There's a moment when formula becomes formulaic in scripted TV drama, and it's a moment Merlin has long since passed. The frustrating thing is, whenever episodes like "Love In The Time Of Dragons" exhaust its own story halfway through, things tend to perk up in the second-half once the writer's forced to get more creative to sustain the story. However, while this episode did contain some later moments that piqued my interest slightly, it was ultimately yet another forgettable hour.
This week, King Uther (Anthony Head) suspected outlawed sorcery is taking place Camelot, following the miraculous recuperation of the local Inn Keeper from a fatal ailment diagnosed by Gaius (Richard Wilson). Arriving to question the recovered man, Gaius realized the woman who cured him is an old flame of his called Alice (Pauline Collins). Merlin (Colin Morgan) is initially pleased to see Gaius enjoying some female company when he tracks Alice down, especially after hearing they were once engaged to be married, but later takes a more pessimistic view after catching Alice talking to a small lion-scorpion amalgam, known as a Manticore (Eddie Marsan), that she has locked in a chest. Is Alice's magical medicine a force for good or evil? Is she using Gaius to get to the king? Or is the creepy Manticore to blame for everything?
It's a common problem with this show that characters seem to forget the lessons of the past, and simply make the same mistakes every other week. It makes it feel like these people have serious trust issues. By now, Gaius and Merlin should be simpatico over such matters, but scripts like this one just wouldn't flourish if that were true. So, instead, we had to go through the usual rigmarole, with Merlin only managing to convince Gaius once Alice has essentially blown her cover. The second half of "Love In The Time Of Dragons" made a better argument for why Gaius didn't want to believe Merlin (he simply loves Alice so much that he'd rather ignore the obvious), but it came terrible late in the story.
Together with the overused storyline, this was a dialogue-heavy episode that would perhaps have bored younger viewers too much. Wilson and Collins found a few moments to strike an emotional connection, particularly in a dungeon scene after Uther had condemned Alice to death in the morning, but it was hardly a sparkling romance that held you rapt. Alice was essentially there to hand Gaius potions, and they barely even flirted.
Overall, "Love In The Time Of Dragons" had a beautifully evocative title, but the script just went through the motions – including more scenes of Arthur (Bradley James) essentially bullying and causing physical anguish to Merlin, which seems to be the only way the writers can construct a scene between those two. To end on a positive note: the Manticore was a more convincing beastie than the Goblin from earlier this series (well, unless it directly interacted with an actor), but was likewise a waste of the celebrity voice-artist (in this case Eddie Marsan). Sorry, ended on a negative there.
WRITER: Jake Michie
DIRECTOR: Alice Troughton
TRANSMISSION: 6 November 2010, BBC1/HD, 7.40PM