This review contains spoilers.
1.7 The Fight To The Death
“We thought book one could not be adapted in fewer than eight episodes,” said His Dark Materials producer Jane Tranter at October’s launch event, “and I didn’t want to push my luck asking for more than eight.” Absolutely, quite right. No complaints here.
Except, if Tranter had pushed her luck to the tune of an extra five minutes for this week’s episode, a few things things might have been better explained. The story of Iorek’s homecoming had gaps that, if filled, would have made it more emotionally satisfying. Perhaps those answers are on their way in the finale, but without them here, Iorek’s redemptive arc lacked some weight. Lee Scoresby’s reaction to hearing the news of his friend’s return to the throne felt more moving than the thing itself.
Parts of the plot simply felt as though they were missing. Who, for instance, did Iorek kill before he was banished from Svalbard, and in what circumstances? Why was he exiled for that, but re-crowned for killing Iofur? What aid did Mrs Coulter give Iofur in his plot to take Iorek’s throne? Why was the first creature Iorek killed his own father? What were the “human ways” Iorek had brought to the Panserbjørne Palace, and what did the other bears think about Iorek’s return?
And if bears are, as we’ve been told, so impossible to trick, why was Iofur so easily tricked not once but four times (by Mrs Coulter, by Lord Asriel, by Lyra and by Iorek during their fight). If his desire to become human had negated his natural abilities as a bear, that didn’t quite read, and neither did the reason he so idolised another species.
If the bear story wasn’t perfect, then the look of it came pretty close. Iorek had real presence in his scene alone with Lyra, and as a spectacle, the fight had weight and peril. The palace design, with its architectural bones and pools of blood, was as impressive as we’ve become used to on His Dark Materials – a location on a monumental scale that, in the wide-shot of Lyra approaching, recalled the sight of tiny figures dwarfed by the landscape approaching Game Of Thrones’ ice wall.
Against a similarly vast and desolate backdrop was Sister Clara’s hunched figure in that chilling scene where Mrs Coulter almost choked her to death. (It didn’t lack for darkness, episode seven). The choking wasn’t the interesting part, that came when she stopped herself, horrified, and repeated “I didn’t mean it” like a traumatised child. As in her chamomile tea ministrations to Lyra last week, Wilson’s character is at her most fascinating when she’s something other than pure evil. Injured, for instance, or caught off guard.
Not that she ever is for long. Within a breath of Father MacPhail crowing over Mrs Coulter’s failure, she was back on the team, having persuaded him to let her join the assault on Asriel through a combination of logical argument and physical proximity (dressed in red, she flusters priest-types, and knows it).
Speaking of rattled men, our first look at Lord Asriel in six episodes saw him having gone full Victor Frankenstein up in that Arctic laboratory. His agitated reaction to Lyra’s arrival (“No, no! I did not send for you. I did not send for you. You have to leave!”) was worrying enough even before he greedily turned his eyes on Roger Parslow – the loveliest and most adorable friend a kid could have. If this show was aiming to make us love Roger so we’d feel every second of any peril Lewin Lloyd’s character was in, then job done. Asriel’s the wolf and Roger’s the lamb.
We’ve seen less of our other boy in danger, Will Parry, but with his story properly underway now, we can expect to see, and feel, more about him in series two. After accidentally killing Boreal’s despicable lackey, Will’s now on the run and on his own – not being able to risk seeing his mum to say goodbye. Armed with the clues in his father’s letters and the hint that Colonel John Parry may yet be alive, his adventure starts here.
The Northern Lights’ adventure, on the other hand, is very nearly at a close. (After an information-heavy start, haven’t these past episodes just flown by like a dream?) We leave our young heroes on a remote mountaintop in the clutches of an unstable scientist, with an army and an enraged Mrs Coulter on the warpath. It’s hard to know who to be more afraid of.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, The Daemon-Cages, here.