written by Julian Jones / directed by Justin Molotnikov
Merlin outgrew its childishness and started exploring darker territory last year, but it was too little too late for me. It may have embraced a more absorbing and artistic tone, but the stories were still sorely predictable or rehashes of old ideas. Merlin hasn't been a narratively ambitious show, although it's made with love and manages to improve every series. "Arthur's Bane: Part 1" was a confident and positive start for its fifth year, which provided real evidence of a creative rethink now Merlin's better positioned to just tell the traditional Arthurian legend with younger characters. Who knows if the regular standalone episodes will prove to be as good, but the new series launched very well.
It's been three years since series 4's finale, during which time Camelot's been at the heart of a peaceful era. Naturally that's shattered with news Sir Gwaine (Eoin Macken) and Sir Percival (Tom Hopper) have disappeared in the frozen wastelands of Ismere; so Arthur (Bradley James) leads a reconnaissance party along with Merlin (Colin Morgan) to determine what happened to his loyal knights. It appears that evil Morgana (Katie McGrath and her quivering bosom) is amassing a slave army, to dig through the foundations of a castle in search of a magical trinket. Back in Camelot, humble servant girl Sefa (Sophie Rundle) makes a friend of Queen Gwen (Angel Coulby), who was once a lowly servant herself, but is secretly passing information to her warrior father—the sorcerer Ruadan (Liam Cunningham), who's in league with Morgana.
There was much to enjoy about "Arthur's Bane", but the most notable improvement was in the production quality. Considering Merlin's a BBC TV series with a relatively modest budget, there were a number of sequences and gorgeous vistas that rivalled anything on HBO's expensive Game of Thrones. The action and sword fights, courtesy of director Justin Molotnikov, was also choreographed far better than I recall on the show, and it all fed into a pervasive feeling that Merlin's finally awakening to its own possibilities... or that the crew, after five years of trial and error, have gained enough knowledge and experience to pull off some impressive budget-defying feats.
Of course, Merlin's always at its best whenever it's focusing on its characters and their interactions, so there was plenty of that—although Gaius (Richard Wilson) has become so extraneous I predict his demise before long. It also remains frustrating that Arthur keeps returning to a default attitude whenever he's around Merlin (mocking or underestimating him), which is bizarre considering the number of times they've had an apparent breakthrough with their relationship. Why is it so difficult for the show to move towards Merlin being someone Arthur sees as a best friend and invaluable adviser? Maybe that will change for good this series, which is why we were reminded of it in the premiere. It's at least good fun whenever Merlin manages to surprise the King, and this episode's funniest moment came when Merlin was pressured into entertaining the court of Queen Annis (Lindsay Duncan) and avoided the expected humiliation by using magic to become a remarkable juggler.
The show also has a reputation for attracting excellent guest stars, and that continued with this premiere—although Lindsay Duncan's role felt unnecessary (unless she becomes more important in Part 2). I particularly love Liam Cunningham; an Irish actor who always does impressive work, and whose recent appearances in Game of Thrones couldn't help rubbing off on Merlin and making the show seem slightly more adult and dangerous than usual. He'll probably be killed off in the concluding part of this story, but I hope not. Of course, the biggest news of the premiere was the return of Mordred (Alexander Vlahos)—the titular "bane", whom Merlin knows is destined to kill Arthur after a bloody battle thanks to a vision from a Druid. It's ridiculous that Mordred, last seen as a little boy, is suddenly a young adult (even accepting the occasional fast-forwarding of time), but I'll let it slide. It at least gives us another big villain from the Arthurian legend to have fun with, although I've always found it disappointing Merlin chose to involve Mordred without any of the traditional story's emotional baggage (that he's Arthur's illegitimate son of his half-sister). I have to wonder if this is something the writers would change, if they could, seeing as the Merlin feels like it could now handle a story where Arthur got Morgana pregnant before she left Camelot in disgrace.
Overall, "Arthur's Bane: Part 1" was a nice surprise and it feels good to have the show back on our screens every autumnal Saturday. There was less of the stuff that bug me about the show (even John Hurt's stupid Dragon was tolerable), and I appreciated seeing the shock change in Gwen's attitude when she ordered the execution of Sefa for treason. I'm also intrigued about the bizarre translucent beings that Sir Gwaine discovered while digging rocks (despite their unintentionally hilarious CGI wrap-around faces), so Part 2 is eagerly awaited...