Merlin: Volume 2 Review
Having already reviewed Merlin as a series with the first three discs in 2 Entertain's two-part release, it's now the turn of those episodes that round off the first series, beginning with The Gates of Avalon and ending, fittingly enough, with Le Morte d'Arthur. Briefly, though, as an end to the series, these seven episodes carry on the rewriting of the Merlin and Arthurian tradition in the same manner as set by the first six. The characters are familiar but they differ slightly in this interpretation. Uther Pendragon is king of Camelot and Arthur his prince. Merlin is but Arthur's manservant. Meanwhile, Morgana is a ward of Camelot, not Arthur's half-sister. And there is certainly no seduction of one by the other on a stormy night in Camelot. At least not yet and, given Merlin's Saturday teatime slot, probably none to come.
If these names make for a familiar home in which to place the series, those familiar with the story of King Arthur will also appreciate the brief glimpses that we have of characters who have a place in Arthurian legends and who will doubtless play more of a part in a second or third series. Lancelot made a brief appearance in this series but it seemed like impatience on the part of the producers when his time in Camelot was reduced to a single episode. Meanwhile, Mordred makes an appearance in The Beginning of the End but such grave warnings are made with each mention of his name that we are certain to see him again. Indeed, one of the series' darker moments comes with the dragon urging Merlin to allow Camelot's guards to find Mordred and put the boy to death such are the terrible things that he will do should he survive to adulthood.
If these characters are there for the future, this television series must get by with characters all its own. Nimueh (Michelle Ryan) is the main villain of this first series and returns in a couple of the episodes here. She adds substance to the show. Whispered conversations between Uther and Gaius suggest that something in the history of Camelot is amiss before Nimueh confronts Uther and reminds him that it was the magic that he so despises that allowed Ygraine to bear him a son. However, the death of Ygraine was the price that had to be paid, a need to balance life that influences the story of the final episode in the series. Add in our knowing of Merlin's mother and the various strands of the series begin to weave together nicely. Similarly, those times that Morgana's actions are undermined by Uther Pendragon and her growing realisation that she has some magical powers leads to her betrayal of the king. As such, Merlin does well to entertain children with its monsters, undead knight, magic and wicked witch but it's written in such a way that there's enough substance to allow adults to feel as though they're dropping a mental gear (or two) in order to enjoy it. It's still not quite the equal of Excalibur (just as Jonas Armstrong is no Errol Flynn) but it's superior Saturday night fare and long may it continue.
The Gates Of Avalon: Morgana is awakened from a dream in which she foresees Arthur's death, his body floating in a pool of water watched by a young woman. Days later, Arthur and Merlin are riding in the forest when they save Sophia (Holliday Grainger) and her father (Kenneth Cranham) from a band of brigands. But when they return to Camelot, Morgana recognises Sophia as the girl from her dream. Gaius too sees that Sophia and her father are not all they seem, warning Merlin of the danger of seers.
The Beginning Of The End: The king's troops capture a druid within the walls of Camelot. His son, though, escapes and within the castle, Merlin hears a young boy pleading with him to help. The two can communicate telepathically and believing that he has found one of his own, Merlin aids the boy's escape from the guards. Morgana hides the boy within her room, while even Arthur becomes involved in the plan to escort the boy back to his people. But why does the Great Dragon warn Merlin not to help further, telling Merlin that, "You must let the boy die!"
Excalibur: In an ancient crypt, Nimueh casts a spell over a grave. It crumbles and out of it comes the Black Knight. This same knight crashes though the windows of Camelot and throws down his gauntlet, telling anyone who picks it up that he will fight them to the death in single combat. First Sir Owain and then Sir Pellindor fall to the Black Knight before Arthur accepts the challenge. But Gaius and Uther hide a secret. The Black Knight bears the crest of Tristan Dubois, who died in a fight with Uther after the death of Ygraine in childbirth. Dubois was the brother of Ygraine and in his dying breath, he promised to return to Camelot after death to take his revenge. Only one weapon can slay the Black Knight, one forged by man and burnished by the breath of a dragon. That sword is Excalibur.
The Moment Of Truth: Bandits under the command of Kanen are attacking Merlin's home village of Ealdor. They are threatening to steal all of that year's corn, leaving the villagers with nothing. Merlin's mother rides to Camelot to ask for assistance from the king's men. But Uther refuses. Ealdor is in another kingdom and the villagers there are not the ruining of a peace agreement that took years to settle. Camelot's forces in Ealdor would be akin to an act of war. Merlin leaves for Ealdor accompanied by Morgana and Guinevere and is joined later by Arthur. As young Pendragon trains the villagers to fight, Merlin faces a difficult decision...to use magic within sight of Arthur to save Ealdor?
