terrified Roger in the back of a car, also headed for London.
Some observations and thoughts:
—The production design is amazing and will probably constitute the bulk of my article later this week. Seeing as HDM is set during the present day in an alternate universe, the exact look of the series seems like a difficult thing to pin down. Thus far, they seem to have settled on a sort of vague-1940s aesthetic—one that draws especially from cinematic serialized adventures when dealing with Lord Asriel’s northern expedition. It’s a tricky thing to make something look timeless on the one hand, familiar on the other, and temporally uncertain on a third. I feel like they’ve nailed it.
—The casting is fantastic. James McAvoy’s penchant for being equal parts dashingly charismatic and unhinged in his intensity works wonderfully for Asriel. I especially love his violent outbursts (threatening to break Lyra’s arm, for example) and their uneasy peace with his heartfelt invocations of academic freedom.
—Mrs. Coulter too is, obviously, incredible. I was (minority opinion) a fan of Nicole Kidman’s icy, poised, subtly haunted portrayal in the otherwise disastrous 2007 film, The Golden Compass, but Ruth Wilson brings a kind of unctuous menace to the role. Obviously untrustworthy and Machiavellian but with just enough of a kindly veneer to seem believably intriguing and trustworthy to a naïve twelve-year-old. Also, as a shameless fan of her sexy/terrifying portrayal of sociopath Alice Morgan on Luther, I’ve been eager to see her return to a role as scene-chewingly delicious as this one.
—I don’t have much of a sense Dafne Keene as an actor. She seems up to the task so far but, after the bar set for brilliant casting of talented child actors on series like Rome and Game of Thrones, I’ve been thoroughly spoiled. She was magnetic in Logan but her role in that film was one without the need for a huge amount of range. I guess we’ll have to see.
—As to the rest of the cast, it is a testament to Kathleen Crawford and Dan Jackson’s casting direction that it is so wonderfully populated by a host of talented British and American actors. Clarke Peters (whose British accent is pretty darn good!) is always a delight and I am a huge fan of Lucian Msamati from Taboo and The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency and always felt he was criminally underused in Game of Thrones as the pirate king, Salladhor Saan. With Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andrew Scott set to make appearances later in the season, I’m excited, to say the least.
—I’m less confident about the show’s writing. Episode 1 writer Jack Thorne (of Glue and National Treasure—the miniseries, not the Nic Cage film) has thrown in a few awkward lines that seem designed to be profound or poignant but miss the mark: Roger shouting “Lyra’s special!” at Asriel, who retorts “Everyone is special” being the most obvious example. It’s not as though the writing is out-and-out bad in this episode, but that moment and a few others felt a bit like someone’s shaky first pass at a great line that was never revisited in rewrites. The actors mostly pull off the clunkier dialog, but whether slipshod writing bogs down the series in the end remains to be seen.
—It’s also an interesting co-production insofar as the book series was intended for and marketed to children while HBO is known for its almost pathological adult-oriented envelope pushing. I have always thought that something darker and more adult could be done with the material, which is part of why the idea of this television series so intrigues me. Thus far, the series seems to have more of the BBC’s workmanlike interest in quiet chamber drama than HBO’s penchant for spectacle (not that this is a complaint, mind you) but we’ll see what happens when the series takes on some of Pullman’s more fantastical elements. After all, we haven’t yet gotten to the aeronautical cowboys or the panserbjørne duels or the worlds-spanning wars of all-creation. Hopefully HBO’s love of flash (and their money) will help bolster the series as it continues to build.
—“Lyra’s Jordan” is ultimately a somewhat meditative and slow-moving introduction to one of the most influential and polarizing fantasy series of the last hundred years. Most of my qualms about the books upon which it is based revolve around the last book in the original trilogy, so we’ll see if the series gets that far and how it handles some of Pullman’s knottier plot points. For now, I am definitely excited to see where things go.
How did y’all feel about the series premiere? Was it disappointing or delightful? Let’s keep the conversation going as we await Episode 2!
Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. He is one half of the Lincoln & Welles podcast available on Apple Podcasts or through your favorite podcatcher. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.