Merlin: Volume 1 Review
Saturday night television is having a high old time of it, not only at the moment but over the past few years. Not only has is seen Doctor Who return to critical and audience acclaim but some of its episodes compare very favourably to the classic stories. With the confidence that comes from such a success, the BBC stretched out its creative arms and brought Robin Hood to Saturday night, proving that what eleven or twelve million people on the weekend was a gang of outlaws larking about in the forest while, in a medieval Sherwood, Keith Allen had a ball playing the Sheriff. Take in Primeval from 'the other side' and its hard to remember that it wasn't always so good, particularly when you remember that, before we had a space-and-time-hopping Time Lord, a band of medieval outlaws and a lot of dinosaurs as likely to be wandering up and down the motorways as they are shopping precincts, railway stations and theme parks, we had Mr Blobby, Jim Davidson ruining The Generation Game forever and Blind Date.
Given that their collective minds turned, after the success of Robin Hood, to a show that might complete their triumvirate of Saturday night fantasy shows, the BBC could have done a lot worse than the story of Camelot and, principally, the characters of Arthur and Merlin. It lends itself to magic, and thence to special effects, and, like Robin Hood, has an instantly recognisable cast of characters. It also has clearly delineated heroes and villains and while the first episode has some fun with the rivalry between Merlin and Arthur, it soon, with perhaps a wag of its finger, asks they settle down into a begrudging friendship with one another, albeit that Merlin has brought into Camelot the very thing that Arthur and his father, King Uther, fear most. And that is magic.
As the series opens, Merlin (Colin Morgan) arrives in the city of Camelot. He is hoping, as one with some ability in the art of magic, to make his mark in the city but finds that King Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head) has outlawed the practising of magic and, in the caves beneath his castle, imprisoned the last dragon in Albion. As Merlin steps into the courtyard, he sees the executioner behead one found guilty of using magic while Uther and his son, Prince Arthur (Bradley James) watch. Just then, a woman steps out of the crowd, curses the house of Uther and, in a whirl of dust, disappears. As Merlin finds employment with Gaius (Richard Wilson), the court physician, whom he saves from falling as he makes a rather surprising entrance, he is warned never to use magic within the kingdom. That night, he is called into the caves, where the dragon imprisoned by Uther tells Merlin that his and Arthur's destinies are so intertwined as to be inseparable. Somewhat disappointed by this news - Arthur has proven himself to be nothing more than an arrogant boor - he returns to bed, hoping to avoid any further meetings with the prince and vowing not to use magic. Not doing so proves difficult, mind, not least when Uther's violent stamping out of magic draws out every witch and warlock in the kingdom. It is one such witch that sees Merlin use his magic to save not only Arthur but the entire royal party. And his reward? An appointment as Arthur's manservant. It would appear as though the dragon was right.
Like Robin Hood, Merlin takes a great many liberties with the traditional story of Camelot. It avoids referencing either Thomas Malory and Geoffrey of Monmouth, although the latter does make an appearance in the series courtesy of Michael Cronin (Bullet Baxter from Grange Hill). It also avoids what is probably the best-known and most cinematic version of the story, John Boorman's Excalibur, itself based on Malory's La Morte d'Arthur, in favour of a brand new telling of the story, complete with some ambiguity as to exactly what era Merlin is set in. Unlike Boorman's dark ages, it looks to be set in medieval times while there is such peace in Camelot as to leave Uther with apparently very little to do but sentence witches to death. Then there is the matter of Camelot itself. While tradition would have us believe that Arthur built the castle, it is already standing during the reign of Uther Pendragon. However, this does leave us with the series introducing its characters, particularly those who play a major part in the legend, being introduced at a steady rate. Uther Pendragon is, as has been mentioned numerous times, still alive while Morgana is no longer described as Arthur's half-sister but a ward of Uther. Guinevere is recast as the maid to the lady Morgana while Merlin, very much older than Arthur in the legends, is now of a similar age. Excalibur appears as a gift from the dragon and Lancelot makes an appearance in one episode here but he neither challenges Arthur to a duel nor does the prince use Excalibur against him in a fit of anger. There are other nods to the legend. Mordred is cast as a little boy under the protection of the druids but who, in his short time in the castle, formed a strong bond with Morgana and who, in the words of the dragon, will eventually kill Arthur (should he live to do so). It may be, though, that this dallying with the legend creates its own problems. Familiarity with Excalibur and the gradual drip of characters leads one to wait impatiently for Percival, for mention of the Holy Grail and of Lancelot and of Arthur pulling himself up to face Mordred and, with Excalibur, to slay him.
