Monday, 26 November 2012

MERLIN: the magic fades away

Monday, 26 November 2012

The BBC today announced the surprise decision to bring their Saturday night fantasy drama Merlin to an end, after an impressive five years. The youthful take on the Arthurian legend will end at Christmas with a two-part finale, although the creators still have plans to continue the story with a trilogy of movies.

Speaking about the decision to end the show, star Colin Morgan commented "I think the show has run its natural course. It has grown and grown each year and now we've arrived at its strongest point and we've achieved what we set out to do." Co-star Richard Wilson added "I'm extremely sad Merlin has come to an end. Speaking as Gaius, I feel I have mentored the young wizard as far as I can. [Merlin] is much smarter and greater than me now and I am simply exhausted."

The BBC controller Danny Cohen commented that "Merlin's mix of magic, adventure and humour quickly became a hit with BBC One audiences and has continued to thrill families over the last five years on Saturday nights. I admire the creators' decision to end Merlin on a high, but also know that we will miss it in the BBC One schedule. On behalf of BBC One I would like to thank Shine and all those involved in the making of the show both on and off screen. I hope fans will tune in over the coming weeks to see the spectacularly dramatic final episodes, and we have ambitious plans for new drama in the Saturday evening slot in 2013."

Co-creators and executive producers Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy released a statement saying: "This is the series where the storylines truly reach their apex. We always felt the story of the legend was best told across five series, leading to a spectacular finale that draws on the best known elements of this much-loved story and brings to a conclusion the battle for Camelot. We'd like to thank the amazing cast and crew for their professionalism and dedication, the BBC, FME [FremantleMedia Enterprises] and all of our partners globally for their incredible support and encouragement across the last five series. But chiefly, our thanks go to Merlin's remarkable and loyal audience around the world for their enthusiasm for the characters and Camelot universe."

Merlin began in 2008 as a replacement for the BBC's Robin Hood, which was seen as a flop amidst criticism for the anachronistic approach and boyish cast. With its mix of fantasy and magic in the era of Harry Potter, Merlin found a bigger audience much quicker and amassed a loyal following. In recent years it even became surprisingly excellent counter-programming for ITV's X Factor, still managing to secure audiences of 5 million against its huge rival. Only this past weekend, "A Hollow Queen" scored a current series high of 5.8 million against ITV.

The decision to end Merlin appears to be a creative one, as there's very little reason for the BBC to axe the show. It's a dependable performer every Saturday, easily the best thing they've found to go up against X Factor, sells very well overseas, and fits perfectly into the Doctor Who timeslot to secure a similar fan-base.

Perhaps the actors finally started grumbling about being stuck in these roles, because five years is a pretty remarkable commitment for a cast of this average age. Colin Morgan, Katie McGrath, Bradley James and Angel Coulby were probably turning down work because of their attachment to Merlin. I'm amazed the show kept them on our screens for this long, frankly—particularly McGrath, who's the easiest to write out as long-running villain Morgana. Although it's possible they were all contracted for five years and this is simply their agreed exit time.

Of course, as I've mentioned frequently in my reviews since series 3, the show has often struggled to come up with plots and ideas that feel fresh every week. There's a definite formula, pattern and sense of repetition that the show slots into—particularly in-between the premieres and finales. My guess is the writers are frankly exhausted and can't sustain the workload (the vast majority of episodes come from the pens of Julian Jones and Jake Michie, who must be approaching burn-out).

Whatever the reason, it's frustrating from a fan's perspective because I'm not actually convinced the show has nowhere left to go. Simply by making Arthur aware of Merlin's magic you'd get a good year's worth of stories dealing with this change in their dynamic, and the likely acceptance of sorcery across all of Camelot. If they were brave enough to kill off Morgana, Mordred could also become a brilliant villain for a few years. And considering the show was sold as "prequel" to the more established legend, it doesn't feel like we've reached a point in the story where audiences will be happy to see it go... and can imagine the adult adventures of King Arthur and Merlin for themselves.

But maybe the remaining five episodes will do an incredible job of bringing everything together in a really satisfying way? I just have a funny feeling that some of the key developments fans have been waiting years for (especially Arthur realising Merlin has magic) will either be rushed, or only dealt with in the finale. Will audiences be happy with that? I guess it depends how they write it, but the strength of writing has always been my biggest concern with Merlin.

As for those rumours of a movie trilogy: I'll believe it when I see it. I just hope they don't end the TV show in a manner that's clearly setting things up for a movie that might never get financed. And please, no cliffhanger! It may seem like a good idea to move Merlin to the silver screen, but at this point it feels like wishful thinking from a cast and crew who would naturally love that to happen. From a business perspective, I'm not sure Merlin's audience has Inbetweeners-style box-office potential to make this a viable option. The idea of just rebooting the whole concept, possibly with new actors, actually sounds more feasible to me... but why would anyone want to watch the same story with different actors, told over three movies?

I guess stranger things have happened, though. There's even talk of a spin-off from Shine Group and FremantleMedia Enterprises that distribute Merlin internationally. For who, though? One of the knights? Would that be wise?

Whatever happens, I'm sad to see the show end... but I'm not sure if that's fuelled by a sense of unease that it's going to end badly. I hope that's not the case.