Review: Merlin 1×1

It's a kind of magic



 

In the UK: Saturdays, BBC1, 7.30pm
In the US: NBC, some time in the 2008-9 season. Probably

Ever since the return of Doctor Who made Saturday evenings viable viewing slots again, the onus has been on broadcasters not to fill their schedules with rubbish. ITV1 has tried to compete using shows like Primeval as well as a 1,001 singing and dancing shows; the Beeb, since you can’t have Doctor Who all year round, has done likewise but also rolled an updating of Robin Hood into the mix, to not great success. 

Now here comes its latest effort: Merlin. You remember Merlin, don’t you? Son of a demon/dragon, lives his life backwards? Welsh wizard pal of King Arthur?

Ah. Apparently, most of that was wrong. Because we’re in for a good dose of ‘Welsh washing’ here for a slightly less whimsical version of Harry Potter.

Plot
Merlin is an exciting fantasy series set in the mythic city of Camelot, but inspired by 21st Century storytelling.

Before Merlin and Arthur became legends, they were ambitious young men looking for adventure, hoping to live up to their families’ expectations, discovering love and finding their own true destiny, making mistakes along the way.

This innovative, action-packed drama has cross-generational appeal and paints a picture of Merlin and Arthur’s early life that audiences have never witnessed before.

Is it any good?
So the stench of international co-funding and appeals for a family audience have driven out much of the character from the very many versions of the Arthurian legends. Set in the same timeless period that encompasses everything from Xena, Hercules and Sinbad all the way through to the Middle Ages, Merlin is pretty much ‘Merlin and Arthur: The High School Days’, in which Arthur’s a jock and Merlin’s a nerd and the two have to learn from each and become friends – presumably by breaking into the Principal’s office from time to time.

Along the way, we meet the familiar figures from future legends – Guinevere, Morgana, Uther Pendragon – before they grew into good/evil people we know so well. And Merlin has to learn to hide his powers from a distrusting world. Sounds a bit Smallville, too, doesn’t it?

Despite this inauspicious foundation and the Welsh-washing that forces even Torchwood‘s Eve Myles to turn English, Merlin isn’t too bad. It has some nice effects, especially the dragon in the dungeon; there’s a thronging multitude of decent actors in the supporting cast, including Anthony Head and Richard Wilson; and the guest cast list is pretty decent, too. 

The bigger problem, apart from some unnecessary singing for Eve Myles’ character, is that it’s pretty bloodless. Yes, people die, but not especially nastily and no one ever seems to find the bodies. There’s not much fire in anyone’s bellies, and Arthur has more than a touch of "you know, I’m a proper actor. I can’t believe I’m in this rubbish" at times.

Basically, it’s just Saturday tea time telly, nicely put together, but with a touch of the "made by committee" about it. It’s fun, nothing too exceptional, doesn’t have too much depth and doesn’t really add anything to the legends. There’ll probably be a guest star of the week to deal with in each episode, too.

Yet given there are hints that Merlin’s darker side is there still and that this was basically just an initial episode to get everything set up in place for the series proper, it’s probably worth tuning in for a few more episodes of "Trouble at Camelot High", just to see if the fluffiness will get swallowed by the darkness.

Here’s a YouTube vid of the Merlin cinema trailer for your enjoyment.

  • Ha, Rob, that made me laugh. You’re right. You’re right. It’s Camelot High. Didn’t spot that at all. I have to say my favourite bit was the enchantment bit at the end which I really enjoyed. It annoys the ***** out of me that they always have to change the basic story which smacks of breathtaking arrogance (have blogged about that) but there was much to like here, and on the basis that it might get my kids into the Arthurian legend its worth giving it a go I think. If it turns out that Arthur isn’t the true king of England though I think I may just blow up the BBC.

  • Ha, Rob, that made me laugh. You’re right. You’re right. It’s Camelot High. Didn’t spot that at all. I have to say my favourite bit was the enchantment bit at the end which I really enjoyed. It annoys the ***** out of me that they always have to change the basic story which smacks of breathtaking arrogance (have blogged about that) but there was much to like here, and on the basis that it might get my kids into the Arthurian legend its worth giving it a go I think. If it turns out that Arthur isn’t the true king of England though I think I may just blow up the BBC.

