The Musketeers episode 1 review: Friends And Enemies

Rob checks out the first episode of the BBC's new adventure drama, The Musketeers...

So the BBC has a problem. What can it use to plug the hole left by one of its most successful series? Step forward, The Musketeers.

The show’s well-edited trailers have promised big budget period action and drama imbued with a style and energy that should attract even those who may feel uninspired by yet another adaptation of Dumas’ classic. However, punchy trailers do not a good show make, so the question remains; does the BBC still have a problem?

In some ways, The Musketeers would seem like a safe choice. It’s material that has been endlessly copied, re-imagined and revamped and with such wide popularity there is already a high level of recognition and understanding. People sitting down to watch this show are going to know exactly what they’re going to get. Sword fights, kings, revenge, love and of course, honour – essentially something for everyone.

At first sight it seemed that the show would be family friendly, and I for one can’t think of a version of The Musketeers that hasn’t been for family consumption. As we saw more, the later trailers were starting to indicate a more adult focus, and when the time slot was finally revealed it was clear that this was indeed aiming for a similar audience to that of Sherlock. That conjured images of something much more interesting. A risky, darker Musketeers – more Game of Thrones than Atlantis – would certainly be a brave and exciting direction to go – and as the excellent An Adventure In Space And Time demonstrated, the BBC, at times, does take risks.

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The show itself, conceived by Adrian Hodges, (best known in these parts for his work on Primeval and Survivors) is not a page by page retelling of the Dumas story – and we’re thankful for it. Although this first episode touches on very familiar ground, speedily introducing all the characters we know and love well within its first half. I liked that we didn’t waste too much time. I get who the Musketeers are, I know what they stand for and I largely know why. Likewise, I get that Richelieu is the big bad and that Milady de Winter is both beautiful and cunning. Unless you go for a complete and utter re-imagining the Musketeer story is so well known you have to treat the audience with a modicum of respect in that we don’t need episodes worth of introductions because there is simply no surprise. It was good to see them adopt this approach and it certainly lent the episode a pace rarely seen in the opening of a season.

However, as with most first episodes, the introduction, no matter how quickly administered, will still eat into whatever story there is and here is no different. A somewhat perfunctory plot sees the framing of Athos with the remaining Musketeers attempting to clear his name in order to avert his execution. The story’s weak because we all know that Athos won’t die, he’s in the rest of the season for a start, so there’s no real sense of danger. However, this episode is not about Athos, it’s about introducing the audience to a diverse set of characters, and in that sense it does its job well.

As does the look and feel of the show. Prague is a more than suitable stand in for seventeenth century France, and with CGI filling out the environment the show certainly looks the part. Stylistically, the use of more traditional camera styles, rather than the over-stylised approach of some contemporary shows was especially refreshing during the action. Although there were points in which some of the sword fights looked more akin to a polite telling off than a ruck to the death, this didn’t detract in the main and overall, the action delivered.

Ultimately any show touching on the Musketeers’ mythology must have actors and actresses capable of performing in those key roles. Howard Charles’ Porthos is an early standout – whose seeming channelling of Ray Winstone (Robin of Sherwood era) via Clive Owen with a hint of Michael Caine is wonderfully effective. Tom Burke (Athos) and Santiago Cabrera (Aramis) also do fine jobs of distinguishing themselves as separate characters and between them the banter and drama are both well done and not out of place. Luke Pasqualino has probably the hardest job of the four trying to bring to life D’Artagnan. His is perhaps the most complicated character of the Musketeers and has been interpreted in many ways, some not entirely in keeping with the darker aspects of his character that we see in the book. Here, it’s too early to tell upon which road Hodges will develop the character, but certainly the interaction between D’Artagnan and Mrs Bonacieux hints towards the infidelity that has so often been dismissed in other adaptations. However, as an immature and rough yet charming character, Pasqualino certainly has winning qualities and looks capable of carrying a show of this size (for just how wrong it can go – see Chris O’Donnell’s D’Artagnan in the 1993 version of the Three Musketeers).

The villains of the piece are just as well known as the Musketeers themselves, and in Peter Capaldi they have a class act. Richelieu is a nasty, cunning, power hungry man that is the poster child for many a Machiavellian. His power comes from his ability to cause unrestrained pain and violence whist showing no remorse. Sometimes this can be hard to portray without veering into pantomime territory, of which Tim Curry was certainly cuplable in his performance in the above mentioned Three Musketeers (which remains a top guilty pleasure despite its shortcomings and that Sting/Stewart/Adams song…). No fears here though, Capaldi nails it first time out, dispatching characters in such a manner that his credentials as a complete bastard are well and truly earned and only increase my fascination in just what kind of Doctor he will be.

Alongside him with have Maimie McCoy’s Milady de Winter and whilst she gets a sizeable chunk of screen time, there’s a feeling that she’s being saved for later and her dalliance with D’Artagnan and back story with Athos will undoubtedly play well into the season. Similarly Ryan Cage’s Louis (unrecognisable from his recent turn as Alfrid in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and Alexandra Dowlings Queen Anne get relatively short shrift, but do enough to convince as the insecure King and strong-willed wife.

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Does then, the BBC have a problem? I would argue not, the show looks good, is cast well and the actors are eminently watchable. The story, whilst not being the most interesting, hit all the expected notes, but was well crafted in not labouring the introduction of such well known characters. Hodges looks to be using the novel as the framework upon which to base a series of adventures. This is a wise choice that could add material without detracting from the central themes of the book.

However, there is a but. It has nothing to do with the quality of the show, more so a missed opportunity. Whilst watching the first episode it felt like I’d seen it all before, and whilst it is a more adult take, it’s no HBO production. One of the most interesting things about Sherlock was that they took the premise, contemporised it and made it their own. It demonstrated that you can take a well-known and popular concept and make it something new, yet maintain the familiar trappings to bring in both new and old fans alike. I feel like I already know how The Musketeers is going to end and I find that disappointing because it detracts from the enjoyment of the journey. In that case I hope that Hodges has a few surprises up his sleeve, plays around with the Musketeer conventions or even turns the mythology upside down or against itself in order to make an old story fresh and unpredictable. If not, I fear that despite its obvious quality, it may not be enough to keep the audience’s interest.

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