BBC1 - 13th December 2008 - 7.10pm
Arthurian scholars look away now. Julian Jones not only irrelevantly nicks Thomas Malory's title for the episode but uses the legendary Questing Beast to tell a rather different story from the one Malory told. Now, it's not all wrong. The Mill actually get the look of the thing right, at least according to Malory. "The strange creature has the head and neck of a serpent, the body of a leopard, the haunches of a lion and the feet of a hart. Its name comes from the great noise it emits from its belly, a barking like "thirty couple hounds questing". According to Wiki.
I'd pay good money to see that on a Saturday nightThe Beast is supposed to "appear to King Arthur after he has had an affair with his sister Morgana and begotten Mordred. Merlin reveals the Questing Beast had been borne of a human woman, a princess who lusted after her own brother. She slept with a devil who had promised to make the boy love her, but the devil manipulated her into accusing her brother of rape. Their father had him torn apart by dogs, but before he died he prophesied his sister would give birth to an abomination that would make the same sounds as the pack of dogs that killed him. The beast has been taken as a symbol of the incest, violence, and chaos that eventually destroys Arthur's kingdom." Cor, I'd pay good money to see that on a Saturday night. Mind you, you probably could get to see it for free in many an inner city up and down the land.
Never mind. Morgana seems to have one of her nightmares and foresees the danger. She rushes out in her nightie, several sandwiches short of a picnic, to warn Arthur. And that's pretty much all she gets to do. The Beast is still an omen of doom here and when Arthur goes out to hunt the creature he gets injured whilst Merlin uses his Jedi powers to plunge a sword into its vile heart. There is no cure for the fatal wound apparently and Uther drags his son's dying body through the square. Can't decide if Anthony Head thought he was on Strictly and was trying an American Smooth lift and dropped Arthur or just got a bit tired. I was somewhat sidetracked at this point because Bradley James then had his chest on display again as he lay all sweaty and ill in bed. I've waited thirteen episodes for this. And it was worth it.
Hurrah, at last for Gwen.Merlin has a natter with the dragon. I really don't trust the beast. It's got an agenda of its own. Turns out that only ancient magic to be found on the Isle Of The Blessed can save our Arthur now. And Arthur must not die. It's that destiny thing again. Gaius reveals that in order for Merlin to save Arthur the price will be the taking of another life. Despite the script departing from the established legend, this episode really goes for full on epic, mythical storytelling. There's a moral dilemma at the heart of the story, sweeping mist enshrouded landscapes and a building sense of doom. It feels and looks more Arthurian than many of the earlier episodes of the series and this is an aspect of the series that must be retained and encouraged. Audiences like visual storytelling on this scale. What also works are the little moments between Gwen and Arthur, when she's nursing him and suggesting out loud that he will live to be King in a Utopian Camelot and then later when Arthur picks up on that, as this finally establishes a connection between the two characters that hasn't been given enough attention before. Hurrah, at last for Gwen.
And the dragon lets rip with some fire in a spectacular effects sequence.The whole sequence at the mist covered isle is superb and makes use of some wonderful locations. Nimueh greets Merlin to discuss the bargain he must make. Good performances from Colin Morgan and Michelle Ryan add to the atmosphere and there is a sense that Nimueh isn't going to offer Merlin the cure for Arthur without some further twist. The score on this episode is fabulous and helps convey the epic scale of the story. And both Gaius and Morgana clearly know that Merlin's bargain isn't as straightforward as he assumes. Merlin's mother shows up at Camelot, gravely ill, and Merlin, believing he's been spared, then understands that it is her life that must be given in exchange for Arthur's. There's a dramatic bitch fight with the dragon, culminating with Merlin vowing never to free the creature once Arthur is king and it's thunderously good stuff from Colin Morgan. And the dragon lets rip with some fire in a spectacular effects sequence.
...by the time the titles roll we are more or less back at the beginning again.There's a beautiful little scene between Gaius and Merlin in which the fruits of their relationship are emotionally articulated. Morgan is again wonderful. Gaius decides to sacrifice himself and departs for the isle whilst Merlin makes his goodbyes to Arthur and his mother. He gives chase and, finding Gaius apparently dead, there's a great fight sequence between him and Nimueh, chucking fire balls at each other. The trouble is that as the story builds towards its climax it tries to have its cake and eat it - Merlin rescuing Gaius, Merlin destroying Nimueh - and the expectation is that the plot will fulfill the terrible omen of the Questing Beast. Things should never be the same again but by the time the titles roll we are more or less back at the beginning again. Not much has changed. Gaius lives when he should be dead. It would have been a tremendously emotional ending if Gaius had remained dead. A missed opportunity to make some permanent changes to the series despite the thrilling conclusion to the episode.
Overall, it's been a slow burn for the series. It dragged interminably for the early stories, with serious issues of pace and structure, and only really picked up about half way. The second half benefited from directors embracing the visual sense of the stories and the actors getting into their stride. The writing for the female characters has been poor and Gwen and Morgana are central characters to the series, even if it is called Merlin. They should be served better. Writer Ben Vanstone should get more work for the second series as he clearly understands the characters and the way they connect. Match him up with director Stuart Orme and watch this take off on the basis of this quite promising start.
Cathode Ray Tube Merlin Le Morte D'Arthur