  • Ha, Rob, that made me laugh. You’re right. You’re right. It’s Camelot High. Didn’t spot that at all. I have to say my favourite bit was the enchantment bit at the end which I really enjoyed. It annoys the ***** out of me that they always have to change the basic story which smacks of breathtaking arrogance (have blogged about that) but there was much to like here, and on the basis that it might get my kids into the Arthurian legend its worth giving it a go I think. If it turns out that Arthur isn’t the true king of England though I think I may just blow up the BBC.

  • Anonymous

    Changing the “basic story”? Hmm, if people hadn’t been willing to tinker over the centuries, we wouldn’t have Merlin (Monmouth), Arthur wouldn’t be a king (Monmouth again, I think), and his best fighter wouldn’t be French (various cheese-eating surrender-monkeys)…
    …and Ywain wouldn’t have been split into two characters (Malory, though possibly by mistake), Erec and Geraint would’ve always remained separate characters, Mordred wouldn’t be a villain nor even Arthur’s son…

  • Mark H Wilkinson

    Why am I down as “Anon”? I filled my name in. Tsk.

  • MediumRob

    Don’t know. It seems to be doing it once for everyone. Thanks blog software upgrade! Everyone appreciates you…

  • Mark I appreciate the story does change with each interpretation, but I just get a bit peed off with TV at the moment which frequently takes really good stories and decides oh no we can do better and then they don’t. I am thinking specifically here of Robin Hood, where Guy of Gisborne is oodles more attractive then wet old Robin, they completely changed the character of Allan a Dale and introduced such anachronisms as black nuns in 12th century England. I am not a purist who demands things should always be sacrosanct, and new interpretations can shed new light on things, but why is Uther still alive in this? And why is Arthur living with him? I’ve NEVER seen a version with that in, and I am not yet convinced that Uther needs to be there. My point is when there’s a perfectly good story why do you need to invent another one? (It’s sort of like the Victorians deciding Shakespeare was too gloomy and changing all the tragedies so nobody dies.)
    PS DON’T get me started on the travesty that is The Tudors and Elizabeth The Golden Years….

  • I was at a friend’s house and only watching this with half an eye but I thought the kid playing Merlin was very good, which is probably why they cast him despite his big ears. If they can give him something chewy to work with it could be a lot of fun. My problem with these kinds of series is that they usually try to be earnest and knowing at the same time. I prefer sincere and funny. Subtle but key difference.

  • Just had another thought in response to Mark’s comments – I think what peeves me most about these kind of revisionist versions is that they seem to dismiss traditional storytelling, and I think that’s part of our cultural history. What kid watching this will get a sense of the tradition? Merlin IS usually older then Arthur. Uther is normally dead etc etc. I think reinterpretation where the spirit of the original is adhered to – Neil Gaiman’s Beowulf was brilliant (ok it was by Neil Gaiman, that’s a given) because it filled in the gaps of the poem and linked the beginning part to the end part in a very clever way, whereas in the original the bit with the dragon feels tacked on or as if something’s missing. I guess someone thought this might be a filling the gaps thing – just what did Arthur do when he was a young buck? – but it grates for me that he is already a prince in waiting and that Merlin is his age. It might have been more interesting to have Merlin and Uther young together.
    However, I’m carping. I enjoyed it really. And I think Marie’s right,the boy playing Merlin is great.

  • Finally got to see this over here in the US thanks to the installment plan of YouTube (so it could disappear at any moment). And I liked that you mentioned ‘Smallville’, Rob, because I thought of Tom Welling every time Merlin was out and about in that red jacket of his. Building the set must have drained the money from the wardrobe budget, because he looked ready to join a production of ‘Grease’ rather than be the great enchanter!
    I’m thinking this tale is set in the same TV world as the new Robin Hood and that’s fine, because I’m leaning toward the Sam Neill mini-series as the official Merlin saga (with a few older actors in the role set in the future tacked on for good measure).
    Still it looks like fun and I hope BBC-America picks up the series soon enough, because I don’t think I can count on sources like YouTube to see me through even another episode!

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  • Andrew

    I rather enjoy this light-hearted retelling of the Arthurian legend. It’s grown on me and become one of my favorites. [Edited by MediumRob to remove stupid spam advert]

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