Friday, 4 January 2013

MERLIN: what was magic, what was tragic?


The dust has settled on the BBC's Smallville-inspired telefantasy Merlin, which drew a curtain on five series last Christmas Eve, so now we can reflect on its highs and lows as a completed work. To that end, I've compiled a list of my positive and negative thoughts below for you to read. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course...

The Magic

Cast. The key thing that kept Merlin in most people's affections was the likable cast: a quartet of unknowns (lovable Colin Morgan, charismatic Bradley James, sweet Angel Coulby, and devilish Katie McGrath) with two famous actors representing the older generation (Richard Wilson, Anthony Head). It was a clever mix, because genre fans recognised Head from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and were enticed to support his new show, while parents had fond memories of Wilson from programmes like One Foot in the Grave. More importantly, the unknowns didn't take long to settle into their roles and quickly became the backbone of the show. In particular, the sterling work done by Morgan and James as Merlin and Arthur gave the show its big heart; often overcoming bad scripts and cheesy dialogue, and allowing a tongue-in-cheek bromance to exploit. Merlin and Arthur 'shipping inspired 25% of Tumblr animated .gifs over the years.

Guest stars. Merlin was able to lure some rather impressive actors for guest spots. Many of them might not mean a great deal outside of the UK, but I think even foreign audiences noticed the quality whenever people like (deep breath) Colin Salmon, Nathaniel Parker, Frank Finlay, Emilia Fox, Charles Dance, John Lynch, Clive Russell, Mackenzie Crook, Sarah Parish, Tom Ellis, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Georgia King, Donald Sumpter, Miriam Margolyes, Eve Myles, James Callis, Santiago Cabrera, Janet Montgomery, Asa Butterfield, Michelle Ryan, Adrian Lester, Liam Cunningham, Holliday Grainger, Warwick Davies, Georgia Moffett, Will Mellor and Joe Dempsie made appearances. Well, maybe not Will Mellor so much. Of course, Merlin even had the regular vocal services of John Hurt as the Great Dragon to its credit. It's interesting how many of the show's guest stars are now affiliated to Game of Thrones, or have gone on to bigger and better things since.. In particular I always think back to a young Asa Butterfield playing the boy Mordred, who's now carving out a Hollywood career thanks to starring in Martin Scorsese's Hugo.

Scenery, special effects and tone. Merlin can't hold a candle to the likes of HBO's Game of Thrones (with its multi-million dollar budget), but considering what it had to achieve on BBC money it did very well. Um, eventually. The first two seasons were noticeably cheaper-looking, but by the third series the show had started to find a visual language and style of its own. The fourth and fifth series were genuinely gorgeous most of the time, and the directing also became much stronger and more inventive. In general the quality of the CGI monsters was also pretty good from The Mill, if you kept your expectations modest, and once Merlin started being shown in HD they seemed to invest a lot more time and money into ensuring they looked good. (Actually, there were less digital beasties in the latter years, so maybe the savings went towards making the rest of the show look good and for occasional massive armies?)

The Tragic

Development and pacing. My everlasting thought about Merlin is that it was too slow out of the blocks. It took two years to install Morgana as the villain she was inevitably going to become, which in retrospect doesn't seem too languid, but it was more about how stories swam in circles before committing to that change. After 26 episodes of Morgana gazing out of tower windows and endlessly smirking to herself, I was about ready to punch someone. Things kind of plod along and then there's a strain to make any big changes feel like it's been building steadily. (Most of the time important stuff like Morgana actually learning magic occurred off-screen between series).

Merlin's pace definitely picked up around series 3, resulting in more frequent changes as the show embraced some Arthurian cornerstones, but it always felt like there was a hesitancy to upset the apple cart. The biggest frustration was always the length of time it took Merlin to reveal his magic to Arthur, but we'll come to that issue later. It was perhaps most maddening because whenever the writers bit the bullet and made a big change, the show was usually improved and the fan-base appeased.

