I have read the Philip Pullman His Dark Materials series, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, and its various offshoot books, like Once Upon a Time in the North and Lyra’s Oxford — the novella from which this series premiere lifts its name — and I will be your guide through this new world in the HBO/BBC series! Were you confused by the Nov. 4 premiere? I wouldn’t blame you!
Tom Hooper took a break from his busy schedule directing Cats (lol) to helm this premiere, which is written by Jack Thorne, who has credits throughout the first season. And if you’ve paid attention to interviews with Thorne and executive producer Jane Tranter before the series premiere, you know the major tweak they have made to this adaptation: the removal of Pullman’s very clearly critical stance against organized religion, and the Catholic Church in particular. From a piece at the Hollywood Reporter about the cast and crew’s appearance at San Diego Comic-Con this past July, Tranter said:
“Philip Pullman in these books is not attacking belief, is not attacking faith. He’s not attacking religion or the church, per se. He’s attacking a particular form of control, where there is a very deliberate attempt to withhold information, keep people in the dark, and not allow ideas and thinking to be free. … It doesn’t equate to any particular church or form of religion in our world. So we should be clear on that.”
Is this an accurate reading of Pullman’s text? Uh … I don’t think so! Not of a series that is basically “Atheism for kids, with fantastical adventure elements!” And I will say that I didn’t exactly love what Hooper and Thorne put together in the series premiere because I think that change, of removing the explicitly religious element from the depiction of the all-knowing, all-controlling Magisterium, strips characters of much-needed motivation. Although Hooper goes heavy on the action in the premiere — so! many! shots! of! Lyra! running! — it felt like the characters themselves were just floating in space. To be fair, Pullman’s first novel in this series, The Golden Compass, also thrusts you into this world, introducing you swiftly to Lyra, her dæmon Pantalaimon, her uncle Lord Asriel, her best friend Roger, and the other professors at Jordan College, but again, there is that very clear and ominous figure of the Church lingering overhead. I’m not sure how effective a toothless Magisterium is from a storytelling perspective.
Anyway! On to the plot! “Lyra’s Jordan” begins with a scene from Pullman’s currently running prequel trilogy series, The Book of Dust, in which the formidable, single-minded Lord Asriel (James McAvoy, HAWT) wades through a flood to deliver an infant Lyra Belacqua to the Master of Jordan College (Clarke Peters, always welcome). Lyra will be safe there because of the university’s freedom from the Magisterium, Asriel believes, and we jump forward 12 or so years later. Lyra has grown up an orphan with the full run of the university: scrambling up rooftops, sprinting through the kitchen, exploring the tombs where former Jordan College scholars and masters are buried. She has a quick mind, but her knowledge of the world is piecemeal, cobbled together from lectures and lessons from various professors, and she has a wary relationship with the Master — one that takes a turn when she sees him try to poison her uncle.
Why would the Master want to kill Asriel? It’s a question that isn’t entirely answered in the premiere, even as various adult motivations are laid out, nearly all of them involving the Magisterium. Lord Asriel, who brandishes what he claims to be the severed head of Jordan College scholar and explorer Stanislaus Grumman, demands funding for an expedition north. Asriel thinks he can see another city in the Northern Lights and thinks that vision has something to do with Dust, a must-hushed-about phenomenon that the Magisterium is terrified to discuss.
Meanwhile, the Magisterium has two venomous figures doing its bidding: the beautiful, seductive, self-possessed Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson, perpetually smirking), who visits Jordan College to see what they’re getting up to, and Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare), who has his own mysterious mission from the organization. And before Mrs. Coulter whisks Lyra away to London with promises of the North — the wild, snowy North, where Lord Asriel refuses to let Lyra go, where it seems that the Magisterium’s control isn’t as strong — the Master gives her a mysterious, treasured gift: an alethiometer. The golden compass, with its series of figures painted around the face of the compass, can tell the truth if you pose a question in your mind. But it takes years of study and a gargantuan collection of books to understand what the compass is telling you — and how it works is another heretical question entirely.
That is a LOT of information for the premiere to communicate to us, and hot damn, I haven’t even talked about the Gyptians yet! Long story short, the Gyptians are a diverse community of water travelers, sort of like the Roma, who travel around England. They’re looked down upon by the rest of society — which is why their kids can go missing, kidnapped by the nefarious Gobblers, and no one cares — but they have a fierce set of traditions and their own distinct identity. Our entry into their world is Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff), whose elder son Tony (Daniel Frogson) is celebrated when his dæmon chooses a final form. Because OH YEAH, the most unique part of this world is that a version of your soul resides outside of your body as an animal that can change its form before you reach puberty. Dæmons are often the opposite gender of the human to whom they belong — notice that Pan, who we see flickering between various forms, is male, and Asriel’s gorgeous snow leopard dæmon Stelmaria is female; Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey, who is not named in the books, is coded as male — as a way to demonstrate that elements of masculinity and femininity exist in every being. And the form your dæmon chooses after you hit puberty is meant to say something about who you are a person: Tony’s dæmon being a hawk is a sign of great strength and his belonging within the Gyptian people, and throughout the books, certain ethnic groups sometimes end up having the same sort of dæmons. And yet right after this momentous occasion for the Costa family, Tony’s younger brother Billy (Tyler Howitt), goes missing, another Gyptian child snatched by the villainous Gobblers.
So! Phew! That’s a lot! And by the end of the episode, there is a broad outline of where this season is going to go: Lyra is leaving Oxford for London alongside Mrs. Coulter, although Roger is missing, taken by the Gobblers. Lord Asriel is going back to the North, his dismissive “Everyone’s special!” being peak entitled, self-absorbed Asriel. The Master is worried about what the Magisterium will bring down upon Jordan College. The Gyptians are desperate to get their missing kids back. Lord Boreal is up to no good. The golden compass is now in Lyra’s curious, determined hands — an instrument that can tell her the truth, when it seems like every adult around her is lying. And although I think the premiere had serious pacing issues, rushed through setting up the key details of this world, and changed character motivations in a way I don’t entirely love, I’m curious to see where the series goes and what other Pullman elements it adapts or ignores. Let’s journey North together, y’all.
ODDS AND ENDS
+ I adore Dafne Keen and think her energy is perfect for Lyra, but I also am disappointed with how reactive of a character they made her in this premiere. Lyra in the books is, honestly, sort of a brat. She’s popular, magnetic, assured of her own specialness, and a great liar. A particular element of the books that the show leaves behind is that Lyra is basically a street thug, getting into fights with other kids — in particular the Gyptians, so she too notices when they start disappearing because of the Gobblers. Show Lyra isn’t very many of those things, and I’m slightly disheartened that this adaptation jettisoned all of her strong qualities when we all know Keen is capable of communicating them. Come on, man, we’ve all seen Logan!
+ Lord Boreal in the books is a smug older white guy, and changing that up with Ariyon Bakare is an excellent choice. He reminds me quite a bit of Gbenga Akinnagbe, who played Chris Partlow on The Wire — he has that same barely contained threatening energy.
+ No Iorek yet, but HELLO IOREK.
+ The design of the opening credits is a spoiler! I won’t elaborate too much, but I was surprised to see the show tip its hand quite quickly on some of its own world-building elements.
+ I’m a little disappointed that the show hasn’t quite made clear the function of a dæmon. So far in the premiere, they just seem like animal sidekicks instead of a character that is part of your own essence.
What are your thoughts? Theories? Reactions? Still disappointed by the movie version of The Golden Compass, although its casting was mostly perfect? Sound off in the comments!
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