After a slightly shaky first episode His Dark Materials’ second season really hits the ground running this week, as Lyra and Will (Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson) travel between worlds and meet some crucial new figures in Oxford.
And while religious war, factional scheming and general grandiosity loom in the background, it’s the smaller story of this duo – two abandoned children, looking for trust as much as answers – that really connects, making for some compelling storytelling.
In fact Keen is the real standout in this second episode, deftly showing Lyra’s continued grieving for her friend Roger (who died in series one) even as she’s overwhelmed by the new sights in front of her. While we’ve seen the suave Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) easily slip into Will’s world without a hitch, Lyra doesn’t take to the changes quite so easily, and seeing our reality through her eyes is a real highlight (as it is in the books).
And while Will searches for family ties Lyra seeks out more information about Dust, bringing her into contact with Mary Malone (Simone Kirby) and discussing life, grief and physics in one of the episode’s best scenes.
Sometimes, His Dark Materials is most successful when it just cleanly adapts Philip Pullman’s original story without frills or additional detail, and so it is here. The scenes between Lyra and Mary in The Subtle Knife are great in the book, and they’re great here – though some tweaks, including the presence of a looming, chandelier-like supercomputer for Lyra to interact with add some new style to proceedings.
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And of course, generally speaking new inventions often do much to deepen the story as well. For example, Will’s mission this week sees him track down his estranged grandparents, a clearly fairly well-off pair whose arms-length approach to him and his mother is initially unclear. But in a tense meeting over a cup of tea, Will realises that he really isn’t safe anywhere, and has to use his wits to escape capture.
Elsewhere, other new TV storylines – including the increased role for the witches and Omid Djalili’s Dr Lanselius, and the Game of Thrones-like Magisterium politics overseen by Ruth Wilson’s steely Mrs Coulter – also create a sense of scale for the story not seen in Pullman’s books until third instalment The Amber Spyglass.
Are these B-stories as compelling as Lyra and Will’s? Well, probably not – though Wilson’s Mrs Coulter does a lot to pull you in – but when the main story works as well as it does this week, the cohesive whole really comes together.
Going forward, as the series introduces another major character (played by a certain Mr Andrew Scott) things are about to get even bigger. Fingers crossed His Dark Materials can still nail the small main story while the spectacle around it increases.
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.
His Dark Materials continues on BBC One on Sunday nights. Want something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide.