This review contains spoilers.
4.1 The Darkest Hour Part One
Filling the void left by the final episode of Doctor Who, Merlin returns with a cracker of an episode that starts off the fourth series with a darker, more dangerous tone.
Finally giving Katie McGrath something to do other than look pretty and smirk evilly, Morgana has left a trail of destruction in Camelot, headed over to the Isle of the Blessed, sacrificed her sister to bolster her power, and is making plans to wreak further revenge on the people she had once called friends. By spilling the blood of Morgause, she breaks the seal between the world of the living and the dead, bringing us face-to-face with the Callieach (Gemma Jones), guardian of the Other World and unleashing a new evil upon the world of Camelot.
Whilst Morgana is evilly plotting and still speaking rarely, Arthur has taken over the kingdom and his father, Uther, sits as a broken man, destroyed by the betrayal of his ward. Now aided by his uncle, Agravaine, Arthur (Bradley James) is settling into his role as leader and has the faith of the kingdom and his knights.
Agravaine has become the trusted counsel of Arthur and has been a rock to the young prince: though he does dress in black, giving us a hint to where his allegiance will be. That said, Arthur is happy to have his uncle around as the weight of leadership weighs heavy on his youthful, broad shoulders.
Throughout the tumultuous changes, Merlin (played by Colin Morgan with his rather fantastic English accent) is still the ever faithful servant to Arthur. He collects shirts, writes speeches and generally gets under everyone’s feet whilst being clumsy as ever. He’s on friendly terms with all the knights of Camelot, particularly Lancelot.
It’s not all about his dubious track record as a servant, though, as he suffers the effects of the tear between worlds and loses faith in his own abilities, powerless against the creatures that pour fourth from the tear; ghostly, flying skeletons that drain the life from anything they touch. Dementors, anyone?
Such trivial concerns aren’t going to be enough to stop our favourite wizard from protecting Arthur and Camelot, even if it may mean sacrificing himself. Thankfully, he’s not alone in his quest to protect those around him as we’ve got five more knights in tow in the form of Sir Percival (Tom Hopper), Sir Leon (Rupert Young), Sir Gwaine (Eoin Macken), Sir Elyan (Adetomiwa Edun) and Sir Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera.)
Of these, it’s Lancelot and Percival that get the most character development in this first episode, though Percival mainly spends his time showing off his arms in his rather fashionable, though impractical, sleeveless chainmail, and being all macho and heroic, even going so far as to single-handedly save three small children in his manly embrace. Lancelot, on the other hand, dispenses advice to Merlin and smiles knowingly whenever the wizard casts a spell. Hopefully the others will be given more to do in the upcoming episode other than wave swords around and make the odd comment.
On the subject of being given little to do, Gaius is still played with calm reserve by Richard Wilson, dispensing mystic portents and medicine to those who need it and moving the plot along when we encounter a bit of legend or lore. Angel Coulby’s Gwen still pines for her prince and really isn’t given much to do here aside from look after Uther and tell Arthur that she loves him.
Talking of Uther, Anthony Head doesn’t have much to say in this episode, but the single line he gets is filled with such emotion that it’s impossible not to feel pity for the once powerful ruler. It’ll be interesting to see what the writers do with Uther in this season as it’s difficult to imagine him handing over power that easily or completely, especially considering he was torn apart spiritually by a magic user.
This series is being touted as darker than past years, with the cast saying that the audience for Merlin has grown up with the series. Whilst the episode has a darker tone, it’s not too dark or scary for younger viewers. Thankfully, the showrunners haven’t forgotten the roots of the series and there’s still the camaraderie between Arthur and Merlin, the silly moments of humour and the touching moments of friendship that have become a trademark of the series, and allow both actors to shine in their respective roles.
There’s a few of stumbling blocks in the episode – though the devastated dream world was really well realised, the old Merlin looks a bit suspect (perhaps Morgana’s imagination isn’t that good when it comes to envisioning people) and the skull-faced, flying ghosts look a bit too CGI (yes, I know they are!)
The expanded cast doesn’t seem to have much to do in this opening episode, but I’m sure that’ll change as the series develops and I hope that at least one episode is dedicated to each of the new knights.
On the plus side, the story was a well paced romp that struck a good balance between action and plot, whilst setting up for what will hopefully be an interesting series. It doesn’t let up until the very last moment, which came so quickly that there’s a chance you might have to rewind to take in that final, dramatic scene. It definitely sets things up for an interesting part two next week.
Merlin is a series that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is obviously made as family viewing that can be enjoyed by practically any age group. As long as you don’t expect it to be pure drama, high brow fantasy or a necessarily accurate retelling of Arthurian legend, there’s plenty to enjoy.
With so many threads still needing some attention and more characters with stories to tell, let’s hope the rest of the series can keep up the pace set by the first episode.