His Dark Materials 1.7 review: The Fight to the Death

As we race towards the first season finale of His Dark Materials, the series reaches quite possibly the most challenging sequence of events from Philip Pullman‘s first novel: the fight between ice bears Iorek Byrnison and Iofeur Raknison. Naturally, BBC One wanted to keep fans waiting and, for whatever reason, delayed the episode’s start-time until 9pm and then another 10-15 minutes whilst Sports Personality of the Year dragged on. Future note BBC: when airing a family fantasy drama, 9:15pm on a Sunday is perhaps not the best time for your target audience, and making them wait well past the advertised time-slot is even worse. Apparently (and thankfully) the season finale will air at the much more reasonable time of 8pm next Sunday, so moving on… 

The Fight to the Death was certainly worth the wait, making for yet another strong outing for the series. It has its issues, as I’ll come to, but its great to see the show’s momentum build towards its game-changing finale next week. We finally get to visit Svalbard, and meet the bears, and…there’s naturally not as much as we’d like to see. None of the bears other than Iorek and Iofeur are given much in the way of character, and ultimately felt like expensive CGI set-dressing, but this has to be expected with a show on a BBC budget. The bears all looked very impressive though and the episode managed to sustain its bear scenes very well without the effects looking cartoon-ish or fake. Iorek and Iofeur offer a surprising amount of expression and their fight sequence was extremely impressive…even if we didn’t actually see the final blow.

Iorek winning the fight was rather mishandled, and I imagine for non-book-fans, the moment was completely lost. His victory was never really highlighted and whilst I understand the reasoning for keeping Iofeur’s violent death off-screen, there were a few moments of confusion before it became clear that Iorek has indeed won the fight. Perhaps this ambiguity was intentional but I felt that it should have been more of a moment, especially when considering how invested we are in his journey so far.

Speaking of thing unseen, Pantalaimon appeared in two scenes in the entire episode and after that completely disappeared. For a show where the relationship between human and Daemon is so special, and in an episode about Lyra manipulating Iofeur Raknison for his desire for a Daemon of his own, we saw virtually nothing of Lyra and her Daemon interacting. I understand that the visual effects budget needs to be cut-off somewhere but a character as crucial to the story should never be absent for so long, if at all. Make him a moth, stick him on Lyra’s shoulder, or have him poke out of Lyra’s coat at every available opportunity, just don’t have him off-screen for this long, as it undercuts that whole relationship and it stops people from getting invested. Roger’s Daemon, Salcilia, was completely absent as well, which is perhaps slightly less frustrating but frustrating nonetheless. At least we got to see Lord Asriel’s Daemon, Stelmaria, in the crucial closing moments of the episode.

Anyway, with that mini-rant over (I apologise), we do get to see more from Will’s world, with events there finally reaching the key stages. Screenwriter Jack Thorne has finally tied his original elements in with the introductory chapters from Philip Pullman’s second novel, The Subtle Knife, which is starting to make the at-first unnecessary plot-thread feel more satisfying. There’s also more of Mrs. Coulter manipulating the Magisterium for her own ends (another delightful turn from Ruth Wilson), and Serafina Pekkala encourages Lee Scoresby to continue the fight in Lyra’s name. As the episode drew to a close though, Lyra finally returned to her father, Lord Asriel – who seems rather pleased to see Roger…

The Fight to the Death is a flawed, but nevertheless strong penultimate instalment in His Dark Materials‘ first season. It’s a pity that we’re still not getting nearly enough focus on the Daemons, but hopefully we’ll get to see this rectified in future. It’s a very impressive episode, boasting a terrific bear fight, Dafne Keen continues to be a revelation as Lyra, and the stage is set for the all-important finale, titled Betrayal.

His Dark Materials continues on BBC One next week, to catch up on our HDM Blog so far, head here!



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