“No young man, no matter how great, can know his destiny. He cannot glimpse his part in the great story that is about to unfold. Like everyone, he must live and learn. And so it will be for the young warlock arriving at the gates of Camelot. A boy that will, in time, father a legend. His name … Merlin.”
Merlin. You know the name. It conjures up images of a white-haired old man with a long gray beard and a long pointed hat. His story is indeed legend. In the myths of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, he is destined to be the mentor to the King of Camelot. We’ve all heard the stories of the Sword in the Stone and the Age of Chivalry. Perhaps it is totally appropriate that this telling of Merlin come from British television. England is, after all, the origin of the fanciful legends.
So, what spell do you use to bring such a well-worn tale to life for a modern television audience? Let us open our spell books and see, shall we?
You begin with a dash of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The American program was one of the most popular shows of its time. From that formula, you can use the sorcery and demons that populated its episodes. For just a touch more potency, you would want to include one of the actors of that series. A fine choice would be the Anthony Stewart Head, the show’s crucial Watcher. He’s British anyway, so fits perfectly into our spell.
Next a little Smallville would be a superb ingredient to mix in. That series proved that you could take an iconic, almost mythic character and tell his story from the beginning. Smallville demonstrated that you could present said character without all of the trappings and identifiable elements. If Superman can work as a boy without the cape and the ability to fly, then Merlin can also work as an adolescent without his trademark accoutrements.
The heart of a cultural phenomenon is essential to our spell. One would be hard-pressed to find a place on the planet that has not fallen to Harry Potter mania. The idea of a young wizard with a mysterious destiny who must deal with puberty, all the while learning the enchantments and skills of a powerful wizard will sit just fine with a 21st– century audience.
Put the ingredients together, and you’ve cast a spell called Merlin. And while it does not appear to have made quite the splash of any of its parts, at least on the American side of the pond, it’s a production with a lot of charm and promise.
The young sorcerer Merlin (Morgan) has been sent to Camelot by his mother to be placed under the protection of Camelot’s Court Physician Gaius (Wilson). It is important that they keep Merlin’s magical abilities a secret. It is death to practice magic of any kind in the kingdom, a law vigorously enforced by King Uther (Head). He has had some rather unfortunate encounters with the likes of sorcerers, and for 20 years he has managed to keep magic out of his kingdom through merciless executions. His fears are not so unfounded. As the series unfolds, we begin to get some clues as to the terrible time in Camelot’s history where magic nearly destroyed them all. Gaius takes it upon himself to guide the young boy. He warns him of using his magic in public, yet he can sense a great destiny for the lad and considers it his duty to help him to hone his abilities. Merlin comes to the attention of Prince Arthur (James) who at first bullies the boy. When Merlin saves his life, he becomes Arthur’s valet and something of a friend, a fact Arthur would never openly admit. The Court of Camelot includes Uther’s ward, the lovely Morgana (McGrath) and her personal attendant Guinevere (Coulby).
Needless to say, like Merlin himself here, this is not the Camelot you remember. The show takes quite a few liberties with the mythology. Arthur is no peasant who will one day prove his pureness of heart by removing a sword from a stone. Here he is already a young prince and heir to the throne of Camelot by birthright. He is also pretty much an arrogant bully who abuses his position of power and takes sport in tormenting those weaker than himself. Obviously, this Arthur has a lot of growing to do.
The performances are, for the most part, quite exceptional. Colin Morgan is a bit uneven as Merlin. There are times when his performance is decidedly flat. There are moments, however, when you can see flashes of a gifted performer. Just as Merlin as a character is learning his magical craft, it appears that Morgan is growing into his own abilities. Whether intentional or not, Morgan’s apparent inexperience works well for the character. The real stars here are Richard Wilson as Gaius and Anthony Stewart Head as King Uther. Wilson portrays his character much like the Merlin that most of us know. He even resembles the eventual Merlin. He has the white hair and carries himself the way I imagine Merlin. It’s a nice touch, really. We’re easily led to believe that Gaius’s mannerisms and stature were influential in the development of Merlin. Anthony Stewart Head completely washes away any typecasting his role of Watcher Giles might have reigned down upon him since the Buffy years. It had long been planned that he was to star in a BBC spin-off from Buffy called Ripper (Giles’ young name). So far the series has not materialized, and while fans like myself are quite eager for the series, this role is a good thing for Head. Bradley James as Arthur takes some getting used to. He’s not exactly a likable character for much of the series. Finally, I think the actors for Gwen and Morgana should have been flip flopped. Angel Coulby is a fine actress as Gwen, but she’s slightly pudgy and somewhat awkward. I just don’t buy this the woman who would come between Arthur and Lancelot one day, while Katie McGrath is far more attractive and graceful.
There are 13 episodes on 4 discs with a 5th disc containing only bonus material.
Here’s a rundown on the episodes:
The Dragon’s Call:
In this pilot episode, Merlin arrives in Camelot and begins his life with Gaius. We’re introduced to the main players and the general situation in Camelot. Merlin saves Arthur’s life from a vengeful mother and becomes his servant as a reward.
It’s time for the annual tournament of champions. Arthur is the defending champion and favorite to repeat. Valiant has a trick up his metal sleeve. His shield is enchanted and contains poisonous snakes that can come to life at his command. Merlin must discover a way to counter the spell when no one takes his charge seriously. If not, Arthur will be the next victim.
The Mark Of Nimueh:
A magical plague has stricken the people of Camelot. Merlin and Gaius must find the source of the illness before it wipes out the entire population of the kingdom. Merlin’s act of kindness to save Gwen’s father from the disease backfires when his charm is discovered. Now Gwen is accused of being the sorceress who brought the plague down on Camelot. This one features the best of the show’s CG creatures.
