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‘His Dark Materials’ episode 4 review: unexplained plot and patchy CGI make for the weakest episode so far

Texan aeronauts and ferocious polar bears do battle in the icy northern tundra.

Up ’til now, His Dark Materials biggest talking points have been about the subtle plot tweaks made to Philip Pullman’s epic narrative. From mixing up the timeline to playing out previously unseen moments, HBO and the BBC have snuck more than a few surprises into this highly-enjoyable TV adaptation of Philip Pullman’s book series. This week, however, the story focused on what fans already know – and introduced some of the source material’s best-loved characters.

When last we saw Lyra, she’d just learnt that sinister Church official Mrs Coulter was her mother. Understandably upset, the gifted youngster took solace and comfort in her newfound home with the Gyptians. Together, they continued on their journey north to Trollesund (Lapland’s main port), in search of the missing children and their captors, the Gobblers (General Oblation Board). 

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Episode four, ‘Armour’, sees them finally reach the icy port town and learn of a mysterious outpost called ‘The Fields of Evil’. It’s a sinister name for an even more sinister place. There, they learned, the Gobblers conduct terrible experiments on their innocent subjects – experiments none of local townspeople will speak of. Lyra and her elderly minder, Farder Coram, spend most of this week’s outing trekking around the chilly settlement in search of answers.

Along the way, they bump into some familiar faces. Lee Scoresby (Lin Manuel Miranda) is a peppy aeronaut from Texas and one of Pullman’s most memorable characters. His favourite pastimes include scrapping in bars and singing old folk songs 10,000 feet up in his battered hot air balloon. Played with a mid-Western twang and a roguish wink, Miranda’s take on the steampunk-inspired pirate brings some much-needed levity to a series that can take itself too seriously at times. 

His Dark Materials episode 4
James Cosmo as Fader Coram in ‘His Dark Materials’. Credit: HBO / BBC

As it happens, Scoresby and Lyra end up looking for the same thing – a vicious, bad-tempered polar bear. Iorek Byrnison, as fans will know, used to be the king of the Panserbjørn (a species of sapient bears whose power lies in their golden armour). Laid low by a rival, the fierce carnivore was banished from his home on Svalbard and forced to work for the residents of Trollesund, who stole his armour and hid it from him. Lyra, along with Scoresby (a longtime friend of Iorek), wishes to free the bear and take him north to combat the Gobblers’ strong military defence. Their efforts culminate in a thrilling action finale that features some of the best special effects you’ll see on TV.

Fortunately, this week’s ending is a spectacular one, because the rest of the episode is fairly forgettable. Stuck in the frozen streets of Trollesund, our protagonists ricochet from one confusing set piece to another. Comedian Omid Djalili makes a strangely-muted cameo as a well-connected doctor – and it’s made clear he knows something important about Lyra’s future. But what that is isn’t explained, so this dialogue-heavy section ends up confusing rather than intriguing.

Meanwhile, the Gyptians receive a tip-off from the daemon of a witch queen, who reveals what enemies they’ll face at Bolvangar (the witches name for the Gobblers’ base). Now, this scene might delight a super fan who’s read all of the books, but for everyone else, it plays out as a bizarre conversation between a tiny bird and an old, beardy bloke. To top things off, it’s clear most of the CGI budget went on Iorek Byrinson, because Kaisa (the gyrfalcon daemon) looks like he was rendered from a battered old floppy disk.

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It’s nitpicking, you could argue, but His Dark Materials has set itself lofty standards since it debuted last month. 2007’s The Golden Compass was a toothless adaptation of Pullman’s rich and complex fantasy series, so fans were rightly worried about another adaptation – but they’ve been pleasantly surprised so far. His Dark Materials is indeed a magnificent retelling of a modern classic, but episode four is its weakest outing so far.

‘His Dark Materials’ airs on BBC One every Sunday at 8pm

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