The Labyrinth of Gedref: Whilst out hunting in the forest, Arthur slays that rarest of beasts, a unicorn. However, as Gaius reminds the prince, there is a curse that befalls anyone who should kill a unicorn. Within days, Camelot is beset by plagues. Its wells run dry, its crops rot in the fields and its animals die. The people of Camelot people thirst and starve. It is then that Anhora, the keeper of the unicorns, appears to tell Arthur that it was his killing of the mythical creature that brought this curse onto Camelot. Arthur is then tested, the last of which will see him face his friend Merlin.
To Kill The King: Magic is punishable by death within Camelot. Guinevere's father is the unwitting accomplice of a mysterious sorcerer who has the power to turn any metal into gold. But as Tauren casts his magic over the metal, Arthur leads the guards to arrest both the magician and Tom. Tom is arrested but as he draws smoke out of the forge, Tauren escapes, dropping the Mage Stone as he does so. As Tom is executed, Morgana plots against Uther. Finding the Mage Stone and returning it to Tauren, Morgana agrees to lead Uther to his death. Only Merlin knows the truth but the Great Dragon urges him to do nothing. "Only if Uther dies can magic return to the land...let Arthur's reign begin!"
Le Morte d'Arthur: Whilst hunting, Arthur, Merlin and the army of Camelot find themselves facing a great creature, a Questing Beast. This is a monster forged out of the old magic and only magic can kill it. Uther refuses to listen and sends his knights to kill the creature but Arthur is wounded. As the prince's life hangs in the balance, the Great Dragon urges Merlin to travel to the Isle of the Blessed but warns him that the young Pendragon must live no matter the cost. As Merlin fights to save Arthur, he learns that a price must be paid to those of the old religion. For every life that is saved, one must always be taken.
This is copied and pasted from the review of the first part of 2 Entertain's release of Merlin but is as relevant here as it was there. 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. Finally, there are English subtitles throughout.
There are quite a few Audio Commentaries included in this second set of Merlin episodes. The first disc features three, one each on The Gates of Avalon (Bradley James, Anthony Head and director Jeremy Webb), The Beginning of the End (Colin Morgan, Angel Coulby, Katie McGrath and Jeremy) and Excalibur (Colin, Angel, Richard Wilson and Jeremy). The second disc contains only one commentary, that on The Moment of Truth with Colin, Angel, Bradley and Katie and offers none for the remaining episodes. As with the first set, the cast tracks are fairly silly affairs. As Katie McGrath says on the commentary for The Moment of Truth, their efforts at actually describing the episode are something of a shambles. But this does make for an entertaining listen, particularly as the four main members of the cast clearly get on well together and while they take the piss out of one another, they do so in very good humour. Even Anthony Head gets in on the laughs, describing his various crowns of the week while Bradley James points out the shortcomings of Merlin by saying that the only reason the brigand he's fighting is wearing a mask is on account of his having already been killed in that episode.
What's left on the disc has been filmed behind the scenes, be it a short feature on The Black Knight (15m56s) or Behind The Magic 2 (30m03s), which carries on from a similar extra on the first set. The first of these shows the Black Knight's arrival on the set as well as the actor playing the part in make-up. Behind The Magic 2 picks out a number of episodes and interviews the cast and crew as well as picking out a couple of key set pieces, including The Gates of Avalon, The Beginning of the End and The Black Knight. A good proportion of both of these have been shot by the actors on camcorders, meaning that you see the actor being interviewed and hear who it is who's holding the camcorder. Like the commentaries, the viewer never really learns very much about the production, more the very good relationship between the four young principals.
Both features are not unlike video diaries, which takes us to Colin Morgan's Video Diary (17m18s). That's not to say Morgan is behind the camera for its entire length, more that it gets passed around whoever is willing to hold it. This catches up with the cast in The Mark of Nimueh in which Merlin and company are in the caves underneath Camelot battling the Afanc. This creature, it has to be said, looks a lot less impressive when shot with a camcorder, looking less like a monster and more like a man walking very uncomfortably on all fours. It then moves on to the shooting of The Gates of Avalon before Colin Morgan and Bradley James make up their own trailer for the show. Finally, there is a Photo Gallery and a set of PC wallpapers.