I remember when The Golden Compass came to theaters. I know I saw it because I was a projectionist and had to screen the print, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember anything about the film. Perhaps that’s why that when I first heard about HBO doing a TV series adaption of the beloved book series His Dark Materials that I wasn’t all that thrilled. I’d never read the young adult series, and considering the amount of awful YA film and TV adaptations that have bombarded us for nearly two decades, it too played a role in squashing any excitement I may have had in different circumstances. To be fair, when presented the offer to review the series, the odds were stacked against it, though I do attempt to always give a show or film an unbiased chance when I sit down with it. I feel it’s important I say all this because I want to express just how blindsided I was by this show and its story. Although its target audience with its books may be young adult, by the time the credits of the last episode rolled for its first season I found myself not just engaged with the story, but I had quickly grown attached to these characters and their story in a way I haven’t experienced since perhaps the first season of Stranger Things.
The first episode is a bit of a whirlwind as we are thrown into this world and we meet Lyra (Dafne Keen), a rebellious young girl who was left at Jordan College in Oxford as a baby. In this world everyone has what is called a daemon; it’s an animal/companion that is linked to the individual from birth to death that can take on a variety of forms and will constantly change up to the point the person reaches puberty, and then the daemon will settle on its final form. Lyra’s daemon is Pan (voiced by Kit Conner), who for the most part switches between a white ferret and a fox. These two are inseparable; the daemon basically represents a person’s soul, but in physical form, and as he show progresses we see this can be a complicated and perilous union. Tom Hooper (famously or perhaps infamously connected to the recent adaptation of Cats) helms the first episode and does a decent enough job of creating a world that feels similar to our own but with a flair of Harry Potter. There’s even a dining hall sequence that feels largely inspired from the films.
It doesn’t take long before we learn things are going to get complicated when Lyra discovers her uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), has come to the school with an unsettling discovery of “dust”. This is a discovery that could change the world as they know it, though members of the college believe what he is talking about is heresy. Lyra of course overhears this and sees that her uncle is in danger and wants to help him. Things get even more complicated when it’s discovered that someone is kidnapping children, and one of the kids who is taken is Lyra’s best friend, Roger (Lewin Parslow). All this occurs while a mysterious woman, Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), is visiting the school and offers Lyra an opportunity to be her assistant. This introduces a group called the Magisterium that rules over this world as a cross between big corporations and the church. The Magisterium is obviously the big bad in the show, but just how sinister they are does take a little time to develop. Like I said, there is a lot thrown at the viewer in the first episode, but as the show progresses it hits a nice rhythm, and what’s impressive is how the world in which the show takes place continues to grow, and then there are the alternate worlds.
So how do fighting polar bears, witches, and Aeronauts fit into this story? For those who know little to nothing about the story, I don’t want to spoil it, but there are characters in this story that you will grow to love and some of course to hate. There is the tribe of Gyptians, a group that travels by boat, who have lost many of their kids, and we spend a lot of time with them as they are on a quest to find out what is happening to their children. The class struggles seem all the more relevant in this story to what we see happening in the world now, and while there are definitely societal issues going on in the show, this isn’t heavy-handed, and it genuinely does aid the narrative of the story. For me, though, the most compelling thing about the show is the idea of daemons and the interactions we see with the humans and them. Just the notion of having this companion with you, that genuinely understands you and is basically a physical form of your conscience and soul, we get to see is a beautiful and a horrifying thing. Lyra and Pan are of course the bond we grow attached to the most, but as the show plays out, we get to see more complicated relationships. Mrs. Coulter and her relationship with her red monkey is one of the more complicated ones, because we don’t see her engage with him on a conversation level and he seems to play more the part of a henchman than a companion. It makes sense to a degree as the show plays out, but because her character is so wonderfully complicated it would be nice to have a moment with them talking, especially when it gets to some of the morally twisted decision-making down the road.
I’m being coy, but really this show offers up some great twists early on, and it takes you on a darker journey than I believe many would expect from a young adult series. Dafne Keen was remarkable when she played Laura in Logan, but what she does with Lyra is a beautifully endearing and strong performance. Keen seems to handle the pressure of being the star with ease, and it’s clear she is destined to be a star; she deserves many accolades for this performance. While I think about Harry Potter, and then there is Katniss Everdeen, Lyra is a complicated character who came before both, and I can understand why kids would admire her and would strive to be like her. Keen manages to show the character’s intelligence and bravery just as well as showing her vulnerability, and it all seems so genuine that you can’t help but root for her. Lyra and her journey are very similar to Frodo’s in The Lord of the Rings, especially when the story gets to the Alethiometer (basically a truth-telling compass) that she is trying to get to her uncle. There is Lorek, the armored bear, who despite being a CGI creation steals just about every scene he’s in, then there is Lee Scoresby (Lin Manuel Miranda), who plays the American Aeronaut Both of these characters play a heavy hand in Lyra’s quest to find Roger, and both of these characters are so wonderfully written you can’t help but want more of them.
