Tag: BBC

Merlin: Swords and Sorcery Part II – For the Hate of Camlann!

Merlin for the Hate of Camlann Jokertoon


All’s well that..  Ends.  One year on, a closer look at the final three episodes of Merlin, where all the anachronistically tarmaced roads point to Camlann and a rather bleak finale is framed by the Mordred endgame.  Destiny is key… And everyone has a set role to play.

 A Review of the concluding Mordred Trilogy…

The Drawing of the Dark

THE START OF THE END, AS ITS TITLE SUGGESTS, DRAWING RATHER NEATLY SETS UP MORDRED’S ROLE BY INVERTING THE MERLIN FORMULA AND GIFTING IT TO THE ‘OTHER’ YOUNG WIZARD.  Here it is Mordred sneaking from the castle walls to aid an undesirable, breaking his, admittedly ruthless, friend from the brig and then conflicted over his use of magic.  Any or all of those plot facets could have been applied to Merlin in any other episode.  But her all off a sudden, in preparation for the final two-parter, we’re left in no uncertain terms that things have inverted.  It’s a bold move that shows how much faith the creators have in Merlin’s well-worn formula.  They’re right to, because it just about works, but it’s left to the sprawling plot strands to pose the problem.

The impending dark means that Merlin is as caught up in prophecies as ever, but the episodes conjures up plenty of red herrings as to whether it’s actually his actions that are making the prophecies come to pass, have done or will do.  Both Gaius and Mordred himself point out to Merlin that he would act the same if he was Modred’s armoured boots – but the young wizard is too wary of his visions of Camlann to listen.

It’s difficult to gauge true effect of Merlin’s actions in this episode.

It’s well sculpted, but after five years of acting just like Mordred, it’s a little hard to accept Merlin’s volte face and indeed that Mordred, the loyalist knight, would turn so quickly.  While there’s a real momentum to this episode, one that draws most of the characters from their comfort zone as the dark draws near there is that inherent problem: The Mordred story is handled a little too hastily.

It’s difficult to gauge true effect of Merlin’s actions in this episode.  On top of those familiar, strained loyalties, he’s wracked by the previous visions and prophecies that he‘s seen people die for.  Above all though, while the ambiguity seems dissipate to settle on Mordred’s hands being forced by Merlin’s actions, and thus Camlann as well, it’s the original prophecy laid out in the first series that remains the most important.

It’s a mean to an ends then, though one with some pelt.  There are some nice parallels.  Merlin’s counsel with Arthur is a nice mirror of Gaius’ poor choice the week before.  Such interventions are there to build up to Mordred’s final appeal to his king, and that’s a winner.  The scene’s key to the strength is Alexander Vlahos’ superb performance and he successfully captures the weight of confessional courage alongside sacrifice in what may be the most important in the whole series.

Merlin’s culpability in his own destiny is an interesting area in its own right.  But despite the mild flirtation with it at the end game. It’s not something that the show can get into too much.  Over reliance on it would only serve to drag this entertaining show down a peg like (as Poirot’s recent end-game decided on), but it would also damage the main focus of those last episodes: Arthur’s bane himself.

 Drawing has a necessarily has a bleak tone, but it’s particularly tortuous to watch Mordred’s struggle.  The parallel to Merlin makes for one of the most interesting conundrums in the whole series.  And so it should be.

Mordred achieving his knighthood is a most unexpected surprise…

Of all parts of Arthurian lore the show has touched on, sometimes blatantly, sometimes softly, Mordred remains the trickiest character.  Even ignoring the more fruity elements of lore, he’s the big bad – up there with Morgana, and the one who delivers the final blow.  He’s the ultimate bad.  And perhaps the loyalty to legend in having Mordred achieve his knighthood is the most unexpected surprise in the series.

Having established a strict code of magic suppression, one it never swayed from, Merlin was well placed to use it to frame Arthur’s bane.  From his first appearance, Mordred was presented as a chilling character.  The telepathy helps, as does the knowledge he possesses, but it’s particularly because he’s so much more in touch with his roots and so much more in control of his powers than Merlin.  When he aged, the character was inevitably diminished.  And unfortunately Knight Mordred came a season after  the wonderful pincer movement of Morgana and Agravaine de Bois that he could never match.

