A star rating of 5 out of 5.

It feels like an age since we were introduced to 13-year-old Lyra Belacqua, racing through the corridors and over the rooftops of Jordan College, Oxford, with her friend Roger. That first episode of His Dark Materials was broadcast in November 2019 and it’s been two years since the stunning finale of the second season, featuring Lee Scoresby’s last stand among a number of other tumultuous events. So it’s a welcome return for the big-budget, epic fantasy based on Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels.

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The last book in the sequence, The Amber Spyglass, is much longer and more complex than the first two, Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife. It also packs a powerful emotional punch, with scenes as moving as any in fantasy literature. Yet the final season of the TV adaptation has just eight episodes, the same as the first and only one more than the second.

The possibility of making it longer was discussed at one point. "I wanted to split it in two, but we're doing it in one. You can't always have what you want," executive producer Jane Tranter has said. So can this final season live up to expectations?

Yes, it most definitely can. It has been streamlined by screenwriter Jack Thorne and some characters and plot elements from the book have been ditched but it remains a thrilling, immersive TV treat that looks stunning and still has the hard-hitting emotional heft of the book. It is a credit to all involved, both on and off-screen.

The complicated plot of His Dark Materials does not readily lend itself to precis – Thorne has said he felt as though he undertook a "PhD in Philip Pullman" in order to adapt the books – but let’s have a go. It is set in a multiverse. Lyra (Dafne Keen) is from a world like our own in many ways but with some crucial differences, the most important being the existence of "daemons", a person’s soul in animal form.

Lyra is, she believes, an orphan and has been raised as the ward of an Oxford college. She sets out to discover what has happened to Roger, who has gone missing, and is caught up in an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil.

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Along the way she discovers that her parents, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) and Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson), are still alive, travels to strange new worlds and falls in love with Will Parry (Amir Wilson), a boy from our world. And we now know she is the subject of a prophecy which says she will bring about "the end of destiny". One side in the coming war wants her dead, the other views her as the key to victory.

Nevertheless, its young star sees it in simpler terms. "Even though it’s really decorated with, like, fantasy and stuff, it’s really the story of a child turning into a woman. It’s about growing up," Keen has said – and who are we to disagree?

At the start of the final season, Will is searching for Lyra who has been kidnapped by Mrs Coulter, a woman so evil that she kicks her own daemon. "I have been the worst mother in the world," Coulter says and she’s not wrong. Yes, perhaps she is now on a path to redemption but let us never forget that this is a woman who tortured and murdered witches. Asriel, also, is not averse to child murder if circumstances call for it. Lyra’s folks are never going to win any parenting awards.

Asriel, immensely irritating with his hipster hairstyle, chunky knitwear and grandiose manner, is mustering an army to take on the corrupt kingdom of heaven. Will, meanwhile, is being pursued by a pair of angels who tell him that his knife that can cut doorways between worlds is an important weapon. He enlists their help in finding Lyra.

It’s testament to the charismatic Keen’s importance to the show that when she is off the screen for as much time as she is in the first episode, most of which she spends in a drugged sleep, even actors of the stature of McAvoy and Wilson can’t entirely fill the gap she leaves. But after a slowish start, the pace quickly picks up when she’s back in action, and before you know it, she and Will are on their way to the Land of the Dead.

One of the most enjoyable things about His Dark Materials has been watching Keen excel as the brave heroine who inspires fierce loyalty in everyone from witch queens to armoured bears to Texan aeronauts. Her next project is a new Star Wars series. She’s still only 17 and has a stellar career ahead of her. (By the way, that’s her real father, Will Keen, playing the fanatical Father MacPhail).

The special effects rendering of the daemons has been another of the show’s triumphs. We have come to take for granted that a hare can look despairing or a golden monkey reproachful.

This season we meet some fascinating new species - Gallivespians, Mulefa, Harpies - and are reunited with some old friends. There are some great new characters - the young deaf actress Amber Fitzgerald-Woolfe is excellent as Ama - and some spectacular set pieces. And it is crammed with fist-pumping and eye-moistening moments. So, settle your daemon, pour yourself a glass of 1938 Tokay and enjoy.

Read more:

His Dark Materials season 3 will air weekly on BBC One and be available as a full series boxset on BBC iPlayer from Sunday, 18th December.

For more, check out our dedicated Fantasy page or our full TV Guide and Streaming Guide.

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