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.

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.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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