His Dark Disappointment: A review of the His Dark Materials TV show

This show is so unbearably dull. I feel bad for Ruth Wilson, giving it her all in her performance of Mrs. Marisa Coulter and having to deal with the shitty and directionless writing. I’m sorry to say that this story was so fucking boring to watch as a TV adaption. I don’t know to what extent this adaption is the problem, but I find it quite a letdown. They had the author be a producer and I don’t know how much influence he had, but the way they made this story was putting me to sleep.

The main issue that I have is that we don’t really get any character introspections or personal motivations for any of the characters. At best, it is vague and mysterious jargon that doesn’t go into any depth and fails to demarcate anything to give us any sense of significance for this show’s worldbuilding. The question of Dust’s importance eventually becomes clear . . . in the final episode of Season 1. However, prior to that, I was personally very confused why it mattered that Lord Asriel was trying to research dust to find a way into another world when the Magisterium, a Magical Church, has this capability and can casually do it. Due to the significance of Dust not being explained well at all in the early episodes, I was left confused on why I shouldn’t see the ability of Church enforcers to travel to another world to be a plot hole. Also, I honestly just started skipping the scenes with the investigation into the boy in the world that’s suppose to resemble real life. I just didn’t give a fuck; I had no investment whatsoever. Vague jargon and nebulous crimes or . . . whatever the Church enforcer was investigating wasn’t convincing to me because I obviously had no reason to care. I honestly don’t know if he was supposed to be investigating Lord Asriel or someone else as it is left deliberately vague, so I just stopped caring and began skipping the scenes when it got to the parts of the school kid being bullied in high school. I can’t speak for others, so I will just be frank and say the following and my apologies for the crassness: if you want to write fantasy and love the fantasy genre, don’t put any setting in a mundane high school because I will tune out and probably drop your series because I don’t fucking care and I don’t have the attention span to care enough when I’m trying to invest my time and attention on a fantasy world. The tonal shift bores me and even trying to invest in the investigation story made me check out the moment the family was introduced and the kid started feeling awkwardness due to the situation with his mother. I didn’t give a fuck and I really tried. Unless they’re the main character, I’m not going to care. The Gyptian storyline was incredibly boring and I find it incredibly stupid in their parallel of the gypsies. The gypsies are a people who were found to come from the Hindus of India taken as slaves by Muslim warlords; if you’re going to Woke-ify a story, at least woke-ify to make it more accurate by making sure they’re not monotheist. Then again, it’s hard to expect much from a show that was funded by the British government’s propaganda arm. It’s to be expected that this show is completely devoid of nuance, logic, and compelling characters.

Another major issue with this series is that all it really provides is vague snippets with no clarification or depth. Dust is only explained to be thought of as sin in the final episode, so we didn’t get any clarification before then. The family relationships, while initially intriguing and had me invested, fail to offer much in the show. From the point where Lyra escapes from Marisa’s home, the scenes between them are sparse, they don’t have much dialogue (and what dialogue they do have such as the reference to sin is merely vague jargon at best), and it seems as if the showrunners want a piecemeal snapshot of Lyra and Marisa depicting parent-child disharmony and then the plot forcing Lyra to move to the next plot point using a literal plot device, the Golden Compass. When they have a lengthy discussion and can express themselves, it’s great as Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson can give it their all in a scene, but it seems as if the showrunners thought having a short 2-minute clip that can be uploaded onto Youtube was enough to sell the show for more audiences. It doesn’t try to build their relationship, clarify why Lyra and Marisa have such dysfunctionality (we can only really speculate), or what the relationship in the home was trying to portray. I can only speculate it was about purity culture from the dress that Lyra wore compared to the more boring, insipid barn clothes that she’s given later on that somehow reflect being “genuine” without any real narrative clarification on Lyra’s own preferences, likes and dislikes, or her opinion on anything related to fashion. So much of this story has this problem of never giving a meaningful motivation and failing to clarify anything: Why did Marisa not simply tell Lyra at Jordan College that she was her mother and wanted to take her to be a family? Why didn’t she tell her at her house when Marisa accidentally revealed Asriel was Lyra’s father? What does Lyra actually think of Marisa being her mother? Why is Lyra adamant about staying away instead of trying to convince her mother to change? Why doesn’t Lyra want to know more about her family having grown up thinking she was orphaned? Short 2-minute scenes don’t answer these questions, they don’t build a compelling narrative for the audience to care about the characters, and the snapshots on Youtube only exist to make us remember what we love about a show – if we received clarification and depth in their narratives so that we may better understand the characters and their motives – and are not a substitution for writing a compelling story. The most tragic part of this series is that I can go on Youtube, watch “Marisa Coulter and Lyra Season 2” clips, and I will know that those 2-minute spliced clips amounting to maybe 10 minutes of show footage are all I need to watch because that is all the show will be offering to understand their mother-daughter dynamic which amounts to ambiguous staring, shouting over each other so no depth or clarity is given, and then moving along to the next plot point. That’s it. I know there’s nothing else to this series and that is the most tragic part of it all. The worst thing a show can do is be boring and I’m sorry to say that everything outside of the familial relationship dynamic bored me.

