Does His Dark Materials have a daemon problem?

The latest episode proves that one thing is lacking in the new BBC adaptation

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One of the most difficult challenges in adapting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books would always be how to pull off the daemons, and it’s fair to say that the new BBC TV series has done a great job for the most part.

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Photorealistic, expressive and a key part of the story, the daemons (human souls in animal forms) of the alternate world the drama is mostly set in are an impressive achievement – even if the limitations of budget and screen storytelling mean we don’t see as many daemons as we might like.

But now, we’re reaching a point in Pullman’s story where the daemons take centre stage, and I’m just not sure if the TV show’s approach so far works for the story they’re telling.

The latest episode is a good example. In The Ghost, Lyra and Iorek (Dafne Keen and Joe Tandberg) travel to a mysterious fishing village to find Billy Costa, the little Gyptian boy who’s been missing since the series began. Horrifyingly, his daemon is missing – an existential, terrifying injury to the people of Lyra’s world.

But in this adaptation it falls slightly flat, because we’ve seen so many characters without daemons throughout, whether they’re leading characters who presumably have the daemons out of shot or huge crowds of background extras, all of whom we must assume have daemons in small, pocket-sized shapes.

Upon returning him to his family, Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff) cries out: “Where’s his daemon?” – but viewers could reasonably ask back, “Where’s YOUR daemon?”. The entire scene where Billy is returned (and the horror of his severing and daemon separation is realised) take place without any of the Gyptian’s daemons actually in shot, completely undercutting what Billy’s gone through.

I can’t even remember if we’ve ever seen Ma Costa’s daemon onscreen – though feel free to correct me – so her instant realisation that his daemon is missing stands out, and feels a little unearned.

Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff) and Lyra (Dafne Keen) in His Dark Materials (BBC)
Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff) and Lyra (Dafne Keen) in His Dark Materials (BBC)

Of course, to an extent this approach was inevitable. Creating an endless supply of CGI daemons for every single person onscreen was never a viable option for series creators Bad Wolf or the VFX artists at Framestore, let alone the ever-shifting shapes of children’s daemons.

“Every new daemon character is a butt-ton of cash,” executive producer Jane Tranter told RadioTimes.com.

“But I think it’s a very happy union of being governed by spend, and having to make the most of the daemons we’ve got. I’d rather have quality than quantity of daemon form.”

But there were also stylistic considerations to think about, with early tests where all the daemons were in shot sapping the energy of scenes and making for an overly “busy” atmosphere.

“Literally I just sat with my head in my hands in the edit,” Tranter told us.

“As wonderful as CGI is, when you have got these amazing actors and you cut away to a daemon – kind of like, one moving over to the other to show that it’s warming to it – the scene would just drop like a stone. And you’d think, ‘What are we doing?’

“I mean literally, when we had rehearsals we had flying daemons in and out… the daemons were crawling over everything, every character’s daemon was marked. It was so noisy, we could hardly get onto the set for them,” Tranter recalled.

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In other words, to normal human eyes the sight of a world crawling with animals makes for unsettling, uncomfortable viewing – just the same as how if someone from Lyra’s world ever viewed an episode of Line of Duty, they’d find it oddly sparse and uncomfortable to watch without AC-12’s daemons chilling in the background. The approach of Tranter and her team was to make good, watchable drama first and work in the daemons as much as they could, when they could and where they’d have the most impact.

And for the most part this series that’s worked fine – though I maintain that in a scene pictured above where James Cosmo’s Farder Coram and Lyra discuss Pan’s pre-puberty ability to shift shape, it’s bizarre to NOT SHOW HIM CHANGE FORM EVEN ONCE. The problem is that as the daemons (and specifically their close intimate bond with their humans) become a central part of the story, the sacrifice the production team made in putting most of that aside really starts to tell.

In short, it’s impossible for the cruel separation of human and daemon to really hit home when from a viewer perspective, they’ve been separated for most of the series so far. In the case of Billy Costa, this is sidestepped slightly by focusing on the Gyptian grief for their lost boy (in the books, it was a random child called Tony Makarios who Lyra finds, so the horror solely comes from his lack of daemon), but it’s definitely a loss from Pullman’s original text.

Going forward, this daemon depiction may be less of an issue (having seen the next episode, the way the show approaches Bolvangar and the children at risk of separation works much better), especially in seasons two and three as Lyra heads to new worlds and a large number of characters appear who don’t have daemons anyway.

But for now, we’re just left to wonder if a version of His Dark Materials with the daemons done right was ever possible. I’m suspecting not.

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