His Dark Materials, season two: Frankly it’s a bit of a drag

It has a strong cast, but ultimately Phillip Pullman’s source material is too preachy

Lyra (Dafne Keen) has passed into an alternate dimension

Lyra (Dafne Keen) has passed into an alternate dimension

 

The campaign to turn Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials into a Lord of the Rings-style franchise has never quite achieved lift-off. Chris Weitz’s 2008 Golden Compass adaptation flopped, and plans for sequels were dropped faster than an armoured bear chucked over the side of an airship. 

History has repeated with the BBC’s retelling of the story of Lyra Belacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon suffering indifferent reviews and a less than stellar public response. That hasn’t prevented the broadcaster from forging ahead with a second season (BBC Two, Sunday) based on part two of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife.

The future of the series is apparently still up in the air, however. If ratings don’t improve the outlook for His Dark Materials could be murky indeed. 

Settling back in, it’s immediately clear why the adaptation has not set fandom alight. The story is slow-moving and inhospitable towards newcomers. Lyra (Dafne Keen) has passed into an alternate dimension, where she discovers the city of Cittàgazze. She is introduced to Will (Amir Wilson), a teen from our world who has never seen a daemon before but who knows how to make an omelette. Cittàgazze is haunted by “spectres”, who have transformed most of the inhabitants into glassy-eyed zombies (or perhaps they were up all night watching the American election results).  

This sounds exciting written down. Alas, the execution is plodding: you never feel Lyra or Will are actively in danger. Back in Lyra’s world, wicked Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) continues with her nefarious shenanigans and there is also copious CGI footage of Lyra’s allies, the witches, whizzing, around in the twilight – though to what purpose is not immediately apparent. 

As with the first season, the show’s flaws cannot be pinned entirely on screenwriter Jack Thorne’s take on Pullman. He is respectful, perhaps reverential, towards the novels. The BBC has, moreover, reaffirmed its commitment to the project by hiring big names such as Wilson, Hamilton writer Lin Manuel-Miranda, as balloonist Lee Scoresby, and, this year, Andrew Scott as mysterious Colonel John Parry. 

No, the issue has more to do with the source material. Pullman, as with JK Rowling, is no dyed-in-chainmail fantasy fan. Indeed, one of the inspirations for His Dark Materials was his visceral dislike of CS Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. Lewis’s books, in his view, committed the terrible sin of advocating for a muscular Christian morality. 

Pullman, by contrast, is a firebrand atheist in the Richard Dawkins vein. This can be seen in the Subtle Knife as Ms Coulter continues to plot in league with the Catholic Church-esque Magisterium.

The author was raised in the Church of England so his anger towards Catholicism might be considered surprising, if not misplaced – where is his thinly-veiled critique of the Archbishop of Canterbury? Pullman may as well have called the Magisterium the Vatican – and frankly the whole thing is a bit of a drag. It’s never fun being preached to, not even by an atheist.

There may be some humour going forward. Scott’s Colonel Parry (Will’s father) will have a daemon companion voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, aka the Hot Priest’s love interest in Fleabag. Their chemistry elevated Fleabag from self-satisfied chattering class comedy into something devastatingly wry and truthful. Hopefully they can cast a spell once again as they reunite.

His Dark Materials has a lot going for it. But it desperately lacks a sense of fun and, crucial for fantasy, the promise of escapism.

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