With a story that spans multiple universes, a huge ensemble of characters and complex plot-lines, it’s easy for His Dark Materials to get lost under the weight of its own ambition. Philip Pullman‘s novels are nothing like Harry Potter in their approach to fantasy fiction, and are by no means easy to adapt to the big or small screen. If last week’s opening episode The City of Magpies felt like it had too much on its plate, The Cave is much more focused in its approach, allowing its story to breathe over the course of fifty minutes.
Lyra’s journey through Will’s world was lovely to watch on screen, with Dafne Keen as likable as ever in the leading role. Poor Pan had to hide in a backpack for most of the episode, but at least this made narrative sense – and he didn’t feel entirely absent throughout the episode. Shooting in Oxford was definitely a smart choice for the production, allowing us to spend time in what felt like a real place, as opposed to a generic cityscape in Wales. It’s a shame that we never really got to explore Lyra’s Oxford last season, instead being confined to Jordan College, as seeing Lyra run around this alternate version of Oxford gave the story more scope, and helped the location feel more alive.
It’s at St Peter’s College where Lyra meets Mary Malone, a scientist looking into shadow particles – which Lyra deduces is actually Dust. Unlike earlier episodes where Dust felt like an abstract concept the series didn’t quite know how to handle, in The Cave there seemed to be a much firmer grasp on the mystery of Dust, allowing us to understand its connection to the characters, and particularly to the Alethiometer. Lyra is able to communicate with the shadow particles through the symbols on the Alethiometer, which is a nice touch – even if the audience can’t understand the symbols themselves. Simone Kirby makes a very endearing first impression as Mary Malone, bringing a warm presence to her scenes with Dafne Keen, and she feels very much like the character from the novel.
Will’s storyline was a surprising addition to the episode, with him meeting his grandparents – although I’m not sure what it contributes to the larger story. Amir Wilson gets a good chance to develop his performance as Will, but beyond answering the question “what about Will’s other family members?”, in hindsight this story beat comes across more as padding; a B-plot for Will to explore this week. On the other hand, it does re-establish Lord Boreal’s (Ariyon Bakare) presence on Will’s world, which was set-up last season, so it doesn’t feel entirely pointless. I am unsure as to why Will doesn’t just meet with his mother (Nina Sosanya), given how close he gets to text her, but I suppose that’s more dramatic.
Meanwhile in Lyra’s world, the Magisterium struggle with the loss of their senior Cardinal, and thus elect a guilt-ridden Father McPhail (Will Keen) to the office. The scenes within the Magisterium did help to build the world of His Dark Materials better than in the show’s first season – and as a fan, one can’t help but wonder if certain expository lines have been given more emphasis to set-up story beats for the sequel series The Book of Dust – but I did note the show’s presentation of the Magisterium as more of a totalitarian, Nazi-like regime, rather than emphasising the religious angle (which over the years has drawn much controversy around the books). It’s a small thing, but it doesn’t feel too out-of-place. Bringing back the witches’ Consul Dr Lanselius (Omid Djalili) from last season was a nice touch, and contributed nicely to the world-building, but alas the Magisterium seem determined to start a war with the witches.
Thus, they attack the witches in a sequence with some very dramatic music (courtesy of series composer Lorne Balfe), some terrific cinematography and the overall sense that it might have held more dramatic weight if we’d actually explored the the witches in Lyra’s world more last week. If we’re not entirely sure what is being destroyed by the Magisterium, it’s difficult to really sympathise with the witches – who otherwise speak entirely in exposition. As good as Ruta Gedmintas and Jade Anouka are (as Serafina and Ruta respectively), the witches’ scenes haven’t been the most engaging so far, and lack the dramatic weight that could make them more interesting.
It’s nice to see a new authorial voice to His Dark Materials with Francesca Gardiner writing this week’s episode with showrunner Jack Thorne, while the production team as always make arguably the best-looking series that BBC One have ever shown. The Cave may not offer any answers to the series’ big questions, but I found a lot to enjoy in this episode – both as an adaptation of Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, and as a great, standalone piece of television.