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Category:    Home > Reviews > Fantasy > Teens > TV > British > Merlin – The Complete First Season (2008/BBC DVD Set)

Merlin – The Complete First Season (2008/BBC DVD Set)


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: B-     Episodes: B+



Any television series that name checks Geoffrey of Monmouth, as a recurring character, deserves a serious look-see.  And, in this case, it is well-deserved.  Though only a minor character, his inclusion is indicative of the overall series approach, an approach that may be assessed as very fine, indeed.


Independently produced by Shine Limited for the BBC, Merlin at once dovetails BBC cred with the Shine independent sensibility that produced the successful Hex series.  Cynics see the series as riding on the coat tails of the Potter phenomenon and they are, of course, right in that.  However, the open door that producers perceived they have chosen not to slink in but boldly stride through.


The lead roles are all taken by relatively young, relatively inexperienced actors and casting must be noted as the show’s first triumph.  The general setup, which might just as easily be called Merlin: The Early Years or Young Merlin, follows the young magician in an apprenticeship to Gaius, the court physician at Camelot.  Merlin is portrayed by Colin Morgan, who is simply brilliant in the role; charismatic, believable, and exciting; he leads a stellar cast in a fresh take on British “historical” lore.  If you are looking for a slavish dedication to the original source material, Merlin is not for you.  The First Season chronicles Merlin’s coming to Camelot, where the King, Uther Pendragon, has banned all magic, his first encounters with Prince Arthur, and various supporting characters, such as Guinevere, Morgana, and Lancelot.


The overarching storyline, which is frequently the major drawback of prequels, is very nicely paced, so there is little of the jarring feeling between standalone episodes and mythos stories, if you will, as there often were in fantasy shows such as Buffy and The X-Files.  Guinevere is played in a restrained, toned down manner by Angel Coulby, giving the role an almost Cinderella-ish feel.  Morgana, (Katie McGrath) is a spot-on blend of hauteur, earthiness, and sexuality; there is a constant, potent suggestion of trouble ahead.  Bradley James’s Prince Arthur is something of a tallow-headed jock and if this sounds like a cliché, it is; yet, he pulls off, quite probably because, in his constant pairing with Merlin, he brings a nice contrast to the show.  Further, the cliché is not static; James flesh out the role nicely and giving it a multi-dimensional quality


Ironically, it is the older actors who were, according to the two-part behind the scenes extra, hired to provide stability that prove to be most problematic.  In particular, Anthony Head just seems uncomfortable in his role of angry monarch, Uther Pendragon; often he manages, more often he misses the mark.  It feels like he is reading the character wrong, yet making a workman-like effort.  To a lesser extent, Richard Wilson’s Gaius seems somehow understated or perhaps underwritten.  One might begin to take bets when he will be killed off (and the writers play off nicely on this idea in the final episode) and in that may lie the problem.  One can’t avoid all sense of predestination in a prequel whose outcome is, ahem, set in stone.


Season 1 consists of 12 episodes.  CGI has come a long way from previous television fantasy incarnations that Merlin evokes, such as Xena and Hercules.  Only the long shots really seem unnatural and a good deal of the special effects are just that, considering their small screen origins.  The repetitive nature of some of the tropes – Merlin saves someone’s life, Arthur is indebted, Arthur alternately treats Merlin as a servant or a friend – can get a bit wearing after awhile, but on the whole this time kind of thing passes painlessly.  It remains to be seen in the coming seasons if these kinds of traps can be avoided.  One would expect a show of this nature, if all goes correctly, to grow with its young actors and, in that, there is some hope for the future, both of Merlin and a certain once and future king.


What may be most surprising of all is the level of consistency from episode to episode; there is very little falling off of quality or interest.  Stories move along nicely on their own while the writers are busy filling in background which will inevitably come to the fore.  As with the main cast, villains and other guest appearances tend to be quite strong.   Casting may, in fact, be the series’ strongest suit.  Occasionally, the plotting becomes predictable, which really is unsurprising in a show of this nature, dealing as it does with a dualistic view of life, good vs. evil.  Hopefully, Merlin will explore some of the grey areas in between, as the philosophical underpinnings magic itself would suggest it might.


A family show for all ages, slanted perhaps to a slightly younger demographic, Merlin is aired in the U.S. on ABC.  Though it might be too much to hope that a stray copy of “The History of the Kings of Britain” might be seen laying about in a future episode, still, with Geoffrey of Monmouth serving as a sort of surrogate librarian (perhaps this is why Anthony Head seems so out of sorts), a girl might dream, eh?



-   Don Wentworth


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