If you like a good fantasy, thriller, mystery, Western or sci-fi, you might find something to like in the newest season of His Dark Materials, the BBC and HBO adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s classic children’s fantasy books. The series has come roaring back with a high-octane, high-budget beginning to the season that promises more surreal architecture than a Salvador Dali painting and as many different genres as can fit into 60 minutes. It’s an interesting start to a new chapter, but overall a somewhat disappointing opening.
His Dark Materials follows young Lyra Belaqua through her surreal, genre-spanning universe, into a different universe (or two), and through a mystery of cosmic proportions. This is dangerous ground – with such a huge amount of information to relay to the audience, there’s constant pressure on the actors, especially the younger cast, to keep the series feeling coherent and cohesive.
However, one of the consistently impressive things about His Dark Materials is the casting and acting. Dafne Keen is more or less the only actress imaginable who could play Lyra. Best known for her violent turn in Logan (2017), she channels the same relentless confidence and prickly defiance, but with a curiosity that makes Lyra the most enjoyable perspective of the episode. Ruth Wilson is similarly brilliant, with her coldly pragmatic portrayal of Mrs Coulter as scene-stealing as ever. The rest of the star-studded cast performs well, especially given some of the shaky dialogue present in this first episode.
The production quality is once again out of this world, on the level of HBO’s best. In such a completely fantastical universe, it’s important that all the different moving landscapes and set pieces fit together. Season 2 has so far knocked this out of the park – there’s not a single moment that breaks audience immersion, and it’s still clear that Phillip Pullman’s involvement with the series has helped create a world as bizarre and believable as the books.
Despite all this, His Dark Materials hasn’t totally hit the mark in this new episode. The first big question mark is, unfortunately, the writing. It feels at times quite stilted, as if it doesn’t really have confidence in the surrounding world it’s a part of. This is a serious problem in a fantasy series. With the writing constantly referring to things, places, and people that a sizable chunk of the audience has never heard of before, it needs to be accessible and witty enough to keep viewers engaged, and several scenes just fall flat because the dialogue feels dull and incoherent.
In this episode, Lyra’s entrance into the inexplicably abandoned city of Cittagazze is one that could have been left dialogue-free, building tension and mystery for the audience to puzzle over, but narration from Lyra’s companion threatens to undermine this scene entirely. These may just be first-episode teething problems, but these issues should have been ironed out by the second season.
There are a couple of other question marks. As an outsider in a strange world, Amir Wilson’s otherwise solid portrayal of Will Parry threatens to become a stand-in for the audience, there to ask questions on their behalf – sapping his agency as a character. With a new season unfolding, the issue of fatigue also arises. Will viewers ultimately lose interest in this increasingly complex world, if nothing much else piques their curiosity beyond the setting itself?
Only time will tell. It’s definitely not a misfire for His Dark Materials, with so many of the first season’s excellent qualities retained. Overall, it’s definitely worth a watch.
Image: Gae99 via Wikimedia Commons