Merlin - Colin Morgan
Arthur - Bradley James
Gwen - Angel Coulby
Uther - Anthony Head
Gaius - Richard Wilson
Morgana - Katie McGrath
OTHER MERLIN SERIES
OTHER MYTHICAL SHOWS
Mists of Avalon
The Dresden Files
Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire
Jason and the Argonauts
The Sword of Xanten
In a time when magic is banned throughout the kingdom under pain of death, a young man with incredible magic powers comes to Camelot and discovers that he has a great destiny, a destiny that will bind him to the prince of the realm and bring him into conflict with powerful enemies.
Retelling the Arthurian legends with the main roles taken by teenagers in a multicultural medieval Britain and with a dragon living under the castle Disneyland-style wasn't exactly a pitch that set us alight with excitement. MERLIN managed to cross through its many issues on sheer entertainment value to become one of the surprises of 2008.
Yes, some of the CGI is shockingly bad. Yes, it takes a while for the young actors to come into their own. Yes, the plotting is unoriginal even by Arthurian legend standards. Yes, some of the dialogue is clunky and we don't remember Arthur being called a prat in Mallory's text. None of this matters, however, once the stories start rolling. The characters are surprisingly appealing and the stories whizz by easily, whilst the many negatives prove to be minor.
The young cast are initially a bit shaky, but they improve as the show continues. It helps that Richard Wilson is there as Gaius, court physician and mentor to Merlin whilst Anthony Head finds it takes a while to get a handle on King Uther, but also finally gets into the role.
Camelot looks pretty good, event if it is full of ethnic races that wouldn't have been there in these times and is an impressive backdrop. Some of the action falls flat, not least because it involves pre-watershed audiences and seems to have the killing blow removed for the benefit of the younger audience. The Great Dragon is fine piece of work, but some of the other monsters are particularly poor in their creation.
MERLIN isn't as magical as it might have hoped, but it is damned sight more so than we expected.
Young Merlin comes to Camelot with a letter from his mother conferring him to the wise teachings of the court physician Gaius. The first thing he sees is the execution of a man accused of carrying out witchcraft, which King Uther Pendragon has outlawed. Merlin, however, is already a powerful wizard, a natural wizard, a wizard with a destiny.
At least that's what the Great Dragon imprisoned beneath the castle tells him. Merlin is destined to help Arthur become the once and future king destined to unite the country of Albion. First, though, he is going to have to stop calling Arthur and ass and find a way to protect him from the evil witch out to avenge her lost son by killing Uther's son, Arthur, during a concert that the lady she is impersonating is due to give at the castle.
The opening episode of BBC1's new fantasy series certainly has a lot of backstory to get through. It has to introduce the characters, set up the kingdom and the ban on magic, let Merlin in on his destiny and fit in the story of the witch out to kill Arthur. Fortunately, this all fits together nicely into a fairly fast-moving 45 minutes that rattles along with never a dull moment. The story of the witch is given short shrift as it jostles with the backstory for space, but something had to give way.
Young people in fantasy epics is a new trend. Following on the heels of THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA and THE GOLDEN COMPASS, this firmly puts its youngsters at the core of the story. Colin Morgan makes for an appealing lead whilst Bradley James is suitably arrogant as Arthur. The young women come off worse as neither Gwen nor Morgana really get much screen time. There are question marks against all of their acting talents, but there's time yet to make judgements on that. The adult support is varied. Richard Wilson is spot on with his kindly court physician, but Anthony Head (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER|) doesn't manage to capture the strength, gravitas and threat that Uther Pendragon ought to present. Eve Myles (TORCHWOOD) adds little as the vengeful witch, both old and young.
The setting of Camelot is quite nicely realised, although having Merlin call Arthur an 'ass' and a 'prat' as well as utter such phrases as 'No way' is somewhat jarring to say the least. The special effects are sparingly used to begin with and are pretty effective, but then the Great Dragon appears and is far less so, even though he is voiced by John Hurt. The 'Sleeping Beauty' scene with the witch sending the castle to sleep, though, looks fantastic whilst making little sense.
MERLIN then gets off to an entertaining start.Written by Julian Jones
A knight called Valiant comes to Camelot to take part in the tournament. He has a secret weapon in the shape of a enchanted sword whose emblem of a trio of snakes can come to life at his command and render an opponent paralysed. When he wins his way through to the final battle against Arthur, Merlin must find a way to reveal the shield's secret or see the Prince die.
