Thanks to the BBC, which has HBO on board to distribute the series worldwide, Philip Pullman’s classic British trilogy of novels will set sail for the small screen for the first time, following the 2007 movie that didn’t fare so well with critics. But will this new creation make up for Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman’s foray into the fantasy epic, the movie’s unmade sequels leaving hero Lyra (literally) up in the air?
Our Alethiometer readings are looking good so far, with James McAvoy and Logan‘s X23 (Dafne Keen) slated to play the silver-tongued Lyra. Don’t know what on earth His Dark Materials refers to? This guide is for you and for those of us looking forward to visiting a parallel Oxford once more.
His Dark Materials sounds complicated and, well, it is. Pullman took the title for his book trilogy from a poem by John Milton — another work with big themes about religious deities — but let’s not go too far down that rabbit hole, with the basic plot of the first novel Northern Lights following Lyra as she attempts to save her best friend Roger from the Gobblers, nefarious people stealing children and bringing them to an icy fate.
Though all it says is the show is ‘coming soon’, we’ll forgive the first teaser, released on BBC’s YouTube Sunday, because of just how good it looks. We get James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Dafne Keen and Lin Manuel Miranda looking old-fashioned and otherworldly, and there’s Lyra peeking through a cupboard, no doubt from the first scene of the book trilogy that kicks off the epic story’s events. The tone seems suitably dark, what with the guns and the defenestration and the cold-looking Oxford. Let’s hope a full trailer ‘comes soon’.
Release date, episodes and timing
Tony Award-winning writer Jack Thorne has eight episodes to tell Lyra’s story in Northern Lights and another eight-episode season for second-part, The Subtle Knife. He’s proven himself on the epic fantasy front, after adapting Harry Potter and The Cursed Child for the stage, based on a story both he and J.K. Rowling developed.
Tom Hooper leads direction with the first two episodes, his period pieces The King’s Speech, Les Miserables and The Danish Girl a good stylistic match for Pullman’s parallel cell phone-free Oxford. Otto Bathurst of Peaky Blinders is another exciting English-made director, taking on episodes four and five.
Speaking of Oxford, the real one saw the series filming last July, along with principal photography in Cardiff, Wales which began in June.
It’ll air on the BBC, and HBO has secured worldwide distribution rights outside the UK. For those in the US, you can also subscribe to HBO’s streaming service HBO Now here (no idiot box required).
Meet the cast
Look at all these big names, Pan! Except there’s one gaping omission: the voice of armoured bear Iorek Byrnison, played by Ian McKellen in the movie… massive shoes to fill.
The cast we know so far:
- Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua
- James McAvoy as Lord Asriel
- Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter
- Ruta Gedmintas as Serafina Pekkala
- Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby
- Archie Barnes as Pantalaimon
- Clarke Peters as The Master of Jordan College
- Ian Gelder as Scholar Charles
- Will Keen as Father MacPhail
- Ariyon Bakare as Lord Boreal
- Georgina Campbell as Adele Starminster
- Anne-Marie Duff as Ma Costa
- James Cosmo as Farder Coram
- Lucian Msamati as John Faa
- Mat Fraser as Raymond Van Geritt
- Geoff Bell as Jack Verhoeven
- Simon Manyonda as Benjamin de Ruyter
- Lewin Lloyd as Roger Parslow
- Daniel Frogson as Tony Costa
- Tyler Howitt as Billy Costa
Keen may be the perfect choice as Lyra based on her role as the fiery Laura/X-23 mutant in 2017’s Logan. After unleashing The Beast in both Split and Glass, McAvoy is, simply put, jacked for the role of Lord Asriel, a powerful scholar, explorer and aristocrat. Ruth Wilson is essentially Lyra’s antagonist as Mrs. Coulter, a ruthless and glamorous academic, possibly channelling some of her cunning Alice from Luther.
On the magical side, Pullman’s ethereal witch queen Serafina Pekkala goes to English actress Gedmintas, recently seen in Guillermo Del Toro’s vampire series The Strain. For a peek of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby (and his mustache), Gedmintas gave us this tweet.
What we know about the plot
If Thorne follows the books, as he’s insinuated, there’ll be a fair bit of world-building and philosophical concepts to cover, the big ones involving wisdom, your soul and original sin. But as Westworld has proven, sometimes viewers like not knowing what the hell is going on.
Writer Jack Thorne said of progress to Radio Times last year, ‘It’s at an exciting point where we’re just throwing things at the page and trying to work out what works and what doesn’t.’
Like Game of Thrones and the Watchmen graphic novel, also currently being adapted for TV, the small screen format looks better suited to Materials’ complex story.
‘The advantage of television is we can slow down,’ Thorne said in the same interview. ‘In the film and on stage they had so much plot to get through, so much plot to churn through, whereas we’ve got the luxury of having time to get to know Lyra, and spend time in her world.’
Having enough time played a part in George R.R. Martin’s decision to go for TV adaptation, the writer actually referencing the Golden Compass’ unmade sequels when he spoke to Time about the series in 2017.
‘It was all, ‘Oh, we’ll make one film, and if it’s a big hit, we’ll make more.’ Well, that doesn’t always work out, as you found out if you know about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials,’ Martin said. ‘If the first one doesn’t work out, you never get the rest of the story. Television can do more.’
In August, the series gave a hint it wouldn’t shy away from one of the controversial big baddies in the books: the Magisterium. Riffing off the religious institution’s totalitarian control, the series tweeted this about social media: ‘You are forbidden from creating, reading or reproducing any clandestine materials. The Magisterium has proclaimed that social media is a hotbed for heresy. Accounts associated with abominable heretical ‘spoiler’ discussions will face severe consequences.’