02 January 2021

‘His dark materials’ (HBO, season 1)

in Bucharest, Romania
His Dark Materials season 1 poster

Growing up an orphan in Jordan College at Oxford, young Lyra is excited to receive a visit from her uncle, the famous explorer Lord Asriel. Fascinated with the far north, she implores him to take her along in his journeys. But, after presenting the findings from his previous expedition to the college scholars and securing funding for the next, he leaves in a hurry on an airship. Soon, the disappointed Lyra gets another chance to see the world when Mrs. Coulter suddenly visits the College and offers to take Lyra as her assistant in London.

Based on the trilogy of novels with the same name by Philip Pullman, His dark materials is the second attempt at adapting this story to television, after the 2007 movie The Golden Compass, which was poorly received. I was not particularly impressed with it as well, because the story felt incomplete, a patchwork of ideas poorly put-together.

Knowing the general outline of the plot of the first season from this movie, I postponed watching it until the second season finished airing to watch them together. This new adaptation does a much better job of telling a complete and cohesive narrative and I found it so gripping that I finished the first season in just two days, quite unusual by my habits.

In Lyra’s world, each person is born with an animal counterpart called daemon, a part of their soul that vanishes when the person dies. During childhood, daemons can freely change shape and only during puberty they settle into a final animal form. Having a cute companion for life may sound like a fun setup for a children fantasy book, but His dark materials quickly dismisses this idea: in the first episode alone, Lyra witnesses the headmaster trying to poison her uncle and the disappearance of her best friend Roger. The tone gets darker as we advance into the final episodes, from child abductions, to experiments, to what in this universe can be regarded as lobotomizing.

Personally, I enjoyed those aspects of the story more that explored details not touched upon in the movie. Lord Boreal’s side-investigation of into another world, remarkably similar to our own, is exciting as it reveals the existence of parallel worlds and implies that people have been secretly travelling between them for a while, hidden from the tight control of the Magisterium. The shocking ending of the season was also skipped in the movie adaptation, but in retrospect it is easy to understand why.

Looking past the fun fantasy world, there are places where the story and setting start showing cracks, narrative choices I do not consider the best. At some points it suffers from a syndrome Game of Thrones was plagued with in the latter seasons: inconsistent travel times. Characters sometimes arrive instantly where they are needed for the plot – Mrs. Coulter travels to her northern testing facility multiple times, as if within walking distance of her apartment building; somehow, I do not think hot air balloons can be that fast. In the final scenes we find the opposite problem: Lyra rushes to catch up to her father, and must ride a bear, cross a dangerous bridge, and climb a steep mountain; how did Asriel managed to get that far with a smaller child on foot starting from the same location earlier that same night remains a mystery.

The alethiometer is another such choice: immensely convenient to have a device that always tells the truth, provided you can read it. But it strains the logical part of my brain to accept how a finite combination of symbols can provide answers to a virtually infinite supply of questions. It also robs its owner of free will: by trusting a magical device to tell you where to go and what choices to make, you are giving up logical reasoning, feeling and intuition, and whatever else people rely on to guide their life. How Lyra is able to intuitively interact with the alethiometer is a generic trope in fantasy, a sign of The Chosen One, but at some level it diminishes her character to receive such abilities at no cost, while others need years of painstaking study to master its interpretation.

The larger conflict being set up behind the scenes takes some shape from the first season: on one side the tyrannical Magisterium, who is controlling society in the name of the Authority, regarding Dust as the original sin and any research into it a heresy; on the other the forces of change and freedom, a loose association of witches, Gyptians, sentient armored bears and Lord Asriel. A compelling setup, but I find it a little disturbing how the author extends these lines of conflict to sex as well: The Magisterium is a male-dominated organization, and the witches exclusively female (a community inspired by the mythological Amazons if I am reading hints from the following season correctly). A notable exception is the Lord Asriel – Mrs. Coulter pair, who find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict to each other and to their gender. Despite that, their lines of research and actions are increasingly aligned, culminating in a remarkably intimate encounter in the season finale.

His Dark Materials | Behind the Scenes of Season 1

Thinking about it after finishing both seasons, it strikes me that the story has many parallels to… Star Wars! Another large-scale conflict between authoritarianism (The Empire) and freedom (The Rebels), a mysterious cosmic force permeating all life (The Force vs. Dust), a protagonist who discovers one parent is their archenemy (although the reveal that Lyra is Mrs. Coulter’s daughter is nowhere near as dramatic as the scene between Luke and Darth Vader), and the villain who wants to convince his child to join his side.

Overall a fun first season, much better than the movie, merging exploration of a fantastical universe with strong characters and gripping action. I continued immediately with the second season.

My rating: 4.0

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