The BBC is back with its second series of His Dark Materials; join Caragh Medlicott for weekly reviews of each new episode.
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
What’s a good fantasy story without a little prophecy to keep things trundling along? From the return of the King of Gondor in Lord of the Rings to the ‘chosen one’ in Harry Potter, divinations add a sense of foreboding and significance to the events that lie in wait. In episode 3 – ‘Theft’ – His Dark Materials provides a prophecy to blow all the others out of the water, one – we are told – that will put an end to destiny itself. It’s Lyra’s role to bring this foretelling to fruition, but she can only do so if she plays out her part in ignorance. An entanglement of biblical proportions is ready to kick off. The prophecy is revealed by Kaisa (Serafina Pekkala’s daemon) to Iorek Byrnison. That’s right. The bears are back.
Making up for the plodding-but-necessary backstory of episode 2, ‘Theft’ quickly picks up the pace. Aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is back in action, and the hands of fate seem already at work when a change in weather sends him on a new course to a small town. Lee is seeking the mysterious Dr Stanislaus Grumman, and after a few dull conversations with the drunken locals, he quickly finds that name carries weight in a world saturated by the Magisterium’s doctrine. At least in the short term, his enquiring doesn’t end well. For readers of the books, Lee Scoresby is a firm fan favourite, and Miranda is adept at retaining the character’s likability; it’s a simple recipe that makes many of Lee’s scenes, if not the best, then certainly the most enjoyable.
By now we’re used to the parallel plots (and parallel worlds) the story must jump between, but things are heating up and writer Jack Thorne is soon put through his paces. Lyra and Will are, at various points, scattered between Will’s Oxford and the world of Cittàgazze; Lyra’s return trip to see Dr Mary Malone quickly turns into a by-foot police chase and Will is uncovering some destiny of his own after finding himself repeatedly drawn to the ominous Tower of Angels. The first series of HDM benefitted from having the majority of its characters in one world, heading in one direction – back then, Will’s backstory was the only subplot. Now it must not only keep the story pushing forward but solidify relationships, and – crucially – alliances along the way.
Despite this balancing act, ‘Theft’ effectively navigates its storyline without causing confusion. The speed is sometimes stop-start, but at least it holds our interest. The most bizarre scene in the entire episode doesn’t involve talking polar bears or distant spectral figures but, instead, an unlikely cinema trip. Will and Lyra catch a showing of the very cosy – albeit random – Paddington. Here, Lyra’s popcorn antics cause Will to accuse her of not taking anything seriously, an insult Lyra rebuffs with the (admittedly cutting) fact that her best friend was killed by her father. It’s a change in emotional tone a little too sharp for the young actors to pull off (even though Dafne Keen is on the whole brilliant as the wayward Lyra).
As I’ve mentioned before, HDM is a family show and children surely make up a large part of its viewership. Lyra and Will may be our child protagonists, but a scene with Mrs Coulter and Lee Scoresby was always bound to be a show-stealer. Due to some more destiny-clad hoodwinkery, Mrs Coulter ends up with access to the imprisoned aeronaut, and – in a surprise to no one – wants information about Lyra’s whereabouts. Her threats of torture glance off Lee and we soon discover both share a past of childhood trauma; the scene rings slightly of something like James Bond cliché, but it is also deliciously entertaining (not least because it’s so rare we see Mrs Coulter wrongfooted). An unlikely alliance is formed and Lee is set loose just in time for next week’s episode.
At its end, episode 3 leaves us teetering on the edge of explosivity. Turncoat Lord Carlo Boreal (played by the precise and chilling Ariyon Bakare) has nabbed Lyra’s alethiometer and the children must steal a mysterious knife to see it returned. Lee is back on the road (or rather in the air), Mrs Coulter is out to find Boreal, Mary Malone is uncovering shadow particle secrets and the witches are plotting war-shaped revenge. Whew. With four episodes to go and many more adventures to ensue, it’s time to hold onto our hats. The action has only just begun.
His Dark Materials is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.