This episode one review is spoiler-free.
1.1 Lyra’s Jordan
Current wisdom teaches that the age of family home viewing is over; parents and kids no longer crowd around the TV in a tumble of wet-from-the-bath hair, pyjamas and shushing. Instead, they’re dispersed around the home and plugged into separate devices.
That may be largely so, but it’s not the whole picture. In 2017, Ofcom reported that 70% of UK families still watch a shared TV programme at least once a week. If you’re among them and open to suggestion, then from Sunday the 3rd of November, make it this one.
In terms of family viewing, His Dark Materials is the real thing: as Douglas Adams might have said, it’s both complicated enough for children and simple enough for adults. Its richly constructed fantasy world is magical without being cutesy. There’s no wise-cracking sidekick or sickly sweetness. Fear, frustration and a sense of never knowing quite who or what you can trust – things that kids know all about – are woven thrillingly into the adventure.
Episode one is wise enough to know that the childish exuberance of escaping, exploring and trespassing is exciting at any age. It’s also clever enough to ground its scares not in fantasy monsters, but the shadowy unknowable world of grown-ups operating with hidden agendas.
The adventure starts, as the opening scene explains, in a world “both like, and unlike, your own.” The city of Oxford (where much of this episode’s filming took place) exists but its rivers are peopled by water travellers the Gyptians, and its rooftops adorned with animal statues instead of stone gargoyles. These don’t represent true animals, but daemons, the talking, moving human soul in creature form that accompanies each living person in this world.
While an adult’s daemon is fixed as one animal, children’s daemons swap between forms until puberty. This information is quickly passed on and takes only a little getting used to (there are moments in episode one when a voice seems to be speaking from nowhere until you jolt and remind yourself you’re listening to the words of a computer-generated stoat or snow leopard.) It’s all established with a minimum of fuss, lending a matter-of-factness to the magic of the world that makes it feel satisfyingly lived-in. There will no doubt be questions at home about how it all works, but asking questions is very much the point of this story. Trust these creators, they clearly have all the details worked out.
The original Creator, or Almighty as he would doubtless not want to be known is Philip Pullman, writer of the original book trilogy published between 1995 and 2000 (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass). His work has been faithfully adapted here by screenwriter Jack Thorne (The Virtues, This Is England, Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, The Fades) and director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables, Cats). The British production company is Bad Wolf, led by Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner, the two producers behind the 2005 revival of Doctor Who. In other words, it’s been brought to life by a tribe of experienced storytellers.
The story is, as many are in the fantasy genre, about a child, a prophecy, a magical talisman, an all-powerful ruling organisation and a long, dangerous journey. Its engagement with theological and philosophical debate is what distinguishes it from the crowd (dodged by the 2007 feature film adaptation, which watered down Pullman’s criticism of theocracy). It’s been described as an inverted retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost, from where the title is drawn.
This version also stands out for its casting, which is so far faultless. Dafne Keen, recognisable from 2017 X-Men film Logan, plays main character Lyra with wilfulness and spark. James McAvoy is terrific as her Byronic uncle Lord Asriel, while you’d call Ruth Wilson a revelation as the glamorous and mysterious Mrs Coulter if she weren’t always this watchable.
While the Harry Potter phenomenon proves it can hit big in cinema, British fantasy on TV has struggled to find a foothold of late. ITV’s Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde sank without a trace. The success of Merlin wasn’t matched by its successor Atlantis. Peter Harness’ Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell, a jewel of an adaptation, was tossed away in the summer of 2015, when it should have been set, just as this has been, against a dark and wintry backdrop.
As right for cold Sunday evenings as buttered crumpets and lashing rain, His Dark Materials’ arrival has been timed to perfection. One episode a week from the start to the finale will take you all the way up until the 22nd of December, after which the wait begins for the already-filmed second series. At least one more is planned, to complete the adaptation of the novel trilogy, and a second trilogy set in the same universe is currently mid-publication, so if enough of us climb aboard, who knows where this fantastic journey might take us.
His Dark Materials starts on Sunday the 3rd of November on BBC One.
Read about the new TV dramas coming to the BBC, ITV and streaming services here.