It's been a long road to the television adaptation of His Dark Materials, the obsessively popular young adult fantasy series from Philip Pullman. After a disastrous first outing as a Harry Potter-like film series (starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Dakota Blue Richards), the series never made it to a sequel. The rights went dormant, as New Line Cinema shelved them before being swallowed up by Warner Bros. Pictures. It took until 2015 for Pullman to get them back and resell them to the BBC for a Game of Thrones-like TV series.
And yet delays continued. It's been almost four years to the day since the BBC announced it would create the series, and in that time, the television landscape has shifted enormously. Had a series come out in 2016, or even early 2018, His Dark Materials might have felt fresher, or at least like a continuation of HBO's top-rated "expensive prestige fantasy series" hits. As it is, the first episode shows how far the genre has come and how much expectations have risen.
In creating a parallel universe, writer Jack Thorne (Harry Potter & The Cursed Child) and director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, Cats) have done a remarkable job of making this a place that feels lived-in. But that also works against the series; as the magical alternate reality whizzes by, treated as mundane parts of the landscape.
What makes this world magical are the Daemons. The alternative Earth is almost exactly like our own, and it's 2019 there too. But there's one difference that's changed everything: Human souls exist outside of their bodies, in the form of animal companions. When the story starts, Lyra (Dafne Keen), a 12-year-old orphan living in Jordan College in Oxford, and her best pal Roger (Lewin Lloyd), and their daemons are racing around, over the rooftops, down in the crypts, and everywhere in between. As children, their daemons have not settled on a final form yet (that happens upon reaching maturity), and continuously morph from one animal to another. It's just another day in the life for these two, in a world that they've never questioned.
But as will be apparent to viewers, this 2019 is very different from ours. Technology has not begun to reach our level. There are no cell phones, no computers. Film and cameras are somewhere around 100 years behind schedule. Cars are at about a World War II level, and aircraft were not deterred by the Hindenberg (or perhaps it never happened) as zeppelin airships float through the sky. How? Why? It turns out that having souls people can see was a massive boon to religion, here referred to as the "Magisterium." They are the "be all end all" of institutions, a theocracy controlling religious thought, all government institutions, and most of the wealth as well. Oxford at least has "Scholastic sanctuary," but only within reason, and those boundaries are about to be tested, when Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), arrives home from the North.
Lyra is super curious about her uncle; she dreams of going North with him next time he leaves. But when she peeps in the window to see what he's doing, she finds The Master of Jordan (Clarke Peters) and Librarian Scholar Charles (Ian Gelder) plotting to poison him, putting a drug in Asriel's favorite wine. When Asriel returns and begins to pour a glass, Lyra flies through the window to stop him. As a reward for saving his life, she's allowed to hide out as a spy (and see his presentation). But that's as far as he goes. When Asriel heads out, Lyra must stay behind.
Asriel's presentation is all about "Dust," a mysterious substance that surrounds every person if you look through the right lens. Using that same lens on the Aurora Borealis shows something even more magical: a city in the sky. Asriel wants money from Oxford to go back, to try to find out what this is, and more importantly, what Dust is. One thing he has discovered: Children are Dust-free, and only start collecting it once their daemons take their final form.
Oxford's scholars vote to give him the money, though they fear the Magisterium will come down on them like bricks for it. They're right, when word reaches the HQ in Geneva, Father MacPhail (Will Keen) does not approve, though why is not clear. To put down this minor intellectual insurrection, he sends two people: Lord Carlo Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) and Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). Coulter takes an immediate shine to Lyra upon meeting her, sitting with the girl at dinner, and telling Lyra stories about her adventures exploring the North. Lyra is captivated. With only male figures to look up to her entire life, this is the first woman she's seen who stands as their intellectual equal. When Mrs. Coulter asks Lyra to come with her to London and then travel North together, Lyra is in before Coulter can finish asking.
But while Lyra's eyes are full of adventure and possibilities, she's missed something. Children have been disappearing in London. Now they've started to do the same in Oxford since Coulter came to town. First, it's a Gyptian boy, Billy Costa (Tyler Howitt), a child of the Romany-like band who travel along Oxford's waterways. And then, just as Lyra is about to leave, Roger disappears as well. Mrs. Coulter promises that once they get to London, they'll search for him and the "Gobblers" who are rumored to be taking these children. Little does Lyra know Roger is on the same flight, caged up, and kidnapped to be taken god-knows-where.