His Dark Materials premiere review: Lyra’s adventure kicks off with a bang

Photo: Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials: Season 1.. Image Courtesy of HBO
Photo: Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials: Season 1.. Image Courtesy of HBO /

In the premiere of HBO’s His Dark Materials, viewers are introduced to the Lyra’s complex and fascinating world as her adventure begins.

His Dark Materials is a complex series of books, dealing with religion, coming of age and sexuality, and the metaphysical world, while also having the lovely idea that our souls are expressed physically outside our body as talking animals called daemons.

Adapting this series was never going to be simple due to the in-depth material. Impressively, the premiere of the HBO adaptation weaves through multiple different plots without ever losing the thread of what’s happening.

The overall production quality is beautiful. Like all modern shows, it’s a bit dark, and the color palette seems a bit limited, but the set pieces are stunning. Viewers who’ve read the books won’t be disappointed with the visual language that primes new audiences who are used to other fantasy series, like Game of Thrones.

Even more wisely, the episode begins with a brief prologue that sets the stage for those who are completely new to the series and haven’t read the books. His Dark Materials takes place in a world like ours, but not the same world, one full of daemons, witches, and armored bears where a girl named Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) is part of a prophecy involving something called Dust.

After the prologue, the episode begins with Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) delivering a baby girl and her daemon to Jordan College at Oxford during the Great Flood (water is more than waist-high).

He invokes Scholastic Sanctuary so the Master of Jordan (Clarke Peters) will take them in, and Asriel warns that she’s safer inside the College than anywhere else. (Those who’ve read Pullman’s latest installments in the series will understand the significance of this scene.)

Twelve years later, the girl, Lyra, is playing with her best friend, Roger, a kitchen boy at Jordan College. The audience is quickly acquainted with Lyra’s wily ways as we see her steal a bottle of wine and hide in a coffin during a game of hide and seek as they discuss what they think their daemons might settle as. (Daemons change form until a child hits puberty and they settle.)

Later, Lyra is being tutored by the librarian when her daemon, Pantalaimon, notices her uncle, Lord Asriel, returning. Pan warns her not to “do anything stupid,” but she tricks the librarian into thinking she’s left the room and locks him out so she can escape out the window.

“This isn’t stupid?” Pan quips as they run along the rooftops of the buildings to try to meet Lord Asriel upon his return, only to hide outside on the ledge when the Master of Jordan College enters the room.

However, Lyra’s timing is fortuitous as she witnesses the Master pour a white powder into a  decanted bottle for Lord Asriel, presumably planning to poison him.

When Lord Asriel comes in, Lyra jumps through the window and knocks the glass out of his hand. It’s not the family reunion she anticipated when he throws her down on the table and demands to know what happened.

Asriel is flustered and begins throwing open the cupboard and cabinet doors while a confused Lyra wants to know why the Master, who she’s always trusted, would do such a thing. “…if I were him, I’d be afraid of me,” Asriel responds, hinting at the political intrigue to come.

Quickly, he tells Lyra to watch the Master for him, especially concerning matters of Dust, while he presents his findings–two photograms taken in the North–and throws her in a cupboard.

Asriel shows his photograms in a contraption somewhat like a slide projector. The photos themselves look beautiful, like a blurry Instagram filter of the sky.

More importantly, Asriel tells them he captured Dust with a special silver nitrate emulsion, arguing that it clings to adults, but not children. This central premise and idea about Dust will be very important throughout all of His Dark Materials.

He also has a photo of the Aurora (Borealis) that shows a city in the sky, arguing there are multiple worlds of which the Magisterium (His Dark Materials’ version of the Catholic Church) controls one.

The Master cries heresy and demands that Asriel stop, but he presses on with the show, pulling out the head of Stan Grumman, a scholar of Jordan College who he found in the North that was pursuing the same work.

(Readers of the books will recognize the significance of this poor, decapitated head.)

