An enjoyable second series that enlarges the canvas of the universe. A few more armoured polar bears would have been appreciated.
Phillip Pullman’s second book in his His Dark Materials trilogy, The Subtle Knife, opens the fantasy universe into an alternate-universe-hopping story that pushes the narrative towards an increasingly expanding epic scope. Having successfully translated the first book, The Northern Lights, into the first season last year, the cast and crew continue a largely faithful adaptation of Pullman’s second book.
Armoured polar bears. Animals called daemons that are spiritually entwined to each person. The Magisterium. Witches. For the non-book readers (or even those that haven’t seen the messy film adaptation The Golden Compass), the first season introduced a host of whacky concepts set in a semi-steampunk world. But by the end of the eight episodes, there was a strong desire for more; the world’s lore and rules were now clear and engrossing rather than baffling. This second series is shorter: its seven episodes inhabited a 50-minute slot on BBC’s Sunday evenings as opposed to the hour run times of the previous season’s episodes. The shorter run time is noted due to the smaller size of The Subtle Knife and that parts of it, such as the introduction of Will (Amir Wilson), were also done last year.
The tightened length gives the series a zippy feel, allowing it to focus on the story without the need for filler. The first episode finds us back with the spirited Lyra (Logan’s Dafne Keen) having entered a new ‘world’ via her father’s portal. Here she meets Will, a boy from our current world who is stumped by the talking daemons and sudden rise in magic. Their budding friendship is what propels the narrative as they continue to investigate ‘dust’, as well as coming into possession of the subtle knife, a blade so sharp it can cut through realities (effectively a very slow teleportation device). Hot on their heels is Lyra’s villainous mother, Ruth Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter, and her unnamed golden monkey (superbly dubbed Ozymandias in a radio adaptation though), and the far less antagonistic Lee Scoresby, a swaggering aeronaut played by the unavoidable Lin-Manuel Miranda. He is charming, but for a rugged Texan, Sam Elliot’s portrayal in the film is a lot stronger.
Elsewhere, other story strands include the clash between the religious Magisterium (which may or not be a jab at Catholicism) and the witches, the search for Will’s father, and the scientific discoveries of Simone Kirby’s physicist. The script finds adequate time for each of these, although the writing and acting for a lot of the Magisterium and witches scenes is hideously clunky. It is peppered with impenetrable exposition and features actors wearing ridiculous costumes whilst babbling on about prophecies. Thankfully then, the main thread is a lot more enjoyable. Keen is an engaging presence as Lyra, and, after shaking free of being a very bland character, Amir Wilson’s Will soon becomes equally engaging. But the scene-stealing comes from Ariyon Bakare’s suave Lord Boreal as well as Mrs. Coulter, who is the most psychologically interesting character. With a whiff of Cersei Lannister about her, she is a cold, malicious sociopath with a protective love for her daughter. Her relationship with her mute daemon is somehow the most fascinating one in the show, a type of strange Stockholm syndrome.
The production values are pretty tidy too; the sets for the abandoned city Cittàgazze are well-realised, and the second half has some memorable action sequences. The score is still underwhelming: Lorne Balfe’s title music is catchy, but considering the material he has to work with, it is a shame there aren’t more hummable themes for each world, character or organisation.
As the narrative progresses towards the Miltonic scale of the third book, it will be fascinating to see how the next season depicts the final conflict that has been looming since the start. These seven episodes have been solid enough entertainment, raising important questions on science, technology, religion and whether you must become a security guard if your daemon is an Alsatian.
His Dark Materials is available now on BBC iPlayer. You can watch a trailer for the second season below.