I can’t believe I’ve just watched a full episode of His Dark Materials. I didn’t get swept up in the Harry Potter hype when I was younger – I only joined that train a couple of years ago. No, while everyone else was talking spells and sorting hats, I was quietly talking to myself about daemons, alethiometers and Dust. These books captured my imagination as a teenager; I would take interest in other series in passing, but if asked today what my childhood book series was, my answer would always be His Dark Materials.
It’s safe to say I had high expectations for tonight’s first episode. I went in with cautious optimism, much the same way I did when I went to see The Golden Compass in 2007, when I was 15. But let’s be real, that optimism was severely misguided. I remember leaving that movie adaptation of the first book downright disappointed. Elements were changed, the ending literally wasn’t even the ending, and none of the characters quite lined up to match my imagination. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Nicole Kidman, but she is just no Mrs. Coulter.
But I’m ever the optimist – and tonight’s episode did not let me down. I spent an hour, sat there, having my imagination torn out of my mind and plastered on to the screen. Jordan College was just what I expected, and everything about the look of the gyptians was spot on. I did have to adapt to the look of characters, obviously. When I first read the books, the Lyra in my head took the shape of Chihiro from Spirited Away – and Mrs. Coulter was Edea Kramer from Final Fantasy VIII. But after this episode, I’m genuinely impressed with Dafne Keen’s portrayal of Lyra, and even moreso of Ruth Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter. That moment where she snaps her fingers while talking about how easily children can disappear in London was spot-on fierce queen realness and I am here. For. It.
In fact, the only character that really subverted the image in my head was Ma Costa – I always pictured her as this large, dark, powerful woman who you would not want to mess with lest you get whacked around the head with a wooden spoon. But it’s only episode one – I’ll give Anne-Marie Duff more screen time before I judge her.
In terms of the episode itself, it clearly needed to do a lot of exposition to lay foundations for the rest of the series, and I am forgiving that certain things may feel rushed at times or less than perfect. When it comes to television, particularly adapting a book series, I think expectations need to be adjusted slightly to reflect the medium. I’ve seen comments of there not being enough daemons in this first episode, but I imagine the CGI budget is being saved for some of the more spectacular scenes that take place later in the book. I’m OK with that. I thought what we did see of the daemons looked amazing, and I already care immensely about Pantalaimon because he’s just too adorable God damn it.
When it came to visuals, the only part that actually concerned me was some iffy green screen work when Lord Asriel was in the North photographing the aurora borealis. It didn’t matter much for the few minutes you see it in this first episode, but we’ll spend some pivotal moments there later in the season and I hope any emotional impact isn’t cheapened by dodgy effects. Again, though – cautious optimism!
I feel like the next few episodes are going to mix things up a little bit so we aren’t solely stuck with Lyra living her London life, and that’ll be a great way of keeping things interesting and making sure readers of the books don’t know exactly what they’re about to see each week. I think we’ll get to see more of Lord Asriel sparingly, and Roger’s experiences with the Gobblers, far earlier than in the first book. Speaking of Roger – slightly niche reference alert – does anyone else think he looks suspiciously like a young Cheryl Hole from UK Drag Race??
I’m so excited to see how the rest of the season turns out. There are characters I can’t wait to meet (Serafina Pekkala) and scenes I can’t wait to see (polar bears, obvs). I’ve been listening to the audiobooks for the first time over the last couple of weeks to refresh my memories, and there’s this special kind of feeling I’ve never had before, a nervousness that the pictures in my head will never be the same again after I see the series – and at the same time an excitement to see those mental pictures be brought to life. The 2007 movie adaptation was such a non-event that it never really had a chance to influence my imagination. This series, on the other hand, feels different. Bring on episode two.