Warning: contains major plot spoilers for His Dark Materials season one.
His Dark Materials had so much world-building to do in season one that it took a little while to get moving. Once off the ground though, the BBC/HBO fantasy soared. By the time the story had landed in the Far North, a place of armoured bears, cruel scientific research facilities and windows to other worlds, the adaptation had captured the scope and excitement of Philip Pullman’s books. Before then, the foundations were being carefully laid to explain the nature of a world “both like and unlike our own” and to prepare for the epic journey that young Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry were about to take.
The first season is currently available to stream on BBC iPlayer and HBO Max, but if you don’t have time for a full rewatch ahead of the new episodes’ arrival, here’s a summary of the major action.
The Short Version
13-year-old Lyra lives in a parallel world where every human’s soul exists outside their body in animal form, known as a ‘daemon’. Lyra’s the subject of a world-changing prophecy and has an unexplained ability to interpret the alethiometer, a rare, mystical device able to answer any question. Lyra was raised as an orphan, but learns that she is the product of an illicit affair between her ‘uncle’ Lord Asriel and the villainous Mrs Coulter. Asriel is an explorer whose controversial experiments with Dust – a mysterious, invisible substance that surrounds adults but not children – have made him an enemy of religious rulers The Magisterium, which sees Dust as a manifestation of Original Sin and seeks to eliminate it. Mrs Coulter works for The Magisterium and leads secret, cruel experiments in the Far North that sever children from their daemons in an attempt to rid them of Dust, killing many in the process and leaving the survivors empty husks.
With the help of witches, an aeronaut and an armoured bear, Lyra and water travellers The Gyptians storm Mrs Coulter’s research station and free the surviving children. Lyra helps armoured bear Iorek – an exiled King – regain his throne, and she and Roger go to her father’s mountain laboratory. Lord Asriel kills Roger by cutting away his daemon to create an energy surge to open a window to another world, which Asriel walks through. Mrs Coulter, who reveals a deep love for their daughter and a continuing attraction to Asriel, refuses to follow him, but Lyra passes into the next world to try to stop him and to get revenge for Roger’s death. At the same time, in our world, teenager Will goes through a window used by Mrs Coulter’s villainous lover, Lord Boreal to pass between Lyra’s and Will’s worlds. Will is on the run from accidentally killing Boreal’s lackey, who was searching for information on Will’s father Col. John Parry, who disappeared years earlier on an Alaskan expedition and is suspected of having moved between the worlds. Boreal discovers the existence of a magical knife in a tower surrounded by angels and thinks Will is the key to finding it.
The Longer Version
Energetic, cheeky and an excellent liar, 13-year-old Lyra and her daemon Pan were raised by the masters of Jordan College, Oxford, after being left in their care as a baby by Lord Asriel, whom she believed to be her uncle but later learns is her father. Taken on as an apprentice by glamorous Arctic explorer Marisa Coulter, Lyra moves to London but runs away when she learns that Mrs Coulter is responsible for the disappearances of multiple children snatched from the streets, including her best friend Roger. With water travellers the Gyptians, many of whose children had also been taken by Mrs Coulter’s “gobblers”, Lyra travels north to find the missing kids. Along the way, she learns from Ma Costa, the mother of a missing boy, that Mrs Coulter is her biological mother.
Along with baby Lyra, Lord Asriel brought to Jordan College an alethiometer – a mystical device of which there are only a handful in the world, that can answer any question as long as the reader is able to interpret its symbols. When Lyra leaves for London, the college master entrusts the alethiometer to her, telling her to keep it secret. She uses it to go in search of Roger and Billy, the son of Gyptian Ma Costa, whom she finds in the North as a dying husk, separated from his daemon. She and the Gyptians convince the powerful witches to support their fight, join forces with aeronaut Lee Scoresby and deposed Panserbjørn king Iorek, and infiltrate the research facility where Roger, Billy and the others are being experimented on. They rescue the children and the facility is destroyed.
After she falls from Lee Scoresby’s balloon while under attack from cliff ghasts, Lyra is imprisoned by King Iofur, the Panserbjørn usurper of Iorek’s throne. She uses her cunning to trick Iofur into one-on-one combat with the former king, who is restored to his rightful place on the throne. The Panserbjørn take Lyra and Roger to Lord Asriel’s mountain laboratory, where Asriel kills Roger to open a window between worlds that first he, and then Lyra went through.
A sweet-hearted, orphaned kitchen boy and Lyra’s best friend at Jordan College, Roger was kidnapped by the General Oblation Board (the ‘gobblers’) and shipped as part of a cohort of stolen children to the Far North. His disappearance spurs Lyra to take up the offer of a London apprenticeship with glamorous explorer Mrs Coulter, who promises she can help Lyra to look for him. In fact, Mrs Coulter is the head of the General Oblation Board, and knew precisely where Roger and the others were – at her experimental research station where their daemons were being cut away from them by a special machine. Most of the children die in the experiment, and those that don’t – like Gyptian child Billy Costa – are left empty and soulless.
With the help of the Gyptians, Lyra tracks Roger down to the facility, where a gang of them destroy the place and break out the captive children. Roger and Lyra are taken to the mountainside laboratory of Lord Asriel, who’d been revealed as Lyra’s real father, and who was trying to tear a hole in the fabric of their world to create a route to the other world he’d glimpsed through the Northern Lights. Needing an enormous surge of energy to create the bridge, Lord Asriel cuts Roger’s daemon from him, successfully opening the window to the new world, but killing Roger and his daemon in the process.