The violence in the show and how dark some of the subject matter gets will definitely come as a surprise for many. Episode six, The Daemon-Cages, is one of those episodes that had me gripped from start to finish feeling so many emotions. It’s one of those moments that shows how cruel people can be, and it has visuals that have stuck with me since then. This episode also contains one of the show’s largest battles. While it may not be on a scale of Game of Thrones, the intensity of some of these fights and the chaos going on around it definitely has the anxiety pumping with the stakes at play.
Then there is how the show leaves us hanging while teasing us about what is to come. While staying spoiler-free, I don’t believe I’ve been so excited since the discovery of “The Hatch” from Lost. I mean, this show delivers a solid finale that does wrap up one story but perfectly sets up the next season without it feeling forced. I already bought the books for my Kindle, because I simply don’t have the patience to find out what’s next. I want to continue this journey with these characters. HBO has done it again, basically giving audiences a series that will captivate them and show just how good television can be. How there isn’t more buzz for this show is shocking. Because of the saturated landscape in television, I understand why its first season may have been overlooked, but this is genuinely some of the best television out there and is a worthy successor to Game of Thrones.
His Dark Materials is presented in the aspect ratio 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 24 mbps. This is a show that pretty much every episode is delivering a new variety of visuals that are a blend between what is shot on a set and what is created with CGI. The continuity by still being able to make this all look as though it belongs in the same production is impressive. Two different kinds of London, Oxford, to the snowy realms of the north, it all looks great. Though the CGI is very impressive, especially for the scale of this production, there are still times where the CGI just isn’t as detailed, and some of this involves the Daemons. They can look so lifelike, and the hair looks amazing, but then ten minutes later her riding on the back of a polar bear just looks off. This doesn’t affect the experience; it’s just nitpicking. The robust color display is great. Then there is the balance between the pure whites of the snow in the north, to some dark and creepy dungeons; the detail remains and looks good. The black levels are deep. I didn’t notice any compression issues or crushing. Pretty close to a flawless presentation.
The DTS HD Master Audio track is what you’d expect from an HBO production of this size. Each episode is like its one isolated movie, and the audio touches reflect that. The score is one of the big standouts for me, whether it’s the thrilling action or its melodic theme, it helps immerse you in this gigantic fantasy world. The fight scenes are another unique focus here, because Lyra tends to shy away from the violence, and as the camera focuses on her we can only hear the conflict going on behind her. There are two scenes in particular that come to mind. and the audio is what drives it in two drastically different ways. One has the sound cut as we experience it as Lyra does with her ears ringing and the muffled impacts all around her. The bass plays heavily with this, and it’s very effective. Another involves Lyra trying to cover her ears as right behind her there is a massive fight to the death. The impacts are brutal and horrific; we don’t need to see the conflict, because the sound design allows us to hear the movement in painful detail. The audio is clean throughout. Really this is a great track.
Making His Dark Materials: (33:11) A collection of interviews with the author, cast and crew about the book and the making of the TV series. In a short amount of time they cover a lot of territory ranging from everyone gushing over the source material to how the show was made, blending sets and green screen.
Adapting His Dark Materials: (4:04) Focuses on Jack Thorne, who adapted the series on his own and how long it took to actually bring the books to TV.
Building His Dark Materials: (5:54) This goes in depth into the sets and props designed to bring the show to life.
Dressing His Dark Materials: (3:15) This discusses the costumes of the characters in the show.
The Daemons of His Dark Materials: (3:43) One of my favorite features that shows some of the puppetry work used before CGI to bring the daemons to life and interact with the actors.
James McAvoy: Bringing Lord Asriel to Life: (3:17) An interview with the character as he discusses his passion for the character and the books.
Lin Manuel Miranda: Bringing Lee Scoresby to Life: (2:25) He discusses his long history of loving the books and enjoys being the only American in the cast.
Ruth Wilson: Bringing Mrs. Coulter to Life: (3:24) She discusses the complexities of the character who is loved and hated by many.
Dafne Keen: Bringing Lyra Belacqua to Life: (4:26) She discusses the weight of playing such a beloved character.
Despite being overwhelmed by the first episode, His Dark Materials is my favorite new series. If you like fantasy or adventure stories this is a must-watch. Despite being considered a young adult story, this isn’t a kids’ story. It’s dark and will take you on a journey you’ll want to continue long after the credits to the season finale roll. There are so many fun twists along this journey; don’t let anyone ruin it, just sit down and enjoy this binge-worthy experience that will leave you wishing you had a daemon of your own.
Film: 4.5 Video: 4.5 Audio: 5 Extras: 3 Over All: 4.5