‘His Dark Materials’ season 1, episode 1 recap: Testing the waters

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His Dark Materials season 1, episode 1, “Lyra’s Jordan,” dips a toe as if to test the temperature of the waters in Philip Pullman’s universe.

There are only eight episodes in which to capture the entirety of the first installment of Pullman’s trilogy. In that confinement, the working partners of the BBC and HBO had to find a way to not only create something new for non-readers to latch onto, but also make up for the grand misadventure the property had already gone through.

The premiere episode has a ton of ground to cover as it attempts to keep the story moving forward while filling in all the necessary background the flashbacks are able to solve on the pages of the novel. “Lyra’s Jordan” covers roughly 65 pages of the first novel, taking us from Jordan College and off to London.

If you’re someone who has been watching the trailers for His Dark Materials with little to no knowledge of the trilogy that got us to this adaptation, then chances are you were looking forward to settling in for a night of meeting armored bears and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Don’t worry, that time will come, but just like the North, it all will arrive in due time.

But in the opening passages of the book, readers are treated to a murder attempt, two kidnappings, and given a glimpse at a mysterious object tied to the fate of one girl who must make a betrayal and learn of the troubles with Dust.

And while that may sound thrilling and action-packed, it’s quite slow-moving and the narrative frequently wanders about as the mind of a young girl cooped up in a college for male scholars is want to do. So, how does one go about adapting one of the most beloved series into compelling television?

From the looks of episode 1, slowly, but surely. Confident in the changes made to give some investment to the characters introduced chronologically down the line, the shuffling of some plot and the expansion of the world allows enough perspective for the audience to see the scope of Pullman’s world. It works favorably in some areas and fails spectacularly in others.

Overall, it’s a loyal telling that is done in good faith, which sets a promising stage for the rest of the episodes to follow.

Editor’s Note: These weekly reviews will only contain spoilers from The Golden Compass as they pertain to the episode.

‘His Dark Materials’ season 1, episode 1 recap

His Dark Materials

“That was Lyra’s world and her delight…she always had a dim sense that it wasn’t her whole world.”

Before we meet Lyra, the series pushes us both into the future and the past by taking a few pages from The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage. James McAvoy offers the first look at a drowning city, giving the first glimpse at Lord Asriel as he drops an infant Lyra off under the protection of Jordan College in Oxford.

There is the sense that this world is so much like our own, if slightly skewed. That sentiment applies to the episode as a whole — it’s The Golden Compass, but it’s not quite as you remember.

His Dark Materials is tricky. It relies heavily on imagery to build the spaces and objects used in these novels. For a young reader, that is a gift. Pullman has a way of crafting sentences that are more like stencils you can fill in a little bit differently each time you pick up the book.

But once you see the spectacle on screen, it’s always hard to go back to the way things were. There are certain ways the alethiometer sits in Lyra’s hands that a square (!!) contraption just does not capture.

Then there are scenes that overwhelmingly capture the spirit of Lyra and Roger’s friendship, and it lets you relax ever so slightly and appreciate the intentions of the people behind the story. The duo tear through Jordan and have discussions about friendship and growing up through the lens of what final form their daemon’s will take.

As Lyra and Roger project their desire for bigger adventures on the city limits of Oxford, Asriel is off on an adventure of his own creation in the North. We’re not relegated to hear about these tales through a crack in a closet, but instead we can see the seeds of Asriel’s research take root. It’s enough of a teaser — urgent, rushed, but clearly important — to get him back to Jordan College.

Asriel is a cold man, someone Lyra stands in defiance of, respects deeply, and wants desperately to impress. Her uncle, the weary traveler, is an enigma not just to her, but the members of the college and the governing body, the Magisterium.

As a reader, you are closer to Pantalaimon, tagging along with Lyra, reading and feeling her emotions, exploring Oxford by rooftop and underground passage. The use of space is one of my favorite things the premiere episode does.

Take, for instance, the crypt under the oratory. The expanse of this space and the amount of light in it makes it all the creepier. There aren’t very many places to hide; it’s as if all the secrets of the dead are right out in the open. Lyra and Roger almost disappear in the wide shots as they weave around the broken tombs and skulls.

This extends to other spaces created just for the series, including the Magisterium. The sheer scale of the building and the atrium-like space visited by Father MacPhail and Lord Boreal reverberates words even spoken at a whisper. It’s meant to keep transparency in conversation; it’s intimidating and controlling.

There is some fear that heresy will begin to spawn at Jordan College. First, conversations of Dust and then other worlds, and then suddenly the scholars will be questioning the Magisterium. So long as Asriel is out there with funding, continuing the expedition that Dr. Grumman never finished, they’ll be fine.

But thoughts and stories are no longer existing in a vacuum. Evidence is piling up against their doctrines and the Magisterium is going to have a lot to answer for in due time.

Asriel and Lyra’s Oxford

His Dark Materials season 1 episode 1

“Lyra, there are things, such things, that you are better off not understanding yet.”

As Lyra’s adventures take her into the off-limits area where her uncle will be hosting a meeting, she spies a murder attempt as the Master — a man she and Asriel were meant to trust at the college — poisons Asriel’s wine. After saving his life, she is rewarded with the opportunity to spy on the reactions of the assembled parties.

Dust. A word that does not sit well with the scholars of Jordan College even if there are protected bylaws set in place to ensure academic freedom of thought. Dust mysteriously falls outside of this jurisdiction. And Lyra is not just going to forget about its existence.

