Last night saw the first episode of His Dark Materials on HBO, the show is adapted from the trilogy of novels of the same name by Phillip Pullman. You may also remember a movie version of the first book which was called The Golden Compass, and, well, it sucked.
So how does HBO’s joint effort with the BBC fare in comparison so far? Let’s get into it.
The first episode “Lyra’s Jordan” does not get through a whole lot of story in this first hour, but it does a good job of introducing us to this world and some of the main characters, most specifically Lyra herself. Yet it provides enough little glimpses of mystery to make you want to find out what is going to happen next.
This story is set in an alternative reality to our own, where human beings souls are external to them and take the form of animals. These are called Daemons and the relationship between Lyra and her Daemon Pantalaimon is one of the central threads of this story.
“Lyra’s Jordan” mostly deals with Lyra’s life as an orphan in the college of Jordan, with her best friend and fellow orphan Roger. Lyra’s world is changed from under her with the arrival of her uncle, Lord Asriel to ask for money from the college to continue to explore the phenomena of Dust. However, even the mention of Dust is seen a heretical by the oppressive and dominant Magisterium (the religious body of this world).
As her Uncle leaves for the North without her, Lyra not only gets caught up with a mysterious woman called Mrs Coulter, but Roger goes missing and Lyra suspects he has been taken by The Gobblers. The Gobblers have been stealing Gyptian children and the Gyptians are about ready to do something about it.
Was it any good?
As a big fan of the books, I know from experience that the first book does start quite slowly but for the pilot of a new show, it does perhaps all start a little too slowly for audiences not familiar with the story. Though, in many ways, they have added in a few details not even explained within the books to try and help audiences along. I was impressed that they didn’t do as the film tried to and just explain everything upfront. There is something to be said of discovering a fantasy world through the eyes of the characters. Will this approach work with a more casual audience however? That remains to be seen.
The first book of the trilogy, called The Golden Compass in the US and Northern Lights in the UK, tells the story very much from the eyes of Lyra who is 12 years old, and because we are learning about this world through a 12-year-old’s eyes, we are not supposed to fully understand it. In fact, there are many aspects to this overall story that won’t even come into play until the already greenlit Season 2, which will cover the second book, and my personal favorite, The Subtle Knife.
So whilst some critics have said this opening episode was too slow, I instead would say it is brave enough to not smash you over the head with information for fear of losing audiences. A good story takes time to develop, and right now we have to remember that almost all we see is through the eyes of Lyra herself and how she views her world. I thought it was compelling and interesting from the opening titles all the way through the opening episode.
What about the cast?
This is an area that worried me, because despite the poor quality of the Hollywood movie, they got the casting so spot on for me for the most part, I was worried this new cast just wouldn’t feel as good. So far, I can feel at ease, because I thought the three main characters we have met so far, those being Lyra, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter were superb.
I think, in hindsight, Lyra comes across much better than she did under Dakota Blue Richards in the movie, but then Dafne Keen is an amazing young actress. James McAvoy is a clever choice as Asriel for me, though he is not a major player in the first book, I feel like he will be more prominently featured in this adaptation. It’ll be interesting to see how they do this, and that’s just going by how often I have spotted him in the trailers thus far.
Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter was the one I was really concerned about, because I think the character of Marissa Coulter is absolutely key to this whole story, who is such a great and complicated antagonist. I won’t say much more, because in “Lyra’s Jordan” we only get to see one side of this character, but after thinking I was going to miss Nicole Kidman as Coulter, I actually thought Ruth Wilson was amazing. You may have watched the show and wonder why she was so amazing, but you have to understand that I am fully aware of where this character goes and therefore I can judge how Wilson is playing a role within a role in this first episode, in a way that non-book readers won’t yet see.
The secondary characters all worked well and some of those will gain more prominence as the series progresses, we didn’t even get to see Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoreseby in the opening episode, but he is another I am hoping nails a role I would never have thought to pick him for.
For me, there are only a few criticisms here and I understand why they exist. In most of the crowds scenes there is a severe lack of Daemons present on-screen, we always see the Daemons of the main characters, but in background shots not so much. Now, I understand why this would be done for budgetary concerns, all those CGI animals on every wide shot is expensive and it is easily explained away by simply saying their Daemons were not visible on-screen at that time. I just hope as the locations become more remote and the characters on screen more important that they make sure they are giving appropriate time to characters Daemons, who are characters in themselves, both separate and yet connected to their human selves.
As I said above, I think the casual viewer might well be wondering what all the fuss is about as this first episode only tentatively brushes on the overall plot of the show. However, we have to accept that some stories take their time to get started and you can’t have everything happen in the opening episode. So I have no criticisms about that, but you may well do?
His Dark Materials so far in a 50-minute episode has dealt with more of the controversial aspects of the books than the movie did in over two hours. I say controversial, but really that depends on how you view the story being told, I don’t see anything controversial in this story whatsoever personally. Despite what some critics are calling a slow start, I see characters being brought to life, so that we as the audience can experience this story through the eyes of the main character, who remember is only a young girl herself on the cusp of puberty.
Overall the best praise I can give Lyra’s Jordan is that if this was a binge-watch show, all released at once, I don’t think I’d have slept until I finished it all, and I can’t wait to see how things develop as the weeks go on.
Tune in for a weekly review of each episode on LRM, probably every Monday rather than Tuesday, from this point on until the series ends.
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