In propelling the story along, it’s interesting that the writers decided to take a step back.  Kara seems a throwback to Merlin’s early years.  But after years of the increasingly pantomime Morgana, at least Kara’s was an impassioned martyrdom.  After killing a ‘soldier of Camelot’ she’d never engender much sympathy, but it’s her duels with Arthur that are a highlight of the episode.  Interesting as Series Five had hardly showed Arthur as a persecutor of magic users – on one occasion he even saved a witch.  However, Morgana’s one-minded hatred, aligned with Mordred’s tortured loyalty ultimately prove compelling, even if their estrangement seemed a little rushed.

The following two episodes inevitably involve that certain Lady of the Lake…

When reunited however, the young lovers show that the stakes have never been higher.  With comedy episodes packed away, a later time slot, and a need for closure, the signs and portents were brought to the fore this series.  In Drawing, the raising of gallows are a remarkably dark moment, but then they needed to be ominous.  It wasn’t just Merlin bringing the prophecies to fruition.  While Mordred’s escape is the first of broad Star Wars strokes that build throughout the climax, it leads to the most dramatic execution.  It’s a shame that there isn’t the time to explore Mordred’s grief more fully.  With Uther and Morgana, Arthur and Guinevere, Merlin and the Lady of the Lake, the parallels were all there for the taking.  It really is a missed opportunity after the travails Merlin went through to free Freya in season two… Especially as the events of the following two episodes inevitably involve that certain Lady of the Lake…

And so by the end of Drawing, Mordred reaches his potential.  Even the loyalist of Arthurs’ knights couldn’t keep his secret safe for more than a fifth of the time that Merlin managed.

 The Diamond of the Day Part 1

War has never been far from characters’ lips since Morgana took a dislike to a Knight’s face…

And so we reach the final two-parter.  Tradition dictates that a Merlin two-part finale will be both good and tick a few more boxes of legend.  So firstly, what a disappointing title.  The Merlin crew are normally quite good at hitting on legend-friendly titles, but having already used Le Morte d’Arthur, The Lady of the Lake and The Darkest Hour, Camlann part 1 and 2 just wouldn’t cut it.

That said, this is no exception to the rule that Merlin two-parters get off to a nippy start.  That’s particularly notable here after the rather downbeat, doom-laden Drawing of the Dark.  Although war has never been far from characters’ lips since Morgana took a dislike to a Knight’s face, it now really is game on; Morgana has her final key.  Most importantly she also has a powerful and effective lieutenant.  Mordred, Arthur’s loyalist Knight, is a far cry from the failing miscreants she’s previously allied herself with.

It’s impressive how stealthily Morgana rose to become a real leader.  Just a year before she was hiding in a cave hut.  Now, to match her stronger resolve have come rudderless bands of Saxons and a hidden, impressive, keep.  The Saxons mounting role make an interesting touch; they’re the rogues who presumably inherit Albion…

But it isn’t an all out attack, first comes another one of Merlin’s tropes: a magical curse to take the main character out of play.  It’s a tried and tested device, from X-Men: The Last Stand to Superman 3.  Taking Merlin out of the action is simple; crude, but necessary.  It’s to the credit of the writers that it even feels mildly fresh here, focussing as it does on the unspoken elements of Arthur and Merlin’s relationship.  As this two parter will show, there’s still a lot to fit in before the series bows out.  First there’s the matter of the knights to tie up…

While Leon and Gwain had taken most of the slack the week before – mostly in Mordred’s absence – here it’s Percival’s turn.  He’s in the Rising Sun tavern when the rather out of place Arthur’s is rather oddly losing money, albeit magically, to Merlin.  While it seems strange the more you think about it, the scene is actually a neat reminder of how the king and his servant’s relationship has moved on.  All those year’s ridiculing Merlin for being in the ale house…

All the right tricks are being ramped up…

Percival’s also at Arthur’s hand when the Roundtable makes its reappearance.  On Arthur’s left is Guinevere of course, holding the place alongside Gaius that Merlin once took.  It’s noticeable that this is the first time in a while that Arthur refers to Morgana as his sister.  All the right tricks, from family to betrayal to war are at being ramped up to fuel the intensity of the finale.

