“This story starts in another world. One that is both like, and unlike, your own.”
Every year since 2011, fantasy enthusiasts have had Game of Thrones to look forward to. It’s been six months since we said goodbye to Westeros and, in that time, nothing has filled that weekly urge to become lost in a world where the constraints of reality can be set aside. True, Carnival Row and the wonderful Good Omens provided a dip into that fantasy realm though neither really possessed GoT’s epic nature, never mind the fact that, as Amazon Prime originals, all episodes dropped on the same day. As fun as bingeing may be, there is something magical in having to wait a week to catch up with a world like, in the case of GoT, the utterly massive and jumbled Westeros. Though HBO has hopped back into fantastical worlds with Watchmen (a different genre altogether), that doesn’t touch on the wonders of fantasy as the network looks to do with His Dark Materials.
Taking place in a world much like our own—but not—His Dark Materials is Hollywood’s second crack at Philip Pullman’s fantasy series of the same name (the first try—2007’s The Golden Compass—was utterly forgettable). In fairness, it’s a difficult prospect adapting these rich and storied fantasy worlds, which, as condensed pieces of two-hours, are forced to cut so much of the richness and world-building present in the novels. For every Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, there’s…nearly everything else. “Lyra’s Jordan” is the first step in trying to give true justice to Pullman’s seminal work and satisfy those disappointed by The Golden Compass while also pulling in new viewers (like myself) along for the ride. Though I cannot speak to whether the premiere captures the essence of Pullman’s work, as a familiar passenger into various worlds of fantasy I can say that, as first episodes go, His Dark Materials is off to a respectable start.
It begins, as most of these worlds do, with a prophecy. Short and to the point, the introductory script tells us, in this world, human souls take animal forms (daemons); human and daemon connections are sacred (as one would expect a body and soul to be). A great destiny awaits this child born during the Great Flood. That child is Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen, Logan, The Refugees), an energetic, daring, and strong-willed girl of 12 who, along with her daemon Pan and best friend Roger, splits her time between her lessons at Oxford and causing a general stir of havoc for the scholarly staff.
Not to harp too much on the GoT connection, but it was difficult to watch Lyra’s adventurous and willful nature without thinking of Arya Stark. Both characters share the longing to become more than what appears to be their fate; a dull existence. Like Arya, Lyra knows that she’s destined for more. As an orphan, all she’s known of the world is Oxford, though she lives vicariously through her explorer uncle, Asriel (James McAvoy, X-Men, Split) who, upon his return to Oxford, is nearly poisoned by Dr. Carne, the university Master (Clark Peters, Jessica Jones, Chance), but is ultimately saved by his raucous niece.
Asriel’s return causes strife within the university for the heretical nature of his presentation; he brings the scholars proof of not only Dust’s (an as-yet unexplained substance) attraction to adults only and the fate of the Grumman Expedition but a picture of a city in the sky, hidden among the Northern Lights. He theorizes there may be multiple worlds out there, worlds the people are left ignorant of thanks to the Magisterium.
Donning the mantle of antagonist, the Magisterium is this world’s controlling entity, an organization that shares traits with the Catholic Church—titles of ‘Father’ and ‘Cardinal’ are used—but, as this is just the premiere, their motivations remain firmly entrenched in shadows. Based on the Oxford scholars’ fears, the Magisterium seems to suffer not the questioning of its authority. And while their Middle Ages-like philosophy firmly paints them as the bad guys, “Lyra’s Jordan” sets up another pair of antagonists, though one is introduced as a friend.
Mentioned multiple times throughout but often as nothing more than children’s stories, the Gobblers are those that, for reasons unknown, kidnap children and ship them off to London. We get confirmation of their existence through the eyes of the Gyptians, this world’s equivalent to Gypsies (or Travelers). Like a good introductory episode should do, “Lyra’s Jordan” gives us but a taste of these mysterious Gobblers that, despite the childish name, promise to be a very real threat.
Perhaps the most formidable of characters to enter the scene is Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson, Luther, The Affair). She arrives at Oxford and immediately takes an interest to Lyra. Whether it be the hint of something sinister hiding behind her beauty and fierce confidence or how she wastes no time expertly lowering Lyra’s defenses, there is no denying that Marisa has ulterior motives, though it’s unclear who exactly she’s in league with, be it the Magisterium, the Oxford scholars, someone else, or even her own private machinations. Wilson plays the role of chameleon with aplomb, providing us with all the queues of a likeable character but letting just enough of the darkness up for us to be mistrustful of her designs of the vulnerable Lyra.
The most common mistake made by series premieres is trying to explain too much of the world to viewers, forgetting that their purpose of piquing our curiosity is predicated on not giving us all the answers. “Lyra’s Jordan” does a stand-up job here; some of the narrative facts, such as the connection between human and daemon, are plainly stated. There’s plenty more though where the writers provide subtle hints as both a narrative driver—not explaining the alethiometer’s purpose to Lyra, except to say that it gives one the truth—and the good storytelling attribute of showing, not telling. The questions the premiere stirred within me (as someone unfamiliar with Pullman’s original work) makes returning for the second episode a must. Though the helicopters, airships, and automobiles put this series far beyond the Medieval-ish settings of Westeros, as a fantasy property, it could perhaps be that Game of Thrones replacement we’ve been hunting for since the spring finale. Then again, if “Lyra’s Jordan” is just the start of building a rich and full world before our eyes, His Dark Materials could very well stand on its own.