His Dark Materials S1E1, the series premiere of the BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman‘s bestselling book trilogy, wastes little time on exposition and instead jumps right into the meat of the story. The episode aired on BBC Sunday and on HBO Monday, introducing fans old and new to a new version of Lyra Belacqua’s (Dafne Keen) Oxford.
To kick off the episode, there is a brief explanation of what this world looks like:
“This story starts in another world. One that is both like, and unlike, your own. Here, a human soul takes the physical form of an animal, known as a daemon. The relationship between human and daemon is sacred. 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. A prophecy of a child with a great destiny. During the Great Flood, this child was brought to Oxford.”
Following this introduction, His Dark Materials S1E1 opens on a helicopter flying over a heavily flooded Oxford. Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) emerges from the helicopter holding a dark-haired child who can’t be more than a few months old; alongside his snow leopard daemon, Stelmaria (Helen McCrory), Asriel wades his way through a courtyard of Jordan College and pounds on the door. When Headmaster Dr. Carne (Clarke Peters) answers, Asriel hands him the child, Lyra, and her daemon, Pantalaimon (Kit Connor).
“I hereby invoke the privilege of scholastic sanctuary,” he declares. When Dr. Carne argues that Jordan College is not suitable for a child, Asriel explains that Lyra is not safe outside of the college, but offers no further explanation before he leaves.
Twelve years later, we see Lyra again. Much to the chagrin of Dr. Carne, the kitchen staff, the cleaning staff, and seemingly every academic at the college, Lyra starts a race with her friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) that takes them through most of the college and ends in the crypts; it’s obvious that they run amuck like this on a regular basis. Roger is not a fan of the crypts, but Lyra seems comfortable enough to crawl into an open stone coffin.
Lyra and Roger talk about some key components of the His Dark Materials world: when humans die, their daemons disappear. Children’s daemons change shape, but when children reach adulthood, their daemons settle into singular forms that they maintain for the rest of their lives. While they discuss what forms they believe their daemons will take (Roger says his will probably be a house cat), Lyra offers up a stolen bottle of wine for them to drink. She takes a drink, spits it out, and the scene transitions to a snowy mountain where Asriel is photographing the Northern Lights.
A storm hits, and Asriel and Stelmaria retreat inside. There, Asriel reveals to a research assistant that he believes he’s gotten what they need to convince Jordan College of his findings. The assistant places Asriel’s photographs on a backlit table, and whatever Asriel sees seems to convince him further. He packs “a friend” (what looks like a big chunk of dirty ice) into an ice chest and says they’ll head south in the morning.
When Asriel arrives at Jordan College, Lyra is in regular lessons with the librarian, Scholar Charles (Ian Gelder); she mostly tunes him out as she scratches her name into her desk alongside previous carvings, while he provides what sounds like religious teachings. When Lyra misquotes him, he warns her that the Magisterium doesn’t approve of blasphemy. She challenges this notion, because Jordan College is protected under scholastic sanctuary; however, as noted by Scholar Charles, said sanctuary is a privilege that can be revoked.
Pantalaimon spots Asriel through the window, and Lyra distracts the librarian by asking him to read her the story about the serpent’s motivations in the Garden of Eden. He turns his back long enough for her to open the classroom door, making him think he’s left, and once he goes into the hallway she locks him out. From there, she jumps out the window and uses the roofs to travel across the college to see her uncle Asriel. As she runs, we see Dr. Carne grab a compass-like device from his desk and seemingly leave his office to greet Asriel. Then, through a window in the Retiring Room, Lyra watches Dr. Carne dump a powdery substance — likely poison — in a decanter full of rare wine meant for Asriel.
Dr. Carne rushes from the room as Asriel enters; he pours himself a glass, but before he can take a sip, Lyra rushes into the Retiring Room (which is expressly forbidden to her) to knock the glass from his hand. Asriel reacts by grabbing her arm and pinning her to a table; she tells him she saw Dr. Carne poison the wine and he lets her go, then knocks the decanter on the floor. It shatters, and Lyra asks why he’d destroy evidence of someone trying to kill him.
Asriel searches the room for a cavernous space large enough to hide Lyra, while he explains that he wants her to spy on Dr. Carne. “Everything he does,” he says, “but particularly whenever Dust is mentioned.” He puts her in a hollow window seat and tells her to be quiet; if she’s found, he tells her she’s on her own. When Dr. Carne enters, Asriel acts as if breaking the decanter was an accident; the scene closes on Dr. Carne’s suspicious expression, then transitions to a point later in the evening.
