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‘His Dark Materials’ and the Long Road North

Despite its long journey, the story still feels fresh and relevant.

His Dark Materials has come a long way. The first book, The Northern Lights (a.k.a. The Golden Compass) was published 9 July 1995, only six days after I was born. Either this story is a little old or I’m embarrassingly young. The fantasy story is set in another world where everyone has a talking animal companion called a ‘daemon,’ a manifestation of their soul. We follow rough-and-tumble orphan Lyra Belacqua as she stumbles into a dark conspiracy. The mysterious Mrs Coulter gives her the chance to leave fusty Oxford and head for the North, a place she imagines as exciting and wonderful. Then things go south.

The runaway success of this book brings us to another world: 2007. New Line Cinema is unlucky with its film adaptation of The Golden Compass. Hollywood, after all, was a place where making $372 million was considered a disappointment if you didn’t make enough of that money in the US. This was likely the last straw for Time Warner, which folded New Line into Warner Bros Pictures. Audiences didn’t exactly leap to the film’s defence; rather, they were the attacking army. The Catholic League brought pitchforks over the film’s alleged anti-Catholicism. Pullman fans blasted its alleged lack of anti-Catholicism. Critics sniped from their ivory towers.

Now, here we are again in another new world: 2019. Where Warner Bros tried to repeat Harry Potter and New Line tried to repeat Lord of the Rings, HBO now hopes to repeat Game of Thrones. This is not to say that writer Jack Thorne is so unimaginative. The playwright has stirred the pot with the divisive Harry Potter and the Cursed Child but his work here is easy to like. His script is well-plotted and excellently paced. There’s real effort in the craft but it never feels like it’s trying too hard. It makes for comfy, relaxing viewing – except when it doesn’t want to be. Let the record show that if it was bad, I would have titled this ‘His Dark Crap-Dreary-Dulls.’

An interesting conversation could and should be had about how this show adapts the book and whether it has a good approach. The problem: that conversation can’t be had without at least a few spoilers. Talking about the plot of a 1995 novel is okay; talking about the as-yet-unaired plot of the BBC’s hot new series seems in bad taste, whatever you might say about spoiler culture. So, let’s just not, at least not here or now; let’s take the show in itself.

Sometimes, critics have to dodge the subject of child actors. That’s not the case here. Dafne Keen is winning as Lyra, as is Lewin Lloyd as her nervous friend Roger. It’s clear that Ruth Wilson’s real time to shine as Mrs Coulter lies in future episodes but she grabs your attention even in these early days. The real winner here is James McAvoy as Lyra’s slippery uncle Asriel (no relation to Dreemurr). McAvoy proved himself a star years ago and is still skilled and entertaining in this role: a decent but gruff man wrapped up in his own work.

TV has also come a long way over the years. The sets and costumes are all at the same standard as the 2007 movie, if not better. Production designer Joel Collins should be proud. The special effects have shaky moments when the show is too ambitious but are mostly great. The little animal buddies are especially excellent, as are the opening titles. This pilot was directed by Tom Hooper and while it’s infuriating to praise the man behind The Danish Girl, it would be dishonest not to do so. The only weak link is Lorne Balfe’s functional but generic score; most of it is sonic wallpaper. Balfe has spent much of his career writing extra music for Hans Zimmer soundtracks, skilfully copying Zimmer’s style. Unfortunately, he never stopped.

Despite its long journey, the story still feels fresh and relevant. The greatest danger facing Lyra is organised religion. Not for nothing did the Catholic League get a bee in its funny hat. It’s not as if the Church has gone anywhere so the story is still relevant. Lyra’s status as a prophesised chosen is the only part that feels like a throwback. It would be unfair to scorn too harshly the chosen ones of children’s stories. For all their pomp and destiny, they make such sweet escapism for bookish kids.

Though the controversy of Cursed Child looms large over Jack Thorne, this pilot is a joy. The man is BBC’s favourite for fantasy right now. If this show keeps up the standard, it could launch him into even greater success. Those interested in such things could even speculate that he’s in the running for Doctor Who showrunner. In the meantime, His Dark Materials has taken a first step so strong that we can only assume it will go the distance.

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