After the introduction, the first episode proper arrives and it is an improvement on the opener, but there are still issues to be worked on. The story sets up an intriguing premise, but then doesn't really know what to do with it. Even the main character doesn't know what to do with it, hence a wholly pointless trip to the cave of the Great Dragon to get some advice that is no advice and is really just an excuse to shoehorn the creature into the episode.
More effective, however, are some of the subtexts to the plot. The inherent class problems in which the word of a trusted servant is worth nothing against the word or a strange knight is touched upon. Uther's arrogance and inability to bend to the point of not being able to apologise for a wrong incurred is a factor and Merlin gets a glimpse of Arthur's world, not the world of glory and adoring girls, but the world of a duty to his people and his father that is so great it could take his life uselessly.
Will Mellor makes for a glowering knight Valiant, but his motives are never made clear. That he wants to gain entrance into the King's company through success in the tournament is clear, but why is not revealed and how he thinks that killing Arthur could make him one of Uther's favourites is beyond any common sense.
The effects that create the snakes don't convince that these are real beasties, but since they are enchanted there is no real reason for them to look real.Written by Howard Overman
A plague has come to Camelot, a plague of magical origin. Whilst Gaius searches for a scientific cure and Arthur tears the city apart looking for a sorceror, Merlin risks using his own magic to heal Gwen's father. That backfires when Gwen is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death. Merling must act, and quickly, if the cause of the plague is to be tackled in time to save the innocent.
Now this is more interesting. The introduction of a powerful nemesis for Uther (Michelle Ryan of BIONIC WOMAN) promises something of a story arc for future episodes whilst Merlin is faced with the stark truths that he can't save everyone and that sometimes doing the right thing is absolutely the wrong thing to do.
Either the younger performers are improving or we're just getting used to them, but the story gives everyone more to do. Anthony Head's Uther is caught between what he knows to be right and the need to save as many his subjects as he can, whilst Gaius' frantic search for the truth using science is nicely underplayed by Richard Wilson. The only unwelcome presence is that of John Hurt as the Great Dragon. That's not saying that John Hurt is ever unwelcome, but the Dragon is once again shoehorned into the plot to give cryptic, but eventually useful, information. Does it have to be in every episode? If so, it is going to get tedious very quickly.
The makeup of the disease is quite startling, nasty without being too gruesome for the youngsters and the monster that Arthur, Merlin and Morgana face in the caverns below the city is kept in the shadows enough not to be too bad.
The Mark of Nimueh marks an improvement in the series that we can only hope continues.Written by Julian Jones
Powerful sorceress Nimueh comes to Camelot in disguise to take her revenge on Merlin for blocking her plans. She secretes a poisoned chalice in the presents that a new ally has brought and manoeuvres Merlin into drinking from it. The only cure lies in a flower that grows in a cave protected by a dangerous beast. Arthur defies his father and sets out to claim the flower.
There's nothing like a good quest to give give a fantasy story a boost and this isn't a bad one at all. Nimueh's manipulations in getting Merlin to drink the poison are pretty effective and the quest element is played pretty straightforward before Anthony Head's Uther throws a an unexpected spin at the end. This is a much smarter and snappier plot that rattles along at a good pace and whilst it won't challenge anyone's brain cells it is a little less obvious than the previous ones.
Michelle Ryan gets more screen time as Nimueh and whilst she overplays the innocent smile, hers is a witch of a particularly alluring kind.
Less effective are the monsters that are thrown into the mix. The giant lizard guardian of the cave is well enough realised, but it's simple presence doesn't fit with the times somehow. At least the way that Arthur deals with it is impressive. The giant spiders infesting the cave are far less impressive and don't come off at all.
MERLIN is getting better in leaps and bounds and is fast overcoming the doubts that we had about it at the beginning.Written by Ben Vanstone
Merlin is saved from a magical creature by the timely intervention of a young man by the name of Lancelot, whose dearest dream is to serve as one of the knights of Camelot. As he is not of noble birth, the law does not allow for him to be knighted, so Merlin forges a noble seal and gets the job done, but the counterfeit is spotted and Lancelot jailed, just when he is needed most to fight the apparently invincible Gryphon.
Well this is playing around with the legends and no mistake, but the introduction of Lancelot does allow for a few nice moments such as when Merlin teases Gwen innocently 'if you had to choose between Arthur and Lancelot which one would you take?'. Aside from that, the plot is a simple 'snobbery is bad' moral that doesn't even bother to explain where the gryphon came from in the first place.