Of all the knights, it’s Gwain who’s been worst served by the final season.  The fallible romance plot device in this episode brings the brash knight back into the fold and back to the character of lore.  It does well at highlighting Gwain’s standing as one of the greatest knights, but also the most reckless – it’s the latter trait that inevitably leads to his downfall.  It’s not an unexpected endgame for Gwain, but a shame for such an important figure in the show’s revised myth.  Not only is he one of the few who knows Merlin’s secret, but his knighthood also said a lot about the boy king’s reign.

When it comes to strategising the information that Gwain lets slip, it is all Tolkien map – quite an anachronism compared to the curtains and bedposts of the show, but a welcome one – alongside those familiar Ronin style-ambushes.  Gwain gets his true last hurrah making Merlin’s journey to the Valley of the Fallen Kings possible.  But with knowledge that is the true counterpoint to Mordred’s, his and Merlin’s relationship is underexplored.

And then, eventually, we see Morgana versus Emris.  At this point the balance in achieving a necessary build-up becomes difficult.  Considering how ruthlessly Morgana has been developed, it’s unbelievable that she doesn’t just kill him, especially with Merlin’s cockiness when faced with certain death.

The approach to someone or other’s Rubicon…

However, that unbalance actually helps the episode step up a gear.  It soon achieves a pace seldom seen in the series, even in the chase episodes.   Merlin’s entrapment leaves chance for nice interplay between Arthur, Gaius and Guinevere while on the flip-side, Mordred and Morgana laboured co-spelling reinforces their bond and strength.

Other than that it’s all CGI marching, camp building and the approach to someone or other’s Rubicon.

I found the sudden reveal of Camlann to be a jolt.  For me, always the wide, green and fog-filled plain of Excalibur – but here a rubble-filled pass; a bigger version of what has become Merlin’s own version of the Doctor Who quarry in Surrey.

Things start to get very Star Wars indeed…

Back in the cave things look bad for Merlin, but there is just a sense of real danger lacking.  In part, that’s a side effect of the malevolent Morgana stooping to merely send a rock fall his way, but it’s also a hangover from Merlin having met so many allies in caves before.  And then, faster than the Falcon, things start to get very Star Wars indeed.  There’s always been a trace of that of course.  The Star Wars shadow hangs long on adventures of this type.

While Merlin’s father is a neat character touch, a neat reference, his presence is pure Obi-dad-Kenobi.  Their discussion of magic borders on, and I’m so sorry to say it, midi-chlorians.  While Merlin’s easy route back into magic seems somewhat inexplicable, it does suggest that his magic is innate rather than something rejuvenated by the crystals.  Certainly, his reaction to the change is emphatic.  The crystals act as hyped up versions of the palantirs in The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, facilitating communication.

With the build-up to Camlann established over several series, it’s a bit of a shock to find the battle upon the knights at the end of the first part.  It’s there, the very place in which, legend and Merlin’s prophecies themselves have told us, Arthur and Mordred will destroy each other.

The battle itself is visceral, if not anything beyond what you’d expect of Merlin’s TV budget.  Mordred sulks as he skulks, looking for Arthur as Bane would Batman on Gotham Wall Street.  And then suddenly, with an explosion of magic, old Merlin (Dragoon) explains away some earlier visions that seemed a poor fit.  How could the old Merlin have walked Camlann.  I say ‘explains away’, but it actually knocks it into perspective.  We are suddenly aware that this is THE actual Camlann: the end.  Merlin and Arthurian legend is about to emphatically end and so…  It’s a fine point for a cliff-hanger.

The Diamond of the Day Part 2

When the cavalry arrives, it is less amusing and less joyous than usual.

With a whopping extended episode of a whole 47 minutes, after 65 episodes of what might be the most roomy and luxurious fantasy story on TV, this is it: the finale.  An actual extended closer would have been too out of formula and too ostentatious for Merlin.

