MERLIN: Episode Nine - Excalibur

BBC1 - 15th November 2008 - 7.20pm

Yes, I'm late again with the Merlin review. Apologies. In fact if it wasn't for some good folks in Bristol allowing me the use of their internet and kitchen table you wouldn't be getting this today. Many thanks to them.

We know he's a goner because a) he's pretty enough to challenge Arthur in the yummy stakes and b)we've never met him before.
Anyway, without much ado let's crack on. It does seem as if things are on the up with this series. It still has a shocking disregard for its female characters but the last few episodes have been a great improvement in engaging storytelling. Nimueh pops up in the pre-titles gabbling some incantation, I wondered when she'd be back, and resurrects a dead knight in some dastardly plot against Uther (again). Just as Arthur is made Prince or something and given a lovely tiara, said Black Knight crashes the party (through a window in Girl In The Fireplace stylee but without the comedy wink) and before we know it an Arthurian red-shirt has picked his glove up and accepted a duel to the death. We know he's a goner because a) he's pretty enough to challenge Arthur in the yummy stakes and b)we've never met him before.

Men, they're so stubborn. Gaius gets a telling off and Merlin gets put in his place by Arthur.
Bish, bash, bosh and said Sir Owain (a fetching Kyle Redmond-Jones) gets the pointy end of the Knight's sword but not before Gaius and Merlin figure out that the Knight is actually a dead man walking. The fight scenes are tighter and rougher than before and it is genuinely upsetting when Owain buys it. Not least for Morgana who inexplicably offers him, a total stranger in our eyes, a token of her affection. My word, this woman's fickle! After another knight gets kebabed, it's Arthur, inevitably, that takes up the challenge. After confirming their theory, Merlin and Gaius try to warn both Arthur and Uther. Men, they're so stubborn. Gaius gets a telling off and Merlin gets put in his place by Arthur.

Nimueh at last gets a chance to tell us why she's been seeking revenge, which ties up a number of plot strands from the beginning of the series and simultaneously rewrites the myth again. Where Geoffrey of Monmouth's narrative describes Arthur's conception as the result of a subterfuge by Uther, courtesy of Merlin's magic, to impregnate his enemy's wife Igerna here it's Nimueh who uses magic on Uther's barren, and now dead, wife to bring about the birth of Arthur. Playing fast and loose with the mythology again perhaps but it does give us a decent enough reason why Uther has a bee in his bonnet about the use of magic.
Stick that up your cloak, you filthy sorceress!
The upshot of this is that Merlin gets the dragon to burnish a sword that will then be powerful enough the slay the undead knight. Hello, Excalibur! Goodness, two great big origin stories in one episode - Arthur's birth and the creation of Excalibur. We are being spoiled. However, things don't go according to plan when Uther stands in for Arthur in the duel, Gaius drugs Arthur to prevent him from fighting and Uther wields Excalibur, which is meant only for Arthur's hands. The ensuing fight scene is tense and exhilarating, so much better than anything we've seen this series so far, and there is a genuine sense that Uther might cop it even if he does use Excalibur. This is exactly the level this series needs to be operating at and it's taken what seems like forever to get here. Suffice it say, Arthur does not rescue Uther, which the audience were probably predicting, but instead remains trapped in his room. Uther kicks ass and dispatches the wraith in fine style much to the chagrin of the observing Nimueh. Stick that up your cloak, you filthy sorceress!

I didn't think Julian Jones had it in him as a scriptwriter but he plays a blinder here, mixing furious combat, eye popping effects and a commitment to exploring the emotional bonds between Uther and Arthur, Merlin and Gaius as well as embedding the series with its own version of the mythology. It naturally ends with Merlin having to throw Excalibur into a lake after the dragon throws a wobbly over Uther having used the weapon rather than Arthur. Again, this is all very male-centric and is to the detriment of the female characters and that's an imbalance that seriously needs sorting out, particularly with poor Gwen who seems nothing more than someone's drudge in this series, than Arthur's potential concubine. And, yes, it takes huge liberties with the mythology but if they can keep producing episodes as exciting as this then it's worth taking those liberties in my book.

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4 Responses to “MERLIN: Episode Nine - Excalibur”
  1. Anonymous says:

    I am actually genuinely loving this series. Why couldn't it have been this good when it started? I was touched by Uther's actions in this episode. I still want to give the dragon a good slap, mind, for being flipping useless.

  2. Me too. It's actually found its feet and I hope that's the way it continues. Anthony Head was bloody good in this, wasn't he? All we need now is to sort out decent motivation for Morgana and Gwen.

  3. Anonymous says:

    It HAS found its feet, thank God. I like Uther's moral ambiguity and the bonding between Arthur and Merlin. It's just a pity about the girls constantly being sidelined. If it goes to a second series, they're really going to have to sort that one out. At present, all they are is 'the brown one' and 'the scarily pale one'.

  4. Emma says:

    I'm really enjoying this series, a bit of magic after Strictly for a winter evening. But I do think Gwen is very miscast. Nice actress but totally wrong for the character.

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