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.
A profound female voice describes the creation of a mythical artefact; an ethereal soundtrack accompanies shots of a welders’ furnace and a gilded blade. You could easily mistake the opening of episode four of His Dark Materials’ second series with that of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The similarities end at scene one though; Philip Pullman’s is a series that rarely imitates, and the latest instalment of this TV adaption delivers layered fantasy that Tolkien himself would surely have marvelled at.
The Middle Earth-style prologue tells not of the forging of the Great Ring, but instead the Subtle Knife. Like all fantasy paraphernalia, the knife – a mystical creation able to cut through dimensions – had the potential to be used for good or ill. No prizes for guessing which way it went. The question that remains, of course, is who will be HDM’s Froddo? Its answer lies in an episode packed with adventure, plus the long-awaited arrival of John Parry/Stanislaus Grumman/Jopari (a man of many names, brought to life by the one and only Andrew Scott).
This episode – ‘Tower Of The Angels’ – sees HDM’s eclectic characters steer closer and closer together. Mrs Coulter is skulking about with Lord Boreal; Lord Boreal is nosing around in the work of Mary Malone; Lee Scoresby finally discovers Will’s dad, the mystical Jopari; and pretty much every character decides to take a detour via Cittàgazze (where Will and Lyra are getting into some serious antics of their own). The plot tempo is up and it’s great fun to watch, not least because Andrew Scott’s Jopari has a daemon voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It’s the coupling every Fleabag fan has always longed for.
In truth, episode 4 is first and foremost Will’s moment, providing a spotlight for his much-anticipated promotion from sidekick to a protagonist in his own right. Boreal, who has stolen Lyra’s alethiometer, has promised to give it back if she and Will retrieve the subtle knife in exchange. The incredible, Mediterranean-style set of Cittàgazze is always a sight to behold, but this is the first time we get a long look at the city’s chilling spectres that sustain themselves on a diet of adult souls. They slink around the vibrant, abandoned streets like inky black shadows. This is Will’s coming-of-age moment, and the foreshadowing is clear; his childhood is not long for this world.
‘Tower Of The Angels’ scratches many itches. Will wins the subtle knife (and loses fingers) in a dramatic fist-fight at the top of the episode’s eponymous tower. The knife’s old bearer provides some much-needed guidance to a bewildered Will and Lyra. Whether teenage angst or lack of sleep, there has always been something angry about Will, but in these scenes, that rage finally finds a more interesting edge. Lyra is looking at him differently, and her daemon Pan makes a telling faux-pas when accepting Will’s touch. In episode 4’s most tender moment, Lyra gestures back to her friendship with Billy by interrupting Will’s bath by walking in backwards. What was an alliance is fast becoming a fierce friendship.
To me, this episode’s most interesting moment comes not from the warring witches or conniving Mrs Coulter and Boreal (though those sections are not to be sniffed at). Instead, it is Dr Mary Malone’s scientific discovery that is truly chill-inducing. It’s also what makes HDM – for all its fantasy tropes – so profoundly unique. Putting Lyra’s revelations to work, Mary manages to find a way to speak with the shadow particles in her supercomputer (A.K.A The Cave). The particles confirm that dust, dark matter and shadow particles are all the same thing: angels. The computerised voice, the eerie technological room, Mary’s mixed delight and apprehension make for absorbing watching. The best part is the scene’s cliffhanger. It turns out angels have always interfered in the lives of humans. Why? “Vengeance.”
The intersection of religion, physics and philosophy is what made Phillip Pullman’s source trilogy so intriguing and original. Now, that same crossover is creating a similar effect for the TV show. What other fantasy franchise can lay claim to such a rich tapestry? Quantum physics and angels; talking bears and multiverses. As always, the episode ends on a knife-edge (of the subtle variety) and with all the characters about to collide, the final three episodes of the series look set to be truly epic.
His Dark Materials is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.