The Poisoned Chalice:
Merlin’s abilities have been exposed to Nimueh, and now she’s turned her attention to the young wizard. She uses a poison cup to make an attempt on his life. Now Arthur must risk his own life against the orders of the King in order to save him. Here for the first time we see glimpses of the Arthur we expected to find in Camelot. He shows courage and friendship loyalty for, perhaps, the first time.
Finally, another famous member of the future Knights Of The Round Table appears, but not for long. Young Lancelot seeks to be a Knight of Camelot, but the first code requires that only those of noble blood may serve. Merlin attempts to forge papers of nobility, but, once again, Merlin’s act of kindness backfires. All of this as a magical griffin threatens Camelot.
Remedy To Cure All Ills:
When Morgana slips into a coma, Gaius appears helpless to save her life. Enter Edmund, a deformed physician who arrives with a claim to have a potion that will cure any ailment. He is able to save Morgana, but that’s because his enchanted beetle caused the malady to begin with. It’s all a ruse to discredit Gaius as a form of revenge. We get our first clues as to a horrible event in Camelot’s past that affects both King Uther and Gaius.
Some past transgression has now reared its all-too-literal ugly head.
The Gates Of Avalon:
Morgana has a terrible dream that a strange woman drowns Arthur in a lake. When the lady actually shows up at Camelot with her father, she fears for Arthur’s safety. Of course, she can’t reveal to the K,ing her premonition because it is too much like magic. Merlin and Gaius discover that they are about to sacrifice Arthur in order for the girl to gain admittance to Avalon and eternal life.
The Beginning Of The End:
A Druid and his son are in Camelot for supplies. King Uther considers the people his mortal enemies and sends the guard to capture them. The man is apprehended, but the boy escapes with Merlin and Morgana’s assistance. Merlin is faced with a moral dilemma when he must choose between saving the young boy’s life or saving Arthur from a future mortal danger.
A strange “black” knight is brought back from the dead by Nimueh to wreak revenge on Camelot. When Arthur is to be the wraith’s next victim, Merlin forges a sword in the breath of the Great Dragon. But the enchanted sword falls into the wrong hands. This episode goes deeper into the alluded secret that King Uther and Gaius appear to share. It also begins the story of the famed sword, which is erroneously believed by most to have been the fabled Sword in the Stone.
The Moment Of Truth:
Merlin returns home to visit his mother. He discovers that a band of thugs is bullying the village out of their crops. Although the village is in another kingdom, Merlin has his mother petition King Uther for help. He refuses. So Merlin, Gwen, and Morgana set out to help defend the village. They end up having Arthur join them as well. Together they teach the village how to defend itself, almost at the cost of Arthur discovering Merlin’s secret.
The Labyrinth Of Gedref:
When Arthur kills a unicorn for its prized horn, Camelot pays for the insult with a curse. The curse brings dire famine to the kingdom. The only way to lift the curse is for Arthur to pass a test to show he is pure of heart.
To Kill A King:
Gwen’s father is arrested and sentenced to death for working with a sorcerer, even though he was unaware of the client’s abilities or intentions. The injustice causes Morgana to plot with the sorcerer to kill King Uther. Merlin faces another impossible choice when he learns of the plot but is warned by the Great Dragon to allow King Uther to be killed for the good of Camelot.
Le Morte D’Arthur:
Another mythical beast, the Questing Beast, threatens Camelot. Arthur is bitten and doomed to die unless Merlin can make a deal with Nimueh to save his life. The season finale ends with a nice wizard showdown between Merlin and Nimueh.
Each episode of Merlin is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The release only puts three episodes on most of the discs, and never more than four. You would expect pretty solid image presentation, but that’s not exactly true. The image is very often quite softly focused. It is never really sharp at all. Colors are also usually soft. I’m not sure what the issue is here. The BBC is usually known for quite extraordinary quality on their DVD releases. I’m incredibly disappointed in what I see here. Black levels are barely average. Detail is just not something you’re going to find in the set.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is a good deal better than the image. It’s really mostly a dialog show, so that isn’t really has impressive as it might sound. Everything is quite clean and clear. The score works well enough. Every now and again there will be an impressive mix that brings your room to life. It is only stereo, so there’s not a lot to brag about either.
Some of the episodes feature commentary tracks with cast or crew members.
There is a bonus disc which contains the following:
Behind The Magic: This feature is split into two parts. It’s those nasty royalty concerns again. Part one is 31:46. Part two is 30:04. The feature contains plenty of behind-the- camera footage. Much of it is very informal. The footage includes strategy sessions, rehearsal, table reads, and plenty of candid conversation. A real treat is watching Anthony Stewart Head playing a pink Nintendo DS, and getting in trouble from the director because of it.
The Black Knight: (15:56) It’s more of the same kinds of things all taking place while the scene with the Black Knight crashing into the castle is being arranged. There’s mostly frivolity here and little of substance.
Video Diaries: (17:17) There are three of these goofing-around-on-set pieces.
The series focuses on Merlin and Gaius as the boy develops his skills, all the while protecting Camelot from various evils both magical and natural that come its way. He does this in total anonymity, of course, just like young Clark Kent in Smallville. The take is somewhat of an acquired taste, I must say. At first I don’t believe that I was able to completely buy into it all. After a couple of episodes, I was able to divorce it in my own mind from the stories I read so eagerly as a young boy myself. With the help of the BBC and this first season release, it’s safe to say that “magic will return to Camelot”.