His Dark Materials season three on BBC iPlayer: a stupendous feat of imagination

This review takes in the whole of season three and contains some spoilers

It took all of five minutes into season three of His Dark Materials for me to feel a shiver travel down my spine. As the music swells, the camera pans from Lyra’s Oxford, to the deserted city of Cittàgazze (where we spent much of season two), through to the deserted island where Lyra is being held hostage by her mother, Mrs Coulter - cutting to Will’s shouts as he realises his friend is missing.

It’s a visual reminder of how far we’ve come in six years. And just like that - after a two-year break - I was reinvested.

The journey to making this series feels so stupendous that it’s quite easy to forget how much work has gone into polishing every facet and making it shine. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was billed as the unfilmable series – both due to the world-hopping, daemon-inclusive nature of the text, but also because of its uncompromising and critical position on religion.

Here, Bad Wolf studios have embraced both elements and even – if possible – improved on the original.

Magnetic and brittle: Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter (Bad Wolf/BBC/HBO)
Magnetic and brittle: Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter (Bad Wolf/BBC/HBO)

We kick off season three (adapted from The Amber Spyglass) in dire straits. Lyra (Dafne Keen) has been abducted by her mother, who is keeping her in a drugged slumber in a cottage at the edge of the world. The aim is to keep her safe from the sinister forces of the Magisterium, who seem to believe that she is a new ‘Eve’ (yes, the Biblical one) and want to kill her before she reintroduces sin to the world, though how she’s supposed to do so (and where it went in the first place) is anyone’s guess, including hers. Will (Amir Wilson) - still grieving his father, who was killed in front of him and died in his arms in the season two finale - is hunting his missing friend.

And on top of that, the gung-ho Lord Asriel, Lyra’s mercurial father, has plans of his own.

Whereas Pullman kept the focus on Will and Lyra, the series wisely widens the lens, giving us a glimpse into Asriel’s army-building operation as he seeks to build his Republic on Earth - in opposition to the oppressive Magisterium - and prepping us for the inevitably apocalyptic scenes at the end of the show: a fight that Will, as the bearer of the Subtle Knife, which can open doors between worlds, is being pressured to join.

For people who are unsure or can’t quite remember what that means, basically Asriel is looking to build a rebellion capable of bringing down God (that’s the God, with a capital G), who he sees as the ultimate oppressor, and is willing to sacrifice everything to make that happen. And what a treat to see James McAvoy as Asriel strut around like a man possessed – even more so to see him face off against his former lover, Mrs Coulter, played with magnetic brittleness by Ruth Wilson.

But of course this is also Will and Lyra’s story, and both Amir Wilson and Dafne Keen act their socks off to sell us a story that could easily veer into hammy and forced.

The series takes advantage of its lead actors’ new maturity (there was a two-year break between filming series two and three - Wilson is now 18 and Keen 17) to explore the changing relationship between Will and Lyra – as well as put distance between the show and the controversy around the books’ underage romance.

Their relationship is all about subtext: holding hands at night after Lyra’s rescue, or exchanging smiles as they head off on yet another dangerous mission. But this is just about all the show has time for, really, considering everything else that goes on over the course of a tight six episodes.

HDM hurtles forwards like a runaway train, packing hundreds of pages into a condensed runtime, and it shows.

Creepy: The land of the dead (Bad Wolf/BBC/HBO)
Creepy: The land of the dead (Bad Wolf/BBC/HBO)

Barely a second is wasted (kudos to writer Jack Thorne on wrangling about five plot threads into a cohesive narrative), which means that sometimes it can be a struggle to keep up as the show dashes between Asriel’s camp, the Magisterium’s offices in Geneva, Commander Ogunwe’s homeland – the head of Asriel’s forces has also been given a fleshed-out backstory – and the Land of the actual Dead, where Will and Lyra head after her rescue.

Oh, and Mary Malone (whom we last saw consorting with seedpod-riding elephants, aka the mulefa, whose evolutionary journey within their own world is a stupendous feat of imagination in itself) pops up again too with a crucial role to play: it’s a series so stuffed you almost feel it would have been better to split it in two, Harry Potter-style.

That said, all of the extraordinary sets have been lovingly rendered on a budget a fraction of the size of many major shows – the Land of the Dead feels especially haunting, with a heavy sepia filter and swirling sand - and the daemons look better than ever, as do the angels, who are reimagined as semi-transparent creatures of Dust.

And is the ending as heartbreaking as it is in the books? In a word: yes. It’s a fitting end to a fantastic series; here’s hoping we see Lyra and Will again in the near future.

His Dark Materials Series 3 is on iPlayer; episode one will stream on BBC One on December 18 with other episodes following weekly