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'His Dark Materials' on HBO is a Dream Come True for Fantasy Fans
November 4, 2019  | By David Hinckley

The TV series adaptation of His Dark Materials has finally arrived, and like the acclaimed book trilogy on which it's based, it could just as easily have been called His Dense Materials.

His Dark Materials, a lavish eight-episode production that premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, rivals Game of Thrones for the ambition of its metaphors and the complexity of its world.

It's based on three novels by Philip Pullman, who has since written three more. So if His Dark Materials catches on, it could continue for a while. HBO has already ordered a second eight-episode season.

The story revolves around Lyra (Dafne Keen), whom we meet as a smart and mischievous 12-year-old. Soon after she was born, she was mysteriously delivered in the dead of night to Oxford's venerable Jordan College, where the staff became her surrogate parents under the seemingly benevolent hand of The Master (Clark Peters).

Jordan College has the veneer of a classic British learning institution. The world around it, however, puts it in a far different situation than colleges as we know them today.

The world of His Dark Materials is almost entirely controlled by The Magisterium, unseen powerful leaders whose theocratic tentacles are everywhere and whose pronouncements to control the masses are absolute.

Jordan gets to operate as a traditional institution of learning, sort of, because it has been designated a Scholastic Sanctuary. This gives its professors and students the right to discuss in an academic context matters that, were they to be raised outside the school, would be heard as heretical and punished accordingly.

The Magisterium does not, however, control the whole civilized world. There is also a small land called The North, particularly notable here because Lyra believes that could be her birthplace and thus potentially the home of her parents.

She has an uncle, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), who, as a scientist and explorer, has researched the North and found potentially game-changing phenomena. This sort of challenge to orthodoxy can be as dangerous as it is intriguing, which doesn't stop Lyra from asking to accompany Asriel to the North.

His answer is no, which presumably does not mean the ramifications of his quest won't continue to resonate.

Instead, Lyra is taken to London by Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), who, like most of the other characters here, is not entirely what she seems.

His Dark Materials suggests, basically, that it's a good policy to be suspicious of everyone you meet.

These plot details, in any case, only begin to suggest the complexity of the story that has only partly unfolded by the end of the first episode. In the wider arc, His Dark Materials ambitiously tackles and, at times, parallels John Milton's classic poem Paradise Lost, playing with questions like the theological ramifications of original sin and man's standing in the universe.

The show consistently assesses the role and value of religion in our lives, not always in a worshipful way. Lyra, sometimes knowingly and sometimes to her surprise, becomes the central character in several sweeping metaphors revolving around Christianity.

While Pullman's original novels had a Victorian flavor, the TV series has been selectively updated. There are no cell phones, but air travel has advanced enough to make people like Mrs. Coulter relatively mobile. Anyone up for a zeppelin ride?

It probably should also be noted that the fantasy elements in His Dark Materials don't stop with geopolitics.

Every human in this story, for instance, has what looks like a pet who follows them around. It could be a dog or a cat. Or a hawk. Or a leopard.

These companions all talk. They are known as daemons, and their attachment to humans is that they are the repositories for the human soul. Exactly why the soul had to be separated from the body seems unclear, but it does mean humans always have someone to talk to.

Wilson, McAvoy, and Peters play their roles splendidly, though no more so than Dafne Keen. She captures Lyra's sense of mischief while also showing us how seriously she takes the many somber parts of her life.

His Dark Materials isn't a show you can watch with one eye while multitasking with the other. Just sorting out the characters almost requires taking notes, and that's before the plot twists, and the details of this world kick into overdrive.

Just the way fantasy fans like it.

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