While still afflicted by plotting and genre clichés, "The Eye Of The Phoenix" was counterweighted by a keener sense of adventure, a certain unpredictability (which nevertheless dissipated), a less ambiguous stance between Gwen (Angel Coulby) and Arthur (Bradley James), and saw the return of gallant Gwaine (Eoin Macken) to instill a feeling of cohesion to this choppy third year. The result was an episode that, while a miscellany of old movies (a dash of Monty Python & The Holy Grail, a smattering of Indiana Jones, a twist of The Neverending Story), nevertheless worked very well...
"The Eye Of The Phoenix" reminded me of '80s fantasy movies, which is no bad thing. For a TV series that understandably lacks the budget to compete with contemporary fare like The Lord Of The Rings, it makes sense to go after an old-school feeling -- with an emphasis on character, tone and ideas. While this wasn't an appreciably character-driven story and its ideas weren't very original (did anyone else expect Warwick Davis's Grettir to pose three questions?), the episode has a keen sense of atmosphere and used its characters well. The scenery in the scorched Perilous Lands was a highlight (particularly the swampy plateau burning beneath a reddened sun), the Dark Tower itself was an impressively imposing visual, and the Wyverns were surprisingly excellent CGI beasties.
If, like me, you've been exasperated by Merlin's direction lately, this episode will feel like a tonic. Back at Camelot, Gwen finally came to realize Morgana's using black magic, which belatedly means her character's in a far more privileged position as a confidant of Gaius and Merlin. The episode also included scenes of more open affection between Gwen and Arthur, with him kissing her goodbye before his quest, which a welcome sight the writers will hopefully built on. Funnily enough, Merlin remind me of Chuck's own third year, which was similarly straitjacketed by secrets between its characters, but grew into a more appealing shape once it took a chance and revealed them. We're not at the stage where Merlin's going to admit his magic to anyone but Gaius – in fact, this episode went to comical extremes to ensure Gwaine and Arthur were never sharing the screen with Merlin when magic was being discussed – but I'm hoping the show has a few surprises up its sleeve.
Overall, despite being a terrible waste of cult "small person" actor Warwick Davis (Willow, Harry Potter) and trotting out the usual plot-devices, "The Eye Of The Phoenix" was easily the best installment of Merlin this year, from a storytelling standpoint. It was fun and engaging, but more importantly it developed the characters and progressed the mytharc in a firm direction. If only episodes like this were the norm, rather than a rarity.
A far more imaginative and confident episode than usual, as Merlin heads into the final straight. What did you make of it?
- Lovely touch with Merlin using his ability as a Dragonlord to command the Wyverns away, as cousins of the dragon species. Shame he didn't summon the Great Dragon to give him a lift to that Dark Tower, really. Silly boy.
- The Fisher King mentions to Merlin he should "save her". Is he referring to Morgana, or perhaps the Lady Of The Lake?
- You may recognize actor Donald Sumpter as the villain of Being Human's second series.
WRITER: Julian Jones
DIRECTOR: Alice Troughton
TRANSMISSION: 30 October 2010, BBC1, 7.55PM