Atlantis versus Merlin: a side-by-side comparison

Giles compares the early episodes of the BBC's Atlantis to their equivalent in Merlin's first series, but which fares better?

The only thing we truly know about the ancient city of Atlantis is that it became lost. The danger with the television series currently bearing its name is that, three episodes in, it could become lost rather more quickly. Lost under the inadequacies of its plotting and the variable quality of its acting. 

However, three episodes may be too early to pass judgement. After all, here’s a new series finding its feet and trying valiantly to fill that all important Saturday evening drama slot that’s aimed at all ages; we should surely be trying to give it a chance to grow. What might be helpful in making a judgement is if there was some other series we could perhaps use as a marker. Maybe one which also had to please all ages in fitting the family drama slot, which represented a sort of fantasy yang to Doctor Who’s sci fi yin and sought to introduce new actors alongside some old stagers. Something which took an old myth and did a fresh turn on it. Now if we could only think of a name…..

Atlantis is, of course, famously filling the slot vacated by Merlin, and comes from much the same team, although the writing duties have so far fallen wholly on Howard Overman rather than producers Jonny Capps and Julian Murphy.  It’s also true that Merlin took a while to find its feet, and really took off in its last two seasons.  So maybe we can do a quick comparative re-cap?  Just to see if the nay-sayers are wrong about Atlantis, as they were about Merlin.  Episode three of Atlantis, just screened, saw our hero Jason, and his two companions, face the dangers of bull-jumping in the arena, while Merlin, in episode three of his first series, was faced with the dilemma of whether to use his magic to solve a sinister plague.

Happily, there a number of similar character and narrative structures for us to make a reasonable comparison. So, here we go.

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1. Main character – Merlin versus Jason

In episode three, Merlin is still something of an innocent at large in Camelot, uncertain of his destiny and trying to work out how to come to terms with his magical powers. He is an under-stated hero unrecognised by pretty well everyone, and while he makes big mistakes (healing Gwen’s father by magic… major fail; claiming to be a sorceror in front of the court to save Gwen… endearing attempt to make up) we somehow manage to find ourselves rooting for him as the underdog that he is. 

Jason is rather less complicated. He seems to have adapted pretty well instantly to life in Atlantis, despite spending his first twenty years or so as your average 21st century tortured soul. He’s given up shouting about his destiny by this episode, and other than the need to be the only bull fighter without a shirt he shows precious few other failings or weaknesses. He’s also pretty nifty in a fight. 

Score: I’d say Merlin wins hands down – far more interesting as a character, and more winningly played. Merlin 1, Atlantis 0.

 

2. The main character’s two friends

Ok, this is a little more of a stretch, but I’ve gone for Arthur and Gaius versus Pythagorus and Hercules.

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In Merlin, Arthur is starting to show some affection towards his new servant/companion (even troubling to save him from Uther’s anger) yet maintains an ambiguous distance as Cameot’s prince, while Gaius and Merlin’s relationship continues to develop effectively as mentor and pupil, with the inclusion of some nice comic dialogue between them.

Jason��s two companions, Pythagoras and Hercules, stand more as equals, but in episode three Pythagoras has little to do, although Hercules’ role as the comic relief continues apace.

Score – despite Hercules’ valiant efforts, it’s another win for Merlin thanks to the nuances developing in both Arthur and Gaius’ respective relationships. Merlin 2, Atlantis 0.

 

3. The Big Bad – Nimueh versus Pasiphae

Nimueh has less screen time, but Michelle Ryan’s sorceress is suitably ill-intentioned if perhaps a little too smiley to convincingly evince a sense of menace.  Pasiphae, in the hands of Sarah Parish, meanwhile radiates a scenery chewing malevolence that frankly transcends her material, although her clay model isn’t a patch on Nimueh’s.

Score – no doubts here, a big win for Atlantis. Merlin 2, Atlantis 1.