Merlin never claims to be historically accurate, though. Instead, it's more akin to Robin Hood in that it uses a story that its audience will be familiar with to then set about making Saturday night entertaining. In due time, though, it does build a story of its own. Eve Myles makes a brief appearance as witch who serves to set up Uther's persecution of those who practice magic but Michelle Ryan does better as Nimueh, who features in two episodes to date but will surely return for another at least. It is Uther who makes clearest the history that she has with Camelot when he asks Gaius, "Will I never be rid of her?" Lancelot and Mordred will undoubtedly be back but, in the meantime, we have some strong performances from Colin Morgan and Bradley James as Merlin and Arthur. Their relationship has grown a great deal over the six episodes in this set (and does so yet more in those broadcast on the BBC but which are not included here) but there are still moments when the friction between them crosses over into broad comedy. Angel Coulby and Katie McGrath offer support, if little romance at this stage, as Guinevere and Morgana and it will be fun to see how their stories, and those of the boys, play out. At the moment, it would seem that it is Merlin and Guinevere who are gently flirting with one another but we know that it is Arthur and Guinevere who will one day marry and that Merlin may be betrayed by Morgana. Anthony Head, Richard Wilson and John Hurt support the younger members of the cast well while the guest appearances, such as Michelle Ryan and Santiago Cabrera, both fresh off US television, allows Merlin to make a bigger splash than it might otherwise have done. And happily, as the stories have progressed, so the whole thing seems to have moved on from Uther locking people up every week. Merlin, Arthur and Guinevere have all spent time in the dungeons up until now with only Morgana escaping such a punishment so far.
In that, Merlin is coming along nicely. Thanks to its being shot in the Chateau de Pierrefonds, it looks authentic, moreso than Robin Hood's computer generated backgrounds to be fair, while its CG effects, courtesy of The Mill, are fairly impressive. The writers have done well to build the story up to where they've now gotten it to, although, with so many of the characters from the legend now part of the show, even Excalibur, it will be interesting to see where they take them from here. A villain like Nimueh will allow the show to take a detour from the legend but there can be few watching who are not anticipating how they drag it back to the story of King Arthur. For now, though, this viewer is just enjoying the mix of magic and the medieval and finding that Merlin, though perhaps not quite Robin Hood (the best of these Saturday night adventures), is a grand way to gather around the television with the family.
There are a total of six episodes in this set, the first volume out of two, and these are described in some detail bellow:
The Dragon's Call (44m04s): Young Merlin arrives at Camelot hoping to make a name for himself but finds the kingdom in turmoil. King Uther Pendragon has, for reasons of his own, outlawed the use of magic and punishes all of those guilty of witchcraft by death. As Merlin arrives in Camelot, he witnesses this intolerance at first hand, watching as a man suspected of being a warlock is put to death. Out of the crowd steps an old woman who places a curse on the kingdom of Camelot for the murder of her son before disappearing. Merlin meets the physician Gaius and is tutored by him but finds that he and Arthur seem to share a destiny. When he is called to the caverns underneath the castle, where he meets the Great Dragon, his suspicions are confirmed. He is to protect Arthur to his taking the throne of Albion and beyond.
Valiant (44m43s): King Uther is hosting a sword-fighting tournament within the grounds of Camelot and from afar, a young knight named Valiant rides to compete. Arthur himself is also a competitor but is unamused, and perhaps even hamstrung, by the hopeless efforts of his new manservant. But, as Merlin discovers during one of his spots of nighttime snooping, Valiant has an enchanted shield that he uses in battle against his opponents. But in spite of Merlin's warnings, everyone, Arthur included, ignores him.
The Mark of Nimueh (43m44s): People are dying in Camelot. The corpses are lying in the street and Gaius is baffled as to what might be causing it, even to walking past the dying in a search for a cure. This plague knows neither rich nor poor, nobleman nor peasant. Summoned by King Uther, Gaius suspects that sorcery may be behind it and so Arthur begins a door-to-door search of the kingdom. But when Gwen confides in Arthur that her father is one of the afflicted, the young warlock uses magic to cure him. Later, with Gwen arrested for witchcraft and due to be executed at dawn, Merlin and Gaius descend into the caves beneath Camelot and to a meeting with Nimueh.
The Poisoned Chalice (44m29s): King Uther has united the different lands within Albion and brought peace to the country. Lord Bayard of Mercia and the Knights of the Western Isles arrive in Camelot for the signing of a treaty that marks and end to the war between them. But Nimueh is close by and, disguised as a servant girl, conspires against both peace and Merlin, tricking the boy into drinking from a poisoned chalice. As Merlin lies dying, Arthur disobeys the orders of his father to search for the ingredients for a cure but must face Nimueh to do so.
