Tag: Star Wars

The Hobbit: The Phantom Menace – The Desolation of Prequels

The Hobbit The Phantom Menace

Hobbit TMP

jokerside badgeGoblins and Gungans… CGI Cousins…

Prequel Prequel

NO MATTER WHAT THE MEDIUM, THE ROAD TO MAKING A PREQUEL IS FRAUGHT WITH DIFFICULTIES. 

There’s a place for them of course, and more often than not a compelling reason to tell them.   It allies with the general human desire to discover origins; we all live in prequels waiting for the next sequel after all.  But then, when it comes to fiction, there is a great obstacle course of expectations to navigate.  In recent years, film’s biggest prequels have been even bigger than they might be – and it’s even worse if you’re aiming for a new trilogy that’s every bit as big as an original one.  No matter which direction you take – littering it with cameos, setting it almost parallel, minutes or decades before or following formerly minor characters – something of the sequel will always linger in the audience.  That’s as guaranteed as much as the well known fact that sequels, let alone prequels, trigger the laws of diminishing returns (this year being the 40th anniversary of The Godfather II just to rub that fact in).

A failure to innovate comes with more risk than falling asleep on Elm Street.

Of all film genres, film sequelitus is more prevalent in horror.  And like many a good horror franchise, any creator looking to create a prequel may want to serve up exactly the same thing that flooded the box office last time round.  But while references are crowd pleasing and to a point expected, a failure to innovate comes with more risk than falling asleep on Elm Street.  And innovation doesn’t just mean filming in 3D or High Frame Rate (HFR)….

Take Star Wars; minor, insignificant franchise that it is…   The idea that the prequel trilogy would follow the rise of Darth Vader, was unnecessary.  George Lucas could well have picked any idea as the central crux of the prequel trilogy, but it was the Dark Lord wot won it.  But it’s part of a nine of 12 film synopsis?  I know.  But ever since A New Hope (Star Wars for God’s sake!) launched in 1977, the fate of that synopsis irreparably changed. It may well have fallen at the front of an original 9 or 12 film script, but in light of the original trilogy’s standing come the end of the 20th century, it just didn’t have to any more.

The Hobbit is a different beast, at least on the face of it.  It’s a book to begin with, and a legitimate sequel that was actually published before The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) volumes.  There’s no retconning necessary to make this a prequel, that’s clear. Any retelling need simply be a concession to flashbacks already established in LOTR. Unlike Star Wars, this is set in stone.  Despite the obvious differences developing both set of genre prequels brought immediate pros and cons… And one main similarity.  A mass of screaming and salivating cosplaying fans whose hopes it would be personally damning to dash.

It’s An Unexpected Journey and The Phantom Menace that absorbed the damage lobbed at both prequel trilogies…

Considering the major differences between LOTR and Star Wars franchises then, it’s amazing that the first Hobbit film fells into as many Sarlacc pits/warg pens as the Star Wars prequel trilogy had a decade earlier.  With The Hobbit, there’s not only another, but now another two films to save it just as there was after that fateful 1999 release… But in any event, it’s An Unexpected Journey and The Phantom Menace that absorbed any damage lobbed at the trilogies first.

Not the myth you’re looking for

“It began long ago, in a land far away to the east…” begins The Hobbit, so far so almost familiar.

Of course there are a number of superficial and a number of rather more concrete links between the two stories.  That was almost unavoidable.  When he plotted Star Wars out, Lucas purposefully studied the groundbreaking work of the late American mythologist Joseph Campbell.  It so rigidly follows the quest structure that similarities with the Norse epic derived Tolkien epic were inevitable.  So far so, Biblical, Arthurian and generally Earth mythological.  What’s strange is that Lucas significantly departed from this winning formula when it came to The Phantom Menace, perhaps swayed by the perceived popular appeal of Darth Vader (He still is… “Ani” however, is not).  In contrast, Peter Jackson inherited a short quest novel, with a reduced content and lighter level of risk than even The Fellowship of the Ring.

There’s the age old issue of origins, compounded by being the further origin of an origin.

Spinning, at a fairly late stage we’re led to believe, The Hobbit into three films makes the comparison with LOTR trilogy all the more acute.  But after part one, truth be told it seemed even more of a stretch.  With the course of The Hobbit trilogy, certainly the main storyline, taking place over a few years at most, The Phantom Menace sits distinct.  Still, there’s the age old issue of origins, compounded by being the further origin of an origin.  Neither film beat the first film of the original sequel trilogy.  More on that later.

The Unexpected Tech…

… It’s very difficult to rationalise the two.

