Sunday, 2 October 2011

Review: MERLIN, 4.1 – "The Darkest Hour: Part One"

Sunday, 2 October 2011
written by Julian Jones / directed by Alice Troughton
starring Colin Morgan, Bradley James, Katie McGrath, Anthony Head & Angel Coulby

Merlin's been getting progressively darker since it began in 2008, which has largely been to its benefit, although it still maintains a balance by including comparatively lightweight episodes of simpler fun for youngsters. "The Darkest Hour", the first of a two-part premiere, was almost relentlessly grim and downbeat. In that respect it was similar to Series 3's premiere, but lacked its predecessor's sense of scope, style and visual panache. Simply put: this was a disappointingly average start to Series 4, thanks to a ludicrously thin storyline and repetitive attempts to spook the audience.

It's been a year since Lady Morgana (Katie McGrath) revealed her true colours to King Uther (Anthony Head) and, once defeated, vanished from Camelot with her poisoned sister Morgause (Emilia Fox). Since then she's been developing her powers and here returned to cause trouble after sacrificing her ailing sister on a stone tablet on the Isle Of The Blessed, thus opening a gateway to the "Spirit World" and releasing malevolent ghosts known as Dorocha to attack the kingdom. Back at Camelot, we learned that Uther's since become catatonic over Morgana treachery and now sits at his chamber's window all day, and his late-wife's brother Agravaine (Nathaniel Parker) has been helping Arthur (Bradley James) to rule the people.

For a premiere, especially one having to follow the truly epic nature of an expensive Doctor Who finale, "The Darkest Hour" was frustratingly sedate and actually quite boring. I'm not sure how much juice Merlin has left in its premise now, unless the writers start to make big strides towards ending the show at the point where Arthur's crowned King, marries Gwen (Angel Coulby), and Merlin (Colin Morgan) becomes his loyal sorcerer. Still, I'm grateful they've finally had no other option but to turn Morgana into the show's Big Bad, particularly as Katie McGrath looks so ravishing when cloaked in black, and I liked this episode's reveal that Agravaine is secretly just Morgana's eyes and ears in Camelot. (Although, admittedly, it means that Agravaine's just taken over Morgana's old role, and Morgana's become the new Morgause.) So despite how it looks, things are largely the same with a few cosmetic changes.

As I said, it was a disappointment that the story here was so painfully thin and consequently very tough to get invested in. As it's so early in the series, you don't really fear for anyone's life, and it doesn't take a genius to predict how things will be resolved next week. Merlin's the kind of show that's happy to follow the clichés and tropes of old myths and fairy tales, which means it's very hard for the show to genuinely surprise anyone over the age of 10. It's a shame the writers aren't more experimental or subversive in this universe they've created, but I guess it's easier to just recycle a few basic plots (the most popular being "a magical villain unleashes a supernatural scourge on Camelot, and Merlin secretly undoes the damage without Arthur knowing the true extent of his help").

Still, on its own terms, there were some unnerving moments in this episode, mainly because the chosen sound effect for the transparent screaming skulls of the Dorocha were so spine-tingling. It's just a shame most of the scares relied on jump scares, or false scares. And I like how the show's made an attempt to appease fans who are growing impatient with the fact Arthur doesn't know Merlin's magical secret, by having Sir Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera) take the role as someone Merlin can confide in about his abilities while on a quest. This should really help the stories, going forward. Now if only they'd get more imaginative with the magic itself, because causing people to go flying backwards through the air is getting mightily boring.

What did you think to Merlin's fourth series premiere? A good start, or are there signs this show's beginning to get very stale now?

1 October 2011 / BBC1