I have been looking forward to the new HBO/BBC series His Dark Materials for months. I watched the series premiere, “Lyra’s Jordan,” and I enjoyed it, but I’m kind of still looking forward to it.
I’m not sure if it’s possible to think of any sort of prestige drama these days, especially one done by HBO, without comparing it to Game of Thrones. And Game of Thrones, for all the pretty and the effects and everything, left a bad taste in the mouths of so many. Even the people who liked it are left with a feeling of ick from all the controversy. There’s also the worry that any modern audience who hasn’t read the His Dark Materials trilogy of books is going to look at this scenario of “child who has no parents and is cosmically special in some way goes to boarding school” and compare it to Harry Potter.
I did read the books, albeit years ago and only once. I had been planning on a re-read, but I put it off once I heard about the series. Considering all the complaining I heard from Game of Thrones fans throughout that series, I want to give this one a chance to exist on its own. And as much as I enjoyed the books, I do remember a certain weariness by the time I was finished and a feeling that if I had wanted to be reading Milton, I would have dug my college copy of Paradise Lost out from under the bed. I would imagine that, when you’re reading books about the power of the church and the death of the soul, both of those things are to be expected.
It’s clear that they spent money on this. HBO doesn’t mess around when it comes to prestige dramas. Among other things, the opening title sequence of S1E1 is absolutely stunning. By the time we got to that, however, I was already a little weirded out by their cold open—title cards explaining that we are in an alternate universe in which everything is controlled by something called the Magisterium. We don’t know what that is exactly, but we get the feeling that it is a little like the Alliance in Firefly and therefore bad. We are also told that the animals we see running around with every person are in fact the souls of the people, and we are to call them daemons.
I could spend hours pondering about the nature of the soul and how this works when it is externalized in this way. I’ve seen and read a bunch of things in which humans have familiars, and there’s always a magical bond. I do recall that the book didn’t spell this out for you; it let you figure it out and fill in the gaps on your own. When I’ve read about familiars and the soul bond, however, it always felt more like the soul was shared as opposed to existing wholly outside the body of the human. I’m pretty sure that becomes plot-relevant later (don’t tell me), but right there at the top, I found it a little odd for them to have chosen to spell that out and to use those particular words.
The title cards go on to tell of a prophecy and a child who will Do A Thing, though they give no hints as to what or why, or what it has to do with. Into every generation, a slayer is born? Who knows. No real context is given, save that we know our protagonist is special and has a destiny of some kind. Oh, and during something called the Great Flood (again, no hints at context), said child was brought to a place called Oxford. Cool.
The rest of the cold open involves James McAvoy and said child, and a big, wet special effect. Again, don’t know what or why the Great Flood was, but him plowing through chest-deep water while carrying a baby looks cool. The world looks enough like the real world that we make the leap that their Oxford is close enough to our own that it is a university of some kind. He leaves the baby with a man who turns out to be the headmaster, claiming “scholastic sanctuary.” Over protests that a “place of learning” is no place for a child, McAvoy (we catch his name as Lord Asriel) departs, and we jump ahead 12 years.
Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keene), a coltish young girl, is running around the university grounds with her friend, Roger. Their daemons run with them, both small and ferret-like. They can talk, too. This bit establishes Lyra as being a bit mischievous and irreverent—especially when the game of tag culminates in a crypt, and Lyra clearly has no qualms about hiding in an open coffin. A discussion is had about the nature of daemons: how, unlike humans who leave behind skeletons, upon death a daemon simply disappears. They also wonder what forms their daemons will “settle” into one day, potentially bringing us back to a discussion of the soul and if such a thing can mature as the body ages.
Lord Asriel has gone north. He’s out in a blizzard, photographing what looks to us like the Northern Lights. Upon closer, indoor examination, the photos show him something that’s apparently exciting. He plans to take his proof of whatever this is south to Jordan College, and he’s planning to bring what turns out to be a severed head with him.
I mentioned the opening title sequence, right? It looks kind of like everything in the universe being filmed backwards, dissolving into gold glitter. There are parallel worlds and majestic music. Just beautiful.
