Take Arthurian legend, mix small doses of SMALLVILLE and HARRY POTTER, and you’ve got MERLIN, a BBC series imported to the U.S. by way of the SyFy channel. Like SMALLVILLE, MERLIN is a look at the legend before it became a legend. The series tells of the first meeting between Merlin and the future King Arthur as young men, no more than twenty as the first season opens. The Camelot that Merlin makes his way to is very different from the grand shining kingdom of legend. Under King Uther Pendragon, Camelot is filled with intrigue and enemies on all sides. Magic is banned under penalty of death.
In the opening episode, “Dragon’s Call”, Merlin comes to Camelot as a way of protecting the secret of his innate magical abilities, only to find magic is outlawed. He arrives just as the King (Anthony Head of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is executing a suspected sorcerer. Merlin is taken in by his uncle Gaius (Richard Wilson), the Court Physician who knows of Merlin’s powers. Merlin encounters Arthur (Bradley James), the strong but arrogant Prince. After Merlin saves Arthur’s life from a vengeful witch, he is named Arthur’s manservant, setting up a volatile friendship. The opening episode serves mainly to introduce the entire cast, which also includes Katie McGrath as Morgana, the King’s ward; Angel Coulby as Guinevere, the servant to Morgana; and John Hurt as the voice of the last dragon, who is chained in the caves beneath Camelot and dispenses wisdom to Merlin, usually in cryptic ways.
Despite magic being outlawed, each episode is filled with sorcery (strangely, I don’t think you ever hear the word “wizard” ever used). In the second episode, a knight named Valiant comes to Camelot to compete in a battle tournament. He uses a magical shield emblazoned with snakes that come to life and bite his opponents, killing them instantly. In “The Mark of Nimueh” we meet the witch Nimueh, who is the first season’s prime antagonist, out for revenge against Uther. The reason will be revealed in a later episode, but here she releases a magical plague into Camelot’s water supply that threatens the entire kingdom.
One of the season’s best episodes is “Excalibur”. Nimueh conjures up The Black Knight and points him at Camelot, where he intends to defeat every knight in battle until he gets to Uther. Merlins learns that The Black Knight cannot be hurt by any normal blade and, with the aid of the dragon, enchants a sword that is powerful enough to defeat the Black Knight; however, the magical sword comes with an ominous warning from the dragon.
What makes MERLIN work so well is the superb cast. Colin Morgan as Merlin doesn’t have what you would consider leading man good looks. He’s kind of gawky and clumsy and clashes often with Gaius over the use of magic, which he would use only for good. His chemistry with Bradley James is the glue that binds the series. Complete opposites, the two come from different worlds, but they develop a bond based on loyalty and their common desire for good and justice.
Anthony Head cuts a powerful figure as Uther Pendragon. Quick to anger and paranoid of the slightest hint of sorcery, he will go so far as to imprison anyone, including trusted allies and even the Prince when they dare to disobey his orders. Yet Uther truly wants best for his people and will do anything to protect Camelot. Richard Wilson as the kindly but stern Gaius eventually realizes that Merlin’s magic cannot be suppressed, so he begins to help his nephew control and refine his powers. He is the steady shoulder that Merlin leans on when he is most troubled.
Unlike a lot of period TV shows, historical or not, MERLIN makes an attempt to portray the actual era, somewhere between the Dark Ages and the Medieval period. Rather than miniatures or visual effects, the series uses an actual 12th-century castle in France called Pierrefonds. With its white stone and towering turrets, it is the perfect stand-in for Camelot – a truly magnificent structure which brings a grand vision to life! The BBC has been putting out a number of outstanding fantasy and sci-fi shows out in recent years; with its fantastic cast, outstanding writing, and beautiful locales, MERLIN leads the pack.
The Five disc set includes Audio commentary on most of the 13 episodes. There are also two featurettes:
- “Behind the Magic” looks at the special effects of the show and how the various magical elements and creatures are created.
- “The Black Knight” looks at the “Excalibur” episode and the design of the reanimated corpse of the Black Knight”
Finally there is a set of three video diaries taken by various cast members on their own video cameras as they travel to Pierrefonds for the first time and explore the massive castle. It’s fun and light as travel from England to France aboard the EuroStar Train.
MERLIN (2009 – 2010, Warner Bros./BBC America Home Entertainment). Written By Julian Jones, Howard Overman. Cast: Colin Morgan, Anthony Head, Bradley James, Katie McGrath, Richard Wilson, Angel Coulby
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