His Dark Materials

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ based on 2 reviews.

tl;dr: An outstanding adaptation that genuinely stands up to the books, with a brilliant cast and exceptional design. The world of Lyra Silvertongue, a world of dæmons, armoured bears, witches, and cities in the sky, hasn't felt this real, this tangible, or this magical since I first read The Northern Lights.

The Northern Lights

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

Just as season two comes to TV we finally got around to watching season one and, put simply: wow! 🤯 I'm part of the generation that grew up with His Dark Materials. Not only was I the perfect age when the books were released to get firmly lost in their world but, unlike other series of a similar era (i.e. Harry Potter), the relatively short gaps between novel releases meant the series' conclusion had a lasting emotional impact on me. Like many, the first attempted adaptation didn't quite land (though I personally thought the Golden Compass movie was nowhere near as bad as people made out) and although the cast looked promising, and I agreed that a TV series was always going to be a better medium than film, I was still a little unsure about whether the BBC would pull it off. Well, they did.

Every aspect of this opening season was brilliant. The pacing, the score, the direction, even the opening credits all felt like a huge amount of thought and effort had gone into ensuring they were all just right. For a TV show (albeit a big-budget series taking square aim at the likes of Game of Thrones), the special effects were phenomenal. Considering this is a fantasy with witches, talking polar bears, and shape-shifting animal companions, I don't think I noticed a single VFX issue and the animated characters all felt utterly believable. There's a touch of the Lion King uncanny-valley when they over-anthropomorphise some of the dæmons' faces, plus Pan's hyper-cute eyes are a little weird at times, but it never pulled me out of the story or broke the realism that these were genuine characters of equal weighting to their human costars, and that's one hell of an achievement.

On top of which, the casting is perfect; there isn't a single role I would change, though I do have a particular soft spot for both James Cosmo as Farder Coram and (of course) Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby, a casting choice I was a little wary about but turned out to be utterly spot on. Most importantly, though, Dafne Keen absolutely nails Lyra; she's a phenomenal actress and one hell of a find! Similarly, whilst he appears a little stoic for his age at times, Lewin Lloyd's Roger is a perfect companion and another exceptional young talent. Other notable bit parts included Morfydd Clark (The Personal History of David Copperfield) playing the "blanked" sister at the Station, Andrew Scott (Sherlock) as Will's dad, and Harry Melling (Dudley in Harry Potter) as the corrupt Northern warden.

There are a few elements of the plot that have been simplified or removed for brevity, of course. We don't really see how mischievous Lyra really is at the start of her journey, with her constant lying only really coming up once, and in many ways she assumes the role of "hero" much faster in the show than the books. A lot of the internal politics of the various factions (Gyptians, witches, bears etc.) are also streamlined somewhat, though the show keeps each feeling distinct and believable in their setting. Really, only when she's captured and being processed do one of these changes become an issue, resulting in her magically just having the welded tin with her when she needs to trick Mrs Coulter, which feels much more deus ex than I recall. We also never really find out anything about how the man with the fox dæmon is able to entrance the kids so well, but at least he's included. In terms of complete changes, the only one I noticed was Serafina's dæmon. Whilst I understand that a gyrfalcon is a much more regal bird for a Queen of the Witches, I always rather liked him as a snow goose.

Oh, and of course we've already met Will. I was surprised initially when he was mentioned in the prophecy, but I actually really like how his story became increasingly weaved into proceedings. Not only does it set up season two more solidly, but it helps his narrative feel more important right from the start. In many ways, the books are dominated by Lyra's story, simply because she is the only focus in The Northern Lights and therefore gets more time with the reader, but this story is just as much about Will. That it also gives us a greater look into the inner workings of the Magisterium, and specifically a greater set up for Ariyon Bakare's sinister Boreal, just makes it all the better.

So, basically, for a beloved series who I would happily nitpick any adaptation of which has (rightfully) had some minor tweaks to adapt to the small screen, my only slight negative is practically non-existent. That's a pretty high bar to have set and I can only desperately hold thumbs that the following seasons can keep the standard up. We've never seen someone attempt to create Cittàgazze or the spectres before, let alone some of the weirder bits of the books like the part-wheel Mulefa, but I now have some hopes that the team behind His Dark Materials will be able to pull these off in style.

Season Two

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

Season two continues the incredible world-building, beautiful art direction, exceptional acting, and all-around awesomeness of the first. In some ways, the story is a little more character-focused and less grand, but it still manages to pack a huge amount in, progress the characters in meaningful ways, and be an absolute blast of a ride.

From a design perspective, I thought the knife itself was beautifully subtle in shape and form (see what I did there 😏), and the way they created the Cave, visualised the talking Dust, and the windows themselves – it was all great. Mrs Coulter remains another high point, particularly her relationship with her dæmon, which is just fascinating, but overall Ruth Wilson is just phenomenal in the role. To a lesser degree, but still absolutely nailing it, Lin-Manuel Miranda continues to be a delight and I'll be sad to miss him in the next season. Which isn't to say anything bad about the rest of the cast, all of whom play their roles perfectly throughout. Andrew Scott gives just enough mystique to his shaman powers; Serafina is beautifully threatening and otherworldly; the introduction of Mary is handled well; and Ariyon Bakare is a great minor villain. Of course, the kids shine above most, and both Will and Lyra get a lot of additional range, which they absolutely nail (though I do find Will a tad too moody by the season end).

Elsewhere, the VFX continues to be astounding, to the extent that we watched the extras after and only then did I really truly realise that the golden monkey was not real – it sounds weird, but that's a well done monkey 👏 Pan spends a bit too long as a(n admittedly adorable) red panda, but otherwise the effects hold up so well, and once again the set design is brilliant, particularly in Cittàgazze. I'm particularly impressed that the Spectres look genuinely unique, considering how many simple black wraith-like creatures have been done in fantasy so far; their tentacle-y fluidity creates a creepiness that's hard to look away from.

That last episode though: why does every character need to make bad decisions. Lee forgets his "get out of jail free card" until it's too late; Will's dad suddenly lets his guard down and turns his shaman senses off, forgetting to even cover his tracks or hide despite the known threat (or use his osprey dæmon as a sentry 🤦‍♂️); Will just up and leaves Lyra behind; Serafina ignores her promise to Lee (okay, she is the most forgivable, though I do think she could have spotted the balloons if she just, y'know, sent the witch dæmons to search for Will's dad a bit); both of the other witches get themselves into slightly silly traps. These are all intelligent, resourceful, highly skilled people... sigh.

I also felt the strange Lord of the Rings-style introduction at the start of one of the episodes was a little weird, particularly given the fact that the previous Bearer then fills the characters in on most of the same history. It's not bad, just felt out of place.

Still, it sets the stage for one hell of a third act. I really wish they'd done this in four seasons rather than three, just to give the story a bit more breathing space (and because it seems extremely unlikely that we'll get the wheel symbiotes now 😢), but if the third season can hold this level of production, pacing, and storytelling then it'll be phenomenally worthwhile 🤞

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