The first episode of His Dark Materials, the series based on Philip Pullman’s eponymous trilogy of books, ably establishes the principal characters and gets the atmosphere – slightly grim with a sense of foreboding – right.
Director: Otto Bathurst
Writers: Jack Thorne, Philip Pullman (books)
Cast: Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, Anne-Marie Duff, Clarke Peters, James McAvoy
Streaming on: Hotstar Premium
The show makes a promising start.
The first episode of His Dark Materials, which is being streamed on Hotstar Premium every Tuesday, is reassuring. It seems a vast improvement on The Golden Compass (2007), Chris Weitz’s egregious film on Philip Pullman’s young adult trilogy. Hopefully, the show will only get better, doing justice to Pullman’s complex, literary fantasy that uses Biblical themes to critique religion, in particular, Christianity, which is represented in the story as the all-powerful Magisterium.
Viewers will be left wanting their own daimons.
The main characters are swiftly established. Young Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) has grown up in Jordan College in Oxford. This is a sphere of parallel universes and this particular Oxford belongs to a world other than our own. In this world, the souls of people are in the form of animals, called daimons. These change form till the person reaches a certain age, when the creatures settle into one animal. Lyra, a mischievous kid, runs around the college with her protean daimon, Pantalaimon. People, played by multi-ethnic actors, dress in a mix of mid-twentieth century and modern fashion. And instead of planes, they travel in zeppelins.
It’s adults versus children.
As an infant, Lyra had been left in the care of Jordan College’s Master (Clarke Peters) by her uncle, the explorer Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). He returns to the college to show the professors the shocking findings of his research in the north. He’s the jock scientist, plunging into snowy reaches of the world, chasing natural phenomena but emotionally selfish. Meanwhile, little children belonging to the local Gyptian community are being kidnapped by mysterious persons.
After Asriel departs on another expedition to the north, Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a representative of the Magisterium arrives at the college. Smart, stylish, she wins over Lyra by promising to find the missing children and takes the girl to London. Wilson plays Mrs Coulter with devilish charm, every smile a chilling indication of her unpleasant designs. But when Lyra hugs her, she’s momentarily flustered, as if she’s reminded of the vile person she has become.