Question: What does your daemon look like? Is it a ferret, a fox, a monkey, a regal snow leopard? In the world of His Dark Materials, the joint BBC-HBO adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s hugely acclaimed young-adult fantasy series, everybody’s got a literal spirit animal — magical creatures called “daemons” that function like having an external animal-shaped soul you can run around with and talk to. As a way to engage the audience, daemons rank right up there with Harry Potter’s Gryffindor-to-Hufflepuff sorting matrix, or Game of Thrones‘ great houses, only even more personalized. And if HBO pulls off yet another swing-for-the-fences fantasy adaptation properly, you’ll want one of your own.
Dafne Keen, the young breakout star of Logan, plays Lyra, a rule-breaking girl being raised collectively by the faculty of Oxford’s Jordan College. Dropped off at that august university as an infant by her explorer uncle Lord Asriel (James McAvoy, another alum of Marvel’s mutant franchise), she more or less has the run of the place with her orphan friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd). But it’s clear Lyra lives for the rare occasions when her uncle comes calling, bringing tales of his discoveries in the frozen North with him.
But his latest visit is something unique — so different, in fact, that the prim and proper Master of Jordan College (The Wire‘s Clarke Peters) and its bookish Librarian (Ian Gelder, aka Ser Kevan Lannister on Game of Thrones) conspire to poison the man before he can present his latest findings to the faculty. When Lyra warns Asriel about the plot, he rewards her with a mission: curl up in a cupboard and spy on the Master. That’s how she witnesses her uncle’s big presentation. Using special camera equipment, he appears to have discovered evidence of an alternate universe, dimly visible through the Northern Lights. He’s also uncovered a mysterious substance called “Dust” that is attracted only to adults while leaving children untouched.
The discoveries cause an uproar among the Oxford scholars. Lyra’s world is governed by the Magisterium, a Catholic Church–like entity that harshly punishes heresies like the ones being espoused by Asriel. Universities have some leeway to push the envelope under the doctrine of “scholastic sanctuary,” but it’s clear from the Master’s reaction that this rule won’t be worth a damn if the authorities get wind of what the explorer has found.
Meanwhile — it’s an epic fantasy, so there’s always a meanwhile — a sinister force is stalking the local community of Gyptians, a Roma-like culture that lives off the river. After a coming-of-age ceremony for a teenager named Tony Costa (Daniel Frogson), in which his daemon chooses a permanent form (they shape-shift until their human companions reach puberty), his little brother Billy (Tyler Howitt) goes missing.
Rumors quickly spread about the Gobblers, kidnappers of unknown origin and motive who’ve been preying on Gyptian children up and down the river. Community leaders Farder Coram and King John Faa (Game of Thrones alums James Cosmo and Lucian Msamati) decide to head to London, where these evildoers are said to be headquartered.
And though she’s left behind by Lord Asriel, Lyra receives an unexpected invitation to London herself from the glamorous Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson, late of The Affair), apparently a VIP of some sort. Any bets as to whether that London location is just a coincidence?
On her journey, Lyra will be carrying a magical device called an alethiometer, gifted to her by the Master. (She seemingly forgives the old scholar’s attempt to poison her uncle; Asriel himself half-jokes that he probably deserved it.) This golden compass-like contraption is supposed to be a truth detector, though the girl hasn’t yet learned how to work it.
Above all, the Master says, she must keep it secret from everyone. And if you think that secret will keep, we’ve got a magic ring in Mordor to sell you.
That’s a whole lot of plot to whip through in the space of an hour, and it’s to the credit of writer Jack Thorne and director Tom Hooper that the process is as seamless as it is. Yes, there’s a clunky infodump in the form of on-screen text before the credits, and everyone has to spell out exactly what things like the daemons and the Magisterium are instead of, say, discussing them naturally the way people who’ve lived with these concepts for ages would. But on a scale of one to “That’s Jaime Lannister, the Queen’s twin brother” from the Game of Thrones pilot, it’s pretty easy to put up with.
More impressive is the episode’s ability to convey character in just a handful of scenes. Dafne Keen’s Lyra is instantly believable as the half-feral child of a dozen fathers too buried in their books to bother with raising her properly. James McAvoy displays growling charisma as the hard-charging no-bullshit Lord Asriel, while Ruth Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter is so worldly and charming compared to everyone else we’ve met that it’s small wonder Lyra runs off with her with barely a second thought. And the plethora of familiar GoT faces only makes the whole thing more convincing: We’re used to believing all kinds of fantastical things when these guys show up.
And despite the abundance of exposition, there’s still room for little character-based moments that reveal more than they let on. When Asriel puts a sleepy Lyra to bed, for example, he lays her down with her boots on her pillow and her head at the foot of the bed — a sign that he cares, but not quite enough to learn how to do it properly. And for all Mrs. Coulter’s charm, her daemon is a creepy-looking monkey, as in: “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for…” If John Lennon can bullshit about having nothing to hide, so can this lady. And we’ll happily stick around this intriguing world to find out her secrets.