As sad as it is to say, even the family dynamic being of interest to audiences might be more due to audiences than the show itself. The family plot twist revelation of Lyra’s mother was among the most mundane and dull I’ve ever seen. It could have been written so much smarter, but it seems as if the showrunners didn’t care or the source material may have been at fault. Either way, I didn’t care for how it was revealed. While some may argue that family plot twists such as what this show did are inherently lazy, I disagree and I think something much deeper runs into why it proliferates so much after George Lucas struck gold with Star Wars Episode 5, Empire Strikes Back. It is because audiences can inherently identify with familial relationship dynamics; angry spats, disappointment, grudging respect, and love are all aspects that we ourselves have experienced with our own families. The unfortunate issue is that the TV adaption of His Dark Materials never takes advantage to flesh it out. It’s not enough to keep repeating a specific emotion in short piecemeal bursts throughout a story, the showrunners needed to have a compelling story arc of the interpersonal relationship that follows an understandable sequence. Audiences are pretty open about this; you could have an arc that has a trajectory moving toward a doomed conclusion, give the familial relationship a happy ending, and it’ll tug at enough heart strings that people will be perfectly happy with it. This behavior is also quite understandable since most audiences don’t really look for a reason for why love in a family relationship transcends the logical story sequence. But you still need to have a story sequence or you’re not giving your audience a reason to care beyond vague feelings of a specific emotion – usually sadness – marked off as a checkbox until the story turns to the next segment that has nothing to do with the interpersonal relationship. Love transcending the logical arc of the story still requires the logical arc to exist to keep audiences invested on what will happen next. The reason Arcane on Netflix worked and why RWBY didn’t when it came to the relationship between sisters is because Vi and Powder had a logical sequence with a logical conclusion and RWBY had some vague feelings with nothing probing deeper. Unfortunately, His Dark Materials does the latter with the most compelling and interesting relationship dynamic in its story. It’s not enough to keep me engaged into watching Season 2 because there’s no real story and nothing to be curious about.

The crucial component that made me think of dropping it in the middle of season 1 is that there doesn’t seem to be any wonder or intrigue into a magical adventure or world. I’ve read that this story is essentially the anti-Narnia and I never bothered reading Narnia, so I can’t comment on any comparison with this show and any Narnia show. What I can say is that this adaption of His Dark Materials lacks any mystery or sense of wonder about magic. Daemons seem like more of a liability than anything intriguing. If Mrs. Coulter can just shoot one dead and guns are still the go-to use of force in alternate universe Britain, why doesn’t everyone train their Daemons to be sneakier like the Church enforcer whose Daemon is a snake? There doesn’t seem to be any spells, magical places, or any sense of wonder. I remember reading an article that interviewed a scholar who studied Western fantasy literature who noted that British fantasy fiction was more about a sense of wonder, mystery, and otherworldly magical phenomena that impresses a fun factor that excites children’s minds. By comparison, American fantasy fiction was only ever about moralizing and imposing moral truths that children must learn. So, far from the antagonism against “wokeness” in modern American literature, it seems instead to be a derivative of the patently Christian moralizing of the American fantasy genre in the early 18th – 20th century. If His Dark Materials was about moralizing, then perhaps British entertainment media aren’t able to use their fundamental strengths and show only their weaknesses. The TV adaption of His Dark Materials has nothing of value to say and I honestly think the only reason the Harry Potter films became popular is because the books were so good; everything after Chamber of Secrets / Movie 2 of the Harry Potter film franchise was a disaster. Yet, JK Rowling could balance mystery, wonder, and character depth with sprinkling the moralizing in the latter parts of the story from Order of the Phoenix onwards. His Dark Materials as a TV adaption is just too cowardly to try that. As a result, characters like Roger, the Golden Compass itself, and a litany of other aspects feel more like plot devices to force the narrative forward than compelling reasons to care for the characters or to be intrigued by their respective journeys.

That’s all I can really say for this series. I gave it a chance and while I wanted to support it because of the bigoted, two-faced nature of how a large minority of Westerners support obscuring its material for being “blasphemous” while trumpeting repeatedly about Islam needing to accept free speech; the fact that there have been two adaptions and this second one had the author as a producer yet still seems to be censored might be the final nail in the coffin. Perhaps Great Britain as a civilization is just too cowardly to give the source material any justice. This is despite the infamy that Harry Potter brought over using magic. This series seems to be destined to only ever be a disappointment.

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