Merlin: The Complete First Season (DVD)

Routines and chorus scenes with footwork impecc-able.

Merlin. King Arthur. Guinevere. Camelot. The classic legends of the Arthurian age have been told and retold throughout the centuries so often that they’ve become a part of our cultural landscape. Almost any of the big stories created since then, such as superhero epics, sprawling political dramas, or major action/horror/sci-fi franchises, can be found to have some sort of Athurian element, either overt or subtle.

In the new BBC series, Merlin, which later aired in the U.S. on NBC, the creators aim to retell the old legends in two ways, by both taking them back to their roots and examining the origins of these famous characters, while at the same time contemporizing them with modern dialogue and mannerisms. Also, there are swordfights and monsters.

As a teenager, Merlin (Colin Morgan) comes to Camelot to be an apprentice to the court physician Gaius (Richard Wilson, One Foot in the Grave). Upon arriving, Merlin learns that the king, Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has outlawed all magic, and anyone using magic is to be executed. This could be bad news for Merlin, who was born with incredible magic powers. Gaius learns Merlin’s secret and promises to help the boy. But it’s a busy life in Camelot, and Merlin ends up saving the life of the king’s son, the headstrong Prince Arthur (Bradley James). As a “reward,” Uther makes Merlin Arthur’s personal servant. About once a week, it seems, a supernatural threat endangers the kingdom. Merlin secretly uses his magic to help Arthur battle evil and save the day.

Also along for the ride are the king’s ward, Morgana (Katie McGrath, Eden), who might have some supernatural secrets of her own, and Guinevere, (Angel Coulby, Imagine Me and You) or “Gwen” for short, Morgana’s peasant girl servant. Somewhere, deep in a cavern beneath Camelot, Arthur discovers an imprisoned dragon (John Hurt, Hellboy), whose prophetic knowledge can clue Merlin in to his destiny. But can the dragon, with its many riddles, be trusted?

Although there are references galore to the classic Arthur tales, the creators tread their own ground on what to do with the mythology. Because Camelot is more legend than history, this gives the writers and producers leeway to borrow liberally from different eras and versions of the story to create a version that’s entirely their own. This might not be how the stories of Arthur and Merlin traditionally happened, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. By recasting their roles, while hinting throughout about their destiny and the great heroes they will one day become, the creators have these old-timey characters feel contemporary. There’s no better example of this than the thumbs up.

That’s right, in one early episode, Merlin gives Arthur a thumbs up. Also, I think I heard someone say “OK” at one point. This just shows that the creators are taking the classic setting and giving a modern-day feeling. Despite the far-out fantasy trappings, these teens are meant to be today’s teens, only with magic and jousting filling in for texting and, oh I don’t know, let’s say skateboarding.

Although a lot of people have compared the series to the Harry Potter books and movies, Merlin struck me as having more in common with Smallville. In that series, young Clark Kent uses his powers to help others, while striving to keep those powers a secret. Merlin is in more or less the same predicament. Also, both characters are consistently reminded that they are destined for great things in the future. I’m not saying one series ripped off the other, I’m just saying both share a similar tone.

At the heart of Merlin is the developing friendship between Merlin and Arthur. When we meet Arthur, he’s a bully, pushing around the weakling, non-swordfighting Merlin for laughs. As the series progresses, we get to know Arthur more and more. He remains cocky and arrogant, but we also see that he has the skills to back up his attitude. As the king’s son, there’s a lot of pressure on him to be the best. As a knight of Camelot, he doesn’t just strive to be the best, he really is the best. We see him take on other knights in battle, and although they are often older and bigger than he, Arthur still takes them down. Whenever a giant monster arrives and threatens to kill everyone, all eyes automatically turn to Arthur to save them. When someone must travel far and wide on a quest to save the day, it’s automatically understood by everyone that Arthur is the one who will do that.

