His Dark Materials episode 3 review: The future is now

Mrs Coulter gets desperate and Lyra meets the gyptians in an action-packed third episode

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4.0 out of 5 star rating

A lot has been written already (both here and elsewhere) about how the BBC’s His Dark Materials adaptation has changed and adapted Philip Pullman’s original books, but it’s only in this third episode that we begin to see how this approach can pay off.

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For example, the Gyptians. After two episodes of following the boat-dwelling nomads in their mission to track down their missing children, this week sees them finally unite with Lyra (Dafne Keen) – the point at which they first appear in the books – and the fact that we’ve got to know these characters already makes for a far more layered and satisfying encounter than we might have had otherwise.

Meanwhile, back in our own world Lord Boreal’s (Ariyon Bakare) dimension-hopping antics (which have proven a bit controversial with fans) also begin to bear fruit, with the villain and his sidekick (Robert Emms) attempting to track down a crucial figure called Stanislaus Grumman, who to fans at home might look an awful lot like Sherlock and Fleabag’s Andrew Scott…

In real life, as we discover, Grumman (an explorer whose severed head Asriel uses to get funding for his expedition in the series’ first episode) is a man from our own world called Major John Parry, a character who doesn’t appear until Pullman’s second novel but who screenwriter Jack Thorne is clearly seeding a lot earlier, along with his all-important son Will (Amir Wilson).

While Wilson and Scott’s casting were already known, it wasn’t expected that we’d see them until His Dark Materials second series (which has already almost concluded shooting) – and personally, I can’t help but hope that Will, essentially the novels’ second lead alongside Lyra, doesn’t intrude too heavily on series one before his proper introduction in series two. They need to leave something for the next series, after all.

Pan and the alethiometer (BBC)
Pan and the alethiometer (BBC)

Other changes in the episode, meanwhile, seem less planned and more clearly down to the limitations of TV, particularly as it applies to the dæmons. While it’s understandable that seeing Lyra’s dæmon Pan constantly shapeshift could be a little more distracting (and expensive) on-screen than it is in the book, his proclivity for only turning into either a white ermine or a pine marten is more noticeable this week, particularly in a sequence where Lyra discusses Pan’s ability to change into anything at length with Farder Coram (James Cosmo).

Surely, this would have been a perfect time to see Pan shapeshift in comparison to Coram’s already-settled, unchanging cat-dæmon Sophonax, when the whole discussion is geared towards this difference between the dæmons – but no, he’s still an ermine throughout. If nothing else, I’m still not convinced that the difference between adult and children’s dæmons (which becomes pretty important later in the story) will have been made clear to casual viewers, so we can only hope Pan has a few more forms as the series continues.

Though of course, not all changes to the source material are for the worse. Ruth Wilson continues to dominate the series this week as the increasingly complex Mrs Coulter, demonstrating more of a troubled, well-rounded characterisation than we witnessed at this point in the written story and facing off with Gyptian spies in a thrilling sequence newly-developed for the series.

Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials (BBC)
Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials (BBC)

Whether she’s drunkenly mourning Lyra’s escape, threatening the end of Jordan College (the Master of which now seems to spend all his appearances being yelled at by various villains), or brutally beating an intruder, mirroring her monkey dæmon with ungainly, simian gestures, Wilson is pitch-perfect as a villain with a weakness – actually caring about someone else for the first time in her life.

It’s an uglier yet somewhat more human side to Mrs Coulter, which twinned with Lyra’s new knowledge – that Coulter is actually her mother, as revealed to her by Anne-Marie Duff’s Ma Costa – sets the stage for a truly dramatic reunion between the pair later in the series.

But before all that, Lyra and the Gyptians must head north, where the real action begins. Newly armed with the ability to read the alethiometer, she’ll face armoured polar bears, powerful witches and a fate worse than death – as well as fan-favourite book character Lee Scoresby, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda and one of the few crucial figures in the story whose introduction hasn’t been brought forward in the story by Thorne and the production team. Here’s hoping he’s been worth the wait.

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His Dark Materials continues on Sundays at 8pm on BBC One