I never saw the film version of The Golden Compass. Everyone said it was rubbish, and since no more ever got made, I can only conclude they were at least a little bit right. One of the big mistakes they made was trying to deny the whole God/Church thing, or at least make it as vague as possible. It didn’t work, and that’s no surprise. In all the promos and buzz about His Dark Materials, it seems like one of their big things was to not do the same. This is what the story is, folks, like it or lump it. If you don’t want or are offended by religious metaphors, this series probably isn’t for you.
Cut back to Lyra. She’s in class, though it is a class in which she is the only student. Her crusty old professor, the Librarian, makes sure she knows the difference between saying humans are as gods, as opposed to gods. Getting this wrong, he says, would be blasphemy, and the Magisterium wouldn’t approve, despite their scholastic sanctuary. The Magisterium wouldn’t approve of a lot of things, it seems. Lyra is distracted from the lesson by Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Connor), her daemon, who has come to tell her of the arrival of her uncle, Asriel. She’s excited because apparently he has promised to take her to the north with him, and she distracts her teacher long enough to slip away.
We get more “Yay, we have a budget!” shots of Lyra running about over the rooftops of the college as Asriel crosses the grounds. His visit is announced to the headmaster, who consults a strange device and looks grave. Unaware that he is observed by Lyra peering in a window, and egged on by his own daemon, he puts an ominous-looking powder into a bottle of Lord Asriel’s favourite wine. When the wine is delivered to Asriel, he would have drunk it had Lyra not smashed her way in through the window. He’s not particularly grateful or friendly to her, even threatening to break her arm if she doesn’t explain herself. He’s tenacious, she’s infuriating, and—ignoring the fact that she’s been waiting for him for a year—he shuts her in a cupboard with instructions to spy carefully on what is about to happen.
The room fills up with stern-looking academics. Lyra watches from her hiding place while her uncle addresses the group. He’s got these specially calibrated photos that show off something called Dust (you can practically hear the capital letter). It turns out that Dust is particles of some kind, which are invisible and surround adults but don’t seem to touch children. The Magisterium is right, he says, that Dust is exclusively attracted to adults. He also talks about the Northern Lights, and how when photographed through his special lens, they reveal a city in the sky. This is proof, he says, of other worlds existing alongside our own, visible through Dust, and most importantly, that the Magisterium doesn’t control them. Already one begins to feel the religion metaphor knock knock knocking on heaven’s door, so to speak.
The severed head turns out to be that of a scholar from Jordan College who had started the work on the Dust and the parallel worlds and died in the process. It’s frozen in ice, so it has nothing to add to the proceedings (“do whatever you want, I’m super dead”), but Asriel entreats the faculty to help him to continue the work. If they truly have scholastic sanctuary, he says, they must not be afraid to ask the questions that the Magisterium apparently fears the answers to.
Cut to a settlement outside the college. There’s a ceremony going on: a coming-of-age for a young man and the settling of his daemon. These people don’t seem to have anything to do with the college, and it’s a community of warmth and inclusion. They’re known as Gyptians (though I note actors of all colours and races), and they are outcasts (though outcasts from what, we don’t know). The kid brother of the celebrated young man runs off in a huff, winds up abducted by a man, and is dragged away along with his daemon. It turns out that this kind of thing has been happening a lot. Children are disappearing.
Asriel, busy brooding, has to be reminded by his daemon that Lyra is still in the cupboard. He carries her up to her bed and looks a bit shamefaced as he sees her walls decorated with every postcard he has ever sent her. She wants to know what he was talking about, what Dust really is, and why she was spying, but he won’t tell her. She begs him again to take her north.
The headmaster and the Librarian collectively furrow their brows before a cosy fire. The headmaster knows that his attempt to poison Asriel was thwarted and that Asriel is on to him. He speaks of great change that is coming on and mentions that, according to something called an alethiometer, Lyra has a part to play in this change and needs to be kept safe. He speaks of a journey she must go on, that there will be a great betrayal, and she will be the betrayer. They can’t keep her at the school, he says. All they can do “is be scared for her, and be scared of her.” Ominous.
Over breakfast, Lyra tells Roger about her adventure in the cupboard, and he tells her of the missing Gyptian boy. He’s convinced that the boy has been taken by something called the Gobblers, though she discounts them as a children’s story. Roger also brings the news that her uncle is packing up an airship to return to the north. This sends Lyra sprinting out of the room after him. He puts her off, refusing again to take her with him. All of a sudden, she asks if this airship that he’s taking is like the one her parents died in. There’s a long pause, and he says no, that one was smaller. She runs off in tears. Faithful Roger, who has followed her, shouts up at the man in the departing airship, “She’s better than you think she is! She’s special!” Asriel looks resentful at the prospect but snaps back, “Everyone is special.”
