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His Dark Materials

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What it’s about:

In a parallel world where a person’s soul takes the form of an animal companion called a daemon, a young girl becomes a key figure in the fight between those who want to spread knowledge and those who would keep it for themselves.

Names you might know:

Dafne Keen stars as Lyra alongside Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Anne-Marie Duff, and Andrew Scott.

Why it’s worth your time:

In Season 1 of HBO’s His Dark Materials, Lyra, sets out from the only home she’s known at Jordan College in Oxford to find her missing best friend, a kitchen boy named Roger. With the help of a band of Gyptians—a close-knit community of wanderers who travel the canals on house boats—she discovers that Roger isn’t the only child who’s disappeared and a devious gang of kidnappers may be responsible. She is guided on her quest by a mysterious device called an alethiometer, which can answer any question truthfully, if you know how to read it. Lyra happens to possess an uncanny talent to do just that, making her a target of the Magisterium, a powerful religious and political organization that maintains an iron grip on society.

The alternate world Lyra inhabits has a distinctive design that doesn’t quite fit any particular era. It feels modern, but also period with a little bit of Victorian steampunk, gothic, romantic, and art deco touches thrown in for good measure. The visually immersive series stays true to Pullman’s epic trilogy by translating his rich storytelling into fantastical imagery—which fans of the books will appreciate. Viewers can expect familiar elements of fantasy—including talking “spirit” animals (daemons), metal zeppelin passenger vehicles, or fantastic mechanical devices—but they might not seem as whimsical, visionary, or daring to more dedicated fans of fantasy. 

A few episodes in, His Dark Materials compels with the mysteries surrounding Lyra and scenes exposing the villains, like Mrs. Coulter (The Affair‘s Ruth Wilson), who’s lured Lyra out of her school to stay in a posh apartment with the promise of helping her on her quest. While the show may unravel at a slow pace, there are commanding moments when it finds its groove, as when Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) steps through a time portal to arrive in the London of our world on the hunt for a scientist, the emotional moment Lyra discovers the truth about her uncle, or when she pulls off a clever con on the would-be king of a clan of armored bears.

In the second season, the show further explores the parallel worlds and adding new locations to the mix, as Lyra joins forces with a boy named Will, who has traveled from our universe in search of his explorer father. Will receives a magical object of his own, a knife that can cut a opening between universes and seal it up again. As they start putting the pieces together about their personal histories and shared destiny, they receive help from a university professor, some powerful witches, and an intrepid aeronaut played by Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

The takeaway:

His Dark Materials has merit, charm, and some magic in its special effects. While the show doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it’s driving an important coming-of-age story about the relationship between adults and children that’s relevant in any world.

Watch it with:

Older kids will appreciate this more than younger ones (though the daemons are appealing creatures). If the series follows the books, the material becomes more mature and darker as it goes on. But it’s a good conversation starter.

Worth noting:

If you want to dive deeper into Lyra’s world, Pullman’s series consists of three books: The Golden Compass (originally published in the UK as Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. There’s also a prequel trilogy known as The Book of Dust, and several novellas set in the same universe.

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