A test of character has another meaning in the magical world of Merlin. Here it is emblematic of the show’s ability to withstand being battered with the same plot again and again – interloper enters Camelot full of nefarious intent, it’s up to Merlin and the gang to stop him; but Merlin (Colin Morgan) must do so with cunning so as not to reveal his magical powers else King Uther (Anthony Head) will have him summarily executed before you can say ‘Excalibur’, while Gaius (Richard Wilson) offers sage advice and Arthur takes the credit for vanquishing the enemies while oscillating between mateyness and derision towards his servant Merlin and obstreperous defiance towards his father Uther.
Of course, it’s not the same every week but such is the relentless consistency of the plot that it begins to feel that way in much the same way as a blow from a hammer and a fist are just identical flashes of thudding pain.
This isn’t so say Merlin is bad, just repetitive; after all people still enjoy Last of the Summer Wine after 30 years of Compo etc rolling down the hill in a white bath, but they’re mostly hooked up to life support machines trying to hear Foggy’s latest harebrained idea on UK Gold above the priest administering the last rites.
What keeps the plague of tedium at bay most potently is the acting. Anthony Head is remarkable as Uther simply because his performance of a character so thin – he hates magic, loves Arthur, everything else is in the ether – that it would even be banned at London Fashion Week is the equivalent of convincing you that a cube has more than six sides.
Colin Morgan, too, as Merlin illuminates the screen, simmering with youthful anguish as he is usurped by the devious Cedric (Mackenzie Crook) in the affections of Arthur, while pondering over the double-edged bargain offered him by the dragon (John Hurt) kept prisoner in the bowels of Camelot.
Perhaps it’s the refreshing impact of a new series, but there also appeared to be a slower pace to proceedings, which can alleviate the peripheral nature of characters such as Gwen and, especially, Morgana, who, if the legend is followed, will have to perform a monstrous metamorphosis either in this series or the next, which alone is enough intrigue to resuscitate this engaging but flat opener.
Flat because the villain – the evil wizard Cornelius who possesses the body of the thieving Cedric – was vanquished as though he was a first year at Hogwarts. Sure, he animated some gargoyles to slaughter the townsfolk, but then confronted the boy wizard as he came to save the injured Arthur (he was unconscious, too, which meant Merlin could cast spells with impunity as Arthur couldn’t tell his father). This, we were led to believe, was the scourge of Camelot, who could lay waste to the entire kingdom.
What we got was a prolix amateur with a Darth Vader fixation who ejaculated the Dark Lord of the Sith’s vacuous spiel about ruling the kingdom together before trying to possess Merlin, which was counteracted by a mumbled spell which once more entrapped him inside the crystal heart from whence Cedric had unwittingly freed him.
Never a martyr to originality, ITV rolled out their latest spooky drama Trinity that is part Lost, part Codename Icarus and part any US college-set comedy-drama that goes straight to DVD, and then straight to the charity shop, and then straight to recycling when the DVD is taking up space that could be used for a DVD that has a better chance of selling, such as Bobby Davro’s Rock With Laughter or Fred West Sings Sinatra.
Compared to the young characters in Trinity, those in Merlin read like something out of Tolstoy. Each of the students can be summed-up in a few words – Dorian (likes sex, preferably incest, but will settle for virgins; very arrogant); Charlotte (feisty Christian, easily corrupted); Rosalind (loves sex, hates love); Theo (poor but bright, likes sex); Angus (moron, stoned); Raj (stoned, moron). The last two are supposed to offer comic relief through their tripped-out dialogue and drug taking but are perhaps the most egregious screen presences since Scrappy Doo.
There’s a temptation to write-off the first episode as an excruciating and clumsy introduction. The first reason is that the truly atrocious scene in which distressed virgin (her father died recently, as never tires of telling anyone) Charlotte (Antonia Bernath) is seduced by the predatory Dorian. After revelling in the joys of sex for the first time, Charlotte suddenly appears as though she’s just read the Karma sutra in the 15 seconds it’s taken for Dorian to get his end away and is lustful for more. That is until she spots the cross dangling from her neck, and is suddenly tormented by a religious guilt that swamps very pore of her soul prompting her to lambast Dorian for taking advantage of her (and in so doing causing Dorian’s face to break out in an emotion that isn’t arrogance or scorn for the first time in his life).
The second reason is that away from the debauchery, that is as calculating a sensual device to lure in the casual viewer as a half-naked woman is in a video by the offensively crap All-American Rejects, there is a sinister beguiling plot handled deftly by Charles Dance as the sharp, menacing Dr Edmund Maltravers, the Dean of Trinity, and Claire Skinner as the sympathetic Dr Angela Donne concerning some mysterious experiment or research being conducted at the university.
Of course, we don’t know what it is yet, and are unlikely to ever know – as Trinity will probably be hacked to death by the ITV cost-cutting monster that lurks under the bed of every creative thought in independent television – but we can only hope that whatever the devious plan is that it involves the gradual elimination of every single student in Trinity – that by itself would win it a Bafta for Most Satisfying Drama Series.