The creature is well enough realised when shown on its own, but when it has to interact with the live action the limitations start to emerge. It never looks like the humans are fighting something that is really there.
Santiago Cabrera makes a welcome enough guest appearance as the courtly Lancelot, being every bit as chivalrous and charming as the legend require him to be.Written by Jake Michie
Morgana falls ill of a sickness that Gaius cannot identify let alone cure. A new physician named Edwin appears and claims to have a 'remedy to cure all ills'. Since he was responsible for Morgana's illness, he is able to cure it, discrediting Gaius and putting King Uther's life in mortal danger.
This is much more a game of tactics and a battle of wits than the action of previous episodes. Gaius and Edwin move around each other like the pieces on a chess board, probing for an opening, one trying hard to understand what is happening and why, the other to strike at the king before his strategy is revealed.
In gaining knowledge of Merlin's magical abilities, Edwin is able to blackmail Gaius into choosing between the life of his king or his young ward. Now that's not a choice made lightly. The mind games are more interesting for the older audience whilst the younger ones might be kept happy with appearances from the Great Dragon and magical bugs chewing into people's brains (you don't see this and the bugs are pretty unrealistic anyway, but you get the idea).Written by Julian Jones
Morgana has a dream that tells of Arthur drowning whilst a woman stands above him. The woman duly turns up the very next day, begging asylum with her father. Sofia, as she is called, quickly grows close with Arthur to the point where he is asking his father to allow their marriage after only two days. Gaius suspects enchantment and Merlin learns that they are really exiled Shee, cast out from immortal Avalon for their crimes and needing Arthur's soul as the price of readmittance.
Another week and another set of magic users come to Camelot to do harm to Arthur. We're suprised they haven't just locked the gates against everyone and had done with it. Still, though the format is showing signs of getting a little stale, there is fun to be had with the bantering dialogue and Merlin's continual appearances in the town stocks. Colin Morgan and Bradley James are growing into their roles quite nicely as well, which only helps matters.
Now if we could have a little variation on the theme...Written by Ben Vanstone
A druid, visiting Camelot to pick up supplies, is captured and executed for wizardry, but his young son is hidden by Merlin in Morgana's chambers. He is taken ill from an infected wound and requires Gaius' aid to recover. An escape attempt fails, leaving the boy scheduled to be executed, but Arthur's conscience cannot allow that. He needs Merlin's help to spirit the boy back to his druid people, but Merlin learns that this boy is Mordred who, as a man, will be the death of Arthur.
Knowing what havoc he would cause in later life, would you be capable of killing Adolf Hitler as a baby? It's a favourite question of writers about time travel and it's dressed up here and taken out for a new spin. It's not Hitler, of course, but rather Mordred, who in original legends was Arthur's son by his sister Morgan Le Fey. There are no unseemly incestuous questions here of course - it is a family show after all, but it is a largely action-free story that is more about the conflict between loyalty and morality or between a great wrong and a great evil.
Katie MacGrath's Morgana gets a more rounded character as she struggles with her own secrets as a seer and thus her bond with the stranded youth and her loyalty to Uther, who has been like a father to her. Uther is also the king and his will is absolute and Anthony Head manages to summon up some of the ruthless, barely restrained violence in the man to actually project a character capable of creating the kingdom of Camelot. After this episode, you wouldn't take him on when he's angry.
The playing around with the mythology will make the purists apoplectic, but for once the spin on the legends actually makes stronger narrative sense.Written by Howard Overman
Nimueh is back, conjuring up the dead body and spirit of a knight with a grudge against Uther. This 'wraith' cannot be killed by mortal weapons, so when Arhtur takes up the Black Knight's challenge, Merlin goes to the Great Dragon to forge a sword of magic, a sword that can only be wielded by Arthur.
The story of the Black Knight is welded neatly into the mythology that the show is setting up for itself. Uther's hatred of magic comes from his own folly and casts more depth into the man, a depth that is darker and worse than shown before. This is the first sign that there is an underlying cohesive mythology that the team have created rather than just the plundering of various tales for a bunch of teens to romp through.
The creation of Excalibur starts off more problematic, there not being a sword, a stone, a lady or a lake in attendance, but that is partly put right by the end. Merlin promises that none shall wield the sword but Arthur and then fails to keep that promise almost immediately. The Great Dragon's response to this betrayal seems positively restrained, undermining his warnings of dire consequences should anyone else wield it.
The action is well-handled, although the fact that the wraith can be shown to be stabbed whilst the camera cuts away from the living knights being impaled is extremely jarring and irritating. The knight's arrival, coming through the window at Camelot on his horse, pretty much makes what follows anticlimactic in terms of spectacle.