The Gyptians watch the airship go. They’re organizing a search party for young Billy when a few clan elders come to tell them that not only are the Gobblers real, they are the ones who took Billy, though they don’t know why. They have been to several Gyptian camps, all of whom are missing children. They plan to go to London to search for them because they believe a big city is an easier place to hide kidnapped children.
Back in her room, Lyra and Roger plan to run away and go north together. He’s apprehensive that two orphans with no money can make the trip, but she is determined. Meanwhile, two sinister-looking men walk the halls of the college and discuss the meeting of the night before. It is Father MacPhail and Lord Carlo Boreal, and it is clear that Asriel’s plans are heretical according to the Magisterium. This conversation is halted as we cut to the arrival of a woman who literally turns every head in the room as she enters the college and joins the company at dinner. Her name is Mrs. Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), and she is all smiles and friendliness as she meets Lyra. Lyra wonders about this stylishly-dressed woman, who seems very interested in her.
Mrs. Coulter has tales to tell of her trips to the north, and Lyra is further seduced with every word. She offers Lyra a position as her own assistant. Lyra is keen to go and pleads with Mrs. Coulter to bring Roger with them. Mrs. Coulter agrees, but it is not to be. While going about his duties in the evening, Roger disappears.
Lyra is woken in the morning by the Librarian, who says the headmaster wants to see her. He says that Mrs. Coulter has spoken with him, and Lyra will go with his blessing, his worry, and a gift that she must promise to keep secret. It’s an alethiometer, he says, very rare, originally given to him by her uncle. When she asks what it does, he says, “It tells you the truth,” but that she and Pan will have to figure out how to use it for themselves. Lyra doesn’t want secrets in her life and is still feeling grouchy toward her uncle and his belongings. She doesn’t want to take the alethiometer, but she eventually accepts it. The headmaster’s last words to her are to tell her to keep her own counsel and not to confide in anyone—not even Mrs. Coulter.
Running about the school, she calls for Roger, but her friend is nowhere to be seen. Pan is worried it might have been the Gobblers. As Lyra searches, Farder Coram and John Faa lead their group of Gyptians up the river, continuing their search for Billy and the others. John Faa, the Western king, speaks to Billy’s distraught mother and reassures her that they will bring her son back from the Gobblers. Lyra asks Mrs. Coulter about the Gobblers and is shocked when Mrs. Coulter not only speaks of the Gobblers as a matter of fact but promises to find Lyra’s friend. Like the Gyptians, they are going to London.
Mrs. Coulter goes off to arrange an airship, and Lyra runs to her room to fetch the alethiometer that she’s hidden under her mattress. She asks it how to find Roger, but it has nothing to say. Lyra runs down to the airship where Mrs. Coulter is waiting and joins her on board. They can’t talk there, it’s too public, but a few creepy looks pass between Pan and Mrs. Coulter’s daemon. The last thing we see is Roger, locked in the back of a van, pounding on the grated window and shouting for help.
I’m always a little put out when I don’t get proper coming attractions. Instead of “coming next week,” it was “coming this season,” and what we get is a montage of terribly exciting looking stuff, and at least a shot or two of Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) looking scruffy and weirdly sexy as Lee Scoresby. We won’t meet Lee for a bit, and according to IMDb, Miranda is only in one episode this season. This is honestly a disappointment considering he’s a large part of my (and probably many others’) reasons to watch the thing in the first place, so I hope that bit of info is incorrect.
I also would have really liked a bit more about the school and the Gyptians, and why the two are separate. I don’t need to get told everything all at once—I’m a Twin Peaks fan, I can wait until I have the whole picture—but it felt a little disjointed, especially considering there were some things that they did want to spell out but others that they didn’t want to give me anything on. I could have done with fewer shots of her running over the rooftops and a little more backstory on, if not the world, then the people in the world.
All that is to say, I liked it. As far as pilots go, it could have gotten off to a way worse start. And even though it was directed by Tom Hooper (Les Miserables), there weren’t any intrusive close-ups or other distracting filming, so that was a bonus. This was definitely the beginning of something, though of what remains to be seen.