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We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

TV Series Review

Back in the day, when there were blank spots on the map, creative cartographers would slap a nifty drawing of a sea serpent or man-eating sloth or something where the map was barren. “Here there be monsters,” they might write. Not that they’d know, but no one was likely to contradict them anytime soon.

The alternate reality we find in HBO’s His Dark Materials is a world filled with monsters, both real and imagined. It seems the trick—both for the characters and viewers—is to know which is which.

Paradise Tossed

In the alternate Earth of His Dark Materials, the North is a place where cartographers would’ve penciled in all sorts of monsters. It’s a place of deep mystery and, for the ruling Magisterium, of deep fear. Lord Asriel, intrepid explorer of the Arctic, knows why. Using a special camera, he’s captured images of mysterious “dust” wreathing the few adults who live there, and gigantic citadels hidden in the Northern Lights.

The Magisterium doesn’t like this dust business one little bit, and the religious/political governing body will do whatever it can to suppress the truth.

Twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua and her animal daemon, Pan, have been thrown into this strange, and still mostly secret, controversy.

She’s a special child, this one: Asriel dropped her off at Jordan College when she was just a baby, invoking “the privilege of scholastic sanctuary.” That privilege would ensure that the college would do everything in its power to keep her safe.

But Lyra can’t be kept safe and isolated forever. And when she’s given a chance to serve as an assistant to the lovely, mysterious Mrs. Coulter and travel north—just like her Uncle Asriel—she jumps at it. En route, she hopes to rescue her best friend, Robby, too. He was abducted by “the Gobblers,” the existence of which Lyra had always dismissed as fairy tales. Not so, Mrs. Coulter tells her. She’s quite familiar with them. Perhaps frighteningly familiar.

The Subtle Knife

His Dark Materials is based on an acclaimed young-adult fantasy series written by Philip Pullman. It’s the second attempt to translate the work to screen, the first being 2007’s high-profile and commercially disappointing The Golden Compass. And at first glance, it might not strike the casual viewer as that much different from, say, the Harry Potter series or the series it’s been most compared to, The Chronicles of Narnia. Hidden worlds? Talking animals? You bet, it’s here.

But take a spade and turn just a bit of earth here, and you dig up something else entirely.

Your first hint would be, of course, those talking animals—called (as I’ve mentioned) daemons. They trace their lineage back—spiritually, if not literally—to the serpent in the garden of Eden, and Pullman’s world is one where biting into that ol’ bit of forbidden fruit was a good thing. Nothing wrong with a little knowledge, right?

But the Magisterium—clearly a stand-in for the Catholic Church—thinks the operative word is a little knowledge. In Pullman’s world, this all-powerful religious (and overtly Christian) body is an instrument of oppression and ignorance—one that the good guys must overthrow. And the truth of the dust—a substance that (spoiler warning) the Magisterium believes to be the source of sin and others say is a sign of growing up and gaining consciousness—is at the center of it all.

Jane Tranter, executive producer of HBO’s series, insists that His Dark Materials isn’t anti-Christian.

"Philip Pullman in these books is not attacking belief, is not attacking faith,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “He's not attacking religion or the church, per se. He's attacking a particular form of control, where there is a very deliberate attempt to withhold information, keep people in the dark, and not allow ideas and thinking to be free. ... It doesn't equate to any particular church or form of religion in in our world. So we should be clear on that."

Pullman himself would call that nonsense.

Granted, Pullman’s intentions are somewhat layered, but the outspoken atheist has not been coy about his feelings for the Catholic church, which (he told The Guardian) he hoped would “vanish entirely.” He’s been critical of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, saying that he hated them with a “deep and bitter passion.” And he’s wondered why Harry Potter stirred up such passion with Christians, given that his own books “are about killing God.”

This series shows the importance of dealing with a story’s substance in addition to its content issues. For if we set aside those theological issues, His Dark Materials appears relatively prim. The show, clearly aimed at children and teens, steers clear of sexual content. And while violence certainly will play a part as the series wears on, there’s little blood or gore on graphic display. Language is a minor concern, with but a few abrasive profanities scattered about.

Some Christians are fans of the series. Regardless of Pullman’s own feelings about faith, this is a series more about clerical overreach than degrading or debunking God Himself, they’d argue. And Pullman isn’t always so strident about the anti-religious leanings in his books. "What I'm against is what William Blake called single vision,” he told The New Yorker, “being possessed by one single idea and seeing everything in terms of this one idea, whether it's a religious idea or a scientific idea or a political idea. It's a very bad thing."

Presumably, Pullman would argue that Jesus was dead wrong when He told us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” as He does in Matthew 6:33. He certainly argues that the tragedy of Eden we read about in Genesis was (if he took the story at face value) the best thing that could’ve possibly happened to us. The Fall? More like The Rise, he’d say.

Here they be monsters, the old cartographers wrote when they didn’t know what was actually there. In His Dark Materials, Pullman’s heroes try to fill in those spots and reveal, in his view, who the real monsters are. But when we expose one bogeyman—a straw one, in this case—we sometimes hide another. And this show, while not monstrous in terms of sex and violence, keeps time with fiendish intent and, potentially, beastly consequences.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Nov. 3, 2019: "Lyra's Jordan"

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua; Ruth Wilson as Marisa Coulter; Anne-Marie Duff as Ma Costa; Clarke Peters as The Master/Dr. Carne; James Cosmo as Farder Coram; Ariyon Bakare as Lord Carlo Boreal; Will Keen as Father MacPhail; Lucian Msamati as John Faa; Gary Lewis as Thorold; Lewin Lloyd as Roger Parslow; Daniel Frogson as Tony Costa; James McAvoy as Lord Asriel

Director

Distributor

Network

HBO

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

Released

On Video

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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