Has His Dark Materials solved its daemon problem?

In the first series of the BBC’s Philip Pullman adaptation, fans were concerned about one change from the books – but season two may have confronted its daemons.

His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials’ second season is here, full of new worlds, terrifying Spectres and religious war – but more subtly, another change is introduced in the first episode that will be pretty welcome to fans.

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Finally, His Dark Materials seems to be able to do daemons justice – simply because it doesn’t have to do them nearly as much any more.

To explain, we may first need some background. The first series of His Dark Materials was largely welcomed by fans, who applauded Jack Thorne’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s original books and the accomplished behind-the-scenes craft that helped convincingly create the world-hopping fantasy adventure.

However, a fairly common gripe also began to emerge – where were the daemons? In Pullman’s original novels and his follow-up trilogy the Book of Dust, the daemons (essentially a physical manifestation of someone’s inner self or soul in the form of an animal) were a key part of the action, with every character in Lyra’s world possessing one and a key storyline in the first book revolving around them entirely.

But in the TV adaptation, daemons were slightly fewer and further between. The in-universe explanation for any missing daemon would be that they’re just out of shot, or in the form of a smaller animal that could be curled up in a pocket, but the on-screen effect was that all of a sudden an awful lot of characters who should have daemons appeared not to.

Of course, the production reasons behind this were reasonable. You’d imagine the difficulty and expense of animating an individual animal sidekick for every single on-screen character would be prohibitive, and apparently early tests showed that too many daemons onscreen was distracting with various animals crawling all over the frame.

Dafne Keen Lyra His Dark Materials

But the end result was a real loss, more than just some fan griping about book-to-screen accuracy. The daemons are such an integral part of the plot that without them, some key parts of His Dark Materials’ story don’t hit nearly as hard, and could even be undermined by the animal companions’ absence.

In particular, a storyline where children’s daemons are horrifically and traumatically cut away at the Bolvangar facility didn’t register nearly as much when we’d hardly seen any of these daemons anyway. “Where’s his daemon?” cried one victim’s mother frantically after her son was returned – despite the fact that her daemon and those of the people around her were similarly absent.

Overall His Dark Materials’ many other good qualities and the brilliant way they brought the daemons they did have to life made the whole thing work – but ahead of season two I was curious whether I’d notice a marked change. Happily, now that the first episode has aired I can say that I did.

In fact, His Dark Materials’ second season appears to solve this daemon issue at a stroke – because as Dafne Keen’s Lyra heads into other worlds, we meet more and more characters who don’t have daemons anyway. Suddenly, there’s a whole load of characters whose daemons aren’t a concern, and the issue of how many we should or shouldn’t be seeing in any world fades away.

Daemons in His Dark Materials season one (BBC)
Daemons in His Dark Materials season one (BBC)

Pleasingly, though, the His Dark Materials team don’t rest on their laurels with this easing of pressure. Instead, they appear to have invested more resource in the daemons that do still feature, most notably Lyra’s daemon Pan (Kit Connor) whose youthful ability to shapeshift (something common to all daemons pre-puberty, when they “settle” in one form) is much more utilised than it was in earlier episodes.

In this first episode alone I counted a good few changes between his ermine and pine marten forms, to one or more birds, to a wolverine and (my personal favourite) to a lumbering Red Panda, a new look for the character which had already got fans excited before the series even aired.

Perhaps this was always the game plan for His Dark Materials as it spread into Pullman’s more expansive later books – push through the Difficult Daemon Year before things get a bit easier when more characters don’t have them – or perhaps it’s a bit of luck even the production team didn’t see coming.

Either way, as His Dark Materials expands into new and intriguing worlds (which themselves are full of new creatures like angels and the deadly Spectres), it’s looking like the book-to-screen transition will be more fluid than ever. As ever, the daemon’s in the detail.

Read more about the His Dark Materials cast, the His Dark Materials release schedule, the His Dark Materials books and the His Dark Materials age rating, plus find out where His Dark Materials is filmed, including the scenes set in Cittàgazze.

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His Dark Materials airs on BBC One on Sunday evenings. Want something else to watch? Check out our full TV Guide.