REVIEW: His Dark Materials, Season 1

His Dark Materials S1

Ahead of the premiere of His Dark Materials season two, let’s revisit the epic first season adapting the Philip Pullman fantasy trilogy.

This sumptuous adaptation finally does justice to source material in a way that the 2007 film could not. The television series format allowed for a better paced exploration of the eventful first volume, The Golden Compass, while also seeding in key characters and storylines from the second book, The Subtle KnifeThe latter was a clever decision on the showrunner’s part in order to better integrate Willy Parry, the second lead character, into the show even if in the books he only makes an appearance later on. While the first season rightly focuses on Lyra Silvertongue’s adventures, introducing Will to the story will better emphasize the idea of parallel universes and explain how their destinies are intertwined even before they meet.

His Dark MaterialsHis Dark Materials was also better suited to a television adaptation because of its complex themes, wide scope, and intricate world building – elements that are now easily tackled by a television series because of higher budgets and more advanced technology. It would never have been possible to cover all of the events of the first book even in one long film and the eight episodes of season one are able to effectively immerse the viewer in this magical world of daemons, witches, aeronauts, and armored bears. But beyond the fantastical elements, His Dark Materials also tackles complex themes about corrupt power structures, the oppression of organized religion, the essence of humanity, the meaning of souls, and other moral and theological questions. The show manages to integrate these difficult concepts while also presenting a genuinely thrilling adventure and heartbreaking drama.

The first season does a creditable job of balancing several main story arcs while never losing sight of the major mystery surrounding the nature of Dust. Lyra is at the heart of it all as she goes on a quest to rescue her best friend, Roger, from the clutches of the evil Gobblers. This is all tied in with her own journey with the Gyptians, who are determined to find the people who have been stealing their children. This is by far the most prominent arc in the season and also the most moving because even if it is set in a fantasy world where humans are accompanied by animal manifestations of their souls, the idea of kidnapping children for nefarious purposes can never fail to bring a chill down one’s spine.

His Dark Materials season one is also about the nature of family and how it is more rooted in a genuine bond of love than in bonds of blood. Lyra’s adventures also lead her to learn more about her own origins and her complicated relationships with both her parents, two powerful and ambitious individuals intent on changing the world in different ways. Neither of them has been capable of properly caring for her throughout her life. While both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter have their own agendas when dealing with their child, Lyra meets others who learn to love and care for her in ways she was deprived of growing up. She becomes a part of the Gyptian family, loved and protected by Ma Costa, John Faa, and Farder Coram and she also wins the hearts of the armored bear, Iorek Byrnison as well as charms the sarcastic aeronaut, Lee Scoresby.

More than the impressive production design, rousing musical score, and elaborate visual effects, His Dark Materials is driven by the compelling performances of its stellar cast. Dafne Keen is extraordinary as Lyra, capturing the youth and mischief of the character while still making her wise beyond her years and irresistibly charismatic. Her performance leaves no doubt as to why other characters seem so eager to adopt her as one of their own.

Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter is an intimidating presence, managing to balance her character’s sinister nature with occasionally vulnerable moments. Wilson has always excelled at portraying characters with hidden, dark depths, and she is perfectly cast as Mrs. Coulter and she manages to bring even more nuance to the character and her complex relationship with Lyra and Lord Asriel.

James McAvoy is effective as the imperious Asriel, a man passionate about his academic work but ill at ease when forming a bond with his own daughter. Like Wilson, McAvoy’s performance allows for some moving moments with Keen and suggests that both of them do somehow care about their daughter but are simply too obsessed with their own ambitions to be proper parents.

The rest of the ensemble (including the voice cast of the daemons) likewise add to the strengths of the series, all of them making their characters come alive in spite of the fantasy setting. Lucian Msamati brings power and gravitas to John Faa while James Cosmo as Farder Coram brings both wisdom and vulnerability to his character. Anne-Marie Duff as Ma Costa is both fierce and nurturing as she fights for her children. Clarke Peters is excellent as the Master of Jordan college whose guardianship of Lyra put him in great risk. Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby brings both comic relief and action the story while Ruta Gedmintas as Serafina Pekkala is as enigmatic as a witch should be. Ariyon Bakare as Lord Boreal is as sinister as one expects as he spies on the Will Parry and his mother, both played with relatable tragedy by Amir Wilson and Nina Sosanya respectively. Wilson’s presence has been understated but it is good that he was already introduced as he will be playing a larger role in the new season.

For all its ambition, His Dark Materials does occasionally fall short in its portrayal of the daemons, probably due to budget constraints. But given how integral daemons are to Lyra’s world, the animal familiars are conspicuous by their absence at times when there are large groups of human characters shown without any daemons. It sometimes feels that there is only enough budget to include the CGI daemons of major characters like Lyra, Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel, Lee Scoresby, Lord Boreal, and Roger while the characters in the background don’t seem to have daemons at all.

When the Gyptians are shown in a group, it’s mostly John Faa’s daemon who is visible while the others look like regular humans. Even in the scenes at Bolvangar, where the presence of daemons is pretty much a major plot point, not all the children are surrounded by their daemons, which makes it feel a bit strange to see how devastated they all are when the animals are ripped away from them. But again, this might be mostly due to budget constraints and it’s a minor complaint about an overall impressive production and strong adaptation of a rich and fascinating source material.

His Dark Materials is an epic, sweeping tale of a world of daemons and Dust, where a young girl must fulfill a destiny that involves the fates of multiple worlds. The first season effectively sets the scene for a grander conflict while also immersing viewers in thrilling adventures with zeppelin battles, aurora borealis, and armored bears fighting for the throne. More than the fantasy elements, His Dark Materials succeeds because of the strengths of its characters, particularly its lead heroine, and  just as Lyra won the hearts of the characters around her, so has she done with the audience as well, and we are all eager to see what happens next as she steps into a new world.