His Dark Materials review: Gritty, uncompromising and your next TV obsession
The BBC and HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman's book series will warm your cockles while chilling you to the bone.
Katie CollinsSenior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials book series premiered Sunday in the UK and airs Monday night in the US. The fantasy drama series, which has already been renewed for a second season, follows scrappy orphan Lyra and her daemon (animal companion) Pan as she learns to read a mysterious truth-telling instrument called the alethiometer and embarks on an essential and dangerous journey.
Viewers familiar with the source material will note that the first episode opens not with a scene from the first of Pullman's books, Northern Lights, but from the 2018 prequel La Belle Sauvage, which sees baby Lyra deposited at Jordan, a fictional Oxford College in a parallel universe, by the enigmatic Lord Asriel. The next we see of her she's a child skidding across the rooftops of Jordan as though it's her personal playground.
Comparisons with the previous screen adaptation -- the poorly received 2007 film The Golden Compass -- are somewhat inevitable. Fortunately, this series was always poised to be thought of more favorably. While well cast, The Golden Compass was a shallow adaptation that only skimmed the surface of Pullman's intricate and much-beloved universe.
The most exciting aspect of this first episode is that unlike the Golden Compass, it seems to promise that the show will not shy away from asking viewers to engage with the more complex elements of the story -- and it will be all the richer for it.
Watch this: HBO's His Dark Materials teaser offers glimpse at epic fantasy
I first started reading His Dark Materials when I was 12, the same age as Lyra at the beginning of the story. It was an age when seeing a fiercer, bolder, freer version of myself laid out on the pages of a book was my ideal reading scenario. I loved Lyra immediately, yet I grappled uneasily with some of the philosophical concepts of the series.
Many things about the story didn't fully make sense to me until subsequent re-readings. At times I felt like Lyra with the alethiometer, feeling rather than thinking my way through the trilogy with symbols and characters and my own imagination as my guide. For as much as His Dark Materials is a fantastical adventure, it is also a nuanced exploration of religion, philosophy, physics, alchemy, politics and myth.
If the early episodes are an indication, the series promises to be both richly detailed and gritty, burning with the warmth of Dafne Keen (Logan, The Refugees) as Lyra, and chilling from the lingering frosty presence of the evil Magisterium. A vision of a crystal castle dancing in the sky amid Aurora Borealis is bound to get your heart thumping, just as it does Lyra's.
Ruth Wilson of The Affair and Luther as Mrs. Coulter is inspired casting. Glamorous and glacial, she has the allure of a perfectly sharp icicle. There's a sense that at any moment she could drop, piercing your heart like a dagger.
James McAvoy, who might not be the obvious Asriel, seems to have mustered the necessary gravitas to take on the role of Lyra's imposing and powerful uncle. His exclamation of "everyone is special," screamed from the open door of a hovering airship, comes as a punch in the gut. Or is Lyra, as her friend Roger suggests, more special than everyone else? Subsequent episodes will no doubt explore that question.
Meanwhile, just as Lyra is readying herself for the great adventure that lies ahead of her, so should we see this episode as the jumping-off point for our next TV show obsession.
As long as you've at the very least seen the trailer for the show, it would not be a spoiler to say there is much more still to come -- armored bears and Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda, for example. Then there's the intricately textured world beyond Oxford that has yet to unfold. Point your compasses north, there's a thrilling journey ahead.