MERLIN: Episode Two - Valiant

BBC1 - 27th September 2008 - 6.00pm

I've just seen the overnight viewing figures. Just under 5M. That's down nearly 1.75M from the premiere last week. Why is that, I wonder? Could it be the scheduling, where the series has been moved away from going head to head with The X Factor? Could it be...that this just isn't very good? I watched the first episode again just before this and, even though it still isn't a particularly strong opening, it's much better than Valiant.

What on earth is happening to the women in this series?
Colin Morgan is pretty much carrying this show now. He's turning in a very likeable, cheeky little performance as Merlin. Yeah, he's very fanciable, and my hormones have likely had something to do with it, but I'm impressed with his subtlety and underplaying. He's taking the scripts seriously and isn't camping it up. Richard Wilson and Anthony Head are underpinning him too with Wilson's irascible Gaius and Head's bullish Uther Pendragon providing some solid Britsh character acting backbone. Bradley James is getting better as the petulant Arthur. But that's all the men. What on earth is happening to the women in this series? Poor old Guinevere (sorry 'Gwen' - as the series is determined to rename her) was reduced to the status of an extra with some scrappy little lines, and so neither of the first two episodes have made an attempt to develop her character. She's thin and bordering on the invisible and I felt rather sorry for Angel Coulby as it's going to take a strong script to favour her. Katie McGrath as Morgana is much stronger this week with a bit more development. I take it they'll use the excuse of being dumped to explain why she eventually becomes the sorceress of legend? The trouble with Katie is that I can't work out if she's deliberately going for a mid-atlantic accent to please NBC or if she's Irish. It comes and goes and is odd enough to snap you out of the drama whenever she appears.

But the two female leads are woefully under served here and Valiant may be evidence that the producers and writers are more interested in the UHT (no, nothing to do with milk. Unresolved Homosexual Tension. Stay awake at the back!). Lots of male bonding going on between Arthur and Merlin, much talk of helmets, and then Will Mellor gets his big snake out. Mellor is unfortunately quite awful. He does not do villainy at all well and can't even give the role a massive slice of ham which would at least have made it interesting, or take all his clothes off, which he usually does in any comedy or drama he appears in, as a way of diverting attention from his lack of talent. The episode is dominated by all the duelling and jousting between the male leads, Merlin taking Arthur's clothes off and putting them back on again and Uther getting hot under the collar about Arthur's lack of honour. Merlin ends up fagging for Arthur (the emphasis on 'fag' is deliberate there) and all his talk of seeing Will Mellor's snake gets him sacked.

What is this, fucking Bedknobs and Broomsticks?
It also descends into the wretched world of Disney. I wanted to gnaw off my own legs at the utter 'cuteness' of Merlin's use of magic to clean Arthur's boots and clothes. What is this, fucking Bedknobs and Broomsticks? It might have UHT but it has so far emasculated the idea of magic and sorcery. This stuff is dangerous according to Uther. That's why he's got John Hurt locked away in the dungeon. But so far, Merlin hasn't done anything remotely exciting with his magic. Moved a few objects, cleaned a few things, conjured up a dog. Yeah, a dog that vanishes once the gag's over. He doesn't seem to have a promising career as the legendary English sorceror and is rather auditioning for Jedi High School Musical. And that's one of the big problems here. The producers are making this far too safe and gentle. It makes Doctor Who look like Hostel. It needs to be edgy, dark and frightening. A couple of CGI snakes does not cut the mustard, especially in those awful close-ups where The Mill's talents seemed to have abandoned them. And the dragon's lovely but it's John Hurt being cuddly and not very fearsome. Harry Potter can rest easy, as Merlin dithers about with its tone and contents. Too babyish for older kids and not knowing enough for the grown-ups.

Valiant isn't a particularly remarkable episode, it drags a bit in the middle with all the endless, bloodless sword play, and only really succeeds where it develops the Arthur and Merlin relationship. James Hawes continues to work hard as a director, fashioning the episodes in a spectacular manner but it is rather empty spectacle. The music is actually improving. There was some fantastic scoring and use of choirs/voices that did generate some genuine atmosphere for that episode. But it doesn't help that we've got a bit of a dud on our hands and I'm still rooting for James Hawes to try and sort this out. I fear the problem is more to do with the producers concept which doesn't so much as 'keep the magic secret' but forgets all about it entirely.

Catch Valiant streaming at Surf The Channel

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