A main enemy of any prequel is time.  There’s the aging effect to contend with, as any prequel obviously falls before the original (sequel), but later in the timeline of rapidly advancing technology.  Just look at the horrible solution to aging Brett “Fountain of Youth” Ratner came up with in Red Dragon and even worse, X-Men: The Last Stand.

The Hobbit has few characters it needs to de-age, although Jackson expanded the cameos as he expanded the story.  However, even with a 10 year delay (as opposed to Star Wars’ two decades) technological innovations have had an impact.  Jackson (and Guillermo del Toro) was conscious of retaining a similar look to LOTR trilogy and he had a distinctive advantage in doing so: both trilogies fell in the CGI age.  Still, in the intervening decade came the furious return of 3d…  and ever on his own quest for new technology, Jackson couldn’t resist filming in HFR.  Still, the consistency of director, location  and broadly the same techniques ensure that the change between the two trilogies is minimal.  With all the R&D consideration in the known galaxies, the return of Lucas, move to CGI heavy green screen and shift away from Blighty couldn’t ensure the same for Star Wars.  Even in the smidgen of consistent set design at the end of The Revenge of the Sith, it’s tricky.  The Tatooine reference points may be there, even the Tunisian locations, but it’s very difficult to rationalise the two.  Here it’s a distinct advantage to overlap the films as An Unexpected Journey does with The Fellowship of the Ring.

 “Where sickness thrives, bad things will follow”

Cumberbatch’s Mirkwood shadow is a little more appealing than Jake Lloyd, bless him…

A bit of an obvious one this and admittedly, a bit of a cheat.  The Phantom Menace leaves the audience in no doubt as to “what” Anakin Skywalker will become.  Even a passing familiarity with spin-off toys and fiction solves the Palpatine riddle immediately.  The threat is implicit in the series’ fixed destiny.  Jackson employs a larger canvas but with similar effect.  There may be a larger bad, but the main villain in The Hobbit has to be the dragon Smaug, and it is the threat of the latter in the former’s “hands” that provides a satisfying link-up.  In An Unexpected Journey Jackson keeps the dragon under wraps.  It’s a nice and well staged move, harking back to classical cinematic suspense while saving on CGI modelling (ish) and keeping the reveal for the next film.  It is in expanding the Necromancer story that Jackson sets up LOTR itself.  The real (and quite literal) Phantom Menace is indeed the big bad of the Hobbit trilogy, just as Vader is in the Star Wars prequels. that said, Cumberbatch’s Mirkwood shadow is a little more appealing than Jake Lloyd, bless him…

Preciousssss comedy

In short, it has Jar Jar Binks but it doesn’t have Han Solo.

Times change and tastes with them, but Jackson inherited a lighter far more child orientated story to wield box office magic with.  Similar to The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit’s a simple quest tale on the face of it.  But this time, it features a bunch of dwarves, a fastidious Hobbit and a straggly wizard.  It’s inherently funnier than LOTR, and injecting a sense of jeopardy while retaining fidelity must have been Jackson’s biggest challenge.  Lucas was similarly caught but took an odd approach.  It may well have appealed to children in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but the leap into ridiculous comedy is immediately galling in The Phantom Menace. The droids comedy is too drawn out, the pithiness of the original trilogy gone.  In short, it has Jar Jar Binks but it doesn’t have Han Solo.

Nothing compared to the power of the cameo

Boba Fett’s presence makes you wonder how Lucas resisted including toddler Solo.

Cameos are essential to these prequels – they are after all setting up the story that everyone’s familiar with.  More than that, they are both designed to feed directly into the original trilogies and are propelled by that inevitable dovetailing.  But here’s where the real trap lies.  It’s a simple trick to bookend The Hobbit trilogy in the opening scene of The Fellowship of the Ring.  The books even come prepared with Bilbo’s memoirs and there’s plenty of room to effortlessly introduce the younger Bilbo with parallels and in-jokes.  Star Wars had no such constraint or aid, bar knowing where everything had to end up.   In telling this story, it was a safe bet that the twins would appear at some point and when you have young Vader there’s likely to be a certain General Kenobi and a Master Yoda.  Of course there are inherent plot problems emerging from taking one line of Alec Guinness’ dialogue from the original trilogy and disregarding one of Frank Oz’s.  It’s Star Wars so there have to be the lovable droids, but the idea of C3PO and R2D2 belonging to young Vader stretches credibility and reason.  Jabba and Chewbacca and particularly Boba Fett’s presence makes you wonder how Lucas resisted including toddler Solo.  The Hobbit leaves it to the middle film to bring in Legolas, an addition to the story, but not an unnatural one.  The awkward moment in that falls to Gimli’s sketch (I presume it’s a sketch!).  Saruman, Galadriel et al do have a reason for being in the film but it noticeably unbalances the tale in search for a darker tone.

