Saturday, September 20, 2008 by

The BBC’s new Doctor Who methadone, Merlin was a very entertaining 45 minutes. And it certainly had a better opening episode than their previous attempt, Robin Hood.

Reinterpreting this kind of legend is a double-edged creative butter knife – stray too close to the established elemental expectations and you risk tediously regurgitating what’s gone before, stride too far away and the exercise becomes pointless; you might as well have made up your own thing. Like Hood, the Arthur myth is a fairly well trodden journey and emphasising Merlin as the main character has also been tried fairly successfully before, notably in the Hallmark mini-series with Sam Neill.


They cram-a-lot of action in

They cram-a-lot of action in


Portrait of the wizard as a young man

Portrait of the wizard as a young man

For me, the best Merlins have been tricksters, elemental forces in humanoid form who have strayed into Camelot or Middle Earth or wherever they’ve got their beards caught and get wrapped up in human affairs. I’m not sure there’s been anything as good as Nicole Williamson in John Boorman’s Excalibur in this regard, who managed to be deadpan and dotty as well as dark and demonic – though I’ve also a soft spot for the druid seen in the underrated King Arthur.

I often wonder if it’s possible to tie all of these different versions together by saying that it’s the same force or man, existing on his own plane and we’re simply seeing how it or his manifestation is bent to fit within each reality. I’m sure there’s a book to be written about that some day.

BBC1’s Merlin takes the Smallville approach of making the familiar characters much younger and showing their “adventures” before the time we’re more familiar with. In this iteration, Arthur and Merlin are of the same generation, though not social class, a prince and his manservant and – in an interesting twist – they hate each other, though that’ll change in the future (think Flash Thompson and Peter Parker in the early Spider-man comics). Arthur’s fated to be king anyway through succession, which should make for less amazement when he pulls Excalibur from the stone and declares himself master of the realm. And by that point, Merlin will be about the same age instead of the wizened old gent we’re used to.

Around them buzz the kind of Propps that Joseph Campbell crystalised – the mentor in the form of Richard Wilson’s Gauis (rather fulfilling the slot that Merlin had in Disney’s Sword in the Stone), a companion in the shape of Angel Coulby’s Gwen(iviere) and the unattainable princess Morgana (a glacial Katie McGrath). Anyone who knows their Camelot apples will have spotted an abundance of mythology ripe for the picking. Morgana’s already got her eye on Arthur – will they introduce the rather lovely stumbling branch that she’s his half sister or decide instead to emphasise the potential love triangle between Gwen, Merlin and Arthur… or will the writers simply chuck all of that out for something else?

The real innovation the BBC introduces, is that far from being an autonomous collective, this realm is governed by the usually much talked about but not seen Uther Pendragon who’s banned magic because as far he’s concerned it was used for the wrong ends 20-odd years before. That puts Merlin in the position of being naturally magical without the ability to be practical, not only keeping down the budget because he can’t just fly around or walk through walls without being seen, but also suggesting a future moment when someone he loves is in peril but he can’t risk wobbling his nose (or in this case make his eyes glow) for fear of being found out – see also Clark Kent watching Lois Lane fall from a building without a telephone box or alley in sight. That’s the season ending cliff hanger right there, you mark my words.

On the whole then, really good fun and well directed by Who veteran James Hawes. It’s not perfect – some of the performances have a bit of genre-itis (I’m in a chainmail so that must mean they want my best panto acting) – but Colin Morgan is a real find and brings some geeky charisma to Merlin. He stole many of his scenes – the magnesium chemistry with Coulby’s Gwen a particular pleasure – and the production design is very clever, managing to be both convincing medieval and yet modern at the same time, something which First Knight tried but failed. Plus any series that has John Hurt voicing a dragon can’t be all bad.

Writer Julian Jones’s haikuic revenge plot was good enough for the first episode and helped immeasurably by Torchwood‘s Eve Myles as a witch who sang like an angel. But if all Merlin does is spend the next 12 weeks defending his prince from magical men and women, it could become very repetitive. It just has to be careful not to fall into the trap of having our hero become too powerful so that his magic can simply save the day every week, this series’s equivalent of the kind of deus ex machina brought about whenever the Doctor whips out his sonic screwdriver.

And I managed to get through all that without mentioning a certain other in voguish boy wizard…


2 Responses to “Merlin”

  1. S Arnold on December 8th, 2008 2:12 pm

    It wasn’t Eve Myles singing – she was miming. Emma Brain-Gabbott was the voice of “an angel”.

  2. Amy on January 22nd, 2009 6:18 pm

    I’ve adored the first series of Merlin and the first episode was a great start but that song, apparently by Emma Brain-Gabbot; do you know what it’s called because I want it on my ipod (yes I’m sad like that =P)