This story starts in another world. One that is both like, and unlike, your own. Here, a human soul takes the physical form of an animal, known as a dæmon. The relationship between human and dæmon is sacred. This world has been controlled for centuries by the all-powerful Magisterium. Except in the wilderness of the North, where witches whisper of a prophecy. A prophecy of a child with a great destiny. During the great flood, this child was brought to Oxford.
The prologue is extremely helpful if you haven’t read the books, or if it’s been years since you did.
The prologue does not say *why* human souls are animals that travel outside their people. The episode does not noticeably reinforce the sacredness of the human/dæmon relationship. Unlike Harry Potter or Star Wars, we don’t get a naive guide to follow while people helpfully explain the rules of the world we’re entering. We just have to observe and learn.
What we know from the text prologue sets up a visual prologue in which a harried Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) carries a baby through a chest-deep body of water at Oxford University to knock on a mostly submerged door. The door is answered by Dr. Carne, A.K.A. The Master (Clarke Peters), into whose care Asriel entrusts baby Lyra (LIE-rah) under the cloak of academic sanctuary.
Twelve years later, we catch up with adolescent Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), at ease in her home of Jordan College, where she is cared for by the Master and the Librarian, Charles (Ian Gelder). She enjoys the company of her dæmon, Pantalaimon (voice of Kit Connor), and fellow orphan Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd). The children have free run of the college (literally– they like to run all over it, including on the rooftops), and Lyra’s only apparent source of frustration in life is that her uncle rarely visits and consistently refuses to take her with him to the North.
One day, Uncle Asriel returns to Jordan College with a heretical discovery. The Master ineffectively tries to poison him in order to stop him from sharing what he’s found, and Lyra inadvertently lands a job as his little spy during his presentation about his findings to the College faculty.
When he gathers the men of the college in their private retiring room for what they expect to be a relatively dull slideshow, he surprises almost everyone by revealing that he has been away for a year tracking down what happened to a missing expedition in the North. Not only did he find the frozen head of the expedition leader, but using a photo technique of his own devising, he also discovered that “dust” is attracted to adults (not children) and that the Northern Lights conceal a city in the sky, covered in dust.
What’s dust? We don’t know. He won’t say. Nobody says. Lyra wants to know. He won’t tell her.
What we do know is that the mere mention of dust is apparently enough to get him in trouble with the Magisterium. The room erupts in outrage at his having made them all party to heretical ideas, but when he shows them the head of their dead friend, which he has brought in a cooler, they fund a new expedition to the North so he can keep pursuing his research.
The next morning, Asriel leaves Oxford on an airship (because Zeppelins are the primary form of air travel in this world’s Oxford in whatever year it’s supposed to be). Lyra chases him down, begging to be taken along to the North, and he refuses.
Meanwhile, some people called “Gyptians” celebrate one boy’s transition to manhood, marked by his dæmon having settled on the form of a hawk. From this we learn that dæmons shapeshift throughout a person’s childhood before taking one animal form for the rest of the human’s life. (And from Lyra and Roger playing in the College crypt, we learn that dæmons disappear altogether when people die, leaving no skeletons.)
The Gyptian young man, Tony Costa (Daniel Frogson), has been dogged all day by his little brother, Billy (Tyler Howitt), and their mother is sure that it’s because Billy is worried that Tony being a man will create distance between them. Tony looks for Billy in the crowd of their community after the ceremony confirming his manhood with a special silver ring, and Billy is nowhere. It turns out that he’s among 16 Gyptian children to have gone missing lately, and the Gyptian leaders (including Farder Coram (James Cosmo), A.K.A. Jeor Mormont) are sure that the mythical “Gobblers,” who most believe to be fairy stories used to frighten children, are real and are kidnapping children and taking them to London.
The night Asriel leaves, Lyra goes to dinner with all of the scholars of Jordan College, where she is seated at the high table with the Master. He surprises her by having a guest, Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), sit between them.
The glamorous Mrs. Coulter doesn’t need to work hard to dazzle Lyra with the fact that she is an explorer like Asriel, so when she tells Lyra she’s been invited to the College by the Master to find Lyra a place, Lyra is eager to accept the offer to leave with Mrs. Coulter as her assistant– on the condition that Roger can come, too.
The next morning, Lyra is awakened by the Librarian, who tells her to come right away to the Master’s office. Together, they basically tell her not to trust anyone. Then they give her an alethiometer, a golden compass thing, which they describe as an extremely rare and illegal truth-telling tool that Asriel brought to the College along with infant her. They won’t tell her how it works, though, so she’ll have to figure it out in secret when she leaves.
When the time to depart with Mrs. Coulter arrives, Lyra can’t find Roger anywhere. He has been taken by The Gobblers. She tries to get the alethiometer to tell her if he’s in London, but she doesn’t know how it works, so it does not. She decides going to London with Mrs. Coulter is her best chance of finding Roger, so she runs to the airship and boards, noticing all the Gyptians heading the same way in their canal boats below.
The episode ends with a shot of Roger, confined in a cage somewhere. (I’m guessing in the luggage compartment of the airship.)
Props to Dafne Keen, most in-demand costar for X-Men! If you didn’t recognize her as the Spanish-speaking X23 from Logan, you may not have fully appreciated both how weird it was to hear her speaking with an English accent in this show and to see her being Professor X’s niece after being Wolverine’s lab-created daughter.