His Dark Materials episode 5 review: Where there’s a Will, there’s a way

More big (and scary) changes come to the Philip Pullman adaptation – but are the limits of TV getting in the way of the story?

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3.0 out of 5 star rating

As the action moves north in His Dark Materials, the series is getting appropriately colder and darker, with this week’s episode marking some of the creepiest scenes since the series began – even if it’s the changes to Philip Pullman’s source material that will be most unsettling to diehard fans.

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But first, the spookiness. Following their shopping trip in Trollesund, Lyra (Dafne Keen) and her Gyptian pals have managed to secure the services of both an armoured bear (Joe Tandberg’s Iorek Byrnison, still brilliantly animated) and an aeronaut (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby) – but soon, Lyra and Iorek are leaving the whole gang behind to check out a mysterious lead suggested by the all-knowing alethiometer.

And it’s here that the impressive sense of dread comes in. Slowly making her way through an abandoned village looking for her “ghost,” Lyra is determined to show no fear to Iorek – but as the tension mounts, her daemon whimpers and the score kicks in, audiences at home might not be so brave, especially younger kids.

The reveal of who she’s found, however, is slightly less effective. Billy Costa, the sweet little Gyptian boy missing since the first episode, turns out to be lying, unresponsive in a fishing shed. And horror of horrors, his daemon Ratter is nowhere to be found – a horrific, existential sight for people in this universe, akin to seeing a badly disfiguring injury.

In the books, it’s a truly unpleasant moment – but on-screen, it doesn’t quite land. After all, as many fans on social media have noted over the weeks, CGI, budget and filming constraints have meant that we hardly ever see the daemons of various characters, so seeing Billy without Ratter (who we only met briefly once in the first episode) is barely noticeable.

For example, when he’s returned to the Gyptians, they are shocked by his lack of daemon – even as theirs are nowhere to be seen. Sadly, the emotional impact of the scene is slightly lost, and even Ma Costa’s (Anne-Marie Duff) tears and the Gyptian hymns can’t bring it back.

Happily, other book-to-screen changes land more readily. As I predicted a few weeks ago, Boreal’s (Ariyon Bakare) exploits into our world and investigations into Major John Parry have led to the surprise early appearance of Will (Amir Wilson), a young boy who plays a central role in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy from second novel The Subtle Knife onwards.

In The Subtle Knife we’re told Will’s backstory – his missing father, his mentally unwell mother, the mysterious men stalking his family – after it’s already happened, and seeing in unfurl here in real time definitely adds a dimension to the storytelling, even if some fans will be scandalised by him turning up so early in the story (he was generally expected to turn up in season two).

Still, their fears may be stymied by just how well young actor Amir Wilson brings Will to life. Simmering with frustration and rage beneath the surface, it’s easy to recognise the Will of Pullman’s words who impressed witches, angels and armoured bears alike, and I can’t wait to see more of him as the series progresses.

Hopefully, though, that doesn’t come too soon – because first it looks like Lyra is heading even deeper into darkness as she plunges into the book’s most compelling storyline. Plucked from the Gyptian camp and sold to Bolvangar, next week will see Lyra take on the Gobblers for real – and frankly, I don’t think we’ll want any distractions.

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