08 September 2009

Merlin Season 1

Potential Brewing in Merlin Season 1
By Kristin Battestella

Merlin: The Complete First SeasonWhen the BBC fantasy adventure series Merlin first came across the pond this summer, I wasn’t too interested. After taking in all of Season 1, however, I had a change of heart. Though young and not quite at its stride, Merlin has plenty of potential to entertain this season and beyond.

Young unruly wizard Merlin (Colin Morgan) comes to Camelot; and after saving his life serves the young, arrogant Prince Arthur (Bradley James). Merlin also befriends fellow servant Guinevere (Angel Coulby), maid to the King’s ward Morgana (Katie McGrath). King Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head) has banished all use of magic in his kingdom since the evil Lady of the Lake Nimueh (Michelle Ryan) plagues Camelot with deadly tricks and dark magic. Court Physician Gaius (Richard Wilson) secretly tutors Merlin to control his gifts and helps Morgana with her prophetic nightmares. When confronted with a particularly difficult and deadly magical conundrum, Merlin seeks advice from The Great Dragon (voiced by John Hurt). The dragon is kept hidden and chained in Uther’s dungeon-the last remnant of the old ways in Camelot.

Though we are *seriously* in need of a feature film Arthurian adaptation on the scale of Lord of The Rings; Merlin takes an interesting youthful focus. Camelot before Camelot was Camelot as seen from a boy Merlin’s perspective. A nice idea, but it’s not without its flaws. Sure, Arthur was way before Harry Potter, but the idea of a boy wizard having to hide his magical skills from uncompromising elders is a little too Potteresque nowadays-and so are Merlin’s incantations. With so many fantasy series flooding the airwaves-such as the similar Legends of the Seeker and the forthcoming, more mature Game of Thrones- Merlin needs to stand out more. In this thirteen-episode start, there are too many villains of the week. Every episode seems to rehash a guest using evil magic that Merlin must somehow stop by secretly doing good sorcery. Episode 10 ‘The Moment of Truth’ is exactly like a sub par episode of Enterprise called ‘Marauders’. How many times can we see a show where our heroes teach a village how to defend itself? There are so many better angles to take on Arthurian canon before resorting to these stock scripts.

Another unique but not running on full cylinders aspect of Merlin is John Hurt’s voicing of the Dragon. For as good as the dragon looks and as wonderful as John Hurt (The Elephant Man, Alien, The Field) is, they should be used a heck of a lot more. Then again, the dragon storyline could also be used as a special opening or closing two-parter. Unfortunately, it’s stuck somewhere in between. Every couple of episodes, Merlin has to get wordy and ambiguous advice from the captured dragon. Big deal! Hurt and the creature’s potential are resorted to a cool effect to charm young viewers. Why couldn’t the mystery of the dragon below the castle been delayed for a more spectacular reveal? You can add the depth and seriousness for all audiences and still appeal to the kids with fantastical elements. Team creators and main writers Johnny Capps (Sugar Rush), Julian Jones (The Bill), Jake Michie (Hex), and Julian Murphy (Sinchronicity) don’t use what they have to its full potential.

Merlin’s production also has yet to find its legs. The music by Robert Lane (Elizabeth 1, John Adams) is sweeping and epic, but not enough so. The opening hooks and credits also aren’t as rousing as they could be. The real life French Castle locations are, however, delightful. Yes, it’s a fifth century English King in a fourteenth century French castle-but it looks sweet! Still, some of Merlin looks very Saturday morning quick and low budget. Certain graphics and creature effects are state of the art, and others look as if they are done on someone’s home computer. Thankfully, the fine makeup and costuming win out, and any visual errors don’t deter from intelligent dialogue and performances. I’m of the old school before CGI-where you had to have people who could act and writers who could give a cast intelligent things to say. When you have two of Merlin’s cast in a dressed medieval room talking about their predicament, the chemistry and delivery work.
I’ve been critical thus far, but Merlin gets better as this debut season progresses. Deeper personal stories, fine guest stars, and more pieces of Arthurian puzzles strengthen the latter half of Season 1. Episodes simply titled ‘Lancelot’ and ‘Excalibur’ set a higher bar by placing the focus on conflict and injustice at Uther’s court. After thinking Merlin was kind of kiddie, the episode eight ‘The Beginning of the End’ and number 12 ‘To Kill A King’ had me thinking this show could really go on to bigger and better.

Merlin wouldn’t be any fun, however, if we didn’t like the players. The titular Colin Morgan (Doctor Who) is charming as our teen manservant with a magical secret. He handles the serious conversations with physician Gaius, yet makes room for wit and smiles. Merlin is a pretty laid back and levelheaded kid for such a big destiny. Morgan’s humility and chemistry with his counterparts in some ways make the series. Of course, Merlin wouldn’t be much without Prince Arthur, would he? Bradley James (Portobello 196) also strikes the perfect blend between the jerky, arrogant noble and heartfelt youth learning to be a king. Though both boys have the looks for our modern, pretty standards, James also looks capable as a medieval knight. He fits the armor, fights the good fight, and has plenty of banter for Merlin and the ladies.