With several scholars including Dr. Carne and Scholar Charles gathered before a projection screen, Asriel presents his findings from the north. Over the course of the last year, under the guise of a diplomatic mission, Asriel reveals that he actually went to discover what had happened during the renowned scholar Doctor Stanislaus Grumman’s expedition. He shows the scholars two photographs: one taken with a standard silver nitrate emulsion, which shows two figures standing in the snow, and a second taken with a specially-prepared emulsion, which shows the same two figures. In the second photograph, the taller figure appears to be surrounded by light — this, Asriel says, is Dust.
This immediately provokes uproar, but Asriel continues, explaining how the special emulsion allows Dust to appear in a similar way to light particles appearing in a photo taken with a standard emulsion. He notes that the adult in the photo attracts Dust, but the child in the photo does not. Asriel takes this as proof that Dust is exclusively attracted to adults, which the Magisterium has always suspected. His next discovery, he says, is “even more heretical.”
Asriel again shows two photographs: one of the Northern Lights, a supernatural phenomenon Grumman mentioned that occurs only in the north. The second photo is again of the Northern Lights, taken with the special emulsion that showed Dust in the previous photoset. However, the second photo shows a city in the sky, which is invisible to the human eye; Asriel says this is proof of “a myriad of worlds, of which the Magisterium controls only one. A myriad of worlds made visible only through that most distasteful of substances, Dust.”
Dr. Carne tells the scholars to clear the room, as none of them should hear these heretical ideas. On the contrary, Asriel insists, they must hear him; he says he believes that Grumman found evidence of multiple worlds and paid for it with his life, as Asriel found Grumman’s body preserved in the ice. Then he reveals the late doctor’s head, which is what he placed in the ice box earlier. Asriel believes that the Magisterium killed Grumman for his discovery and asks for funding so that he may continue Grumman’s work.
“Gentlemen, there is a war raging right now between those trying to keep us in ignorance and those, like Grumman, willing to fight for the light, to fight for true academic freedom,” Asriel says.
The funding is granted, which we learn when Asriel carries a sleeping Lyra to her bed; to her frustration, he refuses to answer her questions about Dust, but he does tell her not to trust Dr. Carne or anyone else.
Before this exchange, we are introduced to a new group of characters: the Gyptians, a mixed community of tradesmen and seafaring people. We see them gathered to celebrate Ma Costa’s (Anne-Marie Duff) oldest son Tony’s (Daniel Frogson) daemon settling in the form of a hawk. This celebration quickly turns sour when Ma Costa’s youngest son, Billy (Tyler Howitt), is snatched by an unseen kidnapper with a fox daemon.
After Asriel carries Lyra to bed, we see Dr. Carne and the Scholar Charles sat by the fire. Scholar Charles says he’s glad that Asriel didn’t drink the poisoned wine, because the idea of murder didn’t sit well with him; Dr. Carne suggests that this wouldn’t sit well with anyone. He goes on to talk about the importance of Jordan College maintaining scholastic sanctuary and notes that a great change is coming, which will threaten them all. According to the alethiometer — the device he pocketed before going to poison Asriel’s wine — Asriel continuing his research will lead to appalling consequences.
Dr. Carne also reveals that Lyra has a major part to play in whatever is about to happen; he says that she must play her part without knowing what she’s doing. To make things worse, the alethiometer says Lyra must make a journey and commit a great betrayal. Keeping her at Jordan College won’t change anything; “All we can be is scared for her,” Dr. Carne says. “And scared of her.”
In the morning, Lyra learns from Roger, who works in the kitchens and is charged with bringing her breakfast, that Billy Costa is missing. According to Roger, some people describe Billy’s kidnapper as a man with bright eyes; others say he’s a singing man with a fox daemon. Roger says it’s “the Gobblers,” bogiemen that Lyra says don’t exist. Then, Roger reveals that Asriel is packing up to leave in an airship, which sends Lyra bolting from the room. He swore he would take her north with him next time he left Jordan College, and she’s pestered him about it since his arrival yesterday.
Lyra and Roger sprint across the college together; while they make it to the airship before Asriel leaves, he refuses to bring Lyra with him, citing the Magisterium’s inevitable arrival as the reason he’s in such a hurry. He tells Lyra to behave and promises to see her when he comes back; “I am sorry, but I just don’t have time for you right now,” he says. When she argues, he says, “The north is no place for a child.”
At this point, Lyra asks if the airship her parents died in looks like the one Asriel is taking. He tells her it was smaller, and she runs away. Ever the good friend, Roger screams at Asriel that Lyra is special; Asriel’s curt response is, “Everyone is special.”
