His Dark Materials: Season 1 – Episode 5 ‘The Lost Boy’ REVIEW

Murphy's law dictates anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Could be worse, though - it could all go wrong at once.

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Just as every horror film obliges you to spend twenty minutes with a pack of idiots before they start getting offed violently, the hero’s journey needs to spend a bit of time warming itself up. First comes the state of normality, showing us what it is they’re fighting for, then the refusal of the call, the umming and ahhing over whether they even should be going off on this journey – and only then can things start in earnest. This is what last week’s episode was about, taking that first great step into the main action – and then ‘The Lost Boy’s gone and fallen flat on its face.

His Dark Materials’ decision to bring in elements of The Subtle Knife well before time is feeling more and more like a misstep. Introducing Will five episodes in carries the serious risk of leaving his plotline treading water for the back half of this season until he can finally link up with the main narrative.

Given that, my next point may feel somewhat backwards – but the other issue is that we’ve only come to meet Will through his existing connections to the main narrative. In the books, the fact it was his dad up in the Arctic stumbling about between worlds wasn’t revealed until much, much later, at the very least until long after we’d met him. So to foreground that feels dangerously like they didn’t trust Will’s character to be able to hold the audience’s interest, or sympathy, on his own.

Those existing connections, of course, come mainly via the Magisterium, thin gruel as villains go, particularly compared to Ruth Wilson’s far livelier Mrs Coulter. Even Lord Boreal, clearly the most robust of the bunch, and his barely-affable oiliness aren’t much competition in that regard. Admittedly, having him and his goons crawling around adds a certain Cassandra-ish element to Will’s mother’s severe anxiety (which is acted very well, and full credit to Nina Sosanya there) but hasn’t added anything material beyond dragging Will into the narrative before time, which seems at best of questionable value.

Even if you discount any issues with the chronology, and how the show’s eagerness to get to grips with elements of The Subtle Knife has negated there being any mystery to the city in the sky (which is already a big if), having another plotline rattling on alongside Lyra’s will, by definition, mean that both don’t get as much screentime. The show’s already been hurrying to cram everything in, so having less time in which to do that surely can’t help.

The actual flicking between universes, it must be said, isn’t as jarring or schizophrenic as it could easily have been. Things are a mite more fantastical on Lyra’s side of the divide, as you might expect, but both sides are dealing with the same sorts of adult fears, and thematically, both are circling ever closer to particularly painful truths. This, again, is the innocence/experience dichotomy rearing its two-faced head, and appropriately ‘The Lost Boy’ sees the first reference to Lyra being on the cusp of adolescence.

Yet Lyra’s storyline in ‘The Lost Boy’ falls down in much the same way as Will’s, in that it’s relying very heavily on an aspect that the show’s been fairly weak in portraying – in this case, the recurrent issues with the dæmons. I think I’ve said before that this is partly a fault of circumstance, since every second a dæmon’s onscreen represents another couple of noughts in the visual effects budget. Nonetheless, having Iorek Byrnisson come so much to the fore while Pantalaimon’s nowhere to be seen gives him the air of being nothing more than a replacement animal companion – particularly as Pantalaimon tends toward being white-furred arctic beasts anyway.

But this can’t explain the main issue with ‘The Lost Boy’, where it’s precisely someone’s lack of dæmon that’s a plot point. It does, admittedly, play into it in a big way. The dæmons have tended to be so underplayed that several characters have to say out loud “where’s their dæmon?” for the loss to be apparent. This expository approach only serves to undercut the tense moments leading up to it, and what should have been the incredibly traumatic moment of the actual discovery – not least because having it explained feels as if the show patronisingly doesn’t trust that we’ll get it.

Even this wouldn’t be so bad if we then saw what losing their dæmon has inflicted on the hapless victim, but this, too, is largely told rather than shown – mainly through some over-simplified dialogue which equates daemons with souls. This can’t help but stop them from carrying any real interest or mystery. What exactly are dæmons? They have an intrinsic, borderline magic connection to people, but they’re thinking beings of their own, clearly there’s no word that quite describes that – except no, they’re souls, we’re saying out loud they’re souls, welcome to a rich fantasy world.

(Again, as with the city in the sky, something which should carry a fair bit of wonder about it is punctured as soon as possible.)

In a broader sense, the way the show deals with daemons seems not just confused, but at odds with itself. The narrative insists on their importance while the format renders them an afterthought. As such, what we actually get, in what should have been a moment of real tragedy, is instead the cast standing around reacting to something that barely seems there. And again, here’s something that they could easily have fleshed out a great deal better had they had more time and not been busy jumping the gun on the second book.

Sad to say, this isn’t a matter of the show erring, and ‘The Lost Boy’ presenting us mistakes which could be corrected in isolation. It could have been done better, but even if it had, the groundwork simply hasn’t been laid for what they were trying to do. Which is a particular shame for a project like this. Like the D-Day Landings, it enjoyed the not inconsiderable advantage of an earlier, failed attempt showing them exactly how not to do it. Admittedly, like most TV shows, this wasn’t quite as eagerly anticipated as the D-Day landings, but still, the fans who’ve been patiently waiting are going to be disappointed.

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his dark materials the lost boy dafne keen
No adaptation's going to be a 1-to-1 perfect replica of the original. But here the existing fault lines have split wide open.