Merlin series 2 episode 1 review

After a troubled first series, how did Merlin's return to our Saturday night TV screens fare?

As the second series of one of the BBC’s flagship (and expensive) early Saturday night television started,  I am concerned, as I begin to write my weekly show review of each episode, that week on week I will be writing the same thing.

As a prediction for my next few weeks I shall bung the standard ingredients into the Merlin-script-o-matic (it’s a bit like the Dan Brown-o-matic only with more eloquent sentence structure) and predict the next few week’s worth of stories.

1. A new character will enter the show, they will be a baddie and have something to do with magic

2. The new character will in some way endear him or herself to the court, Arthur or Giles (sorry Uther)

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3.  Merlin will find out that the new character is a baddie

4.  He will tell Arthur or somebody else  –  they won’t listen

5. Arthur will get his top off

6.  Said baddie will do something bad, like enchant people, start a plague or set monsters on Camelot

7. Merlin and Richard Wilson will investigate to no avail

8. Merlin will ask the Dragon, who will know the MacGuffin to defeat the baddie

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9. Merlin will defeat the baddie with ease (off screen) and say Arthur did it

10. Repeat week on week

You see, there is a problem with writing to appeal to a wide demographic, as a show like this has to appeal to both young and old alike. And while it seems that the fun factor and nostalgia of Doctor Who managed to pull it off with love and consideration, Merlin has yet to find this subtle balance that appeals to everyone.

That’s not to say I don’t like the show, but, really, it is quite predictable and that’s where my problem with it lies. I should like it  – there aren’t enough fantasy shows on telly and it has all the right ingredients to make an epic show for the ages, combining good acting (for the most part) knock out CG and some superb looking sets, costumes and visual eye candy (for both the ladies and gents). So why then do I feel a bit apathetic to the entire thing?

Even this week had some elements that could and should have been cool. Mackenzie Crook always provides a good creepy bad guy (whether it’s The Office, Pirates and, dare I say it, Demons). Whether it is the weasel-like Cedric or being in possession of the evil wizard Sigan, he shows that a decent set of togs, some black eyeliner and an unblinking stare makes for quite a menacing necromancer. 

With Mr Crook putting on his best and most scary role yet and the concept of a disturbed and resurrected evil sorcerer from the past pitted against Merlin, it could have been great and had the potential to be filmed like a classic Dumbledore versus Voldermort showdown.

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However, with magic and wands and lights and fizz and excitement, the entire thing was a by-the-numbers ‘turn to the dark-side’ style soliloquy followed by a magic battle that took part in Merlin’s mind (i.e. no need to have snazzy effects) with Merlin versus some blue smoke and, voilà! Bad guy who was the bane of Camelot in the past vanquished within a couple of minutes, and an impressively built up finale is cut short with a cheap get-out clause.

That’s not to say everything was bad – the captive Great Dragon under Camelot, for example, looks beautiful and while there is an obligatory bit of banter between Merlin and the mellow voiced impressive pile of pixels, the foreboding of the agreement they made will hopefully make for interesting viewing. John Hurt’s subtle voice acting just adds that edge of class to proceedings. 

The CG, too, for the rest of the show is also to a high standard with the seamless imaging of Camelot looking fantastic. Even the gargoyles that Sigan awakens that attack the guards of Camelot in a Ray Harryhausen-like fashion look really impressive. Especially when they break apart from the ramparts and clamber down the tower, turrets and walls.

So, with mixed feelings, I must admit that, to a point, I enjoyed the first episode. The cast and production crew do a sterling job and the money the Beeb has poured into the show is obvious, but the script and notion for the show really does need a little more work. Let’s see what happens next week…