His Dark Materials: The Complete First Season Blu-ray Review: Lyra and Daemons and Bears, Oh My!

It has an interesting premise, but the weakness in the scripts overshadows the strong moments of the eight episodes
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Based on Philip Pullman’s fantasy book trilogy of the same name, His Dark Materials opens with graphics that explain the story begins in a parallel world where a human soul takes the physical form of an animal known as a Daemon. This world has been controlled for centuries by the all-powerful Magisterium, except in the wilderness of the north, where witches whisper of a prophecy of a child with a great destiny. The north is cold and distant, which is the same feeling given off by the series, causing me to have trouble connecting to the story and its characters.

The child of the prophecy appears to be Lyra (Dafne Keen), who was taken as an infant to Jordan College in Oxford for safe keeping by her uncle, Lord Asriel Belacqua (James McAvoy), a scientist and explorer who believes he has seen a city from a parallel world in the night sky and strives to make contact. This is heresy and the Magisterium wants to stop his experiments.

At 12 years old, Lyra is a precocious child who seems to young to lead the revolution of a world but things frequently fall into place for her. In addition, the Master (Clarke Peters) of Jordan College gives her an an alethiometer, a magical device that answers any question put to it, if the codes it communicates in can be deciphered, which of course Lyra can do. She has a friend who works at the college, a young servant boy named Roger, who disappears. The locals, called Gyptians, have experienced children kidnapped by a group called the Gobblers.

Lyra goes to live in London with Mrs. Coulter, a Magisterium agent. While there, secrets are revealed to her, including Mrs. Coulter's involvement with the Gobblers. Lyra escapes and teams up with the Gyptians to find Roger and the missing children, which sends them north. There, she meets aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda, who seems miscast as an adventurer) and together they enlist the help up of Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Joe Tandberg), a polar bear who had his armor taken away. They battle against the forces of the Magisterium.

Meanwhile, Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) travels to a parallel London, looking like ours, proving Asriel's hypothesis about other connected worlds. Boreal is searching for Stanislaus Grumman, who goes by the name John Parry in this world. In episode five, we learn he had a son named Will (Amir Wilson), but hasn't been in the boy's life. His mother gives Will letters from his father, which Boreal wants.

In Lyra's world, one government rules but it makes no sense why they are so cruel to their subjects nor why so many subjects except this life one revolts. The ease which she accomplishes things throughout the season lessens the stakes and conflicts in the story, and make her less interesting. Will has to work harder to succeed. Wish we had more of him and his story throughout the season.

The same goes for Iorek. I was much more interested in him as a character and his loss of status within bear society before he was introduced into the story. What little we get of him and his world is much more compelling than the nonsensical, metaphysical gobbledygook of the world ruled by Magisterium. With that said, there are a number of intriguing reveals about the true nature of major characters.

The video has been presented in a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. It showcases the work of the production design crew under Joel Collins's leadership, especially in Lyra's fantasy world. Marvelous texture detail can be seen in the multiple sets and locations as well as in the costumes. The image contrast is anchored by inky blacks and bright colors. The CGI daemons are well rendered and look authentic in the world.

The audio is available in DTS HD MA 5.1. The surrounds fill with scene ambiance, both in the cities and in the wilderness, and with composer Lorne Balfe's score. Objects are positioned across the soundscape to expand the worlds. Dialogue is consistently clear.

Disc One offers a number of short featurettes, which are in HD, that examine the making of the series:

  • Adapting His Dark Materials (4 min)
  • Building His Dark Materials (6 min)
  • Dressing His Dark Materials (3 min)
  • The Daemons of His Dark Materials (4 min)
  • James McAvoy: Bringing Lord Asriel to Life (3 min)
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda: Bringing Lee Scoresby to Life (2 min)
  • Ruth Wilson: Bringing Mrs. Coulter to Life (3 min)
  • Dafne Keen: Bringing Lyra Belacqua to Life (4 min)

Disc Two contains the longer “Making His Dark Materials” (32 min).

His Dark Materials: The Complete First Season has with an interesting premise, but the weakness in the scripts overshadows the strong moments of the eight episodes, which is unfortunate because the talented cast and crew do fine work. Fans of the show will be pleased by the high-definition presentation available on this Blu-ray.

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