Following the success of Peter Jackson’s monumental cinematic achievement of filming the unfilmable in the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Hollywood attempted for years, in vain, to capitalize. Sub-par movie versions of C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” were rushed to picture palaces, as well as an attempt to bring Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy to life in the form of 2007’s “The Golden Compass,” which was released to mixed reviews and disappointing box office numbers. Only HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series has been able to successfully translate a fully-realized, epic fantasy world, post-Jackson.
But now that the war for the Iron Throne has finally been won, HBO is looking for the next big thing for “Game of Thrones” fans to grow addicted to. Thus, the network has teamed with BBC for a new translation of Pullman’s popular “His Dark Materials” series of novels. Sadly, the early episodes feel more akin to a contemporary BBC drama with a light Jules Verne bend, as opposed to a fantastical coming of age voyage that HBO intended.
Set in an alternate world “that is both like, and unlike, our own,” the scope and scale of “His Dark Material’s” first two episodes barely register as belonging to the epic fantasy genre. Worse still, they’re quite a slog, seemingly more concerned with the etiquette and presentation of expository table setting than establishing any sort of young adult wonder. The show’s magical premise explores the relationship between humans and their daemons, spiritual companions that each take unique animal form based on whom they shadow. Outside this major world-building detail, the series initially feels like it could take place in our world until the third episode begins introducing more magical components. The books’ Victorian-era flavor also seems slightly downplayed (at least, in the four episodes critics were provided with). Frankly, the first two hours feel like a combination of stalling and misdirection (and they easily could have been compounded).
For centuries, the world has been ruled by a religious power known as the Magisterium, overseen by the Cardinal (Ian Peck). In the northern wilds, witches whisper of a prototypical chosen one prophecy. The pilot episode’s “Boy Who Lived’ prologue reveals the child of destiny, a girl named Lyra (Dafne Keen) who is hidden away at Oxford by her distrustful father, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), evoking the privilege of something called scholastic sanctuary.
Twelve years later, Lyra runs around the grounds, playing games of hide and seek in tombs and towers with her friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd). Her “Uncle” Asriel returns from an Arctic expedition with evidence of Dust, a mysterious particle revealing a luminous image that cannot possibly be, something the Magisterium has decreed heresy. Asriel asks for academic freedom to pursue a theory after someone attempts to poison him, soon flying back to northern territories in an airship, leaving his daughter behind. After his departure, a mysterious woman who works for the Arctic Institute, Ms. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) arrives in Oxford, offering to take Lyra to London to be her assistant, where she will learn the ways of the north, and perhaps even negotiate with polar bears one day.
Why any of this is important and what it all means is not fully spelled out until the fourth hour of the series, when the show suddenly transitions into almost full-on “Firefly” mode, where Lin-Manuel Miranda pops up as quick-tongued aeronaut, Lee Scoresby, who’s good at finding legal loopholes to get armored bears out of trouble. Where do the magic bears that speak and wear armor come into play, you may ask? Well… unfortunately, that isn’t outlined very well in the first four episodes.
Formally speaking, the show’s aesthetic is executed well, but “His Dark Materials” simply feels substantially more muted than your run-of-the-mill secondary world fantasy — which seems by design but will likely be an acquired taste for many. The daemon effects aren’t perfect but many of them still pop off the screen with empathy and pathos, plus it’s always compelling to watch Ruth Wilson do her soul-piercing stare. On the flip side, McAvoy’s talents are barely utilized in the early episodes and Miranda’s goofy performance belongs in a different series (he’s fun to watch but his inclusion is distracting). All in all, the storytelling often feels about as middle of the road as a near impeccably made show, bred in post-‘Thrones’ focus group lab, can possibly get; it’s just harder to impress with scale on TV these days, when every other show seems to have a budget bigger than some of the year’s strongest Oscar contenders.
Lacking the youthful discovery that comes hand in hand with a chosen one protagonist entering a new world (a la Tolkien, Lewis, or even J.K. Rowling), the first half of HBO’s “His Dark Materials” is bogged down by a snail’s pace and faint world-building. Lyra isn’t drawn into a world of wondrous magic like Harry Potter, and she doesn’t stumble into a world-hopping wardrobe. Instead, she’s drawn into a circle of back-stabbing conspiracies that sit behind closed doors, behind which she must find meaning, using the rare, and illegal, Alethiometer (the 2007 film’s titular Golden Compass), which unveils the truth to those who can read its coded signifiers. The contraption is nifty but too mechanical in nature to substitute for an awe-inspiring cool factor, much like the show itself, which feels too bland to capture the imagination of teen audiences and is a far cry from being intellectually stimulating enough to challenge adult viewers looking for their next fantasy obsession. [C]