Earlier in November, HBO’s (and BBC One’s) new fantasy, His Dark Material premiered to favourable reviews, with an 80% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
His Dark Materials, which currently streams on Showmax, tells the story of a young girl named Lyra (Dafne Keen), who is an orphan living with the scholars at Jordan College, Oxford after she was left there as a baby by Lord Asriel (James McAvoy – X Men). When her friend Roger goes missing, Lyra is lured to London by the mysterious Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson – The Affair, Luther), partly under the guise of helping her search for him. Soon enough, Lyra discovers that nothing is as it seems and her seemingly generous benefactor has plenty to hide.
The show, which is based on the award-winning trilogy of novels of the same title by Phillip Pullman, is set in an alternative world where all humans have animal companions called daemons, which are the manifestation of the human soul. It’s no wonder these animals stick very close to their humans in the show, fighting for and looking out for them as the need arises.
Like Game of Thrones, also streaming on Showmax, His Dark Materials was also adapted by HBO from a bestselling series of fantasy books. There is Mrs Coulter, who definitely gives us Cersei evil vibes. According to Wilson, Mrs Coulter is “a ruthless, power-hungry, glamorous, manipulative woman.” And there’s even a prophecy from the witches in the North at the opening of the show.
But while it’s hard to pass up on the comparison, His Dark Materials is very much its own show with a parallel universe (quite literally) that will enthrall fans of the show.
For starters, the show is very ambiguous about the era it is set in, given that there are parallel universes. From the costumes to the props and architecture, it’s an interesting mix of eras – there are airships which are not quite the conventional aircrafts that exist in contemporary times, but there are also cell phones and cars which are reminiscent of the times we live in. Speaking about her costumes on the show, Wilson said, “We have that freedom to explore. It could be the 40s, but we push the boundaries of that and modernise it slightly. In my style, there’s lots of nipped-in 40s silhouettes but then we bring in a bit of 80s and a bit of everything else.”
Thematically, His Dark Materials also explores its own agenda. Lyra’s foray to London uncovers a sinister plot involving stolen children, and she sets off on a quest to understand a mysterious phenomenon called Dust. At the centre of it all are the power-wielding Magisterium who, according to Wilson, “are the dominating force who run this particular world that Lyra and the viewer enter into. They lay down the rules and restrictions that everyone has to follow.”
All of this ties together to create a world so fascinating that, according to McAvoy, “No matter how crazy things get and how wild his [Philip Pullman] imagination makes the story go, he’s a good enough storyteller that the audience are going to want to follow Lyra, and they’re going to want to follow Roger, and they’re going to want to follow Will along that journey to discover what the hell is going on and why we’re all acting so terrified and afraid, when really, we should just all be happy to be alive.”
Undoubtedly one of the major stars of the show would be the CGI-created dameons. According to Men’s Health magazine, bringing the daemons to life involved a complex process of first deciding on what actual animals each daemon should be modeled after. After that, the team then started making behavioral decisions like which animal mannerisms each daemon would keep and which human mannerisms they would adopt. The next stage was making puppets to act alongside the actors, then after filming, the puppets (and puppeteers) are edited out and the VFX team goes to work. All daemons were hand animated, according to VFX supervisor Russell Dodgson.
It remains to be seen whether His Dark Material will achieve the cult following Game of Thrones had. The show was already renewed for a second season before the premiere of the first episode and opened to 7.2 million viewers in the United Kingdom, according to Independent. This made it the biggest new British series in over five years on any channel. The show, which has been described by The Guardian as “a riveting realisation of Philip Pullman’s magic,” has an 8.4/10 score on IMDB.