Opening your drama in a deserted city where adults have fled an invisible threat while children stroll around largely unaffected might seem like a slightly on-the-nose depiction of 2020 – but in His Dark Materials it’s just a coincidence.
No, our heroes Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Will (Amir Wilson) aren’t engaged in some sort of worthy coronavirus parable. Instead, the lonely streets of Cittàgazze, a parallel world ravaged by invisible Spectres is lifted directly from Philip Pullman’s original novel The Subtle Knife, which forms the basis for this impressive second season.
In season one, Jack Thorne’s scripts introduced us to Lyra’s world, a parallel universe to our own where human’s souls walk alongside them in the form of animals (called daemons), the Church reigns supreme and talking polar bears rule the north. Within this setting, our heroine Lyra chased after her missing uncle/father Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), learning the evils that adults are capable of as a new war brewed between different factions.
Season two raises the stakes somewhat. While a few storylines in season one also touched on “our” world, introducing us to new co-lead Will Parry earlier than he was in the books, this year sees His Dark Materials regularly skipping between planes of existence – our world, Lyra’s world and the world of Cittàgazze, which connects the two – with some impressive filming techniques and production design bringing the multi-world storyline to life.
Cittàgazze itself, built from the ground up in a Welsh car park is immersive and realistic, while the creepy VFX Spectres (below, only glimpsed in the opening episodes) look set to give younger viewers the willies for years to come. As ever, the behind-the-scenes teams on His Dark Materials – who took home two BAFTAs earlier this year – excel at bringing strange new worlds to life.
Even the daemons created for the show by VFX house Framestore seem more involved this series. His Dark Materials received some criticism in 2019 for the relatively low-key presence of daemons, with many characters’ animal souls invisible or overlooked despite their importance to the plot.
This year, the VFX team have a slightly easier task in some ways as the show visits more worlds and characters without daemons, making the absence less noticeable – but instead of stepping back, Framestore take the opportunity to do more with the daemons they have, with Lyra’s shapeshifting daemon Pan (Kit Connor) showing off various new and beautiful animal forms in just the first episode.
It’s a visual spectacle, but it’d be nothing without the central story – and that, of course, revolves around Lyra and Will. The pair finally meet in the first episode of this new season, forming an uneasy alliance as their parallel goals – finding Will’s missing father, played by Andrew Scott, and learning more about the mysterious Dust – align and they begin to learn more about each other.
Despite the central importance of this relationship, it’s actually a fairly low-key introduction that slightly differs from Pullman’s source material (at least partially because so much of The Subtle Knife was adapted into the first series). In fact, to begin with I was concerned that the talented young actors were suffering without their adult season one scene partners – Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, Ariyon Bakare, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Nina Sosonya et al – to bounce off.
Still, I needn’t have worried. By the second episode (the first two instalments were available for preview) the relationship between Will and Lyra is already deeper and more convincing, the pair learning more about each other and developing real onscreen chemistry. If this relationship doesn’t work, the whole story doesn’t work, so it’s a blessing that the series cast such an engaging pair of leads.
Elsewhere, other storylines build. Ruth Wilson’s conniving Mrs Coulter schemes with the Magisterium, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s aeronaut Lee Scoresby gets sucked into a war with the witches while the suave Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) makes his own advances towards Lyra and Will. The audience is plunged rather abruptly back into these storylines, so it might be worth revisiting the first series – or checking a plot summary – to remember exactly where we left off.
While some of these side plots are taken from Pullman’s pages, others are newly-invented, altered or extended to mixed results. While all engaging and well-realised, your mind sometimes can’t help but wander back to Lyra and Will’s story and wish you were watching that instead – especially when the material that is directly taken from the source (including Lyra’s meeting with physicist Mary Malone, played by Simone Kirby) works so well onscreen.
But perhaps that’s the show being a victim of its own successes. Overall, the onscreen return to Philip Pullman’s world is a confident, ambitious bit of drama that’s perfect for the cold and uncertain days ahead.
Unlike other TV shows hampered by the UK lockdown or coronavirus restrictions, His Dark Materials had luckily shot the vast majority of season two back in 2019, with only an extra episode starring James McAvoy scrapped after just a few hours of filming. That foresight (intended to prevent the young actors ageing out of their roles) now looks like near-prescience given what was to come, to the extent that you wonder whether the producers were sneaking a peek at Lyra’s alethiometer.
And really, it’s the audience that benefits. Just when we need it most, His Dark Materials is the perfect autumnal antidote to slightly grim and cold Sunday nights. There’s never been a better time to escape to a different world.
His Dark Materials begins on Sunday 8th November on BBC One, and Monday 16th November on HBO. Want something else to watch? Check out our full TV Guide.