REVIEW: ‘His Dark Materials’ and the Importance of the Youth as Agents of Change

Rating: 3 out of 3.

“A fun and worthwhile watch for fans of Pullman’s trilogy, fantasy television, or people with an HBO subscription.”

This article contains spoilers for His Dark Materials.

The BBC One and HBO television series His Dark Materials concluded its first season this past December. Based on the trilogy of fantasy books by the same name written by Philip Pullman, the show depicts the journey of Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) in an alternate world where humans have animal counterparts called daemons, and the religious institution The Magisterium acts as governmental authority. With its strong world building, emotionally poignant acting and exploration of the youth as agents of change, His Dark Materials is a welcome addition to the current landscape of science fiction and fantasy television.

A young girl is staring into the face of a polar bear while in a fish market.

The show starts in Oxford as Lyra, her daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Connor) and her friend Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd) chase each other across the campus of Jordan College, zeppelin airships flying overhead. Lyra is immediately shown to be a mischievous and adventurous young girl: spending her days running around, hopping into laundry baskets, hiding in crypts, spying on the Master of Jordan College (Clarke Peters) and just generally causing trouble as she desperately wishes to join her uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), in exploring the arctic. With stories of children being kidnapped spreading across the countryside, Roger and a young Gyptian boy named Billy Costa (Tyler Howitt) are taken, spurring the events of the first season into action. While the show sticks closely to the narrative of the first book in Pullman’s trilogy, The Golden Compass, it also introduces the story’s deuteragonist Will Parry (Amir Wilson) in his and his mother’s initial encounters with Lord Carlo Boreal (Ariyon Bakare). Despite pacing that is occasionally much too fast, His Dark Materials sets the stage for a strong second season.

The first season of His Dark Materials primarily takes place in Lyra’s world– a reality in which humans have daemons, zeppelins are a major mode of transportation, witches hide in the upper reaches of the world and bears have armour and can talk. Over the course of the season, Lyra travels from the Oxford countryside to London to the polar regions of the arctic. She travels by zeppelin, on a houseboat with the Gyptians, on the back of an armoured bear and in the balloon of the aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda). The show also explores the differences between Lyra’s world and Will’s, which is far more like our own universe, while still taking ample time to emphasize the connection between the two realities and all those that live within them.

A young girl is standing next to an older woman in an ornate elevator.

Dafne Keen as Lyra and Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter are the evident highlights of the show; the fraught relationship between an equally stubborn mother and daughter as they slowly unravel towards different values and roles in society resonates even in the weeks after the conclusion of the first season. Keen shines the most during the emotional cruxes of the show, with great care being taken to depict Lyra as a young girl; no matter how mischievous or adventurous, she is still just a child in over her head. Wilson stunningly portrays Coulter as both a woman and a mother on the edge between great care and great harm as she tries to violently force herself to fit within a highly religious, masculinized and patriarchal society. 

The first season is not without its pitfalls, but His Dark Materials is a fun and worthwhile watch for its fascinating world building, compelling acting and relevant thematic concepts. Fans of Pullman’s trilogy, fantasy television, and people who have an HBO subscription can watch the first season of His Dark Materials now.

Directed By: Tom Hooper, Dawn Shadforth, Otto Bathurst, Euros Lyn, Jamie Childs

Produced By: Jane Tranter, Dan McCulloch, Otto Bathurst, Carolyn Blackwood, Joel Collins, Toby Emmerich, Deborah Forte, Julie Gardner, Tom Hooper, Ben Irving, Philip Pullman, Ryan Rasmussen, Jack Thorne, Laurie Borg

Cast: Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, Anne-Marie Duff, Clarke Peters, James Cosmo, Ariyon Bakare, Will Keen, Lucian Msamati, Gary Lewis, Lewin Lloyd, Daniel Frogson, James McAvoy, Georgina Campbell, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ruta Gedmintas, Lia Williams, Amir Wilson, Nina Sosanya

Release Date: November 3, 2019 in the United Kingdom/ November 4, 2019 on HBO

Available On: BBC One in the United Kingdom/ HBO