Sunday, 10 October 2010

'MERLIN' 3.5 – "The Crystal Cave"

Sunday, 10 October 2010

This fifth episode stepped things up a gear, even if the central premise is nothing new and hugely predictable for fans of the genre. But it's still great whenever the show goes a little darker, remembers its own mythology, and gives the actors something more grownup to grapple with. "The Crystal Cave" wasn't as superb as you sensed it might have been with a cannier storyline and better twists, but it was undoubtedly the first episode of series 3 that offered us proper character development...

Arthur (Bradley James) is shot in the back while evading a group of woodland bandits with Merlin (Colin Morgan), losing consciousness beside a Crystal Cave that Merlin explores when a warlock called Taliesin (Karl Johnson) heals Arthur's wound and invites him inside. The cave being full of enchanted crystals, Merlin is shocked to see the future reflected in the surface of the gems, because they clearly shows Morgana (Katie McGrath) stabbing King Uther (Anthony Head) dead with a bejeweled dagger. Arriving back on Camelot with the recovered Arthur, Merlin is perturbed when events glimpsed in the crystals begin to happen, leading him to believe Morgana's hours away from killing the king while he sleeps, but in his efforts to change the future Merlin just makes things more inevitable...

"The Crystal Cave" trotted out the genre classic that you can't change the future because the future will be shaped by your efforts to alter it. It's been done many times before, it'll be done many times again. Merlin's stab at the concept (pun intended) didn't contain any memorable twists to keep you surprised, but it was an effective and compelling hour for a show that rarely works to this standard. It even became surprisingly dark when Merlin accidentally caused Morgana to have an accident, fearing she was about to commit murder, and put her at death's door. Wracked with guilt over his actions, it was a little disappointing to see him summon the Dragon (John Hurt) for another tête-à-tête in the forest clearing, where the supercilious beast again advanced the plot by bestowing healing magic on Merlin to spare Morgana's life, but that was about the only irritating in what was otherwise a rounded and entertaining story.

We even had significant character development, with Uther's admission to Gaius (Richard Wilson) that Morgana is actually his daughter (a fact he's kept secret from everyone, even his son), and with Morgana now aware of her true lineage there's an added reason for her to kill both Pendragons to seize the throne. Or rather, that's the angle her evil sister Morgause (Emilia Fox) is quick to spot when she's told of her sibling's true parentage. It was good to see Merlin make this change, which seems to make sense (Uther has always treated her as his own blood), and adds a welcome wrinkle to the story. Thanks to this information and the return of Morgause after the two-part premiere, I think it's obvious where the finale's headed.

To be frank, Merlin isn't usually the kind of show that demands a great deal from its actors. Not that there's anything easy about what they're given to do, but it's hardly Shakespeare. But "The Crystal Cave" resulted in some strong performances; most notably from Anthony Head when he was facing the seemingly inevitable death of his secret daughter, and proving himself a hypocrite in asking Gaius to use sorcery to cure her; and Colin Morgan also had some nice moments when you could really sense the burden and anguish of the episode's events on his young shoulders. McGrath was also pretty good, although for some reason the show tends to be writing her character in very bold, broad strokes. I'd love to see some more subtleties in how Morgana's handled, and maybe that'll come now she has a more emotional card to play regarding her heritage and Uther's deception. Sadly though, it's another episode where Bradley James is only around to pull frustrated faces, throw things at Merlin like a spoilt brat, and generally show no real evolution of character from series 1. It's a particular frustration for me, because James and Morgan do have a natural chemistry together... I just wish their characters knew it as well as the actors.

Overall, "The Crystal Cave" could have been a miniature classic with a more inventive plot to hand, but it was solid material done fairly well, the actors rose to the tougher challenge, and it was the first episode in a long time that clearly and promisingly pushed the mytharc forward. If only the show was like this every week, Merlin might have won over the section of the audience that abandoned it for being too childish back when it started. As it stands, the show still has faults, it can be exasperating to notice them reoccur so often, but this was a much more emotional installment that actually felt worthwhile and promises good things to come.

WRITER: Julian Jones
DIRECTOR: Alice Troughton
GUEST CAST: Emilia Fox, John Hurt (voice) & Karl Johnson
TRANSMISSION: 9 October 2010 – BBC1, 7.40PM