The dragon says Merlin and Arthur are two sides of the same coin. This is true in their adventures. Arthur is the one in the foreground, sword in hand, confronting evil face to face. Hiding around the corner, in the shadows, is Merlin, secretly using magic to give Arthur a hand. Just one of them would not be enough to save Camelot. Instead, it requires them to work together. Arthur, though, isn’t aware of Merlin’s powers. To him, Merlin is just a clueless servant. This sets up a fun dynamic where Merlin always saves Arthur, but Arthur, not knowing that, continues to berate and look down on Merlin. Their friendship grows over time, though, so that in the final few episodes there’s talk about how each of them would be willing to die to save the other. Such a sacrifice, though, could spell disaster, because the kingdom needs both of them in order to prosper in the future.

Merlin is the nice guy, open-minded and wide-eyed. He’s excited to be in Camelot, the center of the kingdom. But, considering the first thing he sees as he arrives is a man executed for use of magic, he has to be wary. The guy is torn about his powers. He’s told at the beginning that he can do with a thought what more experienced magic-users can only do with elaborate incantations. Gaius sees the potential in Merlin, for both incredible power and incredible good, so Gaius instructs Merlin. He gives Merlin a book about Magic, to further increase Merlin’s powers, but he’s always quick to caution Merlin about the use of magic, and how it’s not necessarily the best solution to any problem.

This is a lesson Merlin is confronted with several times in the course of the series. When a plague sweeps through Camelot, inflicting Gwen’s father among others, Merlin uses his magic to save him. Gwen is happy, and that make Merlin happy, and then it all comes crashing down when Uther and Arthur demand answers. Suddenly, Gwen’s father is accused of sorcery, and things get even worse for Gwen and Merlin. This formula gets an interesting twist in one episode, when Lancelot rides into town, saying he wants to be a knight. He can’t, though, because he’s not of noble blood. Merlin helps convince everyone of a phony Lancelot family history, as a way to help his new friend. Merlin doesn’t do this through magic, but instead through good old-fashioned teen mischief. This backfires, expectedly, just as his magical mischief does. Gaius scolds Merlin, saying, “You can’t play God.” Despite his amazing powers, Merlin has to use his wits and rely on his friends in order to truly do some good.

The other perspective comes from Uther. As the backstory is revealed piece by piece over the episodes, we learn that evil magics almost destroyed Camelot years earlier, and Uther heroically saved the kingdom. Therefore, when he seems obsessed with ridding the land of magic, he has good reason to. This is reinforced when each episode has a different magical threat trying to take him down. When Merlin has to hide his powers from Uther and Arthur in order to keep from being caught and executed, Uther never fully comes across as evil because of this. A powerful threat, yes, but not an enemy. Uther argues that magic must be outlawed because it almost once caused the downfall of Camelot. Gaius, on the other hand, argues that it is a question of how magic is used, and that it is neither good nor evil by itself.

Speaking of evil, the big bad of this season is Nimueh (Michelle Ryan, Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead). It’s pronounced “nim-way.” She’s an ancient sorceress who’s out to get Uther. At first, she’s like some sort of puppet master type, spying on our heroes from a distance and occasionally casting a spell just to screw with everybody. She smiles with delight as she performs her incantations, as if all this intrigue is nothing but a game to her. Just like the other characters, however, more and more is revealed about her, bit by bit, until we learn just why she has such a grudge against the king. Ryan tends to go into “look at how evil I am” overacting at times, but that’s OK because of how groin-explodingly sexy she is.

When not dealing with magical issues that threaten to tear Camelot apart, our teen heroes must deal with household chores, sporting rivalries, and, of course, their raging hormones. The initial setup is that Gwen and Merlin seem to have unrequited romantic feelings for one another, while there is certainly some flirtation happening between Arthur and Morgana. Those with even a basic familiarity with Arthurian lore know that these relationships are not how legend remembers them. Does this mean these characters’ crushes are doomed, or that this version of the story will go off on a tangent wildly different from the classics we’re used to? There’s enough of the new and enough of the old in this series so that we never know where ongoing arcs will go next, and that makes it exciting.