What is a step up is the fighting.  Full and impressive, it’s something the production team had to put some thought into.  It’s another full-pelt start, with the fighting intercut with Merlin’s chase on his magically gained a horse.  Despite galloping at full speed, the timing could be a little sharper under the weight of all they are seeking to pack in.

On the field, Mordred is still stalking, Leon is really putting his back into it and then… Morgana’s poor little dragon arrives.  It may have been lightly explained, but the year of maltreatment Morgana and her adopted dragon endured added a nasty undercurrent to this final series.  It’s hard not to feel sorry for the beast that formed the previous year’s cliff-hanger.  And of course, when Merlin arrives, the little feller can be easily dispensed with but there’s still time for some mirroring.  Morgana takes on the role of Merlin, protecting Mordred in battle just as Merlin has protected his King countless times – and that’s even after the witch mimics Merlin’s action of Dragon-forging.

When the cavalry arrives, it is less amusing and less joyous than usual.  That doesn’t mean that the Star Wars aping has finished, however.  After Obi-dad of the previous episode, now we have Old Emperor Merlin hurling his force lightening.  That we know Merlin so well, or think we do, the sight of him prowling the battlefield is impressive.  Once again, the real bane here is that the time pressure is a little lacking, but with so many nice touches, that’s easy to forgive.

And even Guinevere, her brow perpetually furrowed, get s her own wonderfully staged fight to deal with on the medicine side.  It’s little moments like that, throwbacks to earlier and simpler times, that make Merlin; the show that never really seemed to go anywhere.

That simple step-over of Mordred’s body speaks volumes.

And so the real end-game.  When Arthur and Mordred do meet, it is quick, but it’s brutal.  The only words said are Mordred’s. ‘You gave me no choice’.  It harks right back to his betrayal by Arthur, right back to Uther’s magical suppression and the heart of the series.  Arthur’s response is a classical one, but not Excalibur-bloodily so.  Mordred is dead before hitting the ground and when Merlin later finds his King, that simple step-over of Mordred’s body speaks volumes.

Camlann is over and it’s the aftermath that has drawn the most criticism.  However, Merlin was always as much about the personnel as the legend.  While the Arthur and Mordred strand was an important one to follow, it’s Merlin and Arthur’s relationship that’s most important.  This is the last chance for one of those round the camp-fire scenes, and in fact, it’s one five years in the making.  Arthur’s reaction to the truth is well constructed – all the more impressive when you accept that there will always be holes.

A specific lists of question along the lines of  ‘you killed my father’ wouldn’t work, so instead we see Arthur travel through disbelief, denial, anger and then the rekindling of understanding, all administered with a light touch.  As usual, Colin Morgan and Bradley James’ excellent chemistry carries it all – and not easy when the dynamic has changed so markedly.

But it’s not just the wizard and King’s story that is ending.  Gwain must pay the price and duly does, creating an elevated role for Percival in the process.  On her way out, a broken Morgana conjures up the most explicit Star Wars reference with her burning Sith magic eyes blazing as she force chokes a Saxon.  It is a shame that narratively Gwain can’t have a noble death.  There was always that hanging, strange link between Morgana and the one she consistently called her ‘Sir Knight’.  There was more of Uther in her than she hoped.

This strand holds truer to some tellings of the legend than most but still, with Lancelot’s story long-resolved and Bedevere non-existent in Merlin, the majority of legend is pressed into the hands of the young wizard himself.  In the structure of the show, there’s nothing wrong with that.

At the end, it’s back to basics.

The final episode’s structure also allows time to explore both sides of Guinevere back in Camelot.  While reasonable when it comes to friendship and magic, she’s still gallows happy – as Eira’s death proves.  By now there’s little to no comedy left in the series.  But in distilling the aftermath from battle to horse chases through the familiar green of Albion via betrayal, knowledge and redemption, it all fits the bill rather well.  Magic had visibly diversified in the last part of season five, with fire walls and lightening replacing the classic Merlin force push.  But at the end, it’s back to basics.

