TV Series His Dark Materials (Season 1) | Review

His Dark Materials (Season 1) | Review

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His Dark Materials, while wonderfully led by Dafne Keen, of Logan fame, struggles with weak reveals and lack of urgency.


Network BBC One, HBO
Creator(s) Jack Thorne
Aired 11/3/2019 – 12/22/2019
Genre(s) Fantasy, Adventure
Noted Cast
Lyra Dafne Keen
Lord Asriel James McAvoy
Roger Lewin Lloyd
Mrs. Coulter Ruth Wilson
Boreal Ariyon Bakare
Pan (Voice) Kit Connor
Will Amir Wilson
Elaine Nina Sosanya
Lee Lin-Manuel Miranda
Ma Costa Anne-Marie Duff

This content contains pertinent spoilers.

Season Synopsis

Lyra, a girl raised to assume her parents are dead, was partly raised by her uncle Lord Asriel and by members of a college. One that allowed her to flourish in many ways. Not just in terms of becoming a curious and spunky young lady, but making a friend, a pseudo-brother, in a boy named Roger. However, as Lord Asriel, a researcher, looks into this substance called Dust, and brings unwanted attention to the college, neither her nor Lyra are safe. Especially as a woman, Mrs. Coulter, gets involved with Lyra, and this coincides with a group of people, known as the Gyptians, dealing with their children being kidnapped.

All of these things, Lord Asriel’s research, Mrs. Coulter’s arrival, the Gyptian children being kidnapped, combined with a man who works with the theocracy, Boreal, looking into a man who was once presumed dead, goes on a collision course. One that ends up rather deadly.

Review

Highlights

Dafne Keen

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Lyra asking whether she can be happy.
Lyra: Don’t we deserve to have nice things?

Since working alongside Hugh Jackman in Logan, there was a need to question what was next for Keen? For despite a lack of coherent English, dialog in the film, there was something about the child. So, fast forward years later, as Lyra, one would submit Keen is what ultimately will keep you watching. And while there are far more prominent names on this show than hers, I can’t say any of them really make the sell as she does.

I’m talking beyond the whole girl power and things of that nature. Keen, simply put, makes whoever is in a scene with her better as if she has been a lead actress for years or decades. And even when alone, she is able to harness both Lyra’s vulnerability with her tenacity to make it so you want to follow her journey, no matter how anti-climatic it consistently is.

The Many Sides To Mrs. Coulter

Mrs. Coulter dealing with the nonsense around her.
Mrs. Coulter: There always has to be a “but” attached to a compliment.

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To a lesser degree, Ruth Wilson, as Mrs. Coulter, also provides a bit of a hook for the show. Mostly in the form of her balancing between being the kind of woman she has to be when in public while showing herself as shrewd and formidable in private. If not, as seen when she had her daemon hurt Pan, Lyra’s daemon, cruel.

Yet, it is watching Wilson deal with men who are all but ready to dismiss her and close ranks that makes it fun to see her consistently make some form of a comeback. Especially since her falls from grace, of which there are at least two, are usually met with moments that remind you that what is a big deal for others is like a broken heel for Mrs. Coulter. Unfortunate, yes, but certainly not the end of the world.

Roger & Lyra’s Relationship

Roger and Lyra holding each other in Lee's balloon.

While Lyra meets many people and beings, the one relationship that is fully developed is that with Roger. Someone who is written in such a way that he doesn’t come off like an eventual love interest or brother. Rather, for those familiar with Hayao Miyazaki’s work, there is a similar male/female connection there. One which goes beyond the usual constraints people place between girls and boys as they venture with one another. Instead, you get this love, this chemistry, that is impossible to really define but is so strong there is no denying it is there.

And it is because of Lyra’s connection to Roger we get one of the few emotional moments this season had to offer.

Low Points

Most Of The Supporting Characters Lacked Oomph

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Will (Amir Wilson) walking home.
Will (Amir Wilson)

Generally speaking, outside of Mrs. Coulter, anyone involved with the Magisterium was not only forgettable but lacked the charisma to hold your attention for long periods of time. Also, what didn’t help was none of their storylines held weight, and their battles didn’t make them look strong. If anything, it made it seems The Magisterium was on a decline.

An example: Carlo Boreal venturing to our world, threatening Will, who is made to be the Lyra of his world, and threatening Will’s mother Elaine, was a struggle to sit through. Why? Well, because not one actor matched Keen or Wilson in terms of likability, energy, or that special something. They simply existed in a shared world and never found a means to make it seem their perspective of lives mattered.

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That especially was disheartening when it came to Will, since you’d think Lyra’s other half would be all she is in a male, and Black, form. But, instead, the way Will and most characters are on this show mirrors that of people who were split from their daemons. Shells that can be riled up every now and then, but usually are just time fillers made to make you fully appreciate when Lyra was on screen.

The Abrupt End To The Gyptian Storyline

The majority of the season focuses on Gyptian children being taken and their connection to Lyra. Making their abrupt exit in episode 6 a bit jarring. Partly due to how much development they got, in terms of who’s who and their culture, but also because their exit left a vacuum. With them gone, we were left with the characters who were barely focused on or, in the case of Lee, it seemed less about the role of Lee and more about the actor playing them and the persona they are known for.

Hence one of the many reasons the final episode felt incredibly weak and clipped at the knees.

The Way Things Were Revealed

Lyra confirming Mrs. Coulter is her mother.

