His Dark Materials episode 4 review: Bear with us

Lin-Manuel Miranda and an armoured polar bear join the action as His Dark Materials looks forward

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4.0 out of 5 star rating

Despite the fact that it’s an episode where the characters largely wander around a small town doing errands ahead of their expedition North to fight the Gobblers, something about episode four really felt like His Dark Materials’ story was coming together for me.

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Maybe it’s because the story is finally getting into the section of Philip Pullman’s original novel that I enjoyed most – the race through the north and the horrors Lyra finds there – or maybe it’s the debut of long-awaited characters like Lee Scoresby (played by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda) and armoured bear Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg).

Or maybe it’s just that there wasn’t as much jumping around this week, with Lyra and the gyptians finally united in geography and purpose and Lord Boreal’s world-hopping antics given a breather for the time being.

Apart from the action in Trollesund, in fact, the Magisterium is pretty much the only place we visit, where Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) asserts her dominance over the priests and Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) threatens the alethiometer-reading Fra Pavel.

For the first time in a couple of episodes, then, this feels explicitly and specifically like Lyra’s story, with Dafne Keen’s heroine driving the action as she tracks down Iorek and Lee, recruits them to her cause with some trademark storytelling and even persuades her new armoured bear friend to forestall on his vengeance upon the Syssellman (Harry Potter’s Harry Melling, who had a big Sunday night, also appearing in The War of the Worlds this week).

Overall, this felt more like the Lyra that book fans know and love – and assuming the series doesn’t make too many more changes to what’s coming ahead, her biggest and best moments are still to come.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials (BBC)
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials (BBC)

Still, she wasn’t the only stand-out in this week’s episode. Showing remarkable restraint considering what other aspects of the books they’ve debuted early, this week’s episode was the first appearance of big-name casting Lin-Manuel Miranda, best known for his movie and theatre roles and for creating smash-hit musical Hamilton.

The first person cast in the series, Miranda was a big get for screenwriter Jack Thorne and executive producer Jane Tranter, and while he’s not that much like Lee Scoresby in the books – a fairly taciturn, warm-hearted Texan with a big moustache and an avuncular air – his more upbeat, charismatic version of the aeronaut still breathes a bit of fresh air into proceedings.

And then there’s the bear. One of Pullman’s most enduring creations in His Dark Materials was the race of panserbjørne, or armoured bears, intelligent giant polar bears with a love of metalworking and warfare (basically like fantasy dwarves, but more at danger of climate change), and they’re brought to life brilliantly onscreen.

Bear king Iofur Raknison (BBC)
Bear king Iofur Raknison (BBC)

While we might now be used to the impressive work VFX house Framestore and the in-house team working on His Dark Materials have done on every character’s dæmon (even if, as ever, there’s the odd feeling that not enough background characters have them in sight), they excel themselves on Iorek Byrnison. Photorealistic, rippling with muscle and (implausibly) even speaking to other characters without looking like a lifeless CGI creation, there wasn’t a moment where I wasn’t utterly convinced by Iorek and his character.

Hopefully, in future weeks as we meet yet more bears in even more impressive suits of armour, we can expect the standard to stay as high. But with armies of flying witches, the Gobblers, Bolvangar and Svalbard still to come, well, we might be too distracted to notice anyway…

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