Elsewhere in Oxford, there’s a big Gyptian party celebrating the fact that Tony Costa’s daemon settled and he’s officially a man. (The Gyptians are Pullman’s version of Roma people who dwell and move on water boats.)

This isn’t anything I remember from the books, but I love this idea and it makes complete sense that, much like a Bar Mitzvah, people would have a party to celebrate this transition into “adulthood.”

After the ceremony, Tony’s little brother wanders off, with his daemon Ratter, but soon disappears.

After the presentation, Asriel’s daemon, Stelmaria, a beautiful (but lethal) leopard, reminds him Lyra’s in the cupboard. She’s fallen asleep.

Asriel pulls her out by the ankle and carries her upstairs to her bed in a hesitantly tender moment. As he tucks her in, he sees a postcard from him on her wall. (Perfectly signed “Regards, Asriel.”) He’s about to take off her boots and hesitates as if it’s too intimate.

James McAvoy plays the scene perfectly, displaying the love he has for Lyra while also showing that he has no idea how to communicate or handle that love other than to be away from her.

Roger comes in the next morning to bring her breakfast and tells her about Billy Costa, the Gyptian child, going missing and tells her it was the Gobblers, child snatchers. Lyra tells him the Gobblers are a myth. As they eat, Roger tells Lyra her uncle is packing up his airship to go back to the North.

Lyra runs out to catch Asriel and begs him to take him with her, but he refuses and says the North is no place for a child. As the ship pulls up, Roger yells, “She’s better than you think she is. She’s special.” Lewin Lloyd is fantastic as Roger, effortlessly displaying his devotion to Lyra without being overly saccharine or precious.

Just as Lord Asriel leaves, Mrs. Coulter arrives. Glamorous and stunning in a beautiful blue suit, the Master invites her to sit next to Lyra at dinner. Ruth Wilson is absolutely perfect as Mrs. Coulter, her silky voice entrancing the audience along with Lyra.

Mrs. Coulter’s purpose at Jordan is at first unclear. She explains to Lyra that her work takes place outside of the College. After meeting and talking with her, Mrs. Coulter offers to bring Lyra on as her assistant.

As any orphan would be, Lyra is delighted, but she soon remembers Roger, not wanting to leave her dear friend behind. The subtlety on Ruth Wilson’s face as she hears Lyra’s plea is pitch perfect. Barely a muscle moves, yet discerning viewers, those who may be suspicious of this too perfect woman, can see the disdain at the same time.

The librarian wakes Lyra up the next morning and brings her to the Master. After explaining that he made the arrangements with Mrs. Coulter, but that he still doesn’t entirely trust her, (which is a great thing for any kid to hear after someone has attempted to poison their uncle), the Master gives her a gift.

The beautiful gold piece is an alethiometer–it tells the truth. The Master promises it will keep her safe, but she must keep it secret. Lyra is anxious to take it, but the Master and librarian press on and give it to her as she leaves, telling her, “Keep your own counsel.”

Lyra looks for Roger to tell him they’re going to London but can’t find him anywhere. She tells Mrs. Coulter who promises she’ll find Roger when they get to London. Pan reminds her of the alethiometer. She tries to read it, but can’t, and decides to take a risk and go with Mrs. Coulter.

On the airship, which has a very cool midcentury modern look on the inside, Lyra tries to continue the conversation about Roger, but Mrs. Coulter tells her they should talk later when it’s more private.

Pan looks out the window, drawing Lyra’s gaze, and she sees the Gyptians are leaving, too. As it turns out, despite the fact that Ma Costa doesn’t want to believe Billy’s been taken, Lord Faa, the Gyptian King, has halted the search. Lord Faa tells her that sixteen children have been taken by the Gobblers and the Gyptians will search in London until they get them back.

Only one episode in and Lyra’s time at Jordan College has come to an end as we head off to London.

Next. Here is everything coming to Amazon Prime Video in November. dark

What did you think of the premiere of His Dark Materials? Sound off in the comments.