Lancelot (44m02s): While walking through the forest, Merlin is attacked by a griffin but before he can respond with magic, the wild beast is forced to flee by Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera), a young man whose abilities may match even those of Arthur. As thanks, Merlin invites Lancelot, who dreams of becoming a knight in King Uther's army, to travel with him to Camelot. Using his magic to forge a document claiming Lancelot's nobility, Merlin watches as Lancelot proves his worth in battle and is knighted. But King Uther and Arthur see that a number of villages in the kingdom have been ransacked and left in ruins. Soon, the creature turns to Camelot. Might this have something to do with the arrival of Lancelot?
A Remedy To Cure All Ills (43m35s): Morgana is unwell. Gaius is baffled as to what ails her but Uther is convinced that there is another who may aid her, Edwin Muirden, a mysterious physician who Arthur befriends within Camelot. Soon after, Morgana is well again and the king of Camelot loses faith in his physician. But Gaius suspects that Edwin Muirden is not all he seems. With the assistance of Geoffrey of Monmouth and with wise words from the dragon, Gaius uncovers the truth about Muirden. As does Arthur, finding that all of Camelot is in danger.
Other than the computer generated effects, of which there are a lot more, this looks so much like Robin Hood that you almost expect the Merry Men to peer around a corner within Camelot and for Vaizey and King Uther Pendragon to walk in on one another in the throne room. As such, this looks as good as the BBC's other highlight of Saturday night entertainment, with its lush, bright colours looking crisp and sharp. Although shot in France, in the summer according to the commentaries, this looks as though it has been set in a particularly beautiful corner of England. The DVD does well by this. The source material looks very good indeed and there are no problems with the encoding. Even the CG, which might have shown the odd blip, is better than one might have thought, with the dragon being a highlight amongst quite a few.
Unlike Robin Hood, though, there is only one audio tracks, a DD2.0 Pro-Logic track that makes a little use of the rear channels but which, for the most part, is fixed to the front speakers. However, the dialogue is always clear, the audio effects sound very good - like the CG, they're much better than I thought they would be - and if you listen very carefully, there is some bustle from the streets outside the castle just audible on the soundtrack. A nice little detail and Finally, there are English subtitles throughout.
Audio Commentaries: There are a total of three commentary tracks spread over this three-disc set. The first two of these are on disc one and accompany the episodes The Dragon's Call (producers Jonathan Capps and Julian Murphy) and Valiant (cast members Bradley James and Angel Coulby) while there is another on the second disc, being Lancelot (producer Johnny Capps and Ed Fraiman). On the whole, these aren't at all bad. That with Capps and Murphy sets up the series very well with them taking the time, and ignoring the onscreen action, to discuss casting the actors, their choice of locations, the special effects, the crew and what other television shows and movies they studied before making Merlin. They're not so precious that they can't laugh at their show, particularly Eve Myles wicked smile, which says 'I'm a witch!' as much as had she rode in to Camelot on a broomstick with a black cat and a cauldron in tow.
Much like the commentaries on the Robin Hood set, the cast track is a much sillier affairs. James and Coulby laugh their way through their episode and are fairly disrespectful to it no matter how good it might get, even to their claiming to be shortchanged by being shown an unfinished version of it, such as the lack of special effects magic in their cut of the episode. So no snakes falling from Valiant's shield. They get ping-pong balls instead. The commentary that accompanies Lancelot returns to talk about locations, sets, green screen, actors and special effects. Like that between Capps and Murphy, Capps and Fraiman mostly avoid anything specific to any one scene and look to the series instead, particularly as to how they changed the legend of Arthur to accommodate Lancelot, not as one who betrayed Arthur but as one whose actions jeopardises the whole of Camelot. Although they did get a cheer from this viewer when they acknowledged casting Bullet Baxter in the part of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Merlin: Behind The Magic (31m52s): This is a fairly ordinary making-of feature. It drops in on the set some time during the making of Valiant and catches up with the cast and crew to discover how well they're pacing themselves over the thirty-one week shoot, how they are wiling away the long hours on the set (Anthony Head has his Nintendo DS in his hand even on the set but the others just seem thrilled to be there at all) and how they now see their own characters. The best bits come when the actors talk about their hopes for the series, all of which were recorded long before the series aired on the BBC and how their friends and family reacted on hearing how the cast had earned their parts in the Saturday night schedule.
Video Diaries: There are two of these on the disc, the first of which, concerning the cast (18m58s), opens with them on board the Eurostar on their way to Pierrefonds, where Merlin was shot. Colin Morgan is the first one with the camera and in-between interviews it is passed to Bradley James, Angel Coulby and Richard Wilson. It sounds dull but it's actually fairly funny, particularly during the cast visit to Le Parc Asterix and when Bradley bumps into a cast member of Primeval, who criticises the slapdash plotting of Merlin just as James gives some of it away to the competition. The second of these is with Colin and Bradley only (10m38s) and includes their rehearsals, their messing about on the set and their catching a spider.
There is also a Photo Gallery and a set of Wallpapers for PC and Mac.