His Dark Materials: Season 1 – Episode 4 ‘Armour’ REVIEW

Freed from the stifling atmosphere of not-quite-Britain, Lyra makes some new friends.

his dark materials armour

The recurring problem with adapting books for the screen is one of volume – you simply can’t transmit as much information in the same space, or at the very least not in the same way. What suffers first is inner monologue, which simply can’t be done without recourse to the dreaded voiceover.

The biggest issue, though, is that a great many things have to be told, rather than shown. If these categories are sounding vaguely familiar, it’s because the old axiom of good writing is ‘show, don’t tell’. This isn’t as hard and fast a rule as usually thought – some things, even with the benefits of words on a page, by definition cannot be shown –

Until now, we’ve always been told Lyra is important – but now that we’re seeing her assume a bit of power, and taking the lead, it’s paradoxically created a bit more wiggle room for other characters to have a bit more room to breathe within her storyline. ‘Armour’ introduces a couple of the big ones, but this also applies to those we’ve already met. For instance, it’s only now that Farder Coram gets some backstory of his own, rather than being Lyra’s personal wise old man. What’s more, it’s not just navel-gazing colour stuff, it gives further depth to the storyline at hand.

Lin-Manuel Miranda does very well out of this as Lee Scoresby. Not least because of the episode’s setting – Trollesund may be on a frozen northern fjord, but it’s also pure frontier town. In fact, it looks ramshackle enough to go beyond simply ‘frontier’ and edge into ‘wreckage of some awful natural disaster’, sort of like the Borderlands games, which did themselves have plenty of the Wild West about them. We are definitely out of the cosy environs of slightly fictionalised Oxford and its plush drawing rooms. Plus, given we’ve already seen a lot of travel in the Materiverse is by zeppelin, then having roguish one-man ballooners wandering the skies is the natural next step, and they’ve also had the sense to give the practice a wicked-cool name like ‘aeronaut’ rather than my slightly flaccid and greasy ‘ballooner’.

Straight out of the gate, Lee Scoresby has the advantage of his dæmon, Hester, chiming in as well. This not only makes the exposition he rattles off when he’s introduced go down a lot smoother, but also gives him some tentative protagonist credentials, since the only other dæmon we’ve seen be able to speak convincingly in its own defence is Pantalaimon himself.

He’s also got too many of the same traits as the Coen Brothers’ Buster Scruggs to be entirely a coincidence. By this I mainly mean he’s introduced singing and quickly gets into a cartoonish tavern brawl, which, admittedly, could apply to a supermajority of screen cowboys, but I bring up The Ballad of Buster Scruggs here for a reason. The summer of Scruggs proved nothing so much as the simple fact that audiences like their cowboys campy, larger-than-life, and slightly silly, and this version of Scoresby is all of those things.

It must be said that Miranda’s Scoresby has plenty of cowboy in him, but alongside that is just as much cheeky chappie – although it occurs to me now that these kind of good-natured, legally gray personae are mainly different in terms of setting. At about the point he enters a city, he removes his cowboy hat and replaces it with that of the cheeky chappie. By this logic, then, take your traditional loveable cockney out of the East End, stick a stetson on him, and you’d have yourself a workable cowpoke. Like 99.5% of the general population (and 99% of critics) I haven’t seen Hamilton, but if this is what Miranda’s done to the Founding Fathers I’m sold.

Iorek Byrnison, however, is – and I hate to say it – a bit of a disappointment. This is for purely subjective reasons, he ticks all the right boxes, but the show’s digital effects artists (presumably working round the clock already) lean too heavily on the ‘bear’ part of ‘armoured bear’. Which is a particular shame in an episode called ‘Armour’. We first meet Iorek when he’s brought low by the booze and working the forge for beer money, so it’s surprising that we don’t actually see him, you know, working the forge.

Instead he spends too much of ‘Armour’ lumbering about like an escaped effect from the arctic episode of Walking With Beasts, which in terms of CGI mastery is far from a criticism, but in a rich fantasy world leaves something to be desired. It’s possible that to see it done the other way would seem a bit too anthropomorphised and Winnie-the-Poohish, but still, it seems a little off.

Anthropomorphication, of course, is very much the issue in play with his bitter rival Iofur Raknison, who’s following his own Disneyish idea of wanting to become more like a man (‘I wanna be like you-oo-oo’, etc). By ‘Disneyish’, what I mean is ‘much older works that Disney redid and now claim the copyright on’. To give them due credit, they’re fine hands at the actual presentation of those works, and that dimly lit cave where we meet Iofur is the kind of thing Disney’s better villains would be proud to grace, but up against a work like this, juggling bits and pieces from the entire Western canon (so rare to see that term used this accurately) there’s no comparison.

With this fairly packed bill, there’s another major figure who, though referred to a lot in ‘Armour’, doesn’t yet appear. Though they are tantalisingly close to the surface throughout, both through the references made to them and through their dæmon turning up. Here I might again cite the sheer mass of source material, and the harsh decisions that have to be made in adapting it, even for the more languorous HBO-style hour-long-episodes. But this doesn’t feel so much like the episode’s crammed too full – rather, that there’s still mysteries left to explore.

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his dark materials armour
'Armour' clads Lyra with some properly colourful figures for her hero's journey - which is by now thoroughly underway.