The creators keep pulling fast ones on me. After a few episodes, I thought, “They haven’t done much with Gaius. I wonder why the writers aren’t exploring his background?” Then there’s an episode dealing with Gaius and his past. Next I thought, “Morgana is hardly on the show. Why aren’t they doing anything with her character?” Then there’s an episode devoted to her that reveals more about her. After that, I thought, “It’s great that they’re giving some depth to the supporting cast, but now Merlin, our hero, looks kind of bland by comparison.” Then there’s an episode in which Merlin returns to his home village, and this glimpse of his pre-Camelot life gives us a new understanding of him and enriches his character.

The dragon is a cool creation, looking better than the other CGI monsters, but I wonder what it brings to the series, other than a famous name in the credits. Almost every episode has its one dragon scene, and most of them play out the same way. Merlin goes to the dragon for advice. The dragon reminds Merlin that Merlin has a destiny. It then offers up some ambiguous riddle and flies off. It looks to me like most of these scenes could be removed and the episode could be the same. The only time the dragon really figures in the plot is when it’s introduced, and in another episode about a magic sword. Plus, over time, it’s hinted that the dragon is acting in its own best interests, and not for the good of Merlin or Camelot. This makes sense, seeing as how the dragon is imprisoned beneath Camelot, so I have to wonder why Merlin keeps going back to it for advice over and over. Sadly, it looks like the dragon is only in this show because someone might have said, “Hey, it’s a fantasy show, so let’s have a dragon in it.”

By now you’ve noticed that I’ve written a lot about the themes of the show and the overall character arcs, but not about the production values or each episode’s specific plot. In general, the episodes are the same. A monster-of-the-week threatens Camelot, and Merlin and his pals work together to stop it. That’s pretty much it, every week. The monsters include a griffin, giant snakes, giant bugs, a “questing beast” (head of a snake and the body of a cat), some slimy thing in the water, and so on. After about two-thirds of the way into the season, the creators rely less on CGI beasties, mixing things up a little more with evil sorcerers and the like. I enjoyed these enemies better, because they’re someone the characters can reason with and the actors can do some acting with. The CGI monsters look a little dodgy, I’m afraid, and most of the time, they’re not even in same shots as our heroes. We get a shot of the monster, a shot of Arthur swinging his sword, a shot of the monster, a shot of Arthur, and so on. When Arthur faces a human enemy in battle, we get to see them (or, rather, their stuntmen) actually going at it, and those action scenes were a lot more exciting. While the monster-of-the-week plots are usually wrapped up neatly, it’s the ongoing character arcs that will keep viewers thirsting for the next episode.

All 13 episodes of the first season are on this five-disc set. That’s three or four eps on the first four discs and bonus features on the fifth. The visual quality on the DVDs is stunning. This is a bright and colorful show, filmed on location at an actual castle and countryside in France, and all those colors leap right off the screen. The sound is good, but not as explosive as it could be, especially during the big action. For extras, most of the episodes have commentaries. The ones with the writers and producers show a lot of insight into what they were going for in terms of story, while the actor commentaries tend to me more jokey and giggly. The best of the extras is the two-part “Behind the Magic” documentary. The first part deals with casting and acting, showing how much of a risk it was casting four relative unknowns as the young leads. The second goes into close detail about the making of some episodes, revealing just how much hard work has gone into making the series. This is followed by a couple of video diaries created by the cast, which are edited together with final footage from the same scenes, for a nice compare and contrast. A photo gallery and desktop wallpaper for your computer round out the extras.

Merlin isn’t the perfect series. It sticks too close to formula and the effects are lacking. The earnestness of the cast and a lot of intriguing themes and characters kept me invested in what was happening, though. With a second season on the way, the creators have a great opportunity to build on what they’ve established here, and make the show even better. Fans of lighthearted fantasy adventures should find a lot to enjoy in Merlin.

The Verdict

Although Merlin has practiced magic and broken the code of the knights of Camelot, the king, in his wisdom, has shown mercy and decided that there will be no execution on this day. Not guilty.

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