Moving on from Star Wars, Arthur’s plight is pure Iron Man.  While the enchanted metal heads inevitably to his heart, it’s the same dramatic death that Merlin grants Morgana.  When the Great Dragon arrives belatedly (as he’d previously flown to Avalon) it’s too late to avoid the fate that he’d long prophesised.  The fate that Merlin had fought so hard to achieve has arrived, and it’s the one fate that he didn’t really want.

There’s always a player who sacrifices the most and in the absence of Bedevere, despite the increased role of Percival, it’s the young wizard who is left to hurl Excalibur back to its resting place.  Without Arthur’s command, or real knowledge of its power it seems a strange, but it’s a metaphor for the dwindling role of magic and of course, it’s an action that he’s performed before…  And this time his ex-girlfriend’s hand is there to catch the sword

The fate of the young dragon may be unknown, but that of dragons in general is not.  The fate of the kingdoms of Camelot is also known, and one eased by the talk of succession and the future of the name-checked “United Kingdoms”.  It then falls to the coronation of Guinevere to be the nice thematic segue to what is the most surprising cut of all…

It’s a bleak hope, but it is there.

Suddenly, we’re in present day Britain.

Where Merlin still stalks the land, awaiting the return of his friend and King.  It’s a bleak finish, no matter how you look at it.  It seems unlikely that Merlin saw Camelot again after Camlann and has been left to wander Albion for centuries, watching magic slowly fade from the world.

Ultimately, Merlin’s hope rests on the shoulder of prophecies that have previously taken everything away from him.  It’s a bleak hope, but it is there.  And somewhat miserable as it is, it’s a finale fully in the spirit of Merlin.  I think the word may be “fitting”.  It could have been fuller, but the Merlin crew achieved a lot.  Merlin went out neatly and very nearly complete.  Yes, there was room for more, but it’s hard to begrudge the confident approach and skilful misdirection they pulled off again and again.  And all that from a  series that never really seemed to go anywhere…

More Merlin? Read Swords & Sorcery Part I: An overview of Five years of Merlin in For the Love of Camelot!

Doctor Who: When the Radiophonic Workshop went to Shoreditch (#Whovember)

Radiophonic Workshop Whovember


It’s Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary month.  First off, a rare glimpse at an incredible part of British culture.

YESTERDAY I HAD THE BLOODY GREAT LUCK TO CATCH THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP IN ACTION.  Not just a concert rendition of their songs, but the real deal, or as close as you can get.  Messrs Mills, Ayre, Howell et al on a stage, surrounded by theremins, vocoders and ever-spinning tape loops.  Dick Mills took centre stage, wonderfully and eccentrically decked out in what may as well be milkman garb.

The Radiophonic Workshop was, of course, the BBC department established in 1958 to produce music and effects for radio and later television.  Mills gave an interesting run-through of the departments origin, one that led to the creation of an important and influential unit… Until the BBC shut it down in 1998.  Yesterday, it was an hour of classics, crossing from Gallifrey to the War of the Worlds, with a glimpse at the pages of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for good measure.

Best of all, the concert was held in Shoreditch, that part of East London, England, Earth where, in a totters yard, on Totters Lane a policeman first led us to the TARDIS fifty years ago.  It wasn’t the home of the Workshop, but the home of their most famous creation.  As Mills said when introducing the closing section, they couldn’t just let the 50th birthday of a certain “medical man” go without recognition.  “1958 to 1993” read the badge on the front of Dick Mills’ Jacket.  “The original sonic solution” read the back.

The Doctor Who theme really must be the Radiophonic Workshop’s most famous creation, but that’s hardly its only gift.  That theme was tweaked from Delia Derbyshire’s first arrangement of Ron Grainer’s composition – with assistance from Mills – was tweaked all the way up to Peter Howell’s compositions that closed Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor era.  As Workshopper Mark Ayre once said, while the Workshop started off with little beyond hand-me-downs from other departments, by the time it was disbanded in 1998, it had become one of the most sophisticated studios in the world.  Always based at Maida Vale, the original workshop spread from its famous Room 13 – as Mills joked, that’s when the License Fee started going up.  There were star admirers in the crowd, and rightly so.

