His Dark Materials 5 star review: 'It does an absolutely wonderful job of bringing to life Philip Pullman’s parallel world'
The last time the BBC tackled an expensive, large-scale adaptation of a beloved work of fantasy was 2015’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, based on Susanna Clarke’s beautifully written, painstakingly imagined bestseller set in an alternative 19th century England where magic is real.
It was a gem of a series, graced with a dazzling production and two perfectly cast stars in Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan as the magicians who start out as friends, have a falling out and end up vying for control of how the supernatural arts are practised.
Having gone to all that trouble, the BBC foolishly tossed the series away by showing it on Sunday nights during the summer, when audiences are traditionally smaller and the weekends dominated by drivel like Britain’s Got Talent.
Maybe it was this that contributed to the dwindling viewing figures (it lost two-thirds of its audience over its seven episodes, finishing on a mediocre 1.7 million) or perhaps it was just too strange (no pun intended) and niche to click with viewers more used to the dependable comfort food of Poldark or Call The Midwife.
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Whatever the case, the BBC isn’t making the same mistake with His Dark Materials, based on Philip Pullman’s adored fantasy trilogy. The dark winter nights between now and Christmas are the perfect showcase for it.
To say this opening season – based on the first book, Northern Lights (published as The Golden Compass in the US) – is one of the most hotly anticipated dramas of the year is an understatement.
Bruised by the botched 2007 Hollywood film version, which gutlessly diluted the criticism of oppressive organised religion that’s central to the story, fans of Pullman’s books were poised to pounce on any excessive tampering with the source material in this version.
Well, they can put their knives away; there’s nothing to worry about. His Dark Materials is fabulous. It does an absolutely wonderful job of bringing to life Pullman’s parallel world (one of many in this imagined multiverse), which is a lot like the one we inhabit, yet also completely unlike it. It’s a bustling cyberpunk-ish milieu where helicopters share space with gigantic silver airships and hot air balloons, ruled by the sinister, all-powerful theocracy the Magisterium (a stand-in for the Catholic Church).
Every human being has their own “daemon”, a projection of their inner spirit that takes the physical form of a talking animal. His Dark Materials follows the adventures of a very special child, 11-year-old Lyra Belacqua (the marvellous Dafne Keen), who’s destined to fulfil a prophecy. She’s the niece of adventurous, rebellious aristocrat Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), who’s been conducting experiments, which the Magisterium considers heretical, into mysterious elemental particles known as “the Dust”.
Lyra is adopted by the apparently charming Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson), not realising she’s actually an agent of the Magisterium. Meanwhile, the children of canal-faring nomads the Gyptians are being abducted by “the Gobblers”, a sinister arm of the Magisterium.
When Lyra’s best friend disappears, she’s pitched into a quest to find him. Managing to escape from the clutches of Mrs Coulter, she joins with the Gyptians, who are undertaking a dangerous mission to the North to rescue their kids.
For those not familiar with Pullman’s books, there’s a lot of complex background information to be squeezed into the first episode, but writer Jack Thorne, who spent two years developing his screenplay, does it elegantly, with a minimum of clunk.
The whole thing looks fabulous. Much has been made of the CGI daemons, and rightly so. They’re superbly rendered, hitting the sweet spot between reality and fantasy.
Critics were given the first four episodes of His Dark Materials; trust me when I say it just gets better and better, particularly when the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison shows up a few episodes in.
His Dark Materials is on BBC1 on Sundays at 8pm.