His Dark Materials qualifies as the BBC’s most expensive series they have ever produced- although doubtless the budget is small potatoes to HBO, the show’s co-creator, seeing as Game of Thrones cost a cool $10 million an episode. It is certainly the most expensive, but is it the biggest? Special effects are like air conditioning: when they’re working properly, you don’t know that they’re there. Every penny of the budget is put to use, but the end product, and the choices that they make, go beyond schmaltzy CGI.
The reference to sanctuary shows that the series is going to stick to its guns with all of the biting religious commentary
The first five minutes serves essentially as a mission statement for everything that His Dark Materials is going to do, by showing Lord Asriel- played by an effortlessly charismatic and dangerous James McAvoy- emerge out of a helicopter clutching the infant Lyra Belacqua, wading through a flooded Oxford to plea for ‘scholastic sanctuary’. This should immediately tell the viewer several things. Firstly, the modern helicopter seems to suggest that the series is not going to go for the same steampunk victoriana aesthetic as the book and film, opting instead for a very ‘modern’ feel- indeed, one may question why anyone would use an airship if helicopters are available. Secondly, the fantastic visual of a flooded Oxford is not taken from the original trilogy, but from Pullman’s 2017 prequel La Belle Sauvage, the first in the Book of Dust series. And finally, the reference to sanctuary shows that the series is going to stick to its guns with all of the biting religious commentary that made it the Catholic Church’s preferred choice of kindling back in the day.
But if the Victorian elements are lost, we gain a sense of realism that we’ve never had before. The world feels just like ours, except where everyone has an animal companion that follows them around. It is grounded, in a way I never thought His Dark Materials could be. The airships are solid, bulky stainless steel creations, with the interior reminding me more of a busy bus commute than anything Jules Verne ever wrote. The daemons are thrillingly well-realised; I didn’t even blink when I saw a snow leopard lolloping among a group of caped undergraduates. The Gyptians, a society that lives completely on canal boats, are all dressed like they’ve been shopping at an upmarket Oxfam. It is a lived-in world, a world you can relate to on a fundamental level.
That is where the BBC adaptation succeeds most; by pairing the fantasy elements with the real human interactions that they excel at. We can look past the trappings and engage with the richly drawn characters: of Dafne Keen’s Lyra, indefatigably curious and involved in something far bigger than her; of James McAvoy’s Asriel, a powerful man caged by the bars of academia, and of Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter, balanced on a knife-edge of maternal glamour and murderous ruthlessness. After a thrilling first episode, the prospect of Lin-Manuel Miranda is reason enough for anyone to continue.