Lyra Belacqua is, by nature, a curious person. This makes her perfectly suited for the shrouded-in-mystery “His Dark Materials” universe she lives in, but also puts her in a never-ending series of dangerous situations. At twelve years old, her entire life has been spent under the guardianship of the Master at Jordan College. Her only relation is an enigmatic uncle named Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) who flits in and out of her life with reckless abandon between secret, potentially heretical experiments in the North. Knowledge is jealously guarded by the Magisterium, a theological organization with a stranglehold on society and strict control over which avenues of academic exploration are allowed and which are forbidden.
When Lyra’s best friend Roger suddenly disappears, she refuses to give up the hunt to find him, even when she’s offered a permanent home with image-obsessed socialite Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), who seems to have ulterior motives. Together, Lyra and her daemon Pan (in this world, humans have a deeply bonded animal companion that is an extension of their very soul) try to uncover clues to help them find Roger and the rest of the missing children, of which there are surprisingly many. But what they discover threatens to expose the darkest secrets of their world, and puts them both in imminent danger.
Based on the young adult book series by Philip Pullman, HBO’s fantasy epic has a lot of world to introduce in a short amount of time. Many viewers may be familiar with either the book series or its ill-fated film adaptation, “The Golden Compass,” but for everyone else, the success of the narrative hinges on how quickly it can bring them up to speed.
The natural pace of a miniseries seems perfectly suited to allow for both world-building and plot development. Indeed, this might be the perfect format for the YA fantasy epic to deal with its often egregious pacing issues. It may end up that these franchises use this as a model, abandoning the two-part film adaptation that has been in fashion since “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and giving its narrative precious extra hours to breathe.
Still, at times it feels as though “His Dark Materials” plays some of its secrets a little too close to the chest, plodding through a storyline without enough revelatory moments to keep us truly engaged. Perhaps it assumes a background knowledge of the material on the part of the audience, dropping bits of foreshadowing that will be clear for viewers already familiar with the book. At any rate, there are certain revelations and plot points that are introduced without fanfare and seemingly abandoned to be addressed later in the series. But at a certain point, almost every plot element is left to be dealt with later, and we’re stuck treading water, waiting for things to be explained without the narrative thrust to keep us interested in the meantime.
Despite this, the best and most compelling reason to stay tuned into “His Dark Materials” is the lead performance from Dafne Keen as Lyra, who audiences may recognize from stealing the show from Hugh Jackman in “Logan.” She’s the perfect choice to anchor “His Dark Materials,” her wild-eyed intensity breathing life into the character who always feels like a bit of an outcast wherever she goes, but nevertheless grows into a leader. Keen is expected to carry the narrative more or less single-handedly, spending many of her scenes alone or in the company of just a CGI animal. She has the command and screen presence of an actor twice her age, and keeps our attention long after the narrative has stopped earning it.
There’s plenty to recommend about “His Dark Materials,” a fantasy epic that yields greater results the further you get into it. It has a big enough imagination to fill a handful of HBO limited series.