This His Dark Materials review contains spoilers. Here’s our spoiler-free review.
In our world, it’s been almost a year since Lyra and Pan stepped through the hole Lord Asriel tore in the sky. And what a year. If ever the prospect of turning your back on one reality and escaping to another were attractive, it’s now. In lieu of Asriel’s scientific equipment and what might be termed broad-minded attitude towards the moral taboo of child murder, this is our hole in the sky: courtesy of the BBC and HBO, a seven-episode trip out of here.
In episode one, His Dark Materials takes us to Cittàgazze, the city glimpsed by Asriel in the Northern Lights, where Lyra and Pan find themselves after crossing over. New world, new rules. Just when we had a grasp on one fantasy realm (human souls as talking animals, magical know-it-all gadget, ruling class of creepy church dudes…) we step into another with its own logic (no adults, no daemons, soul-sucking fog of evil, al fresco courtyard dining…). Usefully for us, the newly met Lyra and Will needed things explaining too, so we can learn at the same time.
The city turned Marie Celeste after its adults came under attack by Spectres, or floating smoke-monsters who drain grown-ups of humanity and leave them wandering, empty husks, very like the post-incision children of Bolvangar. Spectres feed only on the post-pubescent and can’t be seen by children, so, much in the style of UK tabloid newspapers, they invisibly stalk kids on the cusp, waiting for the precise moment they tip over into adulthood and become fair game. That’s where the episode one cliff-hanger left Will – pursued by a soul-sucker biding its time.
Before the monsters arrived, Lyra and Will’s scenes in Cittàgazze were a rare interlude of warmth in this chilly, cerebral story. The beautifully realised Mediterranean-style city was a picturesque backdrop for the kids’ meet-cute. Until that roiling squirm of smoke intestines showed up to remind us they were in mortal peril, for a time, there was peace. Will fixed the stand-up bath and made an ‘om-lat’, Lyra stole his bed and served him cooked eggshell (as a ward of Jordan College, she’s been waited on her whole life so doesn’t know a frying pan from a cheese grater). It was – briefly – gentle and sweet, two things in short supply elsewhere in this tale.
That’s evidenced by the continuing, twisted adventures of Mrs Coulter and the Magisterium. The sole woman among a bunch of men, Mrs Coulter is the Magisterium’s Smurfette, if that is, Smurfette had understood the heady and intoxicating power of her alien female sexuality and used it to manipulate Papa Smurf to perform her evil bidding, which, of course she did. Why else do you think she wore those shoes.
Mrs Coulter’s manipulation of the god squad is deliciously twisted. Dressed in siren-red, with her Hedy Lamarr glamour, she has a devil’s instinct for temptation. To the priests she doesn’t stun into terrified silence by her presence alone, she pantomimes faux-subservience while clearly giving them (apologies for baseness while discussing a family show but hey, I didn’t script that ring-kissing scene) the under-the-cassock excitement of their lives.
The submarine setting gave it all more than a touch of WWII noir thriller. As dark as Cittàgazze was light, it made Mrs Coulter a Gestapo villain. Such evil. Ruth Wilson, of course, wrapped herself in those scenes like they were a Dalmatian-fur coat. She’s never channelled the role of classic baddy so fully as when slowly and deliberately removing her jewellery in preparation to torture a prisoner until they begged for death.
Death arrived in the form of the no-messing witch queen Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka), who may have failed to convince her sisters to join her attack on The Magisterium but succeeded in both keeping the prophecy about Lyra from her mother, and making an impression on us. That was a rock-star entrance, flying through the storm, releasing Mrs Coulter’s victim from her pain, and cutting a swathe through Magisterium security before sticking one right in the Cardinal’s chest. Now Mrs Coulter’s going to finish him off – somebody add priest-murder to that woman’s ever-growing list of sins.
His Dark Materials’ witches are at their best in battle. Standing around on clifftops discussing witch admin like the even more humourless relations of The Lord of the Rings’ elves, they’re less exciting. That council of witches scene was beautiful – I mean, look at those ladies, look at those dresses – but compared to other characters, their high fantasy formality drains them of life. Now that Lee Scoresby (Lin Manuel Miranda) has his magic flower and a side mission off in search of a magical protective doohickey, let’s hope the witches only show up to dish out more high-speed ass-kickings.
Overall, ‘The City of Magpies’ is a confident opener on an impressive scale. It keeps the momentum of the finale going while leaving enough space around Lyra and Will’s first meeting to let us get close to them before they’re swept up by the plot. Outside, the storm clouds of Destiny, a Mighty Battle, and all that capital letter fantasy stuff are swirling, but the cautiously developing intimacy of those two gives us that all-important emotional reason to take their side in the fight to come.