MERLIN: Series 2 - Episode 1 / The Curse Of Cornelius Sigan

BBC1 - 19th September 2009 - 6.40pm

Merlin is back and judging from the first episode not much has changed: Bradley James gets his chest out (several times, tonight!), Angel Coulby and Katie McGrath get about three lines between them, Anthony Head repeats his commitment to wiping every last sorceror from the sky, Colin Morgan looks pretty and has a new hair-do and...the threat to Camelot is averted and there's a big reset button at the end.

I'm being disingenuous. The Curse Of Cornelius Sigan wasn't all bad and had enough interesting action to keep me entertained but anyone expecting huge improvements will be somewhat disappointed. The series does seem more certain about itself, especially with the slick photography and production design, even if it's still relying on formulaic use of the characters. Dishy Arthur still thinks Merlin is a lazy and incompetent serf and Merlin's still the butt of his jokes. Uther Pendragon is still rabidly anti-magic and Morgana still has nightmares despite Gaius maintaining her Nurofen habit. Gwen still doesn't really exist.

Pendragon's got the builders in and they've unearthed something rather fetid in the bowels of Camelot. No, not next week's script, I hope. It's a tomb and its booby trapped and before you can say 'it's another ancient sorceror' statues of ravens are spitting poison darts, extras have keeled over and turned blue and yeah, they've found the tomb of an ancient sorceror. Complete with the equivalent of the National Lottery in treasure, which leads you to suspect its Derren Brown sealed up down there, the discovery makes Uther wobbly at the knees, Gaius furrow his brow (and if he or anyone else says to Merlin, 'you've just saved my life' again I'll scream) and the builders freely gossip to passing criminals down the pub. Meanwhile, all the noise has woken Arthur up and provided certain lascivious members of the audience with a gratuitous bit of topless Bradley James.

Back in the pub, Mackenzie Crook is obviously still friends with the Shine production company despite starring in their last failure, Demons, and is giving us his slimy villain of the week, Cedric. He cons a Welsh builder into revealing that Arthur has the keys to the newly discovered tomb and its loot and before long it's lame comedy-a-go-go as Cedric worms his way into the royal household and becomes Arthur's servant. If he isn't claiming he's saved Arthur's life in a boar hunt then he's getting Merlin literally shit-faced (knocked out after the world's most obvious sleeping gas fills the stables) and booted out of his job. Cedric is unaware that Gaius and Merlin have found, by peering at the Golden Treasury Of Really Powerful Sorcerors with their medieval magnifying glass, that the fella in the tomb is the immortal and really, really bad sorceror Cornelius Sigan whose soul is in the tomb, waiting to be released. And by now, you'll have connected the very obvious dots and realised that petty thief Cedric is number one choice for a bit of possession. Dah-dah!

Uther, naturally, shrugs off Gaius' warning and you can bet by the end of the story his claims of it all being 'foolish superstition' will be totally reversed and he'll be ready to spit-roast any passing Derren Brown who dares to do a card trick or two. Morgana screams the palace down after a dirty great raven pops up in her dreams (blink and you'll miss her and Gwen) and Cedric tucks Arthur up in bed (yet another gratuitous shot of the topless Bradley) and steals the keys to the treasure. Cedric gets the vapours as Sigan's soul escapes from the jewelled heart in the tomb and, like something out of a Vicks Vapour Rub advert, it pours into his nose and mouth. Crook switches from wheedling thief to grim faced magician rather effectively and perches on Camelot's balconies wearing a rather fetching black feathered number and shouting strange words.

The episode perks up at this point as it allows the special effects boys at The Mill to give us a little homage to Harryhausen as Sigan's magic brings the stone gargoyles of the castle to life. They're classy effects and the sequences where they terrorise the good extras of Camelot and battle against Arthur (and his equivalent of UNIT troops who couldn't hit a barn door at forty paces) are superbly handled. They're made all the more effective by the moody night shooting and use of lighting. Arthur gets rescued by Gwen (well, I suppose they have to start developing the romance at some point) and all seems lost as the casualties pour in. Gwen and Morgana practice their first aid (they've apparently nothing better to do in this episode) and the assault brings bits of castle falling down round Uther's ears.

Time for Merlin to save the day and the only way he can do this is to make it up with the dragon and get a killer incantation to whup Sigan's ass. The grumpy dragon provides this week's glimmer of plot development: Merlin must promise to free him in the future in exchange for the spell. And has the dragon got a new set of teeth in because his lip synching was pretty ropey this week? He was all gums. Merlin must have a strong constitution because the dragon sneezes all over him (think of the halitosis!) to pass on the vital magic. Your eyes would probably go yellow if a lizard had just coughed its guts up over you.

Final showdown. Round One: There's a great bit where Merlin blasts one of the gargoyles to smithereens before it can kill Arthur (y'see the Unresolved Homosexual Tension is still there!), Round Two: Sigan and Merlin gab on a bit before Sigan releases the body of Cedric and then does the Vicks Sinex on little Merlin. Round Three: Before you can say 'Treguna, Mekoides, Trecorum Satis Dee' Merlin's used the spell, his eyes have gone black and then tons of smoke blanket the set. Cough. Can't see a bloody thing. However, just for a moment I thought wouldn't it be cool if Sigan had actually possessed Merlin and the rest of the series was concerned with an ever increasingly evil Merlin seducing Arthur! No such luck. Colin Morgan emerges from the smoke and grins from ear to ear, holding up Sigan's soul trapped in the jewelled heart. Did Merlin have it in his pocket at the time then? Very convenient.

So after all that bluster - very visually attractive bluster at that - the only major development was the bit with the dragon. Arthur re-employs Merlin to polish his helmet and, as predicted, Uther shouts a lot about learning lessons about the evil of magic. The cast, as ever, are a good ensemble and manage the often weaker material with aplomb. Arthur is such a cock and Bradley James gets him perfectly and Colin Morgan is still utterly charming as Merlin. But alas the two girls are so ill served again by this script. Will we ever get to see how good Angel Coulby could be as Gwen despite her second billing in the cast? Let's hope so. For now, a decent enough opening to the second series.

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One Response to “MERLIN: Series 2 - Episode 1 / The Curse Of Cornelius Sigan”
  1. Unknown says:

    Thank you for this, you have made Sunday for me and my girls!
    Merlin is love, but the complete lack of historical continuity this week was really distracting!!
    Pubs, and sudden!gothic!architecture! Eh??
    Poor Gwen..her cleavage got more of an outing this week than her charecter!

    Oh, I've been asked to mention how awesome evil seductive 'I just want him to look at me' Merlin series would be :)

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