Review: BBC His Dark Materials

Warning: this review contains spoilers for both the BBC television series, the trilogy by Philip Pullman and the film The Golden Compass.

The opening moments of His Dark Materials (BBC One) informed us: “This story starts in another world …one that is both like, and unlike your own.” That’s right: a world in which the BBC can blow the budget on a fantasy series that Netflix would have given its right arm to make.

Wait! Don’t cancel your licence fee just yet. This adaptation of Philip Pullman’s bestselling trilogy was part-funded by HBO, an American broadcaster with deep pockets. And that partnership has allowed the BBC to produce a gorgeously-realised drama that – almost – does justice to the source material.

Philip Pullman’s renowned novel trilogy is readapted into a television series after the film The Golden Compass was such a disappointment based on critic’s reviews.

The BBC and HBO indicate by the title that all three parts to His Dark Materials including The Northern Lights (book one – Lyra goes North to save Roger), The Subtle Knife (book two – Lyra travels worlds and meets Dr Malone in ‘our Oxford’ and major character Will), and last but not least, The Amber Spyglass (Mrs Coulter kidnaps Lyra, Will & Lyra travel to the land of the dead) will be interpreted in this new smash hit show.

This means this new series could potentially run for years.

James McAvoy as Lord Asriel was a reliable choice since Daniel Craig’s portrayal in the film seemed unbeatable. McAvoy brings a sense of power on set with him and walks with an air of importance, making him the right choice for the intellectual ‘uncle’ of Lyra.

James McAvoy in His Dark Materials

There are some downsides if you’re not a bookworm who has already digested the numerous novels. In His Dark Materials, Lyra is from an alternate world where people’s souls manifest themselves outside of the human body in the form of animals called daemons, able to shapeshift until settling on a species at adulthood.

This can be a confusing concept for the older generation or contemporary enthusiasts. Philip Pullman has always been reluctant to label his trilogy as sci-fi or fantasy, although his books clearly follow some of these tropes and genre techniques because he is firmly under the belief this is a political and religious book more alike to the real world than not.

When it premiered earlier this month, BBC One’s His Dark Materials managed to draw in 7.2 million viewers, making it the broadcaster’s biggest drama launch since The Musketeers debuted in 2014. But the second episode of the fantasy series didn’t prove quite so popular, as just 5.7 million tuned in to see how the story would progress past the pilot (via Deadline).

It’s worth noting, however, that this figure only refers to the overnight data, and catch-up viewings via iPlayer and other online views haven’t yet been accounted for, so fans of the show need not worry about its popularity just yet.

The combination of the first two episodes is already longer than the film in duration and has covered more of the story’s plot in detail. Truth bombs about Lyra’s parentage and secrets about Mrs Coulter’s ability to separate from her daemon (or soul) unlike other characters in the show are flying around left, right and centre.

Mrs Coulter is by far the most interesting character in both the books and the TV show, in spite of her wickedness. In fact, her coarse nature is what generates such curiosity for her. Psychological speaking, her personality would be interesting to analyse in comparison to the other characters as we get the sense there is something deeply disturbed about her mental health.

She is sweet and innocent, wrapping people around her little finger, in public when it’s necessary. The moment she disagrees or is enraged, her persona changes from this cutesy professor to a controlled psychopath. Her outbursts do seem angry but her behaviour is still so controlled. The only slip up is when Lyra mentions Lord Asriel and *spoiler alert* Mrs Coulter loses it, confessing he is her father, because of her close link with Asriel.

It is obvious even to those who haven’t read the books that Mrs Coulter is closer to Lyra than Lyra herself knows. We assume she has a distant past or could be a relative, much more easily as the characters look alike in this specific adaptation. Matching hair colours, for example.

Appleby Ink Rating (so far): ★★★★

Lyra with her daemon  Pantalaimon
Lyra & her daemon

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