fri 04/12/2020

His Dark Materials, Series 2, BBC One review – upping the ante whilst retaining the magic | reviews, news & interviews

His Dark Materials, Series 2, BBC One review – upping the ante whilst retaining the magic

His Dark Materials, Series 2, BBC One review – upping the ante whilst retaining the magic

A third world and the promise of a divine war to come worthy of Dante

Dafne Keen returns as Lyra Belacqua, now in another world

The first series of the BBC and HBO’s fantasy adventure His Dark Materials felt even more timely than when author Phillip Pullman first published Northern Lights twenty-five-years ago.

The first series of the BBC and HBO’s fantasy adventure His Dark Materials felt even more timely than when author Phillip Pullman first published Northern Lights twenty-five-years ago. The second season builds on the heady mix of philosophy and theology, and more than a touch of environmentalism, all delivered as a thrilling adventure yarn in the mould of C S Lewis but with a very different attitude towards religion. The main thrust remains sure-footed in teaching young and old that speaking truth to power is no bad thing when the power is authoritarian in nature. 

At the centre of the spell-binding show is Lyra, played by the highly talented Dafne Keen. She captures the character’s inquisitiveness and confusion at being thrust into a world of secrets and lies, with only the truth-telling alethiometer as her guide.  Even if we think TV and film have moved beyond the cliches of gender, Lyra was always a hero who defied stereotypes, like a modern-day Pippi Longstocking by way of Greta Thunberg, with the gumption of Jack Dawkins.

Last time we saw Lyra, she and her dæmon Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Connor) had travelled to the frozen North to find her father, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) and to rescue her friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) whilst pursued by the all-powerful Magisterium (think the Catholic Church crossed with the Third Reich), and their ally Mrs Coulter (a wickedly good Ruth Wilson). The series proved to be a rare delight and, in an age of on-demand video, had audiences gathered around the TV on Sunday nights, delighting young and old alike. Amir Wilson as WillNow series two is on our screens and promises more of the same magic while (as all second series must) upping the ante and expanding on the universe first presented to us a year ago. The perpetual risk of the middle act in a narrative is that it loses narrative thrust. However, like the fear that the first series would be a repeat of the rightly-maligned 2007 film, it’s unwarranted. Jack Thorne and the writing team have not been slavish in adapting Pullman’s books, instead juggling the narrative to be more suited to a visual medium.

We are now firmly in the narrative of the second book of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife. Will Parry (Amir Wilson, pictured above), who was introduced much earlier in the TV series than in the books, is now a fugitive on the run after killing a man who was hunting for his adventurer father (Andrew Scott). Discovering a gateway into a parallel universe within "our" Oxford, he enters into Cittàgazze (a quasi-Italian seaside city that’s hard to believe was created on set in a studio in Wales), where he meets Lyra who has fled there in pursuit of her father. Wilson and Keen prove to have remarkable on-screen chemistry. The balance of heart and head fluctuate as they navigate their own adventures in pursuit of their parents. This is very much a narrative where the sins of the father (and mother) fall at their offspring’s feet, taking them between worlds. Sceme from His Dark Materials Season TwoThen there are the witches. As well as last season’s Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas), there’s the vengeful Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka, pictured above with Gedmintas), who is hellbent on an all-out war with the Magisterium and in particular Mrs Coulter (Wilson is as glamourous and chilling as ever, adding some rich new layers to the character this season). And, of course, everyone’s favourite Han-Solo-in-a-Stetson, Lee Scoresby (Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda) is back with his trusty hare-dæmon Hester (Cristela Alonzo) at his side. 

All the multiple strands and sub-narratives entertain, laying the groundwork for the divine war to come, although some of the scenes with the witches do have the distinct whiff of Harry Potter about them. That aside, the real cut-and-thrust of this season are Will and Lyra’s stories, and whether they will fulfil their destinies together. Whilst there is more of the same from last season, this is no bad thing in a show as well made as His Dark Materials. It has all the allure, charm, wit and intelligence needed for a family adventure yarn that refuses to talk down to its audience and will once again have families crowding around the telly on Sunday nights. There couldn’t be a better salve for Lockdown 2.0.

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