Over complication? In our moment of triumph?

Tolkien handed Jackson the handy moment that Gandalf nips off for half the book…

In the age of simplistic blockbusters, the over-politics of The Phantom Menace took almost as many people by surprise as the much mentioned casual racism – and with similarly poor feedback.  While not a tremendous surprise, the short amount of time that the Empire had been in power as of A New Hope for was surprising. As was the fact that it was such a delicate military operation. I’ve a soft spot for that keen observation on the convenience of short memories that A New Hope raises, although I’m not so sure that it was intended.   In the context of The Phantom Menace some of the top brass’ dismissal of Vader’s sorcery looks even more like (career) suicide than ever – there were thousands of Jedis running around less than two decades before!  With The Hobbit it was necessary to complicate the plot and Tolkien handed Jackson the handy moment that Gandalf nips off for half the book.  Again, the problem is really gravitas.  In The Fellowship of the Ring we were left in no doubt as to the seriousness of the cause.  Here, while effort is made, the set-pieces laid down by the book ensure a constant levity.  One way around this was to increase the role of Thorin’s bane: Azog.  But then he’s a problem in himself…

An energy field created by all living things

At least we have a  distinction between goblins and orcs, but they’ve lost a visceral appeal with it.

LOTR may well have fallen in the age of CGI, but things sure came on in 10 years.  Jackson was forced to update somehow, but sadly chose to go a little… Jar Jar.  Now, it doesn’t reach the horror of the Star Wars prequels, but if there’s anything that’s going to date both sets of films it’s the CGI characters.  In a film already struggling for gravitas, that The Hobbit‘s two big bads are entirely comprised of pixels is a mistake.  There needs to be far more tactility in the mine scene – at points it even rivals the platforming ‘hope it’s an in-joke’ of Attack of the Clones.   Above ground, Azog is a far cry from the Orks of LOTR.  Here at least we have a (fairly unnecessary) distinction between goblins and orcs, but they’ve lost a visceral appeal with it.  In the second film, Azog is called to the court of the Necromancer, much as Jar Jar slinks off to the Galactic Senate (to inadvertently pave the way for the Empire).  In doing so he leaves a far better lieutenant in his place, though Azog still looks nauseous and far too bland.

The Goblin king is effectively The Phantom Menace’s Boss Nass, but with Barry Humphries given a far better script than Brian Blessed.  At least there the Cockney/Antipodean accent creeps back in after far too much reliance on subtitled ork speak – but how much better if these had been physical performances.

Gollum’s the small elephant in this piece, missing from both the cameo and CGI section.  Of course he takes a fine part in the book which is duly translated across as this film’s highlight.  The CGI used in motion capturing Andy Serkis is clearly another level (if not as imperceptible as films such as Life of Pi, whinge, whinge), but it also unfortunately serves to showcase some of the lack of polish in other CGI only characters who shouldn’t be there.

Millions of voices… Silenced

…That lack of man really smashes a hole in the picture.

It took a while for me to realise my main problem with The Unexpected Journey – and it’s horribly xenophobic.  The lack of man.  Gandalf may look one, but he’s one of the Istari, effectively an angel of Middle Earth.  He’s not mortal and those who can die aren’t man-like: Dwarves and Hobbits.  With the fine and difficult of balance of threat and comedy to overcome, that lack of man really smashes a hole in the picture.  Why does it matter?   The razing of the plains in LOTR and defence of Helm’s Deep are some of the most emotionally powerful parts of the trilogy, as are Aragorn and Boromir’s struggles.  With these dwarves and a couple of eccentric wizards, the same can’t be mustered, especially when there are so bloody many.  I predicted that Lake Town and its human inhabitants would bring something stronger to the latter films and it looks like the well cast Luke Evans is rising to the occasion.  Bard and his kin may well do that.  There was more emotion in the flashbacks to Bard’s ancestor Girion in The Desolation of Smaug than the whole of the first film.

The Phantom Menace features the men of the Star Wars Universe who are as useful as ciphers to us as the men of Middle Earth.  But when a major plot revolves around the origin of the stormtroopers as clones, a certain joyous part of the original trilogy is lost.  Or ripped from the heart of your young child heart, depending on your perspective.

