The parallels are obviously there to be drawn between this and the previous Robin Hood production by the BBC, given that they’re reworking British mythology. In Robin Hood the diversions from the legend were initially subtle, with the basic framework of the story remaining consistent. But having got away with bending that family favourite, the entire premise of Merlin appears to contradict all I’ve ever seen or read about the Arthurian legend. Normally Merlin is already old when Arthur is born, and in fact even plays his part to make sure the boy is born, before becoming his tutor and mentor.
Except in the BBC’s Merlin, he and Arthur are the same age, presumably because their target audience is young adults and they find old people ‘boring’. For those expecting someone older they’re thrown Richard Wilson still desperately trying to cast off the ghost of Victor Meldrew as King Uther’s Court Physician, and the wise old fart in these proceedings.
On that they’ve layered some entirely manufactured motivation in that magic is banned in the Kingdom, and those found employing it get the sharp end of a sword for their impertinence. So Merlin must use only covert magic, the type that presumably keeps the BBC production budget in check. It needs that help because along with Richard Wilson they’re managed to drag other known performers into this including Anthony Head as Uther Pendragon, and the voice of John Hurt as the Great Dragon.
If you’re just gone ‘what Dragon?' Then join the party, because I don’t recall there ever being dragons in Arthur’s story, but there is one now! Hey BBC, can we have some Trolls and Orcs in there too please? Or even the Cyclops if you’re mixing your mythologies. It’s like someone in BBC Drama wrote ‘Merlin’, ‘Arthur’ and ‘Medieval Costumes’ at the top of an sheet of paper and then said ‘job done’, no need to fuss with the details.
Therefore it’s easy to think that this is yet another excuse for the BBC to leverage its copious costume department, and while there is truth in that, we should perhaps rejoice that it’s not another rehash of one of Dickens', Bronte's or Jane Austen's works for the twentieth or more time. It’s a personal fantasy of mine that someone radical will head the organisation at some point and put a veto on all costume dramas that they’ve previously done, because I’ve seen more Taffeta, Crinoline, Bustles, Bonnets and Mr Darcys than you could reasonably fit in an Airbus 380. But I digress.
In this launch episode they’ve taken on the seemingly challenging task of introducing the characters and telling the story of Merlin and Arthur’s first meeting, all in 45 minutes. It fails horribly on both counts and in numerous other ways.
The characters range from being acceptable to gammon exponents. In terms of an overall style the only consistency is that it’s uneven and often very stilted. With so many characters to introduce, some got just a line or two, while others only required for the story get pages of dialogue. One of these is Eve Myles (Gwen in Torchwood) playing a hag intent on revenge for the death of his son for practicing witchcraft. After we and Merlin meet Arthur, we’d have been happy if she’d succeeded in killing him, but disappointingly Merlin saves him.
The entire build up to this event is bizarre at times, because it’s like they couldn’t decide if this was mythology or a fairytale. Parallels are draw with Snow White, like that’s meant to be relevant somehow. Others scenes are supposedly comic, accompanied with some of the campest incidental music that could have been borrowed from a Carry-On movie. This hints at the mishmash that is Merlin, it’s all over the place. One minute it’s legend, then slapstick, then panto, then drama, horror and then mystery – they missed out the science fiction and western genres, but we’ve another 12 episodes of this for that to be rectified.
Merlin also suffers somewhat from the same malady that Robin Hood was cursed, that we have a historical context but people acting and thinking in a 21st century fashion. But despite this I actually started to enjoy Robin Hood, though I’m not actually going to cut Merlin that slack through association.
What grinded from the outset here is that none of the script had been read for ‘sense’, as in making any. One of the first scenes we’re presented is Merlin enters the CGI castle looking for Gaius (Richard Wilson). He encounters two guards either side of a door and tells them he’s looking for Gaius. They point inside and he goes without them asking who he is or what he wants with Gaius. So what was it they were guarding then, that they let anyone through who knows the name of someone in the castle but they’ve no idea who they are? Did nobody in scripting mention how stupid this seems? No, well Merlin was full of such obvious gaffs along with all the other glaring flaws.
Overall this wasn’t the start I’d hoped for. They’ve gone so far away from the mythology that I’m not sure what this is supposed to be But it’s not just me who’s confused, clearly the idea of how it’s presented hasn’t crystallised with the writers, it’s got multiple personalities none of which are especially attractive.
Colin Morgan seems a genuinely talented actor, who’ll do well, once people have forgotten Merlin, I’m sure.
You can find out more on Merlin, incidentally, at www.bbc.co.uk/merlin.