His Dark Materials episode 1 review: full-strength Pullman

BBC One’s new fantasy epic is rich, complex, does justice to the world of the books, and is worth missing bedtime for. Spoilers ahead…

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

1.1 Lyra’s Jordan

There’s a frisson surrounding the launch of the BBC’s His Dark Materials, and not just from fans of Philip Pullman’s books anxious to see justice done. Shadowy forces are circling, murmuring about the risk posed by the BBC-HBO adaptation’s high budget. Isn’t it a gamble, worry these concerned bystanders. And with a second series already filmed, wouldn’t it be just dreadful if it failed? 

A cynic might say that failure is precisely what’s being wished on the BBC from those quarters, and that unless the premiere is met with unqualified rapture and towering ratings, the headlines and Twitter-scrape reaction pieces will be sadly forced to gloat over the very great shame of it all. 

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Perversely, they’re dead right. His Dark Materials is a huge risk. It’s cost oodles of money. It’s a family drama made at a time when families are increasingly less likely to sit down to watch the same programme together. It aims to appeal to both adults and children, though the presence of talking animals is enough for many to dismiss it as the sole reserve of the latter. It’s a complex story built on tricky-to-grasp concepts that starts in the rarefied world of an Oxford college and deals with the not-immediately-accessible subjects of heresy, Original sin and ecclesiastical tyranny. It’s a massive gamble. Massive.

And one that should absolutely have been taken. It’s clear from the books that this story can’t be adapted small. It’s also clear from the failed 2007 feature film is it can’t be adapted by dipping just a toe into the waters of Pullman’s religious critique. A successful adaptation demands the scope afforded by a healthy budget and the courage of its convictions; this one has both. It’s full-strength Pullman: rich, complex and without half-measures. 

Because of that, some will likely be alienated by episode one, which drops us in headily and makes few allowances for newcomers. Despite the rooftop acrobatics of lead Lyra (Logan’s Dafne Keen – a terrific bit of casting) and the heroic Northern exploits of explorer Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), it’s the most static, anachronistic part of this fantasy story and not an easy sell. Unlike a swathe of entertainment aimed at young viewers, it’s hard to imagine the breadth of this one being comfortably translated to an amusement park ride. (Perhaps tellingly, there’s no hit YouTube channel featuring Oxford dons sitting by fireplaces using words like “unimpeachable” and “scholastic sanctuary”.)

No, episode one requires attention and a willingness to be temporarily baffled. The concept of the daemon – the human soul as animal companion – is sketched out in a brief prologue and then, elegant solution of the Gyptian ceremony aside, we’re more or less left alone to watch how it all works. The same goes for Dust, about which we’re as clueless as Lyra. 

Seeing as she’s our viewpoint character, that’s completely as it should be. Episode one is filled with mysteries and intrigues for Lyra and us to solve at the same time, not limited to but including: why would the Master of Jordan College try to poison his ally Lord Asriel? What is Dust? What does the excitingly glamorous Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson – an even more terrific bit of casting) want with a 12-year-old orphan? How does an alethiometer work? Who’s the scary man snatching children, where is he taking Roger, and why? 

Make peace with the not-knowing and let this clever, graceful adaptation take you with it. Answers will come, and with any luck, they’ll spark even more important questions.

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What is immediately evident is how good it all looks. The expensive CGI daemons feel believably part of the universe. Even in large crowd scenes, just enough flapping wings and snaking tails have been added to remind us that Lyra’s world is doubly populated. From Jordan College to the Gyptian camp to the fascistic architecture of the Magisterium headquarters, there’s a sense of lived-in scale to the locations and scenery. It’s magical yet grounded, like Lorne Balfe’s evocative musical score (listen again to Mrs Coulter’s entrance music by the way and see what you’re reminded of. Not Mary Poppins.)  

Also evident are some excellent casting choices. Dafne Keen and Lewin Lloyd as Lyra and Roger capably carry entire scenes. The familial affection that Ian Gelder’s Librarian has for the college’s ward Lyra is instantly touching. Other relationships in Lyra’s life – those with the college master, and her distant, Byronic uncle Asriel and new mentor Mrs Coulter are less established this early but give it time. Nothing in the cast, in Tom Hooper’s direction or in Jack Thorne’s script additions or condensations feels like a mis-step.

One changed scene from the first book in Pullman’s trilogy (series one’s eight episodes adapt The Northern Lights, with the already-commissioned series two adapting The Subtle Knife, and any subsequent series tackling The Amber Spyglass) is Lyra’s first try at using the alethiometer. Like any kid in 2019, she attempts a Siri-like voice-command but gets nowhere. The gift she’s been given isn’t easy to penetrate. Like a truly great story, it won’t deliver showy answers from the off. It’s something special, something rare requiring an investment of time and attention that once made, returns untold rewards. 

His Dark Materials continues next Sunday at 8pm on BBC One.