I didn’t really think of it in my initial viewing, but online, most of the talk about Merlin is on homosexual subtext between Merlin and Arthur. Although gay aspects in Arthurian tales aren’t unheard of- see or read Mists of Avalon- I think it’s a little strange that people are looking for this in a program touted as wholesome and family oriented. In a few years, if Merlin strengthens and survives into a mature drama like Buffy The Vampire Slayer; then sure, let’s have one of the characters be gay. As for right now, however, the creators don’t seem to be playing into any subtext ala Xena. Yes, there is some dialogue about how much one boy loves the other or has secrets and latent lifestyles, but it seems more like Shaggy and Scooby having the munchies or He-Man’s subtext. Adults will see what they want to see, there’s nothing heavy that might offend youth and family audiences.

Of course, there are online shippers who see magic between Gwen and Merlin; but Angel Colby’s (As If) Guinevere also has moments with Lancelot and Arthur, naturally. Right now, Gwen is young, shy, and awkward around all the boys. I applaud the notion of a black Guinevere, but she should not be a servant. It will be an uphill battle to turn this shy maid into the future Queen of Camelot, but it can be done. In the future, I’d like to see the seer Morgana misunderstood and cast out of the castle-then Gwen can become Uther’s noble ward. I also think it was a mistake for the producers to name Gwen’s loyal but unjustly treated blacksmith father Tom (David Durham). It’s just a little racially ignorant on their part. Shallow internet viewers have also criticized Gwen’s look and style in comparison to the enchanting Morgana as played by Katie McGrath (The Tudors).

The girls are very close friends, but it’s the depth and multi-dimensional treatment of Morgana that makes the ladies seem so uneven. McGrath shines as the outspoken and eventually rebellious ward, trading taunts with Arthur and debates with Uther. For a somewhat snotty noblewoman, she is also very kind-hearted, largely due to her budding prophetic nightmares and abilities. More time should have been spent on developing all the ladies’ dynamics and their relationships at court. Where are the personal, bottle episodes? I would trade any villain of the week for one of those talkative, getting to know folks shows. Maybe nothing exciting happens for the kids, but we know and love our characters more for it.

Merlin may be oriented toward youthful audiences, but Anthony Head (Buffy) and Richard Wilson (One Foot in the Grave) serve their purpose as the guiding adults and strengthen the show with much needed maturity. Again, there’s not as much attention as I might of liked-and Head’s Uther always wears gloves for some reason; but he’s stern, sometimes even a ruthless king. We’ve no doubt of his affection towards his son and his ward, but Uther’s also a leader that must do what’s best for his kingdom. Head has the look and presence for the kingship and the wise voice to educate the onscreen youths. It’s not Uther’s show, but dreams of flashbacks of his wife Igrayne might have developed his sympathy and antagonism with Nimueh (Michelle Ryan, Bionic Woman) more.

Wilson’s Gaius is also wonderful as the surrogate father to Merlin. He’s a fine physician, using modern technique and medicine-but he also has a colored past with the magical old ways. The delivery of both men is on form, and they raise the younger cast in several fine scenes. Michael Cronin’s (Grange Hill) Geoffrey of Monmouth also makes the most of his three appearances. He’s friendly, wise, and sometimes the brunt of the young stars’ plans, but Cronin adds another refined element to Merlin. I hope he remains a recurring character. I’m sure there are financial restrictions, but Uther’s court is too dang small! A corrupt Valiant, vengeful Tristan, and a charming Lancelot should not have been mere guest stars. I dare say all the villainous visits could have been extended stays in Merlin. Right now, Camelot is too vanilla; there should be at least one questionable or unlikeable character at court to keep things interesting. As the Lady of the Lake, Nimueh certainly has more to tell. I hope she returns for next season, too.

Yes, it’s meant to be a family oriented program, but Merlin has the potential for more angst and superior stuff. Where many youthful programs would ignore analysis of romance and friendship, paternal troubles, and death; Merlin presents its more mature material with depth and quality. Unfortunately, some of the possible drama is directly hindered by the series premise. Merlin needs a noble class Gwen and more court personnel for Merlin, Arthur, and Morgana to positively and negatively react with. Maybe they wouldn’t all get along. We know that further down the line, Camelot’s gold tarnishes- use that. I’m not asking for some tawdry soap opera, but internal conflict similar to shows like Buffy can go a long way. Man versus Man, man versus nature, and man versus himself are prime notions for fantasy. We need not get lost in juvenile special effects.

In America, network nights used to be relatively tame for family viewing-today, not so much. I’m glad NBC decided to show Merlin in the US, but its Sunday night time might make audiences expect more maturity then what the series has at this point. In the nineties, such fare was often syndicated to Saturday afternoons or overnight hours. Youth oriented second tier networks like the WB and UPN championed similar shows like Smallville and the slightly older Charmed. Merlin is a nice little fantasy show still working out its kinks, but it doesn’t really belong on American network primetime. The series would be better off in a block on Sci-Fi or the Family Channel or BBC America with like-minded shows where any youthful mistakes can be more easily forgiven. Of course, it helps if the show can be found by audiences, too. Merlin started with a respectable 5 million viewers in the US. Unfortunately, a few preemptions dwindled ratings and Merlin’s fate in America is undecided.

In this Season 1, Merlin has had some flaws and mistakes, yes. These growing pains, however, are nothing that can’t be built upon for the forthcoming Season 2. With fine storytelling, a budding cast, and behind the scenes strength, Merlin can build on its potential. Hopefully, the series’ solid aspects can put a new spin on Arthurian legend for many seasons to come. Four or five years should be enough-anything shorter would be premature. Episodes and clips are available online officially via NBC and Hulu, and the Region 1 DVD set of Merlin Season 1 is expected soon. Of course, the British public has DVDS and Season 2 on the horizon. Lucky you!

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