Philip Pullman adaptation His Dark Materials was unusually lucky when TV production shut down worldwide earlier this year, as the BBC fantasy drama had already completed the majority of season two filming before 2019 had ended.
However, there was some shooting still left to do – and now the series’ executive producer has revealed that lost filming days due to the UK lockdown had forced them to cut a whole episode from the planned 8-part run.
“Really we did have an incredible piece of luck,” Jane Tranter said during a special His Dark Materials panel at Comic-Con @Home. “We were filming when the pandemic hit, and we did have to stop filming.
“But we were in a peculiar situation where our main unit had wrapped just before Christmas 2019. And we had one standalone episode that we were filming in March, and it was separate from the other seven episodes, because it was a standalone episode.”
Said episode was due to feature James McAvoy’s character Lord Asriel, following him from when we last saw him in season one as he blew a hole into another world and murdered Lyra’s (Dafne Keen) best friend Roger (Lewyn Lloyd).
In Pullman’s original novel The Subtle Knife, which His Dark Materials season two is based on, Asriel doesn’t actually appear at all, so the episode (penned by regular writer Jack Thorne) would have been a bit of a departure from the text.
His Dark Materials executive producer Jane Tranter (Getty)
“Jack had written [the episode] with the blessing and with input from Philip Pullman, which looked at what Asriel had been doing between going through the anomaly at the end of season one, and when we see Lord Asriel at the beginning of book three, the Amber Spyglass,” Tranter said.
“Because Asriel isn’t actually in The Subtle Knife. He’s very much talked about, his presence is very much felt, but he’s not actually there. So we played kind of detective with The Subtle Knife and figured out what Asriel might have been doing.”
Unfortunately, shortly after filming began on the Asriel episode, the UK lockdown began and filming ground to a halt – and after some time, production company Bad Wolf made the decision to just cut the episode loose, focusing instead on finishing the seven-episode adaptation of The Subtle Knife that they had already.
Simone Kirby and Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials (BBC)
“For us it meant that we could continue postproduction on the seven episodes that make up The Subtle Knife, and just put the Asriel standalone episode to one side,” Tranter explained. “And maybe at some point in the future we can revisit it as a standalone. But essentially, our adaptation of The Subtle Knife had been completed.”
Sadly, RadioTimes.com has confirmed that this does mean that McAvoy will no longer appear in His Dark Materials’ second season at all – though if you’re a book purist, you can take some comfort in the fact that a zero-presence Asriel is a lot closer to the original text.
And, as Tranter pointed out, the His Dark Materials crew were just happy to get the chance to finish the season at all.
Dafne Keen as Lyra in His Dark Materials season two (BBC)
“The good news is, we have managed to keep going the whole way through the lockdown,” she said.
“We have the most amazing postproduction team. And we are currently, touch wood, completely on course for transmitting when we would have transmitted.”
Sure, the cast may be a man and an episode down when season two returns – but with all sorts of new characters also joining the fray, we’re sure you’ll barely notice.
His Dark Materials returns to BBC One and HBO in late 2020