It’s been almost a quarter of a decade since the publication of Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass), the first book in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Now, in the shadows of the final season of HBO’s landmark series of Game of Thrones, Pullman’s trilogy is given new life in the form of a television series as the network’s new high fantasy entry.
While some will remember that the 2007 film adaptation of The Golden Compass was a failure commercially and critically, the promotion of the new television series gave fans of the books a little bit more hope that this iconic story would finally be told with some justice.
Produced by Bad Wolf (Doctor Who, A Discovery of Witches) and New Line Cinema (The Lord Of The Rings) and directed by Tom Hopper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables), the adaptation boasted a robust cast of actors like James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Dafne Keen (or as you might know her, Laura Kinney from Logan).
The story is set in a parallel world, one that is very much like our own, but very different at the same time, as these stories always are. In Lyra’s (Dafne Keen) 2019, there are no cellphones, no airplanes, and no satellites. Instead of a parliament or a queen or a president, the governing body of her country is the Magisterium, an all-powerful governing body intrinsically linked with the church.
Pullman’s original series drew glaring parallels from the Magisterium to the Catholic Church, but the HBO series is a little looser with their comparison. Instead, in the pilot, we see the Magisterium as an oppressive power that has less emphasis on religion (though it’s not neglected) and more on control.
Lyra, an orphan with nothing but an erstwhile uncle figure, grows up at Jordan College. The school offers her scholastic sanctuary and she is raised by the old male scholars, who act as keepers, teachers, and father figures. We quickly understand Lyra as a young, wild, and lively girl.
Her introduction is given as a girl causing chaos through the peaceful school as she runs through the halls with her friend and fellow orphan, Roger, the kitchen boy. Witty and curious, Lyra is still very much a child, but immediately endearing to the audience.
When her uncle Asriel (James McAvoy) returns from his expedition to the north, she foils an assassination attempt on his life and spies on him as he presents his findings to the other scholars.
Much of the pilot centers around building the world and introducing us to Lyra, Asriel, and Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). As these three characters play a central role to the story, it’s vital that we are given a strong impression of these characters. And that’s where “Lyra’s Jordan” succeeds brilliantly. Keen, McAvoy, and Wilson melt into their roles as Lyra, Asriel, and Mrs. Coulter, respectively.
McAvoy gives a convincing performance as the reluctant father figure to the precocious child. He’s prickly and temperamental with Lyra, at moments soft and then hard. Contrasted with his somewhat discomfort around her is Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter, who charms and beguiles Lyra the second they meet. With a simple offer, she’s whisked Lyra away from Jordan College and off with her to be her assistant in London.
Although the truth of a daemon is revealed almost immediately (to some book readers’ chagrin), it’s necessary to explain why everyone seemingly has a shapeshifting animal near them at all times that talks to them. Don’t we all wish that we had an animal familiar that really was the physical embodiment of our soul?
Maybe not, if the Magisterium is the price that we pay for it. While the pilot doesn’t necessarily connect the dots for you, the physical proof of a soul feeds into the validations of the church for the presence of a god. The brief moments we get where we meet members of this governing body are odious, to say the least.
The Gobblers, who play a major role in the story, are involved in the plot of the missing children, but what should be the primary conflict, gets lost in the first episode amidst invisible ghost cities in the sky, daemons, poisonings, and dramatic introduction.
Children are being snatched up left and right, and most of them are from the community of nomadic boat-dwellers named the Gyptians. We are introduced to the sweet little Billy Costa and his squirrel daemon, and almost immediately after he is snatched up, leaving his mother and brother Tony heartbroken and horrified.
Then, the night before Lyra is to depart with Mrs. Coulter, having convinced her to also bring Roger along with her to London, the kitchen boy is also snatched up. Coulter makes a quick deliberation that he has been picked up by the Gobblers, who will be going to London, so Lyra should definitely go with her now.
While the Gobbler plot is clearly being set up, as we see Lyra departing on the airship with Mrs. Coulter and then look down to see the Gyptians also setting sale, it feels disjointed. It’s consistently overshadowed by larger plot points and larger than life characters, but perhaps that will smooth out as Lyra’s story is drawn closer to the side plot.
With some definite weaknesses in establishing interesting plot lines, His Dark Materials is still undeniably charming and draws you in with an intriguing concept. The glimpses we get to the major book spoilers in the future seem glaring, but not exactly unwelcomed. “Lyra’s Jordan” is a promising introduction into the world of His Dark Materials and definitely has us curious enough to watch a second episode.
His Dark Materials premieres Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.