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Monday, 22 September 2008

Merlin, BBC1

Did we like it?
We feared the worst after those lamentable trailers, but a combination of decent CGI, haunting music and the magic ingredient of imagination made this an engaging if derivative drama – it remains to be seen if it has the courage to detach itself from its restrictive roots and blossom into brilliance.

What was good about it?• Richard Wilson as Merlin’s mentor Gaius, bringing thespian weight to what had otherwise been a bit of a surly melodramatic imitation of the bastard offspring of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.
• In first episodes, scene-setting and exposition shoves plot and storyline out of the way – and here it was no different. Thankfully, Wilson ingrained in Gaius an iridescence of tone that made the background of Merlin’s world beguiling rather than boring.
• Colin Morgan as Merlin, he gave the wizard a personality among the rather stilted city about him, capturing the wonder of an innocent abroad. As the episode evolved, so Merlin unfolded with it, elevating and elucidating the typical insecurities and infatuations of a teenage boy.
• John Hurt’s narrative introductions to each episode remind us of Burt Kwouk’s baffling, albeit translated, incipient aphorisms from the classic Water Margin.
• The special effects were actually more effective for not being as mind-poppingly spectacular as CGI implants can be. We, like most people with eyes, are appalled by the dreary Hollywood bells and whistles that stamp cumbersomely over every single film they’re in like an egotistical actor demanding the best lines.
• In Merlin, the effects worked but only to astound and benefit the plot, and were therefore all the more startling when they did appear. We particularly enjoyed the way in which the witch made her ornate escape from the clutches of Uther (Anthony Head) after the king had executed her son (although it did make us ponder, if she is so blessed with the forbidden arcane arts why did she let her son perish under the executioner’s axe – couldn’t she have turned the weapon into a flower or something?)
• With the aforementioned Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings setting the standard for CGI monsters, the last of the dragons (voiced by Hurt) seemed a little on the small side to us, but as his main role seems to be counselling Merlin rather than fighting that might be for the best.
• Just as Doctor Who has to make concessions in the shape of a succession of teeth-gnawing soapy supporting cast in order to maintain its mass appeal and therefore earn the vast budget required for such a show, so Merlin makes similar concessions in the guise of teen soap angst as the spoilt Prince Arthur and Merlin jostle for position in the grand hierarchy of adolescent foibles and flaws. But as this is aimed at such an age bracket it’s understandable even if it does make it a little unpalatable for the rest of us.
• One area in which Merlin scores highly over Doctor Who is the fantastic incidental music. It was used expertly to heighten the tension as the evil crone’s plans reached its zenith by the distant echoing disembodied cackling.

What was bad about it?

• While at a nascent stage of their relationship, given their contrasting potency – Prince Arthur can hit people with swords, Merlin can stop time, space and transform the universe into a grain of sand – they might end up with the same kind of disparity seen in Mitchell and Webb’s Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit.
• While the exact era of King Arthur’s legend has been lost in time, it was some time before 1000AD. The whole ambience of Merlin seemed to be set in a civilisation that was on a par with about the 15th century – the courtyard looked like a Florentine piazza, while the town was garlanded with more lights than the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing. This could actually be for the greater good, as Merlin seems to have been transplanted ‘out of time’ and into a fantasy world all of its own.
• This may also mean that the series isn’t hoist by its own petard of a misguided fidelity to the legend. Sure, Morgana will ultimately become evil, Guinevere will have to choose between Arthur and Lancelot, but it needs to expand beyond these confines so it doesn’t fall into the same trap as Robin Hood, which has all the adversarial plausibility and variation of Tom & Jerry.
• In fact, why don’t they just hire JK Rowling to help out with the imaginative creation of Merlin’s world, adding to it her own takes on mythical monsters as this will at least exhibit a welcome detachment from the established lore. Or why don’t they just go mad with the misty history of Ye Olde Albion – make the chalk horse on the hillside come to life, an episode about how Stone Henge was built by giants, Loch Ness, the building of Ley Lines.
• The use of slow motion – this should be forbidden in all drama (along with showing the same stunt from different angles) as it violently jolts the viewer out of the narrative and reminds them that its only a TV programme rather than a world in which they’ve become deliriously lost.
• It’s very predictable. From the moment that Merlin and Arthur met, it was obvious that Merlin would gain some sort of favour with the son of his liege by saving his life – which he did by pushing him out of the way of the crone’s dagger. And also when the servant visited the crone when disguised as the singer Lady Helen (Eve Myles), it was glaringly apparent she would be a sacrificial lamb just to remind everyone what a merciless and malevolent old crone she was.

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