His Dark Materials: Season 1 – Episode 3 ‘The Spies’ REVIEW

Just because there's spies knocking about doesn't mean they're the ones making all the discoveries.

Programme Name: His Dark Materials - TX: n/a - Episode: The Spies (No. 3) - Picture Shows: Farder Coram (JAMES COSMO), Lyra Belacqua (DAFNE KEEN) - (C) Bad Wolf - Photographer: screen grab

‘The Spies’ sees Lyra being taken in by the Gyptians, and it’s something of a double-edged sword. As nice as it is to see her have a family of sorts, it can’t help but feel like the show’s spinning its wheels for a bit before advancing the narrative again. I forget exactly what stage in the traditional hero’s journey setup corresponds to ‘chilling out in Rivendell for a bit’, but that’s the one we’re on.

Of course, the whole fairy-tale aspect of Lyra coming to live amongst this different culture and learning their ways, alongside learning the hidden truth of her parentage (usually the orphan girl in question turns out to be a secret princess or something, but there’s really only a difference of degree), has to be contrasted with the grimmer meathook realities of the Gyptians’ war with the Gobblers. It’s a brave show that’ll have its ostensible good guys conducting, shall we say, ‘enhanced interrogation’.

This is actually done as tastefully as torture possibly can be. We don’t see – well, much of anything, let alone anyone actually landing a blow or twisting an arm, it’s a pre-watershed show after all. Nonetheless, it’s clear they haven’t invited the guy down to a locked room for afternoon tea. And, just to complete the whole portrait of moral greyness, we later have an antagonist echoing the same words in a similar situation.

Naturally, this is yet another of those pieces of ugliness that any adults present are very hesitant about exposing Lyra to – and equally naturally, this is really starting to stick in her craw. This isn’t just about the grisly mechanics and necessities of conflict, or even about her shadowy family history, once again it’s the whole dichotomy of innocence vs. experience.

So if there’s any one thing that undercuts Lyra’s relatively happy new life with the Gyptians, it’s this – they too, like all her would-be guardians and surrogate parents, are keeping important truths from her. They’re doing so with the best intentions in the world, perhaps, but that isn’t the kind of defence you can rely on in court.

In education, you have the idea of lies-to-children. This refers to telling children simple lies, on the basis that they – supposedly – wouldn’t understand the more complicated truth. In the hard sciences, this is mainly used in explaining the precise structure of atoms. Elsewhere – well, what else would you call it when people tell their children that if they behave immorally, they won’t get any Christmas presents?

So it’s perhaps appropriate that it’s in the face of being denied the truth from all other sources that Lyra finally gets the Alethiometer to start working. And, in true loss-of-innocence style, the first bit of truth it communicates to her is incredibly bad news. This, of course, is the tragedy of the whole affair. Gaining experience is rarely pleasant, this is why those who have can seem so hell-bent on preventing others from doing so.

The Alethiometer itself, when it comes into play, is filmed in much the same way as you’d expect some grand CGI spectacle to be presented, sort of like a hand-held Minas Tirith. It looms very, very large – I’d been worried the show would have some difficulty in adapting something with so much inherent interiority to it for the screen, but the sheer grandiosity ‘The Spies’ gives it turns out to be a very good substitute.

It shares the spotlight here with Dafne Keen, of course. She did fascinated wonder very well in the previous episode, against a backdrop of fancy-dan high-end London architecture, but here pulls it off just as well looking straight down the camera in the bottom of a canal boat, which is really the more impressive feat. Crucially, too, this seems like a sustainable approach – because, spoiler alert, this isn’t the only time it’s going to come up.

Elsewhere, in a certain parallel reality, we appear to be getting very close to seeing actual material from The Subtle Knife, just three episodes in. Given that each season was meant to cover one of the books, trying to do two at once seems like a recipe for trouble. On the other hand, though, the third was a much weightier tome, so perhaps in the process of sketching out how events got divvied up, this became necessary.

While that side of things remains to be seen, what’s – sadly – already evident is that this somewhat undercuts a lot of the mystery of the first episode. Oh wow, there’s a city in the sky, is it Rapture? Is it Narnia? No, it’s our boring old universe, where people don’t have dæmons and cars get clamped. This is the other thing about the loss of innocence – if the truth isn’t horrifying, then very often it’ll be tawdry. If you’re very unlucky it’ll be both.

The original books followed Lyra more directly. She was the main character, after all, and that hasn’t changed despite all these digressions. Rather than stealing the main plotline’s thunder, they seem a lot more in the way of filling things in around the edges. The jaunts over to our universe are, as I’ve said, mainly just hinting towards bits of The Subtle Knife ahead of time. And the glimpses we’ve had inside the Magisterium aren’t even that – without enough material to get into any real plotting and intrigue, all we know is that they’re The Bad Guys Who Are Bad.

It’s sticking with Mrs. Coulter, though, that really adds something. Ruth Wilson gives the role all the prim villainy that’s required, but also adds a pleasingly mental edge. And sometimes this is accomplished simply by her lounging in that fabulous art deco apartment, looking as if she’s two bottles of wine and three plans for world domination deep. Which sort of sums up ‘The Spies’ as a whole, really – even when there’s little to nothing happening, it can still hold your attention.

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Programme Name: His Dark Materials - TX: n/a - Episode: The Spies (No. 3) - Picture Shows: Farder Coram (JAMES COSMO), Lyra Belacqua (DAFNE KEEN) - (C) Bad Wolf - Photographer: screen grab
His Dark Materials steers nobly through the doldrums of the tricky third episode.