Lyra’s father (who spent the first 13 years of her life pretending to be her uncle, lying that her real parents had been killed in a Zeppelin accident) is largely notable for his absence in her life. In season one, he only appears twice and both times he uses Lyra and Roger to suit his own needs with no regard for their welfare. In episode one, Asriel comes to Jordan College to request funding for his controversial research on Dust and the many-worlds theory, continuing the work of Stanislaus Grumman who disappeared in the Arctic North. Before he gives his talk, Lyra witnesses the Master poisoning Asriel’s wine, and stops him from drinking it, so Asriel plants her in the room as a spy, exposing her to his dangerous research on Dust.
Next we hear, Asriel’s been taken captive by King Iofur of the Panserbjørn at the request of his villainous ex-lover (and Lyra’s mother) Mrs Coulter. Iofur allows Asriel to continue his research under house-arrest, and when Lyra brings Roger come to his laboratory, he can’t believe his luck – a child is exactly what he needed to kill in order to create the powerful energy surge that tears a rip in reality and lets him pass through to the next world. Asriel kills Roger, opens the window, tries to convince Mrs Coulter to come with him and build a new “Republic of Heaven.” Her love for Lyra is too strong to leave the world their daughter is in, they kiss, and Asriel walks through the window without her.
Where to start? This glossy, silky fundamentalist has such a deep-set aversion to lust and sexuality that she’s been murdering children in a Magisterium-approved killing machine in order to eliminate ‘sin’ from the human race. Paradoxically (or perhaps not at all so), her daughter Lyra was born as a product of a lustful extra-marital affair with Lord Asriel, with whom she still has outrageous sexual chemistry. Mrs Coulter is a cruel, violent, malevolent sociopath who’s been prone to extraordinary rages since she was a child, and yet… she also loves her daughter with a passion she doesn’t understand.
In season one she seduces Lyra away from Jordan College and tries to turn her into a ‘proper’ lady, before letting slip in a rage that Asriel is Lyra’s father. When Lyra discovers that Mrs Coulter is the one snatching children, she runs away to the Gyptians, and is pursued by Mrs Coulter to the North. After Lord Asriel kills Roger and opens the window to another world, Mrs Coulter catches up to him and they kiss, but she refuses to go with him, preferring to stay where Lyra is.
Mrs Coulter’s daemon is a mute golden-haired monkey without a name that is – highly unusually – able to physically separate from her (it normally causes unbelievable pain for humans and their daemons to be separated more than a few feet). She regularly abuses and is cruel to the monkey, which says a lot about her mental state when you remember that a daemon is a person’s soul. As the head of the General Oblation Board, she’s responsible for the child-daemon-cutting experiments, and is a master manipulator who uses her sexual allure to discomfit and tempt the men of the Magisterium to allow her to carry out her will. She’s the lover of the evil Lord Boreal, who’s been crossing between worlds to pursue Will Parry for information about his missing father (see below).
From Oxford in our world (no to visible daemons, but yes to mobile phones and Walker’s Crisps), Will is an isolated teenager and the sole carer for his psychologically vulnerable mother. Years earlier, Will’s father Colonel John Parry disappeared on an Arctic expedition, and the villainous Lord Boreal suspects him of having passed through a window to Lyra’s world (daemons, air ships, witches). Seeking information about Will’s father, Boreal discovers the existence of a mystical knife, which he hopes to be led to by Will.
To get away from Boreal’s men who had broken into his home looking for papers left by Will’s father, Will pushes one over a stair rail and accidentally kills him. That forces him to go on the run and leave his mother behind. Trying to evade the police, he follows a cat through a shimmering “hole in the air” and steps through to another world.
The Magisterium, The Gyptians, The Witches, Lee Scoresby, Iorek Byrnison
The Magisterium are the bad guys – the theocratic rulers of Lyra’s world who enforce their power through military might, seeking to control everything from academia to human sin (see above: Mrs Coulter). They’re led by the Cardinal and represented by the odious Fra Pavel, whom Lord Boreal blackmails about his “filthy predilections” and zealot Father McPhail. In season one they back Mrs Coulter’s cruel experiments on separating children and their daemons.
The Gyptians are a clan of water-travellers led by John Faa, many of whose children are kidnapped by the General Oblation Board. Ma Costa was nursemaid to baby Lyra and is the mother of two boys – Tony and Billy, the latter of whom died after having his daemon sliced away by Mrs Coulter’s machine. Farder Coram is a Gyptian who loved witch Serafina Pekkala in his youth. They had a son who died of an illness, a pain that still haunts them both.
The Witches are magical beings who can fly courtesy of the cloud pine beneath their skin. They live for centuries, are powerful fighters, and Serafina Pekkala helps to rescue the children from the research facility. The prophecy concerning Lyra came from them, who heard it in the whisperings of angels who pass between worlds.
Lee Scoresby is an adventurer for hire with his own hot air balloon. He and his daemon Hester join forces with Lyra in the North, and he plays an instrumental part in the attack on the research facility. He vows to protect Lyra and help her to fulfil her destiny.
King Iorek is a Panserbjørn (mighty bear which forges its own magical armour) exiled from his homeland after he killed another Panserbjørn in combat. Lyra tricks his usurper King Iofur into fighting him for the throne by pretending to be Iorek’s daemon (a human attribute Iofur greatly covets), and restores Iorek to his rightful position.
His Dark Materials season two arrives on BBC One on Sunday the 8th of November and on HBO on Sunday the 15th of November.