MERLIN: Series 2 - Episode 3 / The Nightmare Begins

BBC1 - 3rd October 2009 - 6.15pm

Immediately Ben Vanstone's name appears on a script for this series you know the quality of writing will be better. This indeed proved to be the case as this is by far the best episode yet in the second series. It showcases Katie McGrath's Morgana, shifting the mystery about her developing powers up a gear.

Poor old Morgana's nightmare's are back to trouble her but this time it's clear they are a manifestation of her growing power. She goes from re-lighting candles to setting the castle on fire and providing Uther with some expensive reglazing bills. After her troublesome night, Morgana is convinced she's a sorceress and is obviously worried that if Uther finds out he'll tie her to the nearest stake and set fire to her. There's also a lovely bit of interplay whilst Gwen, Arthur and Uther investigate the burnt out bedroom. Gwen swears she blew the candle out and Arthur backs her up and they exchange knowing little glances. Nice bit of subtle character work picking up on the previous episode.

Uther, being the zealot that he is, convinces himself that magic has been used to attack Morgana and the episode's twist is the irony that it's Morgana using the magic. This of course then resurrects Merlin's own dilemma as he too realises that Morgana is developing powers similar to his own when she tries to explain to Gaius that the fire was her fault. Vanstone's script weaves these conflicts deftly, giving Colin Morgan a good opportunity to demonstrate how conflicted Merlin is about keeping his secret. He gets straight to the point with Gaius and demands that Morgana get help in managing her powers from the Druids.

I like Vanstone's handling of the Merlin character. He's strong, believable and resourceful without the recourse that other writers take by making him the butt of all the humour in the programme. I think some of the writers have struggled to balance the humour with the audience's knowledge of how powerful Merlin is. He often spends entire episodes being the idiot when he clearly isn't but that often isn't handled well enough and you actually do come away thinking he is an idiot. Merlin's scene with Gaius where he explains how he knows what Morgana's going through is skillfully played by Morgan and Richard Wilson and gets back to basics with the character.

Merlin's conflict is so great that he can't even offer any succour to Morgana when she asks for it and again Colin Morgan really shows what he can do playing that. And the dragon is no help either and there are dire warnings about Morgana's powers which is neatly setting us up for major plot points down the line. The one thing that is beginning to irritate me is the whole ignorance of Arthur to Merlin's powers. I wonder how long they're going to keep this up? They will eventually have to run out of ways of keeping that particular plot alive. Wouldn't it be better to do a big reveal and then have Arthur conflicted against his father?

Merlin helps Morgana locate the Druids and she makes the trip alone into the forest. There's a brilliant sequence where she is attacked by a horde of giant scorpions which demonstrates how The Mill are improving their creature effects all the time. It's a great effects sequence and pretty terrifying. I also the love the way that Colin Salmon, as Aglain, strides into view like a Druidic Ben Kenobi scaring away the Sand People, only this time they're huge scorpions! Salmon is excellent in an all too brief appearance. As Morgana recovers Vanstone has one more surprise up his sleeve - the return of Mordred. The connections between the two are further developed here and this reaches a climax when Uther orders an attack on the druid camp that is underscored with tragedy in that Uther's intentions are entirely filial whilst he is unaware that she is at the camp to learn of her magical origins.

Director Jeremy Webb handles the battle in the forest with great aplomb using brisk hand held camerawork and still pays attention to the emotional heart of the story with that lovely scene where Aglain suggests that magic is a force for good and not for evil. However, Morgana must return to Camelot to prevent Uther from executing those suspected of magic and her kidnap. It's a great dilemma that's set up in the story and makes for a very exciting last ten minutes when Arthur attacks the camp, Merlin creates a diversion and there's that spine tingling meeting between him and Mordred and his flight in slow motion through the forest.  The music, the visuals and the thrills are all pitch perfect here.

And all the way through Merlin still avoids letting Morgana into his own secret with the final joke being on Arthur. Gaius also reveals that Uther does not know all there is to know about Morgana's past. A really good plot hook to end it on. A superb return to form for the series and clearly the standard it should be aiming for each week.

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