The scene transitions back to the Gyptians, who are gathering search parties to continue searching for Billy Costa. Farder Coram (James Cosmo) and John Faa (Lucian Msamati) arrive to help and learn from Tony which areas of Oxford have already been searched to no avail. The state police have no interest in tracking down a missing Gyptian child; John Faa says this isn’t surprising and notes that the Gobblers have likely left Oxford by now. Farder Coram reveals that the pair have visited six Gyptian communities who have had children taken in the same way; there’s word the Gobblers are taking the children to London, where it’s easier to hide them. Farder Coram and John Faa give these Gyptians the day to find Billy, and if they are unsuccessful, then everyone will leave for London together.
Briefly, we see Lyra and Roger discussing how she’ll someday join Asriel in the north, and then we meet Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare), who reports Asriel’s heretical claims to the Magisterium. He reveals that Dr. Carne has granted Asriel an enormous amount of money to continue his work in the north, despite the risk such claims pose to the college’s scholastic sanctuary. Father Macphail (Will Keen) says he will report this information to the Cardinal and commands Boreal to learn as much as he can about where Asriel is going and what he intends to achieve, by any means necessary. He asks that Boreal not reveal these details to “any of our mutual friends,” and adds, “That includes her.”
This line introduces Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), whose daemon is a golden monkey. We see her join Jordan College for dinner, where Dr. Carne introduces her to Lyra. Mrs. Coulter immediately situates herself as needing Lyra to make it through dinner, insisting that she has no idea which fork to use. Lyra seems surprised that a female scholar would dress like Mrs. Coulter, and Mrs. Coulter says she’s not really a scholar; then she asks Lyra to talk about herself and reveals that she knows Lyra uses the roofs of Jordan College as her private thoroughfare. This surprises Lyra, who is immediately smitten.
After dinner, Lyra’s interest is piqued further when Mrs. Coulter notes that she sometimes runs into Lord Asriel at the Arctic Institute. Upon learning that she’s an explorer, Lyra comes to life. “Where the north is concerned, you could never bore me,” she reveals. The pair retreat to Mrs. Coulter’s room, where she asks Lyra if she’d be interested in becoming her assistant. Lyra agrees, with one caveat: she wants Roger to come with them to London when they leave the following morning. Mrs. Coulter says Roger can come, which prompts Lyra to give her a big hug.
Pantalaimon privately warns Lyra that Roger might not want to leave Jordan College, but that concern proves moot when Roger is kidnapped by the same shadowy figure with the fox daemon, right inside the halls of Jordan College. Scholar Charles retrieves Lyra from her bedroom the next morning and brings her to Dr. Carne’s office, where he reveals that he arranged her new living arrangement with Mrs. Coulter himself.
Then, Dr. Carne presents Lyra with the alethiometer, which he says will tell her the truth once she works out how to read it. He makes her promise to keep it private, as only six alethiometers were ever made and they are strictly illegal unless approved by the Magisterium; Lord Asriel brought this one to Jordan College when Lyra was just a baby, and it’s clear that the Magisterium is unaware of it. Insisting she doesn’t want secrets and that her uncle wouldn’t want her to have the alethiometer anyway, Lyra attempts to refuse the device. Dr. Carne and Scholar Charles insist that she take it, in the hopes that it might provide her some protection.
When she leaves with the alethiometer, Dr. Carne warns her, “Keep your own counsel. Not a word to anyone, not even Mrs. Coulter.”
At Pantalaimon’s urging, Lyra searches the college for Roger, but no one has seen him. Lyra’s daemon worries aloud that Roger may have been snatched by the Gobblers. Then we see Farder Coram, John Faa, Ma Costa, and Tony leading the Gyptians in their boats to London, even as Ma Costa worries that Billy is simply lost; John Faa reiterates that the Gobblers have grabbed 16 Gyptian children, and insists that they go to London before it’s too late to get them back.
Unable to find Roger, Lyra goes to meet Mrs. Coulter and expresses her growing concern that he may have been snatched like Billy Costa. Mrs. Coulter says the Gobblers could be real, and that if they are, they’re sure to have taken Billy to London. Once she and Lyra arrive in the city, Mrs. Coulter swears she’ll use her considerable resources to find Roger and promises that she’ll succeed.
As a last-ditch attempt to find Roger herself, Lyra consults the alethiometer. She doesn’t know how to use it, though, and she realizes that Mrs. Coulter is her best shot at getting her friend back. So, she chases down the airship and boards it at the last minute; Mrs. Coulter tells her not to talk about Roger’s disappearance in a public space and asks her for quiet. When Lyra touches the alethiometer in her pocket, Mrs. Coulter’s daemon watches curiously.
Through the window, Lyra watches the Gyptians boat down the river toward London. The final image of His Dark Materials S1E1 is Roger, trapped in the back of what looks like a black van, begging for release.