BBC1 - 20th September 2008 - 7.30pm
It's taken a ridiculously long time to get this series made with the idea being passed from pillar to post for at least six years. And it seems that thanks to the success of Doctor Who (there's even a credit for Russell T Davies) those fickle telly execs finally decided to give it the green light. It seems quite appropriate that an older tale of a boy wizard should elbow that upstart Harry Potter out of the way as 'family viewing' returns to BBC1 on a Saturday night and the cinemas are still showcasing one fantasy film after another.
No 'breath of the dragon' Excalibur style dark enchantments just for now even though we are left to puzzle just why Uther has a ruddy great flying reptile chained up in the cellar.The time may be right but I'm not sure the tone is. Admittedly, this looks stunning with its French locations, meticulously designed sets and The Mill's modern wizardry conjuring up Camelot, dragons and caverns, fairytale landscapes et al and so it gets off to a good start by bunging the money up on screen. Lavish is the word. The CGI dragon is a triumph for small screen effects and John Hurt's mellifluous tones brilliantly complete the package. But we've seen plenty of talking dragons before and this one is decidedly cuddly in a non-threatening way and is clearly going to be Merlin's best mate. No 'breath of the dragon' Excalibur style dark enchantments just for now even though we are left to puzzle just why Uther has a ruddy great flying reptile chained up in the cellar.
Talking of Uther, Anthony Head's steely performance and the opening salvo of his anti-magic campaign obviously and broadly sets up one of the series themes. He wants to rule a kingdom where magic is banned, which spells trouble for any one with a bit of said talent, and gets the executed Tom Collins' mum, the witch-like Mary, all in a tizz. Eve Myles, hidden beneath layers of make up, screeches her revenge at Uther and thus we get the main plot point under starters orders. It's a slim story of revenge on which to hang the more important meeting of the Camelot regulars - Merlin, Arthur and Guinevere - and is just about serviceable. The subtext of magic, fantasy and imagination being crushed by a totalitarian ruler is hopefully something we'll get back to, and with more depth, later. Whether we'll get close to Malory's original tale is debatable as the doe eyed pretty boys and girls playing the major roles seem to be being prodded and propelled into a love triangle in the ilk of most soaps operas rather than the self-destruction of the Malory story. Think Disney's The Sword In The Stone rather than John Boorman's Excalibur then. With a few songs it would be High School Musical rather than Camelot. Not surprising really when the creators of this where responsible for Sugar Rush and Hex.
...it takes someone like Richard Wilson, all Victor Meldrew with long white hair, to stop this from drifting into Disney kitschIt's not quite found its feet, then. Colin Morgan, who manages to convey Merlin the man's emergence from adolescence very well, is boyishly handsome but lacks the energy and power that the lead role in a series like this so desperately needs. The younger actors aren't sure whether to lead or not and it takes someone like Richard Wilson, all Victor Meldrew with long white hair, to stop this from drifting into Disney kitsch. He's rather delightful as Gaius, curmudgeonly admonishing his magical protegee. Anthony Head is great as the stern Uther and in one of the best scenes, Eve Myles gets to possess herself in the dual roles of Lady Helen and Mary Collins. When Mary then sings the court to sleep the revenge plot reaches its eerie conclusion in a rather lovely sequence where layers of cobwebs and dust cover them all as she attempts to stick the knife into Uther. Merlin saves the day, natch, and gets a job at the court. Nice work if you can get it.
Difficult to get a sense of Arthur (apart from being a 'prat' - not exactly 1450s vocabulary but we get your drift, Merlin) as he just comes over as a blonde, arrogant git. Which is the point, I agree. Pretty boy, though. Now if they subverted the love triangle and had Merlin getting the hots for Arthur or vice versa....nah, it's family viewing. But they do need to get the sexiness of it more to the fore if they intend to keep the teenagers interested. And Guinevere and Morgana barely get a look in in this first episode so the male viewers only get to flirt with them briefly. Hopefully, their stories will take centre stage at some point in the next 13 weeks but this opener does just manage to layer in the character relations - the Guinevere and Merlin chat at the banquet, Morgana's nightmares, Arthur's destiny - and provide plenty of foreshadowing.
James Hawes helms this with a wonderfully visual eye, great big wide shots of the interiors of Camelot, deep focus in the close ups and he's helped by some great lighting and locations. What beggars belief is that this isn't being shown in HD which it surely deserves because it looks so impressive. (Note: Not made in HD, I'm informed)The music is not intrusive and is subtle and the enchantment song of the vengeful Mary Collins is rather good too. The crux of the matter is whether this will entice an audience to stay the course for 13 weeks. This week it went head to head with The X Factor and, promising as it is, this first installment is perhaps too gentle an introduction. It needed a bit more balls. Still, anything's better than that arse Simon Cowell...
Catch the first episode streaming at Surf The Channel The Dragon's Call
Cathode Ray Tube Merlin The Dragon's Call