Asriel is pitching for a grant to continue his research into Dust: a substance that is only attracted to adults and can be seen using his special emulsion when viewing photos. But what is more intriguing is what the emulsion reveals about the Northern Lights — there is a veiled city that appears in the sky.

This world is not heaven nor hell and the church deems any discussion of such places heresy. But evidence is piling up, and as scholars continue to peel back the curtain on these other cities, the talks of Dust and the North become more dangerous. But Asriel wants to keep his work going and Lyra, naturally, dreams of going with him.

During my first watch of the episode, I was taken aback by how much Asriel seemed to soften around Lyra. But the more I watch what McAvoy is doing, I realize he’s coming at Asriel in a way that plays tangentially to what Pullman does with the character in the book. There is a fondness of Lyra that permeates in the way he looks at her determination and recognizes his kindred spirit in her.

Meanwhile, Asriel in the books dismisses her from her hiding spot and sends her off to bed, leaving without another word. Their time together in His Dark Materials layers on all the context that flashbacks helped build on the pages of the novel. The final scene shared between the two on the lawn as he is getting ready to depart on the airship hints at something deeper that exists in their estranged relationship.

When Lyra asks if the ship that her parents died on is the same as the one that Asriel is currently aboard, he yells back that it was smaller. He doesn’t condemn her question or make her out to feel troubled for asking. He just finds the answer that works for the moment to soothe her.

It’s that same softness that comes out and catches him almost off guard when Lyra asks to see the man’s frozen head just before bedtime.

Coulter and the demon daemon

But as Asriel departs, thoughts of Dust do not go with him. Not even when Lyra comes into contact with the most wonderful woman and demon monkey in all the land — Mrs. Coulter. Where Asriel’s adventures are something of a myth, and Lyra must string them together herself, Mrs. Coulter is a woman in power who has experience and charisma that allows her to demand the attention of anyone she comes into contact with.

This persuasion allows her to get Lyra out of Jordan College and into a world where Tartars are not people of legend and armored bear negotiations are occurrences one can recount in detail. But from the moment the monkey takes his seat at the Jordan College table, it is clear that something is amiss with this woman.

Ruth Wilson is a striking actor. She enters this space dominated by men and is a force that keeps everyone in orbit around her. She finds a way to reach this young girl in search of adventure and a life filled with more than the scholars can ever provide her. Her portrayal is the one I felt hit closest to the book in episode 1.

With the promise of the North finally in her sights, Lyra wants to get out of Oxford as soon as possible. But Roger goes missing just as their departure is set to occur. Echoing the opening shot of their adventure, Jordan is a lonely place without her friend racing along by her side.

The Gyptian camp is the most inviting place

The opening text of the episode attempts to explain daemons and Dust and all the things that are meant to be discovered over the course of the series. It is the introduction to the Gyptians and their community that does more to fill in the gaps of the story than anything else. Opening with a daemon ceremony for Tony Costa, the gathering shows the deep sense of loyalty and protection that exists among these travelers.

While Dust is only one piece of the story, the missing children of Oxford are the other cornerstone the premiere needed to establish. The stakes are raised quite quickly when Billy Costa becomes the first kidnapping we see on screen. As he falls for the allure of another man’s daemon, Billy’s absence quickly sends ripples of fear through the Gyptian camp. It’s the same waves that ultimately take over Lyra as Roger goes missing by episode’s end.

The scene in which Tony, after failing to find his brother, comforts his mother on the deck of their family’s boat was very moving. Ma Costa, portrayed by Anne-Marie Duff, is an aching vision of a mother grappling with loss in episode 1. She has her one son by her side, yet the pain of thinking she will move on without her second child is crushing to witness. But the Gyptians look out for the interest of the people as a whole, giving everyone their best shot at living a safe life.

The break off to tell their story is one of the more worthwhile diversions created for His Dark Materials.

Final thoughts

The story does fall flat in key moments. One in particular is the scene where Lyra is given the alethiometer. This is a huge, cryptic moment. It’s meant to be loaded with mystery and uneasiness. What does this contraption do? Why must she keep it safe? What is its connection to Lord Asriel?

This scene is meant to be played with urgency, hushed quick whispers, and very few riddles. There are lines added to the episode that give readers a bit of a nod, implying that the Master’s reading of the alethiometer points to Mrs. Coulter trying to do her best by Lyra. However, the scene plays out the exact opposite way the “Harry did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire?” Dumbledore said calmly did.

While I appreciated the way they built up Lyra’s relationship with the Librarian, the parting moments of getting Lyra to Mrs. Coulter felt very flat for the end of episode turn.

And though the monkey was perfectly created, I would have enjoyed more interaction with Pan. There are discussions between Lyra and Pan in the book that give off the connection better than any bumper that explains the role of a daemon in the His Dark Materials universe.

I would have liked to see their bond developed more because, even if we don’t see anyone interact with their daemon beyond appearing beside them, Lyra and Pan’s bond implies that these characters are as connected to their counterparts.

That said, the world is beautifully constructed and makes due with the growing pains of creating a place viewers want to come back to. His Dark Materials turns what could be considered hurdles into guardrails to help keep the story on track.

Odds and ends: ‘His Dark Materials’ season 1, episode 1

  • Stelmaria was gorgeous. All the daemons were.
  • Roger yelling at Asriel about how special Lyra is was unnecessary, but allowed Asriel to reach peak Asriel with his answer, “Everyone’s special!”
  • The scene between the Master and the Librarian was ripped from the pages, and I appreciated that bit of exposition carrying over.
  • Demon monkey is a demon. Forever haunting.

His Dark Materials season 1, episode 2, “The Idea of North,” airs Monday November 11 at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.

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