‘His Dark Materials’ premiere immerses us bit by bit into Lyra’s world as she and alethiometer join questionable Mrs Coulter’s mission
Spoilers ahead for 'His Dark Materials' Episode 1
In the first episode of 'His Dark Materials', when Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) and Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd) are traipsing around rooftops, sliding through windows and squeezing through spaces as various adults tut-tut around them, you are hit with nostalgia for your own childhood.
That special time when you are small enough to squeeze into every nook and cranny of your little childhood kingdom in a way no adult could. It is a worldview we never get back once we are past that age.
But for that little while as Lyra and Roger chase each other through the halls of Jordon College, Oxford, each corner imbued with a new adventure or mischief, we relive that freedom, if only for a little while. You can see why the Master (Lyra's defacto guardian in Oxford after Lord Asriel leaves her in his care) wants to keep her "innocent".
But as his truth-telling device, the alethiometer, tells him, Lyra is destined for a journey that will involve a "great betrayal", one that she will be party to. The Master intones they have to be scared for her and "of her".
The HBO and BBC adaptation thankfully doesn't spoon-feed its audience and try and force in a lot of expositionary dialogue. You get comfortable with the concept of daemons (human souls in the form of animal companions usually of the opposite sex) fairly quickly.
The airships are as real as the college's buildings and you realize religion lies heavy on this world with elaborate prayers at dinnertime and lessons about heaven, hell, good and evil in Lyra's one-girl class.
The show is content to unfold this world that is "both like and unlike our own", bit by bit, scene by scene. This works well, till we come to the matter of Dust. Fans of the book trilogy will, of course, understand what Dust stands for in Lyra's world.
But for a newcomer, all the talk about Dust can come across as confusing, especially when Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), gives a ferocious sneer and refers to it as "that distasteful substance" that cloaks adults but stays away from children and illuminates "other worlds" in the "Northern Lights" (their version of the Aurea Borealis).
But, Lyra too is equally clueless about this Dust business and maybe we are to be innocents like her until later. She is however more concerned about Roger's tale about "Gobblers" stealing a child, Billy Costa, from the Gyptians (a canal-traversing tribe of nomads). Then Roger goes missing too, kidnapped by a man with a fox daemon.
Lyra, buoyed by an offer from Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), an exotic and glamorous "explorer" visiting the college, to be "her assistant", begs that Roger be allowed to accompany her. When she can't find him the next morning, Mrs. Coulter assures her she will leave no stone unturned to find Roger but that means going to London where Gobblers take children because it is a big enough city to "make children disappear".
Lyra agrees, clambering onto the airship with her. She has the Master's gift of the alethiometer in her pocket, that Mrs. Coulter's golden monkey daemon senses vaguely. You already know Mrs. Coulter and her daemon are a bit sinister -- the monkey's snarl proves it.
The Gyptians, under the stewardship of Lord Faa (Lucian Msamati), King of the Western Gyptian, and Farder Coram (James Cosmo) also head to London, independently reaching the conclusion that the rash of child kidnappings in their tribe is linked to the Gobblers in London.
The end moment of the show leaves the audience on a cliff hanger that shows Roger locked away in the hold of the airship that is taking off from Oxford, the same one that Mrs. Coulter and Lyra are traveling on. Coincidence, much?
This is a deeply satisfying adaptation that knows how to pace itself if the first episode is anything to go by. The only slightly incongruous presence is James McAvoy who plays Lord Asriel with a boyish manic intensity that compares poorly with Daniel Craig's smooth gangster-man vibe in the movie adaptation. In every other respect, the show is an improvement on the movie version and the daemons are CGI perfection. All in all, this show is off to a good start.
'His Dark Materials' premiered November 4 with weekly episodes airing every Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.