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His Dark Materials - Lyra's Jordan - Review

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This has been my most anticipated show of the year ever since it has been announced, having long been dreaming about a full, complete script to screen adaption of Phillip Pullman’s epic fantasy trilogy of the same name about a parallel world, similar to our own, but containing plenty of differences. Everyone has a daemon animal companion that takes a form of their choosing until adulthood, where it finally settles down into a lifelong companion. For some it’s bears, others it’s monkeys, and others – it’s lions. And that is only the beginning of where the two worlds diverge...

The world itself is one populated by witches, armoured bears, Gyptian clans and compasses that tell the truth. The Northern Lights themselves seem to be a gateway to a golden city in the stars and other worlds beyond. It is a very different series to most fantasy dramas that have come before, impossible to mistake this for something like Carnival Row or The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, and even Game of Thrones comparisons feel off – this is a children’s story after all, one aimed at all generations, and given its BBC One prestige 8pm Sunday slot in the UK and following heavy promotion that includes trailers in cinemas, the series became the highest viewed new drama on British TV for over 5 years, earning 7.5m views even without the on-demand BBC IPlayer service taken into account . Right from the opening minutes following a short stint at the Northern Lights (the title of the first novel) with Lord Asriel investigating the possibility of other worlds, you are soon introduced to protagonist Lyra Belaqua, where Oxford is all she knows. We first meet her running through the kitchen quarters of the prestigious university with her daemon Pan and her childhood friend and servant boy Roger, whilst you are fully immersed in the world of an alternate Earth, which does what few book adaptions, and indeed - its movie version, The Golden Compass, fail to do, and that’s capture the magic of the source material that makes it come so alive.

His Dark Materials has both heart and soul and a massive production budget to help make Oxford look as authentic as possible no matter how many airships dominate the skies. There is a lot of exposition in the first episode but with a world as rich as this it seems entirely necessary to get audiences up to speed, introducing them to the mechanics of a dystopian future where the Church, or the Magisterium, controls all freedom of speech. For all the sense of wonder and childlike innocence that we see through Lyra’s eyes, time and time again we are reminded of a greater and darker evil controlling events from behind the scenes.

The characters are so richly drawn in the books that it takes a good casting department to get them all right, and the results are near perfection. Dafne Keen excelled as Laura in Logan and she recapture the magic of what made Lyra such a memorable heroine here. James McAvoy plays her Uncle Lord Asriel to perfection (when has McAvoy ever not been at least good?), and we completely buy his genuine concern that there are worlds beyond his own, his dedication to the overshot of the truth even if it means making him out to be a wanted man and costing him his freedom and potentially his life.

There is a sense of political intrigue that makes the series somewhat of an oddity for its 8pm slot on BBC One, but given its origins as children’s fiction the time placing is understandable. The anti-religion themes here are layered and rich, not shied away from like they were in the film. There is every sense that His Dark Materials is going to be a better and bigger series than the film, even right from the start it has a greater sense of urgency, with its hour feeling like half an hour. Although I generally prefer the traditional weekly method of television releases, His Dark Materials feels like it was made to be binged. Like the book, I can’t wait to see what happens next translated to the screen before our eyes.

I’m unsure how well this is going to work for those who haven’t read the books (and if you haven’t you should) but there is enough there for any fantasy fan to love. It achieves its mission more successfully than Carnival Row for instance, and actually remembers to be interesting. Although the exposition is a bit ham-fisted at times the series splits its narrative between Lyra’s story, Asriel’s and The Gyptians perfectly, with The Gyptians themselves eventually leaving Oxford for London at the same time as Lyra - joined by Tyler Howitt's Billy Costa, in search of missing children, Roger among them, who have been kidnapped by the Gobblers, mysterious bogeymen.

Only Lyra rides an airship above whilst the Gyptians head down the canals on riverboat en masse with an alethiometer known as the Golden Compass in hand, a truth-teller. She’s joined – and for now – fully entranced by a mysterious explorer Ann Coulter, played fantastically by Ruth Wilson who did a brilliant job at playing Alice Morgan in Luther. Here Coulter is cunning, calculative and manipulative, exploiting Lyra for her own means, and less trustworthy than she appears.

If there is one fault with His Dark Materials it is perhaps its tendency to reveal information too early – there’s a lot like the prophecy reveal that we don’t need to know in the first episode and maybe series writer Jack Thorne (who wrote all eight episodes), could benefit from holding back on certain things before pulling the trigger rather than feeding the audience too much at once. To give credit to Tom Hooper at least, it’s clear that Lyra's Jordan the best thing he’s directed in years, which is an accomplishment when compared to the likes of The Danish Girl, which I was less than enthusiastic about. I’d go one step further and say – it’s probably Hooper’s best work since 2009’s The Damned United, which I adored.

His Dark Materials continues next Sunday on BBC One in the UK and airs the following day on HBO in the United States. Check out the trailer here to find out what's coming soon in the first series, which has already been renewed for a season that is currently filming. Let me know what you thought about the episode below, as well as whether or not you have read the books or not.

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