Praised as unsung heroes of electronica, there reach extend beyond the airwaves and screen into popular music.  During particularly pounding rock efforts I was reminded of the indiscernible and strange connection between English eccentricity and rock and rolls.  From the Beatles to Bowie and rolling on to better examples of Britpop, it’s long been an asset, or cause, of Britain punching above its weight in popular music.  While an aspect like Metal could only have developed from the industrial Black Country, eccentricity is a general staple of all forms of British music.  And while the devilishly talented core members of the Workshop were crafting incredible music from nothing on behalf of the state broadcaster in the 1960s and 1970s, the likes of Pink Floyd were doing the same for progressive rock just miles away.  One listen to that band’s 1971 song One of These Days illustrates that link.

Of course, in 2012 the BBC announced that the Radiophonic Workshop would be returning as an online endeavour after 14 years.  It’s a great, eye-catching and correct idea.  But the real deal were those creaking around a stage in Shoreditch for an hour in the November of 2013.  Catch them when you can.

The Radiophonic Workshop was something that only the BBC could produce, something that only Britain could produce.

Merlin: Swords and Sorcery Part I – For the Love of Camelot!

Merlin for the Love of Camelot

Merlin chuck

The first of a series looking at Arthurian legend on the small and big screens.  First up is the throwtastic family fayre of Merlin.  Massive spoilers guaranteed for those who are yet to take the trip to Camelot.

CONCLUDING FIVE TERRIBLY SUCCESSFUL YEARS, MERLIN’S FINAL SEASON COMMENCED A YEAR AGO THIS WEEKEND.  As 2013 sees Albion traded for Atlantis on the long Autumn evenings, it feels a good time to look back at a show that proved many wrong, and also that Arthurian legend is still ripe for repossession.

 “In a land of myth, and a time of magic… the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young boy. His name… Merlin.”

So began each episode, firmly setting the tone for The Adventures of Young Merlin.  In his review of the first episode of Atlantis, The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston wryly commented that the show has the same boy’s public school vibe as Merlin – and it does.  Aside from myth, the show cuts into a similar vein as Harry Potter, conjuring up a class obsessed buddy show – although Atlantis could really do with a similar intro spiel.  With special effects limited by its television budget, a lot of the series’ appeal had to come from its interplay.  That put a focus on a script that received criticism for its modern English when it first started (all but gone by the end of its run) but that proved to be eminently sensible.  After all, what language would be historically accurate?  Unfortunately however, not many shows have an inbuilt universal translator or telepathic circuit and people take that badly.

Atlantis has taken the opposite approach to Merlin, starting in the modern day that Merlin briefly finished in. The camera could have easily cut from the South West country road that Merlin endlessly walks to the boat from which Jason surveys the ocean depths.

Different Fish

But Atlantis is a different fish to Merlin, despite its surface similarities.  The new show has a wealth of myths to draw on, and not necessarily all Greek (Jason is palling up with Hercules rather than Heracles after all).  In the first episode the main hero landed in an Atlantis that sounded a lot like Crete, took on the mantle of Theseus and defeated the minotaur.  There isn’t a golden fleece in sight, but it will surely come.  Atlantis may have significant crossovers with Merlin cast and crew, but it’s come with significant new blood – not least Howard Overman elevated to co-creator.

Following loosely in the boy wizard’s footsteps, Atlantis has immediately eased itself of Merlin’s early constraints.  Despite a singular base in one city, presumably in the Mediterranean, that may as well be Camelot in Albion, its setting brings an easier route to adventure and story.  The show’s intrepid trio have thousands of tales to draw on.  Although Merlin brought in various British and Celtic myths, from its various fantastic creatures to the aes sídhe, it was always set in the stone of Arthurian legend.

‘The Future of Camelot, Albion, and the United Kingdoms’

But as John Hurt’s Great Dragon intonated in the opening of every episode, this Merlin was a young boy, and a servant, for the whole run of the show.   No matter how many nods and references there were to the legends of Arthur, the audience knew that this was just laying the groundwork for the famous myths to come….  Well, that was the ruse that remained for a considerable time, in fact, pretty much up to the time that its cancellation was announced.  With every nod and appearance of an element of the myth, Merlin wasn’t hinting at what was to come after all – it was interpreting them just as Spenser, White, Malory and countless others had before.  In these days of old and bloated knights, it’s refreshing to see Arthur locked as a young king, because when Merlin ended, the whole legend had been told.