From who Lyra’s mother is, her father, how those two met, and so much more, it often felt like His Dark Materials didn’t know how to build up to a major moment. Instead, notable reveals were just dropped and rather than it being a bomb with huge mushroom clouds and aftershocks, it was like those Purple mattress commercials with the eggs that don’t break, no matter how they land. Everything feels so padded that you aren’t sure if that is because they don’t want to shake up children possibly watching, or just not knowing how to reveal these significant plot points.

Thus creating this vibe that usually only comes if you are familiar with other adaptions or the source material. Yet, with me personally not seeing the movie which preceded this series or reading the book, hunching over what should be some of the biggest information the series could offer was an omen.

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No Sense Of Urgency

One that is realized as it became clear this show lacked urgency. The Gyptian kids being kidnapped? Yeah, that was a problem, and Ma Costa pushed the feeling something needed to be done, but the way that dragged out made you feel it could go on into the second season. Then in terms of the Magisterium going after Lord Asriel, we don’t see that man for the majority of the season and don’t know what he is doing at all. So there is no rush there either.

And it all just continues to snowball. Boreal’s investigation is long and steady, with it just beginning to pick up as the season comes to an end. The whole storyline dealing with the station is handled so poorly it almost wants to make you laugh. For we’re told witches are involved with it, and how dangerous the place is, only to watch it toppled in two episodes. Mind you, by one sole witch and the Gyptians who we were led to believe, would possibly be massacred.

Ultimately making it so maybe His Dark Materials has less of an issue with establishing urgency as it does pacing.

On The Fence

The Daemons

Pan (Kit Connor) in his ferret form.
Pan (Kit Connor)

Lyra’s daemon, Pan, is the only one we actually see consistently, and one of the few that has conversations with their soulmate. Roger’s does speak with him, but Roger is in only half the episodes of the show. Lord Asriel’s speaks to him, but he is in, maybe, 3 or 4 episodes. So, in many ways, the potential and interest that could have been derived from these people speaking to their other half, it is wasted. Especially when it comes to Mrs. Coulter and her daemon, who never utters a single word!

Overall

Met Expectations

Not at all. In fact, largely, this show was a disappointment.

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Trajectory

Downward: Can this show bounce back? Maybe. However, with the second season filming right after the first, so that there isn’t a stark difference between how Keen looks in season 1 and 2, so goes the idea they could review what could be better and do better.

Rating: Mixed (Stick Around)

Mrs. Coulter slamming a door.

Daphne Keen and Ruth Wilson are the saving graces of this show, but like a crutch made of wood bearing the weight of someone too long, things are cracking and threatening to break. So one can only hope season 2 does what season 1 struggled to do. Which is create a sense of urgency, supporting characters who are worth caring about, or drive some sort of emotional response, and when big things happen, they aren’t just recognized but felt.

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Amari Allahhttps://wherever-i-look.com
I started Wherever I Look back in 2011 and from movies, TV, the occasional book, play, and Broadway show, have been trying to bridge the gap between a critic and an avid lover of various forms of media.

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Dafne Keen
89 %
The Many Sides To Mrs. Coulter
85 %
Roger & Lyra’s Relationship
84 %
Most Of The Supporting Characters Lacked Oomph
65 %
The Abrupt End To The Gyptian Storyline
66 %
The Way Things Were Revealed
63 %
No Sense Of Urgency
64 %
The Daemons
75 %
Met Expectations
62 %
Trajectory
61 %

Questions, Comments, or Opposing Opinion?

  1. Questions:
    Did you read any of the “His Dark Materials” novels before watching this series?
    Did you ever watch the movie adaptation of the first book in this series (“The Golden Compass”)?

    I ask these things because I feel some of your criticisms could be applied to the source material… the novels can be very meandering at times, with flat characters drifting in and out frequently… and towards the end, the plot development slows-down as the author becomes more focused on making philosophical points.

    The movie adaptation was widely criticised for simplifying the storyline of Phillip Pullman’s novel, toning down the author’s anti-religious/philosophical rants and generally rushing through things at a brisk pace…. much of the way this series was made seems like a reaction to how the movie was received.

    So much of the PR for this show seems to be focused on how this time they will include ABSOLUTELY everything and won’t compromise in conveying the authors message
    (To the extent that they’ve decided to incorporate events from prequel-novels that Pullman wrote AFTER the main trilogy)

    Your review makes it sound like they went to the opposite extreme this time – creating an adaptation that is TOO reverential – to the point that it doesn’t make sufficient allowances for the limitations of the TV medium and is completely blind to the flaws of the source material. Which has the effect of leaving many actors struggling with material that renders their characters as either emotionally short-changed or aimless.

    • I didn’t get the chance to do either, but knew the movie wasn’t well received. Also, I was aware that there was some hope from HBO that, while this could never fill the gap Game of Thrones left, it would present the opportunity to maintain some sense of being a network with big-budget fantasy productions.

      As for the characters being emotionally short-changed or aimless, I’d submit that, in being more of a reactionary series, as you note, likely trying to be all “The Golden Compass” was not, it never found its own voice. It did try to present some form of emotion in the form of Mrs. Coulter’s frustrations with a world that required her to be twice as good to get anywhere or Lyra dealing with a sense of abandonment. However, the lack of tension and the pacing of the show made it where it seemed rushed. Almost as if it needed to be done for an anniversary of the book’s release or the company which holds the rights to visual adaptations would have lost said rights.

      Also, I’d submit the show doesn’t really go anti-religion all that much. Yes, the villains are a theological organization, but their faith feels so meek that even the cardinal seems like someone who is by no means a religious zealot but more so a career politician.