While His Dark Materials season two was relatively lucky in dodging the coronavirus lockdown earlier this year (having filmed season two in late 2019) it didn’t emerge completely unscathed, with screenwriter Jack Thorne admitting it was “really upsetting” that an entire episode starring James McAvoy was cut from the series.
Now, fans will just get a seven-episode series minus the McAvoy story (which was a new addition not included in the books) – but there may still be some clues about what might have been in the episode.
You see, filming on the episode had actually begun when the lockdown was called, with McAvoy shooting for just four hours before it was called off. And while the footage won’t be shown in the series, it’s been revealed that the bulk of the story would have seen McAvoy’s Lord Asriel exploring Cittàgazze, the otherworldly city built from the ground up by the production team in a Welsh car park that has already played a large part in His Dark Materials season two.
And if you look closely, you might be able to notice some key parts of this set in other episodes which were supposed to be a part of McAvoy’s story before it was cancelled.
“There were some additional pieces of story we were looking at doing which involved the town,” production designer and executive producer Joel Collins told RadioTimes.com.
“There were some areas that got redressed or enhanced – and there was a bakery.”
Said bakery actually turns up in early episodes of the series as children eat there, giving a hint at just how closely McAvoy’s standalone episode was set to tie into the story of Lyra and Will (Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson). Presumably, the intention was that Asriel would have left it in the state our young heroes find it in, with other similar small plot holes filled by the additional episode.
And while Collins notes that there was “no wastage” when it came to the sets – “we actually used a lot of what we were doing or had, and most of [the Asriel set] was already part of the environment we’d created” – in other parts of the production, the hole left by the episode was more severe.
“We lost an episode due to COVID, and luckily that episode was predominantly standalone,” VFX Supervisor Russell Dodgson told us. “But it still had things that we wanted to tell in the overall story.”
With the episode gone, it was up to Russell, Joel Collins and the production team (including producer Dan McCulloch) to essentially tie off all the loose ends within the episodes they did have, enlisting the VFX team to help plug the gaps.
“What we had to do was go from very comfortably having a plan to suddenly saying ‘Right, we have to re-break our seven episodes, and make sure that we’ve got all of the right components and the core bits that we want to tell from this extra episode in there.’
“So we ended up having to create whole new sequences that tell more backstory. And you know the editorial team, Joel, Dan, everybody just hustled and worked from their remote locations to move all these pieces and get them all together in a really really difficult situation.”
In the finished series, then, fans should keep their eyes peeled for these new sequences, which may give a hint to what might have been. In a story full of different realities, those what-if worlds feel oddly appropriate.
His Dark Materials continues on BBC One on Sunday 15th November at 8:10pm. While you’re waiting, visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight, or check out our guide to new TV shows 2020 to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond.