His Dark Materials is a very British piece of fiction. Like Doctor Who or the work of Wells, it has a deeply British sensibility to it. This is not simply because most of its first episode is set in Oxford amongst the dreaming spires of a world like our own but one that is slightly different – a world that moulds the ethereal religiosity of C S Lewis with the more grounded work of Malorie Blackman into a truly unique creation.
His Dark Materials, based on the trilogy of novels by acclaimed writer Philip Pullman, is set in a world akin to our own in some ways but radically different in others. In this world, the human soul has a physical embodiment – a daemon that can, until their human reaches a certain age, is able to transmute into whatever shape or form they wish. Our story begins with Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) arriving at his alma mater of Jordan College, Oxford. Asriel invokes socialistic sanctuary so that his niece may be able to live and grow up in the college away from any possible threat to her; threats that may come from the all-powerful Magisterium, the world government of this Earth.
This opening scene not only succinctly introduces us to Lyra’s world and some of the concepts that are part of it but immediately intrigues the audience; why would anyone want to kill a baby? Writer Jack Thorne knows how to grip his audience and he does it perfectly with this scene.
Ten years later and Asriel’s niece Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) is happy to grow up in the protected sanctuary of the college, watched over by the Librarian Charles (Ian Gelder), the Master of the College (Clarke Peters) and her daemon Pantalaimon (Kit Connor). Whilst playing in the college with her friend Roger Parslaw (Lewin Lloyd), Lyra discovers that her uncle has returned home from the North. Lord Asriel’s mission has been to capture the Northern Lights to prove the existence of other worlds – in direct contradiction to the beliefs of the Magisterium. Because of this, Asriel is in great danger and believes that Lyra is as well and so does not want to get her involved in his work. Inadvertently, however, she becomes involved when she prevents her uncle from being poisoned by The Master of the College, afraid that Asriel’s meddling will involve the rest of the college and bring ruin on them all.
Whilst Lyra attempts to get her uncle’s attention and permission to join him in the North, mysterious events are happening in the town of Oxford. Children, particularly children from Gyptian families, are disappearing – apparently taken by Gobblers, gangs that roam cities and towns waiting to snatch whoever they can.
The use of the Gobblers is highly effective story-wise as it allows the drama to not only show both sides of Lyra’s world – the more comfortable surroundings of the university against the rather ramshackle places that the Gyptians live but it also allows a connection between Lyra and the Gyptians when Lyra becomes concerned when her friend Roger is apparently taken by one of the Gobbler gangs. This adds a sense of dramatic cohesion between the main plot and the subplot and also demonstrates that our characters have a common foe and allows us to understand the threats they face.
As her uncle leaves to return to the North in search of more answers about the universe, Lyra feels dejected and alone. Offered the chance to leave Jordan College and travel to London with the mysterious Mrs Coulter as her companion (Ruth Wilson), Lyra is overjoyed at the prospect of not simply going on an adventure but also of finding her friend.
The opening episode of His Dark Materials is, perhaps standard for fantasy. It follows a similar rhythmic beat to The Golden Compass, the film adapted from Pullman’s books. Yet, unlike the film, His Dark Materials stays truer to Pullman’s vision of a world that feels like our own but has just the slightly unnerving quality of being that little bit different. This is conveyed through the episode not simply by the presence of the daemons, strange and wonderfully rendered by CGI, but also through the landscape and language of Lyra’s world.
References to Dust, a strange and unknown quantity that is at the heart of this world’s ecosystem, abound amongst discussions about what the Magisterium may do to the fellows of Jordan College if they step out of line. It is this slightly out of kilter rendering of a fantastical landscape which gives His Dark Materials its unique appeal; it allows us to imagine what our world would be like if we were able to incorporate fantastical elements into it, in a way that no other British fantasy series does.
The general pace of the episode, whilst never being boring or repetitive is clearly designed to set up the rest of the series. We are not given full answers to questions or explanations to everything that is happening – why is Lyra under Scholastic Sanctuary, in what way could she have been a threat? Was The Master’s attempt to kill Asriel simply because of fear or something else? Who is Mrs Coulter and why is she interested in Lyra? These questions are deliberately left unanswered as to ensure that the audience is sucked into the drama and the first episode does this very well, giving us hints as to potential resolutions without giving us the full picture. This builds nicely throughout the episode until its conclusion and Lyra’s decision to go with Mrs Coulter to London to find Roger ends the episode on a high; it forces the audience to want to find out what happens next and imagine what could occur in the next episode.
The acting throughout the episode is exceptional with James McAvoy, though only having a supporting role in this episode, giving a particularly fine performance as the adventurous Lord Asriel. Asriel is a man determined to find the truth, no matter what and his burning purpose is brought out wonderfully well by McAvoy. His determination is perhaps best shown in the scene in which he reveals his findings to the fellows of Jordan College – McAvoy brilliantly commands the scene and delivers his findings in an excited yet precise way, ensuring that all around listen to him. McAvoy knows how to create a calm and confident character and he does this brilliantly with his portrayal of Asriel.
Dafne Keen gives a fantastic performance as Lyra. Keen understands how to play the wonder and curiosity that is so fundamental to Lyra’s character in a realistic and engaging way. As the series is the story of Lyra, it is vital that the person playing that part is able to fully become the character and make themselves a likeable and engaging protagonist for the audience – Keen does this perfectly and truly becomes Lyra.
His Dark Materials is an engaging and inventive drama that adapts what many thought was an unadaptable trilogy into a thrilling and true representation of Philip Pullman’s brilliantly vivid fictional world. It is a family drama in the true traditional sense of the world; it tells its story in neither a patronising nor reductionist way but presents it as seriously as if it were any other drama series. The first episode does not give its audience all the answers and that is how it should be – yet, even so, this first instalment of His Dark Materials has enough thrills, dynamic characters and intriguing plot to keep its audience desperate to know more until the next instalment airs. It is truly event television that you should not miss out on.
Contributed by Will Barber-Taylor
His Dark Materials Continues Sunday at 8.00pm on BBC One.