As the title of Merlin‘s latest episode suggests, ‘Excalibur’ is about the sword, although this story is more about explaining why Uther is such a complete nutter when it comes to sorcery. In fact, at no point in the proceedings does the name ‘Excalibur’ get mentioned; it’s just a sword as such here.
It all starts with the blue-eyed Nimueh up to no good deep in the catacombs beneath Camelot, resurrecting a long dead knight to go and take vengeance on Uther.
The knight then acquires a long dead horse, and all his old equipment (we know not from where) and turns up at Arthur’s crowning as prince to lay down his gauntlet. As we’re all experts in chivalry, this obviously means he wants ‘single combat’. Which translates as they get to beat each other with swords till one dies, or grows old.
Arthur is meant to pick up the glove, but one of his quicker knights picks it up and accepts the challenge. At this point, they think he’s just a black knight, who comes through stained glassed windows, not doors, and wears old, obviously badly kept gear, and sounds like he’s got a throat infection.
But when he dispatches the knight the next day, some suspect that he’s more than just a surly dark dresser. This has overtones of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a late 14th-century poem, although Sir Gawain isn’t one of the knights who fails to kill this undead warrior.
After the second knight bites the dust, it becomes apparent that being impaled on a sword has no impact on this enemy, only magic can strike him down.
The motivation for all this sequential dying? The dead knight is Sir Tristan Dubois, brother of Igrayne, Uther’s wife and Arthur’s mother, killed by Uther. For those not paying attention, I won’t be drawing a family tree. Sorry.
Uther fought him after the death of Igrayne giving birth to Arthur, for which Tristan blamed Uther. That wasn’t entirely unjustified, because it turns out that Igrayne couldn’t have children, but Uther got Nimueh to cast an enchantment that allowed Arthur to be born. She turns up to explain to Uther (and us) that the magic has a ‘balance’, and with one life given, another must be taken away. She also explains that all these nasty things she’s been doing are in vengeance for casting her and her magical buddies out of the court, although this does seem a little extreme for the medieval equivalent of being banned from your local pub.
Merlin does some research and discovers that enchanted swords do the trick, and goes off to make one, as you do. This sword is for Arthur, who’s next for the chop after foolishly picking up the gauntlet.
He gets a sword from Gwen (her father conveniently makes them), and takes it to the dragon to be ‘burnished’. In this instance ‘burnished’ is a nice word for magical dragon phlegm, because that’s what the dragon does with it; he gobs on it. Note to self, avoid dragons when they have a heavy cold.
Of course the dragon doesn’t spit on any old sword for any old reason. He tells Merlin that the sword is for Arthur only and no one else.
And this is where things go slightly wrong, because Uther has decided to take his son’s place and had Gaius drug him to make sure he’s not there at the appointed time and place.
Uther takes the magical sword, and Sir Tristan explodes in a highly unspectacular way when it’s stuck in him. I was sort of expecting more from Excalibur, but he’s dead-dead now I guess.
Merlin, in the meanwhile, goes back to the dragon and tells him that the simple instructions he got given weren’t followed, which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t please him. He tells Merlin to take the sword and put it beyond the reach of mortal man. In Merlin’s very limited imagination, this equates to throwing it in the lake. No hand catches it, because they never introduced the Lady of the Lake to do that. And by definition, the whole ‘Sword in the Stone’ bit of Arthurian legend is toast too, it seems.
I’ve mixed feelings about this episode, because on one level this show is better when it gets a little dark, and it is here. It also worked to better explain Uther, although he might well be back to being bonkers next week.
What disappointed me was that in a single episode they effectively used up ‘Excalibur’, without even calling it by name. Given that there are so few symbolic parts of the legend they’ve included, to use one of the best up over a single story seems less than frugal. My other complaint is that very little magical happened yet again, in a supposedly magical series. Perhaps most of the budget got blown on John Hurt’s voice…who knows. We kept being told how powerful the sword was, but saw very little evidence of this.
The trailer reveals that next week Merlin and Arthur are attacked by Dr. Julian Bashir, who’s probably very annoyed that he’s not in the new Star Trek movie. And it hints that for Merlin to beat the superior technology of the Federation, he is forced to show Arthur his magic powers. But then,after the terrible ‘new Doctor Who’ rubbish the BBC foisted on those viewers who watched Children in Need, I won’t actually believe that until I see the show.
Read Mark’s review of last week’s episode here.