Most parts of Arthurian lore were acknowledged from the love triangle of the throne, the lady of the lake, Uther Pendragon, Excalibur, the sword in the stone and round table as well as bringing in the likes of Tristan, Isolde and the Fisher King.  By the final season many parts were in place, overshadowed by the road to Camlann.  In five years it covered pretty much the whole caboodle, not necessarily in the expected way or order, but it got away with it all rather brilliantly.

There’s a number of reasons why.  Perhaps most importantly, Merlin got its casting spot on.  The mix of the characters and chemistry more than overcame plots that frequently fell into the old ‘Oh we’re off for a quest because one of us has fallen ill’ mould.  While some of the characters remained a little underused, even wasted for long stretches, such as Sir Gwain and Guinevere, others flourished in leisurely story arcs.   In the case of Morgana, seldom has a character been allowed such time to develop from light to dark.  Katie McGrath had precious little to do for two seasons, but more than made up for it (well, went manically over the top) when the character’s power was realised.

The Great Purge

Merlin’s real strength was using and abusing the myths as it saw fit.  With such a successful chemistry and easy reliance on its strict formula, with its deus ex machina dragons, it eeked out parts of the myth throughout the series.  It laid simple, never over the top, plot strands with the confident and correct opinion that it really didn’t need to worry about being slavish to any version of the myth.  The quest, a medieval-going-on-modern castle set-up and the consistent suppression of magic were kept at the show’s core.  With a fixed base, the show could explore its established geography of kingships across Albion, laying down bases to return to and build on without being slavish.

The Changing Seasons

A quick summary of the five seasons shows the neat and steady unfolding of the myths.

  • Season one took a while to get swinging, despite introducing Lancelot, Excalibur and finished with a cameo from the Cup of Life.
  • Season two brought a twist on the Lady of the Lake and ended on the dragon lore with the last Great Dragon released (physical, not metaphorical here), a literal representation of magic that other adaptations have used a little more opaquely.
  • Season three played a longer game, with excursions to the Fisher King seeding the way for a finale where everything stepped up a gear.  With the addition of Sirs Gwain, Percival and Elyan, it sees Morgana seizing Camelot, the quest for the cup of Life, the formation of the Round Table, the return of the Lady of the Lake and the recovery of Excalibur.
  • Season four doesn’t keep Uther around for long and has soon deepened the myth with Morgana fully rogue and Arthur on the throne.  Nathaniel Parker adds a superb touch of class as the dastardly Agravaine de Bois (a character confused throughout myth).  Lancelot sacrifices himself, it turns out permanently, and by the finale Arthur is drawing the sword from the stone.
  • Season five jumps forward three years into an age of prosperity where Guinevere sits on the throne next to Arthur.  But the gathering doom of Camlann grows closer as Mordred resurfaces to earn his knighthood.

Despite its leisurely pace and skilful nods, it’s a shame that there wasn’t one more season, perhaps with Merlin taking on the mantle of Camelot physician and hand of the king from Gaius.  Many wanted it, but the format of the show would have been utterly broken by Arthur discovering and accepting Merlin had powers for any length of time.  The fact they never adapted Gwain and the Green Knight though, that’s almost unforgivable.

Since Doctor Who reclaimed Saturday nights for family drama, many shows have failed.  The most notable casualty was Demons, but even Primeval and Robin Hood were limited successes.  Merlin managed it with ease, taking support and leads from its far older brother and eventually breaking into a later peak slot that crossing the watershed without sacrificing its family fun.  By the series’ end, while Doctor Who struggled with over complications and split seasons, Merlin remained one of the most consistent shows ever seeking to entertain on a Saturday night.  No wonder it took a bite out of the X-Factor.  Against all odds, Atlantis is surely in good stead.

More Merlin? In Part 2: For the Hate of Camlann! – I take a look at the closing ‘Mordred trilogy

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