When Philip Pullman released the His Dark Materials series in the waning years of the 20th century, the series was heralded for its rich world building and insightful approach to incorporating religious elements into a fantasy setting. The trilogy was highly beloved by fans all around the world, which inspired a feature film adaptation in 2007, The Golden Compass, starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott and Ian McKellen. The film was a solid bit of entertainment for what it was, but it served as a poor adaptation of the source material. The film also courted controversy from religious institutions, as well as from fans who were disappointed by a watered down version of the story. The film was a financial disappointment, and subsequent films were never made to complete the story. After more than a decade waiting for this story to be done justice on screen, HBO and BBC One have teamed up to give it a proper go with a new series that allows the creative team to honor the source material in the necessary way.
The world of His Dark Materials takes place in an alternate reality similar to our own, but very different in many respects. In this world, humans are blessed with animal companions called daemons, which are a manifestation of their soul that resides outside their body. Also in this world, the Magisterium looms large as a religious moral authority intent to keep heretical talk out of the mouths of citizens. At the epicenter of our tale is the adventurous Lyra (Dafne Keen, Logan), a young girl who has been raised at the Jordan College in Oxford after being dropped off there as a baby. Scholastic institutions are supposed to be one of the few safe places free from the authority of the Magisterium, which factors heavily into Lyra’s backstory. Lyra has a daemon named Pan and a best friend named Roger with whom she spends most of her days exploring. She also has an uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), whom she is quite fond of during the odd times he takes a break from conducting experiments in the north and visits. During a particularly eventful visit, Lyra overhears the adults discussing the concept of a substance called Dust that puts everyone ill at ease. Things spiral quickly out of control as assassination attempts are thwarted, Lord Asriel leaves for the north, and a menacing group called The Gobblers kidnaps Roger. It is a heck of a beginning to a story that will lead Lyra to worlds that she cannot even fathom to get her friend back.
While I am not a reader of the book series, my understanding of this adaptation is that the first season focuses on the first book while pulling forward elements of the second book to flesh out the story more a bit sooner. This review is not intended to spoil major points so further elements will only be lightly touched upon. The initial helping hand extended to Lyra to pursue her missing friend is offered by the deceptively sweet Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). Wilson is a highlight in the series as she effortlessly lulls you in with her comforting tone as a glimmer of malice shines in her eyes. It is a delicious performance that gives a real weight to the story. She is one of many people that Lyra will come into contact with on her journey. One of the biggest characters is Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a Texas aeronaut with a daemon named Hester and ties to an armored polar bear named Iorek Byrnison. Miranda is one heck of a talented individual, but he just seems so out of place in this role. The casting of Sam Elliott in The Golden Compass in this same role was so perfect that you wish they could have just carried that over to the show somehow. Any show that has polar bears in a major role is a winner in my book, and His Dark Materials pulls off this feat in a really satisfying way. You have to do the CGI right to make this work believably within the context of this world, and they definitely succeed here.
The first season of His Dark Materials introduces a lot of really engaging elements that feel like a good launch pad to an even bigger adventure moving forward. The show has so much material to cover, but it often feels like it is not utilizing the lengthy runtime of each episode to its full potential. When the show should be ratcheting up the stakes early on, you feel a bit of wheel spinning after a dynamite second episode until the final stretch of the season. That is not to say that the time spent with these characters is unpleasant, but a little bit of tweaking to the scripts and editing could have really made this first season flow even smoother. Overall, the show is quite bold and unsparing in the dark moments that arise for our characters. The threats they are facing are not to be underestimated at any point. The show looks like a million bucks and has a creative team that is obviously passionate about the material. Lets hope they keep the momentum going from the end of this season to create something bigger and better in with the next chapter.
His Dark Materials: The Complete First Season arrives on Blu-Ray with a gorgeous AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78:1. The levels of detail this presentation is able to eek out is quite striking, as all of the subtle details in the production design are easily identifiable. The color palette runs on the cooler side with a focus on blues and greys, but there are some magical instances of beautiful colors popping off the screen. Black levels are appropriately deep and give way to a nice amount of detail in shadows. The bright white of the snow does not fall victim to any blooming in this presentation. Skin tones appear very natural across the entire cast. There are no egregious instances of aliasing or compression artifacts detectable here. The Blu-Ray is quite stunning as it brings a meticulously crafted series to life in a gorgeous manner.
This Blu-Ray comes with an incredibly active DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track that creates a truly enveloping world. Dialogue always come through crisp and clear without being stepped on by the powerful score or any sound effects. Action sequences and more kinetic moments are given the appropriate power in the mix with a forceful showing in the low end. Ambient sounds are also precisely placed in the rear channels. The added voices from the daemons often come from the side channels to make it feel like they are right beside you. Special consideration should be paid to the series music from Lorne Balfe. His work perfectly sets the tone for the story, and it creates a nicely enveloping sound that draws you further into the show. The audio presentation here is fantastic on all levels.
- Adapting His Dark Materials: A four-minute discussion with the cast, crew and author Philip Pullman in which they discuss their excitement for the project, the rich world of the books and having a singular voice write the scripts for the entire season.
- Building His Dark Materials: A six-minute featurette with most of the same people and production designer Joel Collins in which they discuss curating the world, designing each location to properly bring the book to life, the subtle details that the audience might not see, the meticulously crafted props and more. There was so much attention paid to the subtlest things that it makes you appreciate the show even more.
- Dressing His Dark Materials: A three-minute featurette with the cast and costume designer Caroline McCall in which they discuss the costumes of the world. They talk about fitting the costume to the technology and settings of the world.
- The Daemons of His Dark Materials: A four-minute discussion on the concept of daemons with the cast and crew. VFX supervisor Russell Dodgson gives some insight into what went into bringing the creatures to life.
- James McAvoy – Bringing Lord Asriel To Life: A three-minute discussion with James McAvoy about his character, his place in the story and his relationship to the source material.
- Lin-Manuel Miranda – Bringing Lee Scoresby To Life: A two-minute discussion with Lin-Manuel Miranda about his character, his background and the development of his friendship with Lyra.
- Ruth Wilson – Bringing Mrs. Coulter To Life: A three-minute discussion with Ruth Wilson about being the “Mother of Evil”, what her outfits say about the character and more.
- Dafne Keen – Bringing Lyra Belacqua To Life: A four-minute conversation with Dafne Keen about bringing Lyra to life on screen, how her carefree spirit impacts the story, her darker side and more.
- Making His Dark Materials: An in-depth 33-minute featurette that features a lot of the footage from the first disc in the form of a television special narrated by Clarke Peters (The Master of Jordan College). This expands upon the information in some respects, so this is the supplement to watch if you can only watch one.
His Dark Materials is a story with a lot of elements to juggle that may be hard to digest initially for the uninitiated. The first season of this latest adaptation has done an admirable job of planting all of the seeds, but it stumbled slightly when it came to maintaining momentum throughout all eight episodes. Nevertheless, the show offers up a lot of great moments lovingly crafted by a dedicated creative team and backed by a rock solid ensemble. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has provided a Blu-Ray with a stellar A/V presentation and many fun special features. This is a story that I am very much looking forward to continuing. Recommended
His Dark Materials: The Complete First Season is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray and DVD.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this set free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.