The Scouring of the Shire

A few months ago it broke how Sir Ian McKellen was caught wistfully sighing under his breadth at the amount of green screen work he was required to undertake when filming The Hobbit.  It’s tricky of course, but The Hobbit is just fortunate that Jackson manages to work it far better than the static and stilted performances found in The Phantom Menace.

Production Notes

Special mention must go to The Phantom Menace’s Duel of the Fates

Both films had consistency in score. Star Wars seems to be the one franchise that John Williams can’t ignore and Howard Shore obviously has a rollicking time too.  Both composers pay much attention to consistency, picking up themes and recurring motifs that are sometimes far more powerful than the images on screen.  Special mention must go to The Phantom Menace’s Duel of the Fates though.  A powerful and brilliant composition that sits with the best Star Wars themes, a trick sadly not repeated in the two sequels (although The Return of the Jedi can also re-holster its saber…).  Sadly, in Middle Earth, even the mighty Neil Finn can’t quite compete.

A strong influence on the weak-minded

Okay, one benefit of The Hobbit coming before, and in fact before Tolkien had formulated LOTR.  Smaug may be a retooled as the greatest weapon in Middle Earth, but he’s hardly midichlorians.  I’ll leave it there.

Must fix the Thermal Exhaust Port

…That Serpent is very much alive and well

The wonderful highlight of a trilogy is often the second part.  Freed from beginnings and endings, it can hit the ground running and not worry a Barliman’s Best about tying it up.  The first part has the tricky job: setting everything up with a weight of plotting without the momentum of the conclusion.  Both An Unexpected Journey and The Phantom Menace purposefully end with an ominous finale, a blockbuster trilogy tradition that can be traced back to The Empire Strikes Back in 1981.  (A New Hope didn’t have the prospects to set up a miserable cliff-hanger).  In one of the highlights of The Phantom Menace, Palpatine issues a chilling promise/threat to the young Skywalker.  In An Unexpected Journey , a shot of the ruined mountain reveals the eye of Smaug and that Serpent is very much alive and well.  It’s a broad brushstroke stab at future threat and while it does the job, it’s weak.  That was compounded when The Desolation of Smaug opened so weakly (a great shame considering the brilliant recap/set-piece that opened The Two Towers).  I’ll not mention Attack of the Clones anymore, but The Phantom Menace’s revelation that there are Siths in the house is hardly groundbreaking.

Tempt and tempt again

Both storylines are constrained by temptation

If there’s a linking theme between the two trilogies, in fact the two franchises it’s temptation.  Both sequel and prequel trilogies tussle with the appeal of evil and the weakness of life.  It’s more pronounced and more emotional in the Star Wars prequel as the audience knows that the young child does give in to temptation.  In The Hobbit, the temptation that is so central to LOTR is blown up for the benefit of continuity and Bilbo’s unknowing struggle can only recollect Frodo’s darker path.  In their own way, the storylines are constrained by temptation, each coming from the opposite side and meeting in the middle.

The light and dark and all the greys inbetween.

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

Merlin for the Hate of Camlann Jokertoon

Emrys

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!

The History Years: Simon Mayo’s 2001 departure from Radio 1

Mayo

Mayotrix

Chris Moyles has crossed the road from Broadcasting House, but he’s not the first. 

While I pay tribute to ‘The Saviour’ here’s my archive look at Simon Mayo’s departure.

The History years‘ – Originally published 7th March 2001 in York Vision

Matt Goddard wonders what he’s going to do in the mornings now Simon Mayo’s ‘gone on to better things’.

“SIMON MAYO IN THE MORNING, HE’S NO LONGER YAWNING…  Anymore…  La, la, la, la, la, One FM”.  Blur rings out and suddenly you’re in the past and the present at the same time – oh, and in bed.

It’s all so reassuring.

It was the same on the morning of 16 February when an era ended.  After 15 years, Simon Mayo left Radio One and took some important parts of my teenage memories with him.

Now, I know not all of you care about Radio One or particularly Simon Mayo, but I also know a lot of other, equally distraught people.  Mope.  You don’t HAVE to carry on reading this, but in writing it I’m attempting to vindicate the hundreds of hours I’ve spent listening to Mayo’s show rather than doing something slightly more important.

Mayo’s show was the mainstream movie-show of choice.
It’s not that Radio One had the best critics.
Oh, no, no, no…”

Somehow he showed more innovation in his dead-pan presentation than anyone, and managed to justify that lie-in until 12 on a Thursday morning.  If I woke up in time, I’d guess the ‘Mystery Years’, then just lie-in to hear ‘Dead or Alive’, oh, and then just a bit longer to hear ‘King of the Movies’ (or the oh-so-superior One World), then the ‘Eleven-Thirty-Three’ or ‘Millennium Anthems’ oh, and then to hear who Wicky-Wah-Wah-Will’s been that day.  After that I’m chucked out of bed by Jo Wiley.

