In its final season, the BBC’s adaptation of His Dark Materials is approaching a moment of danger. A story that began with the construction of an intimate world of parallel Oxfords must now take on the fate of the entire multiverse.
The third season begins with our protagonist Lyra (Dafne Keen) lying in a stupor, drugged by her mother, Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson). She’s in the eye of a storm of cosmic proportions, as the Magisterium (authoritative representatives of a false deity) attempt to track her down before her friend Will (Amir Wilson) can. And before his father, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), incites a dimensional revolution.
How will the small screen handle the big ideas that will present themselves as the cosmic showdown approaches?
The problem comes from Philip Pullman’s decision to make his trilogy an epic.
Taking inspiration from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, His Dark Materials pits brave and imaginative (and not always truthful) children against an oppressive religious establishment. The one who wants to separate them from their soul in order to remove the “dust” – a cosmic force associated with conscience or, as the clerics say, with original sin.
This story functions as an allegory of Pullman’s guiding belief in the power of history to free the imagination from the shackles of dogma or ideology.
But it also draws him into metaphysical squabbles that threaten to overload the story’s levity and openness. And that danger is greatest in the latest episode as those big concepts take center stage.
Pullman’s storytelling deals with this by foregrounding visual representation and clinging to one of the founding principles of children’s literature criticism: show, don’t tell.
Before it’s an idea, dust is a shimmer in Asriel’s magic lantern show, or the force that powers Lyra’s alethiometer (a beautifully crafted brass instrument of symbols and dials that tell the truth).
Pullman uses defamiliarization, a technique Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky described as disrupting our conventional perception by presenting objects to us from unfamiliar angles, without naming them.
It drops us into an alternate, steampunk Oxford of “experimental theologians” and “anbaric power,” where each is accompanied by a “demon,” as if we already know what that is.
They are respectively physicists, electricity, and an exteriorized aspect of the soul that takes the form of an animal (usually of the opposite sex). But none of this is explained. It remains for us to reconstruct our own ideas of these things by inference.
The story, however, is headed towards a climax in which the fate of the universe will be decided. And it also means that the meaning of the dust is settling, potentially losing at least some of the constructive ambiguity that made it a gift to the freedom of reading.
The challenges of the small screen
So how does the small screen handle all of this? The first two series handled Pullman’s world-building visuals well, with well-designed gimmicks and decent effects. But they also relied on spirited performances from Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson to drive flat dialogue and slow editing.
These drawbacks didn’t seem to bode well for a narrative that must now transport us across universes, through battles and theological debates and even to the land of the dead.
Overall, however, the new season thrives on its expanded canvas. It involves generous use of panoramic aerial shots of boundless mountain ranges and plains, as beautifully done as the wilderness through which fellow BBC star Brian Cox wanders in his documentaries.
Sometimes the action movie elements are a little brash. I’m not sure I’m ready to see Asriel’s demon co-piloting a light plane barking, “We’ve lost the rear oscillator!”
There are long stretches of exposition in the bowels of the Magisterium, albeit enlivened by some nice gadgetry in the form of Father Gomez’s mechanical beetle drone.
But there are also moments of intimacy in the vastness of the landscape, such as when Mrs. Coulter picks up a deaf girl on a deserted beach and is briefly undone by her confident embrace.
The real triumph of the third series is the imagining of Will and Lyra’s journey to the land of the dead.
We are led through a bewildering landscape of waiting areas and waiting rooms – all faded grey-green tiles and backlit frosted windows – in which groups of dazed people are queuing, or milling, or sit down.
The sensation is by turns an abandoned warehouse, a nightmarish bus station or a detention center for migrants.
These scenes reminded me of an idea put forward by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh in his literary response to climate change, The Great Derangement: that the epic genre might be better equipped than the realistic novel to provide story forms to match the upcoming emergency. .
It might seem like a compulsion to load up His Dark Materials with another big idea. But climate change is certainly a growing concern for Pullman. And critics began to notice her influence for her later forays into Lyra’s world, most notably in Serpentine (2020). Jack Thorne, author of the BBC adaptation, compared Lyra to Greta Thunberg.
The TV adaptation certainly doesn’t preach any more on the subject than the Pullman novels. But it is part of a more diffuse need to find ways of imagining a world in motion, a world on the fringes.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Stephen Thomson does not work for, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.