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STUDIO: BBC Warner
RATED: Not rated
RUNNING TIME: 585 minutes
* Audio commentary
* Making-of featurettes: “Behind the Magic”
* Video diaries
* Photo gallery
Camelot gets Smallville’d.
Colin Morgan, Bradley James, Richard Wilson, Katie McGrath, Anthony Head
“In a land of myth and a time of magic, the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young boy. His name… Merlin.” So begins every episode of the BBC’s amiable and at times quite clever retooling of the Arthurian legend, which re-imagines Merlin as a teenager working for Camelot’s royal physician.
Any way you shake it, the most notable thing about Merlin is just how off-book it is, mythology-wise. The pilot, “The Dragon’s Call,” begins with our teenage Merlin (Colin Morgan) arriving in Camelot, where his mother has secured him an apprenticeship with Gaius (Richard Wilson), the court physician to King Uther Pendragon (Buffy’s Anthony “I don’t need the Stewart in the UK” Head), who – ignoring the Arthurian legend – is quite alive and still ruling. Uther is a magicphobe, and the practice of magic, be it good or bad, has been banned under penalty of death for the past twenty years. Merlin learns this first hand, as an accused warlock is executed in the castle’s square when Merlin arrives. When Gaius witnesses Merlin using magic he frightfully instructs the boy to keep his gift a secret, lest Merlin himself be killed.
How far we’ve come.
Arthur (Bradley James) is a far cry from his regular noble self. Here he is a jackassy frat-boy crown prince, introduced in a “Welcome to the O.C., bitch!” scene where he pointlessly bullies Merlin to impress his dickweed friends. Guinevere (Angel Coulby), who goes by Gwen, isn’t a noble, here she’s the daughter of a blacksmith and she serves as the handmaid to Morgana (Keira Knightley clone, Katie McGrath), the ward to Uther. Our other principle character is the last remaining dragon – Uther killed off the rest long ago – who Merlin finds chained up in an immense cavern under the castle. The Dragon (voiced with croaky resonance by John Hurt) is basically Merlin’s Merlin, serving as the boy’s sage and mentor. The Dragon informs Merlin that it is his destiny to see that Arthur becomes the greatest king the land has ever known. “But he’s a prat!” Merlin replies. But Arthur is destined to become the Arther we all know. When Merlin saves Arthur’s life (secretly using magic of course), Uther gives Merlin the “honor” of serving as Arthur’s manservant. And our series is born!
Merlin follows a pretty simple formula. The crux of the series is that Merlin needs to hide his magic from everyone but Gaius. Each ep generally finds Merlin getting annoyed by some classist inequality (oh, the Brits), then he uses magic for something mundane, Gaius yells at him about how magic is illegal, some tragedy befalls Camelot, magic is discovered to be the cause, Merlin tries to use magic to help and then finds himself in trouble for it, but figures out how to fix things by the end, defeating the villain using magic and ultimately diverting suspicion of his powers. Rinse and repeat.
Objectively the comparisons between Merlin and Smallville are quite apt, especially when the show makes cutesy hints that acknowledge that it’s a prequel – such as Gwen noting she could never find Arthur appealing or Lancelot popping in for one episode and saying “One day maybe I will return” as he departs. Wink, wink.
I must note: there’s also an unfair implication in the Merlin/Smallville comparison since Smallville stonecold blows – I’m sorry if I’m offending any fans, but it’s a bad show – and while Merlin is a bit rough around the edges and cheesy at times, it’s actually pretty decent.
I wasn’t really sure what to make of Merlin after watching the pilot. The pacing was all over the place and certain plot points felt incredibly rushed – the show’s writers clearly just trying to settle comfortably into their formula as fast as possible. For the most part Merlin is a straight-up Freak of the Week show, with each episode featuring a new witch or warlock seeking revenge on Uther. As the series progresses it evolves a bit, with more serious and interesting problems arising – such as an episode where the Dragon informs Merlin that the little boy that he and the medieval Scooby gang are trying to save from execution should be left to die, otherwise he will one day kill Arthur, or the revelation of why Uther hates magic so much – but overall it is a slim show, plot-wise. Those hoping for dense mythology or teasing cliffhangers should look elsewhere. This is the kind of show that neatly wraps up storylines at the end of each episode. Also, it should go without saying, those looking for a traditional telling of the Arthurian legend should definitely look elsewhere.
Merlin has the pros and cons of most BBC series. A con for the BBC is always production values. While the Château de Pierrefonds in France where Merlin shoots its exteriors is fabulous looking, most of the interior sets have that syndicated TV look. Some of the CG FX are decent, but most require leniency on the viewer’s part. A major pro for the BBC is always the acting. The UK has got all these amazing actors just sitting around between stage shows with nothing better to do than pray for another Harry Potter film, so the caliber of guest stars is well above what we could expect from an American equivalent (for example, Michelle Ryan has a re-occurring role as a wicked witch, Nimueh).
Our main cast is top notch too. Colin Morgan makes for a goofy and likable Merlin. Bradley James’ Arthur is really the most interesting character, for though Merlin is our central character, Arthur is the one traveling along the biggest arc. The show is often at its most legitimately compelling when Arthur is being forced to overcome the pride-at-all-costs philosophy Uther has heaved upon him since birth, torn inside by a burgeoning sense of his destiny to be a better man. Speaking of Uther, Anthony Head really sinks his teeth into role. Technically one of our heroes, the character is an unrelenting and unlikable dick, and not an Al Swearengen love-to-hate-him dick. Uther is just a dick, but Head fully embraces this, not looking for ways to make the character secretly fun or wily. Head does an excellent job of making you believe Uther’s motives, which at times are fairly illogical.
The weakest elements of the cast are Coulby and McGrath, though much of that is probably the fault of the characters, who simply aren’t as interesting as Merlin or Arthur. McGrath at least is given a slowly developing subplot where Morgana realizes she’s having psychic dreams of impending danger, but can’t admit to Uther that she may have magical abilities. But Coulby’s Gwen is just kinda boring, never given much to do beyond bumble-flirting with Merlin and worrying about things.
This show will definitely best be received by younger viewers. While it is a step above Legend of the Seeker or Xena: Warrior Princess,
ultimately it falls into that camp due to tone and subject matter, and it certainly appeals to the same audience. Older viewers – and probably most CHUD readers – will likely be turned off by the cheesier elements in Merlin. To be honest, I
wouldn’t have given the series a chance if I didn’t have to, but I ended up enjoying myself. It is a fun show. Most importantly it has potential. It has the cast and materials to play with to become a much better show in Season 2.
Clearly I’m not the only one who thinks there is an audience for it… NBC rebroadcast the series last summer; the first time a BBC show has aired on broadcast TV in the US in over 30 years. Seasons 2 and 3 already exist, though I have no idea if the series does or doesn’t live up to its potential. I hope the creators were able to recognize what was good about the show and expand on that and drop the hokier shit. (Please weigh in below on the other seasons – I know nothing about
I had screeners, so I can’t really comment on the packaging itself – which is too bad because multi-disc sets are really the only DVD packages worthy of critiquing. The presentation is all fine, and there is a nice crop of bonus features. The commentaries are quite nice and the two part “Behind the Magic” featurette and informative.