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.
There’s a certain uncanniness to the world with COVID, plans disintegrate and the future wobbles ahead of us misty and unclear. Is there some parallel world out there where 2020 unfolded as expected? Maybe, maybe not – but in the first episode of the BBC’s second series of His Dark Materials, we’re certainly provided with parallel universes colourful enough to distract us from the one we’re in.
It’s hard to believe, but the first series – for all its drama, guile and menacing use of daemon guillotines – has become but a setup exercise for the chaotic world-hopping about to commence. Drawn from the second book in Philip Pullman’s HDM trilogy, The Subtle Knife, it’s safe to say that here be everything but dragons.
After a whistlestop recap, we’re promptly dropped into the high fantasy world of HDM, there are broomless witches soaring across a stormy sky, Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) is back and seemingly as well-dressed and manipulative as ever, while Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Will (Amir Wilson) finally find their paths have crossed after their respective stumbling into a new, sun-drenched world (the city of Cittagàzze) which is cobbled, quaint and entirely devoid of grown-ups.
Mrs Coulter, in a trend continuing from the first series, finds that amongst the gawping, all-male ranks of the religious Magisterium she is the only one with enough cunning and grit to get things done. Convincing stiff Father MacPhail it’s a good idea to let her murder their ineffective leader Cardinal Sturrock is child’s play. The real fun lies in her torturous interrogation of the captured witch Katya (who looks as if she’s just got in from an especially rough night out). “Pragmatism. Such an underappreciated quality.” Mrs Coulter tells a sagging, restrained Katya – the glint of Mrs Coulter’s small but menacing tweezers signals bad things to come. She will stop at nothing for the witch’s secret knowledge about her daughter, Lyra, and the rumoured prophecy concerning the girl’s destiny. The torture continues, Katya’s resolve is wavering, it’s a dilemma which is causing no end of headache for the clans of witches forming an action plan (and possible war) over the head of a befuddled Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) just a few storm clouds away.
Over in Cittagàzze, Lyra and Will are on the cusp of a burgeoning friendship. Confusion abounds – “I don’t know if I’m weird for not having a daemon, or if you’re weird for having one” – but at least they’re not like the creepy stray children belonging to the crooked streets of Cittagàzze. Will is introduced to Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Connor), Lyra’s daemon, and Lyra gobbles up her first ever omelette. Despite a few accounts of word switcheroo, Will and Lyra find that their two worlds sound fairly similar – both have an Oxford, and neither have Cittagàzze’s ominous spectres known for feasting on the souls of adults. No wonder there are no grown ups around.
Needless to say, there’s a lot happening. Writer Jack Thorne balances us between the two narrative threads (and two worlds) with a skill familiar to anyone who watched the first series. There’s certainly no risk of boredom, and confusion is kept at bay (for now, anyway – how that’ll progress throughout the series remains to be seen). There are times when submersion in HDM’s world requires something like effort, the witches do look a little bizarre blasting through the sky like wayward superheroes and there’s certainly something vaguely comical about Mrs Coulter extracting bits of twig from Katya’s shoulder. Still, this is all part of the fun, and what’s fantasy without suspended disbelief?
While the first series of HDM wisely opted to introduce Will’s character earlier on, this first episode indicates a reasonably faithful adherence to Pullman’s source material (despite a brief appearance from a smart phone). It’s a full throttle start to what’s already shaping up to be a mind-spinning adventure. Just like the first series, there are high production values (layers of CGI), great acting and more than a few “oh! I know there!” moments for resident Cardiffians. Perhaps most importantly, director Tom Hooper’s powerful strain of escapism is just what the doctor ordered in the last chapter of a pandemic-ridden 2020. Six episodes to go? Bring them on.
His Dark Materials is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.