His Dark Materials: Is new HBO show worth the hype?


“Outside the school, she’s not safe,” Asriel tells The Master.

Twelve years later, we see Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) racing around the college with her friend Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd), who is also an orphan, and their daemons. What are the daemons? Every human’s soul or “inner self” is represented by a daemon in the form of an animal.

During a person’s adolescence, the daemon changes form until it “settles” involuntarily into its final form, signalling the person’s coming of age.

That is, in the world of HBO and BBC’s new show His Dark Materials, which is now streaming on Foxtel.

It was made into a 2007 film, The Golden Compass, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, but failed to impress critics and fans of the cherished books – Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Dafne Keen plays Lyra in His Dark Materials. Picture: HBOSource:Supplied

Lyra is an adventurous and defiant child, especially as she takes lessons from Librarian Scholar Charles (Ian Gelder). But when she gets word from her daemon Pantalaimon (Kit Connor) that her uncle Asriel is back from exploring in the north with his daemon Stelmaria (Helen McCrory), she sneaks into The Master’s study and sees that he’s poisoning the wine he’s going to offer Asriel. She jumps out and keeps him from drinking it, telling him it’s poisoned. He’s happy to see Lyra but isn’t surprised that The Master is trying to kill him. What he found up north is something that the ruling Magisterium doesn’t want people to know.

RELATED: Everything you need to know about His Dark Materials

He presents to the college’s benefactors what he found: A city, hidden in the Northern Lights. He wants more money to explore it further, and gets it over The Master’s and The Librarian’s objections. While he doesn’t trust The Master, Asriel tells The Master to find a place for Lyra outside the college. The wealthy Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) takes Lyra on as her assistant, but she insists that Roger comes with her. When she can’t find Roger, it becomes apparent he’s been grabbed, maybe by the Gobblers, a somewhat mythical group that has been blamed for the disappearances of children in the nomadic Gyptian tribe.

Rediscover magic and wonder with epic fantasy His Dark Materials. Get Foxtel Now

Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter in a scene from the TV series His Dark Materials. Picture: Foxtel

Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter in a scene from the TV series His Dark Materials. Picture: FoxtelSource:News Regional Media

There is a lot — a LOT — to wrap your head around when you watch His Dark Materials, especially if you’re unfamiliar with Philip Pullman’s young-adult fantasy novel series.

Despite an introductory paragraph that mentions the world this first episode takes place in is like our world but isn’t, the idea of daemons, the presence of the Magisterium, the witches that challenge the Magisterium, and the child that might change everything, means we are still trying to figure out the world we are looking at.

Perhaps it’s because we just don’t have the mindset for this kind of show. It’s not like we thought HDM was a silly cheesefest. At least the acting in HDM is excellent. But there’s just so much we had to send through our “just what the eff is going on?” filter that we couldn’t give the actual story our full attention and appreciation.

Dafne Keen more than holds her own with McAvoy and Wilson (and, we assume, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who will show up in a subsequent episode) and plays Lyra like the headstrong girl she is but in a way that makes you believe that she’s trying to break out of her cloistered upbringing. She’s restless; she holds her uncle to his promise to take her on one of his northern missions, and chases his about-to-lift-off airship when she realises he’s again going to leave without her.

We give showrunner Jane Tranter and her staff credit for making such a complex story as clear as it is, especially as things get more complex in the episodes to come. There’s space to fill in some of the details here and there, like why a particular daemon ends up in the form it ends up in. For instance, Mrs Coulter’s daemon is a monkey, while Asriel’s is a white tiger. The daemon for Gyptian teen Tony Costa (Daniel Frogston), whose brother Billy (Tyler Howitt) is kidnapped by the Gobblers, recently settled into hawk form.

But since we know that kids’ daemons switch, it’s hard to follow what Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon is doing; we think she’s a tiny white ferret, then she’s a larger brown weasel (or is that Roger’s daemon?). It may reflect Lyric’s mood, but it’s confusing to uninitiated viewers like us.

It’s a compliment to the show’s effects staff to say that we don’t notice the daemons are CGI. It feels like a natural part of this world, whether we see them up close or from far away.

Despite some of the confusion about the world’s details, His Dark Materials is still a well-paced, well-acted way into Philip Pullman’s universe.

This article originally appeared on Decider and has been reproduced with permission



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