The adventure does indeed continue.Written by Julian Jones
Merlin's village in a neighbouring kingdom is attacked by raiders demanding to be given the fruits of the harvest. When their own king does nothing to help, Merlin's mother comes to beg for help from Uthyr who refuses. Merlin determines to return home and both Gwen and Morgana insist on accompanying him, soon followed by Arthur. They only a have a few days to turn the villagers into a fighting force capable of routing the bad guys. If not, then Merlin will be forced to use his powers in front of Arthur.
MERLIN does THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, although in this case it's more the magnificent four. The story isn't just inspired by its source but takes whole chunks of it almost verbatim. Since the source was so great, however, this copy manages to be thoroughly entertaining as well. Alexander Siddig (STAR TREK DEEP SPACE NINE) makes for a surprisingly convincing villain willing to kill innocent people to make his point.
Far more interesting than the plot is Merlin's dilemma. Arthur has been trained since birth to hate sorcery and so if he sees Merlin saving the village through magic their friendship and Merlin's destiny will be over. On the other hand, how can he stand by and let his friends and their families be wiped out when he could stop it? When this is at the heart of the story then it is far more watchable and the young leads are able to make the most of its dramatic potential. John Dempsie also does well as Merlin's village friend who knows his secret and remains true, but is angry thanks to a family tragedy. Though his plot arc is predictable, his backstory is surprisingly well fleshed out, making his character all the better for it.
MERLIN is going from strength to strength in terms of entertainment value. Now if only something could be done about the originality...Written by Ben Vanstone
Whilst out hunting, Arthur kills a unicorn. As a result, a plague falls upon Camelot. All the edible crops die and the people begin to starve. Arthur must take a series of challenges that will either lift the curse of see Camelot destroyed and one of those tests will see either Arthur or Merlin dead.
Whilst the existence of unicorns in MERLIN's universe may appear at first twee, the results of killing one are not. Arthur's guilt over the suffering of his people and the growing desperation in the kingdom are well drawn, as is the conflict between father and son as to how the throne should best handle the crisis.
The rat-eating scene is one of the funniest moments that the show has come up with yet and there is more than a whiff of THE PRINCESS BRIDE in the scene where Arthur and Merlin sit down to two goblets of water, one of which is deadly poison.Written by Howard Overman
A rogue sorceror has come into possession of an ancient artefact that can alter the very nature of matter - the alchemist's stone. Whilst testing it out in Gwen's father's forge, he is interrupted by Arthur and his guards. He escapes, but Gwen's father is captured and sentenced to death. Morgana takes extreme exception to this and conspires with the sorcerors to bring down King Uther. Merlin knows of the plot and must decide whether he ought to intercede to save the life of a man he also detests.
MERLIN comes of age as a show with this episode. The fact that Gwen's father is actually killed comes as something of a shock and then Morgana starts to show some of that steely determination and hatred that will make her such a terrible enemy to Arthur (if the legends are to be believed).
This is definitely Katie McGrath's episode. Her performance is utterly assured and chillingly real. When she conspires with the head warlock to bring about Uther's death then the hatred is there to see. All of the others are mere bit players in her drama. She leapfrogs over the other young actors who have had much more screen time and proves herself to be the most accomplished of the lot.
We've been surprised by how entertaining MERLIN has consistently been, but this is the first time that we have been surprised at how good the show has been.Written by Jake Michie
Arthur is bitten by a poisonous beast that leaves him on the edge of death. His only chance is for Merlin to go to the Isle fo Blessed and there seek the power over life and death. The old religion that Uther has repressed so terribly will demand a high price, though, a life for a life.
This final episode of the first season is a little disappointing on the original plotting front (someone falls ill and either Merlin or Arthur must go on a quest to save their life? This was already done in The Poisoned Chalice and, to a lesser extent in The Labyrinth of Gedref), but manages to deliver on most of the other fronts. Everyone seems too eager to die for someone else and Merlin must have guessed at the price he would have to pay or else he is terminally thick, but the revelation of the Great Dragon's purpose and the finale showdown with Nimueh are satisfying moments.
The episode ties up enough of the plot strands nicely to make this season work as a standalone should another season fail to materialise, but there are hints aplenty of darker, more turbulent times ahead and despite our earlier misgivings about the show we want to see those explored.
There can be no doubt for us that MERLIN has proved entertaining enough to warrant, nay demand, another series.Written by Julian Jones
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