No more.  Much as I love Jo on Channel Four at midnight, she’s single-handedly solving my lie-in problem.

There were other jewels in the 9-12 show: ‘God of the Week’ constantly confirmed what you always thought about Jim Carrey or David Duchovny.  When producer George ‘regenerated’ into Producer Will last year I laughed for hours – it’s the little attentions to detail that make a show.  Sara Cox take note.

A big bonus was the fact that I’m a movie-lover.  Mayo’s show was the mainstream movie-show of choice.  It’s not that Radio One had the best critics.  Oh, no, no, no.  Yet the BBC gave Mayo the biggest budget for ridiculously high concept prizes and his team had the ingenuity to match.  Perhaps by the end, they were losing it (how many times was the lame ‘Kind of the Movies’ competition won by the fastest search engine?) but there are great memories.

Last year, the fantastic’ One World’ shifted into ‘One World is Not Enough’ for the 19thJames Bond film.  The prize escapes me, but I couldn’t stop uttering the catchphrase for weeks.  The fantastic Matrix competition to see the premiere in Paris; all the finalists lost, and Jo Wiley had to wait while Mayo did what he does best.  Oh, and don’t forget the Phantom Menace compo, the only element of Star Wars: Episode One which lived up to the hype.

His last show was suitably impressive.  Some of the familiar parts of had to go for times-sake, but ending on a Lemmy comment and Ace of Spades: Genius.

Moby, Terrorvision, Feeder, a very ingratitude Travis, Everclear all sent in messages of tribute and I think everyone was surprised by some impromptu interludes from The Shirehorses and the Proclaimers.

Special mention has to go to ‘The Mystery Years’.  You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.  It’s been around for as long as I can remember, but obviously it’s got easier as it went on; more nineties-centric.  The favourite year by far on the day was 1996, and what a year it was.  The Manic’s Design for Life’ slid into the Prodigy firestarting.  And to end on Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger – does that song make a great conclusion to everything?  Sure, back then Oasis were the biggest band in the world, but anyway 1996 was fantastic.  Yep, it was my long post-GCSE summer, so it was particularly great for me.

Mayo’s apparently going to resurrect ‘The Mystery Years’ in may on Five Live, but it just won’t be the same in the afternoon.  Especially clashing with Mark and Lard.

A typically BBC quote went up on the website – whoever said they weren’t diplomatic?  – but what are they up to?  Like Mayo on the said morning, I don’t think there’s a need to slag off their aggressive radio policy.  However, Mayo isn’t DLT.  The last year has seen them ditch the Roadshow all in favour of the One-World, One Love slogan and Leeds street parties.  Sure, sounds great – I know the world’s changing but I’m being made to feel old by BBC execs just a few years older than me.  What about my day?  Don’t they know how disturbing it is to wake up at 10, hear Jo Wiley and think it’s the afternoon?  It’s messing with ME.

His leaving present which reminds him of Radio One, a mirror and a razorblade.
That’s because everyone here is so smart and clean shaven obviously’

Sure there were slights at the BBC on Mayo’s last day, most notably the last questionnaire, annunciated by Angus Deayton.  He asked a representative number of people, ‘Apart from joining FiveLive, what else could Simon Mayo have done next?’

‘3% said sit back and admire his leaving present which reminds him of Radio One, a mirror and a razorblade.  That’s because everyone here is so smart and clean shaven obviously’.

Hmmmm.  As the last day suggested, not many ex-Radio one DJs go on to bigger and better things (Simon Dee, Simon Bates, Mike Reid, DLT..?).  Ii hope Mayo’s an exception.  At least he gets to have a lie-in of student standards now.  It’s easy to forget he was with Radio One for 15 years.  In any line of work that’s amazing, least of all fickle Radio One.

He even managed to hold the breakfast Show for five years, imagine that now.

Oh well, maybe it’s good Mayo’s left.  After all, I can get up early, so some stuff, not waste money or time phoning the BBC and get a degree.  Yeah, whatever, bring back 1996.”

JokerMatt subsequently scraped a degree and his ‘One World is Not Enough’ impression still has it. 

The Mystery years subsequently resurfaced on the Chris Moyles Show – another 15 year Radio 1 alumni, with a record eight years on the breakfast show –  and Simon Mayo has been reconnected with Mark Kermode to once again take the mantle as BBC’s Mr Film. 

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