His Dark Materials Is Off to a Great Start

Lyra (Dafne Keen) searches for answers in the debut episode of His Dark Materials.
Photo: All images HBO

His Dark Materials is not an easy story to adapt. The trilogy from Philip Pullman is full of breathtaking sights, sounds, and emotions that only work on the page. In some ways, the HBO and BBC adaptation was never going to measure up. But the debut episode is trying its hardest, and the result is something to celebrate.

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The premiere episode, “Lyra’s Jordan,” sets the scene for the 16-episode series, which starts with an eight-episode season one and will continue with a planned second and final season. [Update: It looks like there are possible plans to go beyond two seasons, with one or two seasons to tell the events of The Amber Spyglass.] And the scene is, in one word, fantastical. The episode opens, surprisingly, on events that aren’t actually in His Dark Materials. Instead, they come from the follow-up novel La Belle Sauvage, showing Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) bringing baby Lyra to the Master at Jordan College, invoking “scholastic sanctuary” to keep her safe.

Fast-forward several years later, and Lyra (Dafne Keen) is now a young girl, galavanting around Jordan College with her daemon, Pantalaimon, and her best friend, Roger. She’s getting in trouble with the Scholars, drinking wine in bone-filled coffins, and generally being up to no good. The world of His Dark Materials is both like and unlike our own, where human souls take on animal forms called daemons. As children, the daemons can shift at will, until they settle into a single form once they reach puberty. They show people your true nature and provide constant companionship.

We spend some time with Lord Asriel as he makes his big discovery about “Dust” and the strange city in the Northern Lights. One of the things that has intrigued and frustrated me about McAvoy as an actor is how easily you can tell when he loves a role or doesn’t give a shit—like how engaging his Professor X was in X-Men: First Class but you could feel his disdain in Dark Phoenix. McAvoy has spoken before about how big a fan he is of His Dark Materials, and you can tell he’s thrilled about playing Lord Asriel. He delights in every scene, oozing confidence, arrogance, and a dark power that not even he understands. Come on, how many men can pull off a cable knit sweater like that?

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I will admit it took me a little while to get into Keen’s performance as Lyra, as it was a bit more muted than I was expecting, given Lyra’s big personality. But the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated her choices. She’s not cocky so much as comfortable, complacent in her life at the college, and there are times you see promises of what’s to come. For example, the moment Mrs. Coulter comes into her life you can see her world expand. More on that in a bit.

Lyra (Dafne Keen) looks over the alethiometer.
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After surviving an assassination attempt from the Master thanks to Lyra, Asriel makes his case to the Scholars for more money to explore Dust and the city in the sky, lugging the frozen head of a scholar named Stanislaus Grumman—who the Magisterium apparently murdered—as a bit of leverage. Of course, with a head like that, you’re going to get the funds. Even if he’s engaged in what might be construed as...heresy.

One of the biggest faults of The Golden Compass film was how the Magisterium was changed from a religious organization, in the vein of the Catholic Church, into your typical freedom-hating baddies. Here, that’s not the case. Power and faith are intertwined at the heart of this world, and the show isn’t shy about portraying that. It does feel the general awfulness of the Magisterium is laid on a little thick at times, like we have to know these are the villains, but considering HBO says this is an all-ages show I can understand the heavy-handedness.

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Lyra begs her uncle Asriel to take her north, but he refuses. That doesn’t mean Lyra’s adventure is over. The Master has invited someone new to the college, a female scholar named Mrs. Coulter. Played enigmatically by Ruth Wilson (Luther), Mrs. Coulter comes in like a wave, washing over everything and everyone in her path. She immediately charms Lyra with her mix of fascinating stories and false modesty, but you can see the glints of something more sinister under the surface—like how she puts her arm over Lyra’s chair to cut Roger off from filling her water glass, after seeing him trying to get Lyra’s attention.

As Mrs. Coulter is trying to convince Lyra to become her assistant, we’re introduced to our last main group of the episode: the gyptians, who are holding a ceremony for a young man named Tony Costa to celebrate his daemon settling in his final form. In this version, the gyptians are portrayed as a shared collective of outcasts instead of as an ethnic group, which felt like a smart change as the books tended to play into certain stereotypes about the Romani people. Their celebration doesn’t last long, as Tony’s younger brother Billy is kidnapped and the gyptians decide to head to London to find him...along with several other gyptian children who’ve gone missing.

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Lyra decides to head to London too, joining Mrs. Coulter, but before she leaves she’s given a gift: the alethiometer, otherwise known as the golden compass. She’s told little about what it is or what it does, which makes it cute when she tries to talk into it like a phone to get answers. Of course, the circumstances for her query are dire, as Roger has gone missing...shortly after Lyra begged Mrs. Coulter if he could join them in London. Hmm, seems suspicious.

The Master (Clarke Peters) gazes curiously at his new arrival.
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There’s a lot to unpack in the first episode of His Dark Materials, with a lot of exposition and scene-setting for a world that’s supposed to feel familiar and strange at the same time. It doesn’t always work (like the scene where the Master is over-explaining Lyra’s “destiny” to one of the scholars), but overall this debut shines like a promise.

As someone who’s loved His Dark Materials for years, who waited for months for her reserved copy of The Amber Spyglass to finally arrive at her local library like it was Christmas, I left the episode feeling satisfied and hopeful at what’s to come.

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Random Musings:

  • I loved the attention to detail put in the set dressings and other background moments. For example, how gargoyles were portrayed as daemons, as they are this world’s idea of protection and knowledge. There are also those times we see Roger’s daemon mimicking Lyra’s form, showing his devotion to her, only it looks a bit simpler and less graceful.
  • The fact that the episode opened on La Belle Sauvage instead of the first book seems to show they’re going sequentially instead of in book order. Considering we see Will Parry in the opening credits—whose story happens concurrently with Lyra’s, even though it doesn’t start until the second book—I’m curious how (and when) they’re going to introduce him. I thought it wouldn’t be until season two. I might be wrong.
  • If there’s one complaint to be made, it’s that there are a lot of times when we see background characters and extras without daemons. It’s like if you’re not a star of the show, you just don’t have one. I’m guessing it’s a budget thing, but it was distracting.
  • Lord Asriel bellowing “Who will stand against me?” to the scholars was a total power move. And it worked.
  • The title sequence sent shivers down my spine. Sure, it had elements of Westworld with the “dust turning into bone” thing, but it was so pretty! It paid homage to all three books in His Dark Materials, as well as hinting at the layering of worlds on top of one another. And that moment we saw Lyra and Will on the eternal staircase, walking in parallel to each other, made me happier than you can imagine.
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About the author

Beth Elderkin

Video Editor and Staff Writer at io9. My doppelganger is that rebelling greeting card from Futurama.