Sunday, 9 October 2011

MERLIN, 4.2 – "The Darkest Hour: Part Two"

Sunday, 9 October 2011
The concluding episode of "The Darkest Hour" premiere wasn't a huge improvement over last week's disappointment, but like most Part 2's it benefitted from having some resolution. However, with hindsight, this story didn't deserve a two-part treatment, as everything prior to the climactic moment of "Part Two" could have been cut from the overall story without any major loss. A small underground action sequence with giant moles, the lazy rejuvenation of sickly Merlin (Colin Morgan) by water spirits, and the unnecessary return of the Great Dragon (John Hurt) to do what's provably achievable with a torch? All struck me as fat in need of trimming.

Of course, for entertainment-value, they had their place in this story and ensured it lasted the distance. It was at least fun to see Merlin give us another monster evoking 1950s B-movies (where filmmakers used to just enlarge insects and reptiles to interact with their heroes as gigantic "monsters"). The big moles were good fun here, and perhaps marked the first time on Merlin that a CGI creature's interacted with a human without it looking completely fake. Perhaps it helps that the CGI and live-action footage (now filming on 3mm film) can be composited better because they're of similar quality, but I'm no expert on the matter. I just know that Sir Gwaine (Eoin Macken) looked like he really did have a giant mole sniffing his face, so kudos to the people behind that scene. Strange that Gwaine appears to be written as the comic relief now, as evidence by him getting attacked by angry bees.

Back in Camelot, it was nice to see Gwen (Angel Coulby) lock horns with Agravaine (Nathaniel Parker) over how best to handle the situation with rampaging spirits attacking people, but in general this two-parter made a big mistake in not letting Morgana (Katie McGrath) be more prominent as the antagonist. Beyond another brief demonstration of her telekinesis, she was mostly kept off-screen and confined to her underground hovel. As I said, a big problem with "The Darkest Hour" was how the threat was primarily coming from those skeletal ghouls; who may have a bloodcurdling scream, but just seemed to mindlessly swoop on people who could easily bat them away with a naked flame. Compared to the more tangible villains the show's given us in the past, they were a huge disappointment and pretty much killed all sense of urgency about Arthur's (Bradley James) quest to sealing the veil between the material and spirit worlds.

The premiere also solved an obvious problem for anyone aware of Santiago Cabrera's career (he has a role in JJ Abrams' new series Alcatraz), and it always felt unlikely he'd be able to stick around as Sir Lancelot. It's not that he's a massive star, but he certainly has more lucrative offers and a post-Heroes career in the US that he'd be a fool to turn down to continue working on Merlin. So Lancelot's ultimate fate was to sacrifice himself to repair the veil (instead of Arthur and Merlin), which made for a welcome twist to proceedings. But it's still a shame, because it's almost certain Lancelot would have been given a pivotal role on the show if only they'd cast a different actor. Part of me's frustrated we won't get to see Merlin develop the famous Arthur-Gwen-Lancelot love-triangle into anything significant now, and it was also helpful that Lancelot knew about Merlin's magic. Given how Arthur appears to enjoy cantering around his kingdom with his knights this series, it's becoming even harder for Merlin to save the day using magic without being detected. (And that, in turn, limits what they can show on-screen, so we keep getting underwhelming moments when Merlin mutters an incantation and then... well, stares at some beasts to frighten them away. Anything cool like a bolt of energy would give the game away.)

I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time criticizing how the Merlin's been put together, or has had to adapt to things beyond its control, so let's end on some positives. I still enjoy the chemistry between Morgan and James as the two leads (which can't be underestimated on shows of this type, as it certainly appears to keep many forums and Tumblrs in business), and some of the scenery and effects have been a noticeable improvement on previous years.

Overall, "The Darkest Hour: Part Two" was better than last week's, but not by too much, as the premiere was ultimately based around a weak idea and wasted Morgana (who doesn't even have those nice dresses to wear now, just a brown wooly robe). The twist with Lancelot worked nicely, and it had slightly more oomph than "Part One", but this should really have been one faster-paced episode instead of a needless two-parter that stretched the story out.

written by Julian Jones · directed by Alice Troughton · 8 October 2011 · BBC1