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4. The Servant Girl – Gwen versus Medusa

Gwen is the dutiful daughter and servant who ends up in prison thanks to Merlin’s well intentioned but disastrous healing of her father. Medusa risks life and limb to deal with Pasiphae’s witchcraft. Medusa is probably the more spirited character at this stage, getting properly involved on her mission while Gwen is the girl who things happen to, for example accepting prison rather than fighting it.

Score – Pretty even, but Medusa wins on pro-activity. Merlin 2, Atlantis 2.

 

5. The King – Uther versus Minos

It’s almost unfair to do this, given how little time Alexander Siddiq gets to develop his character compared with Anthony Head’s central figure of Uther. Even so, Minos moves from menacing monarch to happy cheerleader a little too readily, whilst Head’s Uther is a much more conflicted character, showing glimpses of humanity, but not mercy, underneath that severe authoritarianism.

Score – Uther wins it here. Merlin 3, Atlantis 2.

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6. The King’s daughter – Morgana versus Ariadne

Both princesses have opportunities to develop their characters in their respective episode three roles, but while Ariadne is a beautiful but rather passive figure, doomed to keep hearing the deathless assertion from her step-mother that she is “in love with that boy”, McGrath’s Morgana is in full on action mode in Camelot, defending her servant and forcing Arthur to fight the monster in the water, as well as going along with him for the ride. 

Score – Morgana, still on the side of the angels, wins it for Merlin. Merlin 4, Atlantis 2.

 

7. The narrative arc

In episode three, Merlin moves us on in both character development – especially the central figure of Merlin himself, trying to come to terms with what his magic actually means for him and his destiny – and story, as it hints at the past conflict between Nimueh and Uther. The episode itself also contains a good mix of humour and drama, with a suitably strong climax in the defeat of the Avank (and yes, I’ve probably spelt it wrongly, but really – an avank?) by Arthur, Morgana and some covert magic from Merlin. Atlantis, in contrast, barely moves us anywhere. There’s a Gladiator-esque influence in the whole bull leaping thing, but this represents pretty much the whole episode’s plot device. Jason’s character remains two-dimensional, with none of the uncertainties that plague Merlin in his episode three, and beyond rather hammily telling us that Ariadne loves Jason (though the Gods know why), the only character with any development at all is Pasiphae. Long may she reign.

Score – It’s a win all the way for Merlin here, making the final score, Merlin 5, Atlantis 2.

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Now I accept that the above exercise is a tad simplistic, but I could argue that it is, if anything, unfair on Merlin. After all, Merlin’s creators were still in their relative infancy when it came to putting on Saturday early evening drama. Since the same people are responsible for Atlantis, you’d have thought they might have managed to do more than simply move us back to square one. It is as if they have neglected to take any lessons from their development of Merlin over five years and have simply decided to start over.

The key failing of Atlantis has been to invest too much time in slightly better CGI at the expense of its characters (a key failing of George Lucas as well, but he did have several millions to play with). The team may not have been helped by the central casting. Colin Morgan was a likeable lead who successfully conveyed an emotional depth. He was sometimes confronted with the occasional lame script – inevitable in a thirteen week run you might say – but he never failed to invest his character with an appealing sense of vulnerability coupled with the powerful notion of the everyman we can all empathise with infused with extra powers we all love to imagine having.  It’s the same notion that makes the X-Men so successful. 

Over in Atlantis, meanwhile, Jack Donnelly’s acting calibre is yet to be showcased, since the actor has been cast as a rather plastic action hero who it is virtually impossible to identify with, no matter how many times he heads over to the Oracle to ask what his purpose in the world is. 

The Saturday family drama slot is a ferociously difficult one to fill, no doubt about that. Overman, Capps and Murphy are all talented men with past triumphs to their credit. I just wonder whether the budget they’ve been allowed here has encouraged them to think of spectacle more than character and story, to the overall detriment of what seemed a promising, if slightly convoluted, concept. Only time will tell, but as the above exercise suggests (if you accept the premise of it and you may not of course!), by the third episode we the audience should be starting to care a little more about the fate of the people on screen who we’re being asked to spend forty-five minutes with every week.  I’m not sure I did.

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