“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.
Highlights of the second season include:
Merlin is almost found out when a witchfinder comes to Camelot and accuses Gaius of magic. Of course, Morgana’s powers are starting to show more, and she’ll have to find her way in this season. Lancelot returns to rescue Gwen from kidnappers. The King falls under the spell of a troll, which only strengthens his resolve to defeat all magic in the kingdom.
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:
The Making Of Merlin: (34:11) This feature appears to be a BBC television special on Merlin. The cast and crew offer up their thoughts on the legend and their own take on the story. We get to see some set construction and plenty of behind the scenes footage of the horseback riding done on the show. We even see John Hurt in the motion-capture rig where he performs the voice and facial expressions of the dragon.
A Behind The Scenes Look At Season Two: There is a feature for each of the 13 episodes. They run about 10-14 minutes each. They take you behind the scenes of the specific elements of those episodes.
Cast And Crew Introduction: (10:38) This feature has the cast pretty much describe their characters.
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 second season release, it’s safe to say that “the adventure continues…”.