The talking dragon. I have no idea why the Dragon even existed. If he was intended to be some kind of mentor, which felt true in the first few years, then why wasn't Gaius fulfilling that role? No, the Dragon was primarily a way for Merlin to attain vital information at the eleventh hour, or call in favours whenever he was in a terrible predicament. A quick one-to-one with the Dragon under Camelot solved most of series 1 and 2's problems, while Merlin often escaped peril in series 3-5 by screaming gobbledygook into the sky to hail the flying reptile (who was never more than a few seconds away), then get him to smite enemies or whisk him to safety. The Dragon was a strange presence the show never completely shook off, so I can only assume they thought he was a brilliant escape clause. To this day I'm still not sure if anybody except Merlin even knew that Dragon was once chained up beneath Camelot, either, because I don't even remember anyone except Merlin and Gaius even mentioning the stupid thing.

Repetition. The show did improve in this respect, but it was a slave to a very particular formula in its formative years. A stranger arrives in Camelot and uses sorcery to try and kill Uther or Arthur, and only Merlin and Gaius know the truth, but for puzzling reasons they try to protect the Pendragon family without them ever fully realising what's going on. The show did have other types of stories, but in general Merlin used to recycle about six basic ideas and didn't do a great job disguising this fact. Just look how many times Camelot had a "mole" in its midst—most notably Morgana and Agravaine. The writers even pulled that idea out of the bag and lumbered Gwen with it in the final series!

Old Merlin. What was Merlin's decrepit "alter ego" about, beyond giving purists a more traditional-looking Merlin? It might have worked if Colin Morgan was allowed to play his older self as wise, powerful and mature... but most of Old Merlin's appearances required Morgan to play the character as a frail, flatulent, face-pulling fool. When it came time for Merlin to assume his Old Merlin disguise in the series finale, we were supposed to feel a thrill of emotion as if Clark Kent's decided to throw on his Superman cape... but instead memories of Old Merlin as a stupid comic relief came flooding back, killing the mood.

Outlawed magic. The concept of Merlin was that magic and sorcery had been outlawed by King Uther for largely person reasons, and it always felt like an awkward component of the show—particularly after Uther died and they had to invent a plausible way for Arthur to inherit his father's prejudice. Trouble is, around the same time the story was supposed to be showing us the "Golden Age of Camelot" in series 4 and 4... but this never truly happened. Things were definitely better without Uther throwing his weight around, but not in a way that felt transcendent. You just caught word that Arthur's a better politician and we saw him form an alliance with a bellicose neighbouring king in one episode. Commendable but hardly a Golden Age, and it probably didn't help that Merlin's tone actually got progressively gloomier over its five years. The dark days of menacing King Uther's reign took place in a beautiful nirvana compared to the dark and creepy Camelot presided over by his son Arthur, in what was supposed to be a more chivalrous and tolerant age!

Love and marriage. There was a time when Arthur's love for sweet handmaiden Gwen was one of the show's cuter elements, alongside the friendship of Arthur and Merlin. Then they got married. The final series obviously had bigger things on its mind, but it was noticeable how unexciting Arthur and Gwen felt as a married couple. For half the series, many episodes even seemed to forget they were now husband and wife! And that partly killed the already stupid Gwen storyline when she was brainwashed by Morgana, because the legend's love story just hadn't been translated very well in this version of the story. If you ask me, it was a shame Lancelot had to be written out early and wasn't instrumental in a marital break-up.

The secret. I enjoyed the series finale, but there was plenty to whinge about if you've been watching for five long years. We only had one episode where Arthur knew Merlin was a great sorcerer! I remain convinced that a sixth series was very possible; with Mordred as the lead villain out to avenge Morgana's death, Arthur fully aware his simple manservant is a gifted warlock, and the illegality of magic eventually being overturned as a more fitting way for the show to end before Arthur receives a lethal wound by Mordred's blade. I guess we should be grateful the actors were either contractually obliged or felt duty-bound, to stick around for five years. As fans of Being Human and Misfits know too well, that's a rarity for British genre TV.

Crap magic. The abilities of witches, sorcerers, druids, warlocks and wizards in Merlin were rarely awe-inspiring. The chief weapon in their magical arsenal was pushing people through the air or knocking men off horses. Levitation and telekinesis was often deployed, and Merlin could always start a camp fire in a literal flash (of his eyes), but otherwise it was hard to get excited by anything Merlin or Morgana did over five years. I understand there are budgetary reasons for why Merlin wasn't shooting fireballs around the woods every week, but you'd think they would treat us to something special occasionally. (Okay, the lightning bolts from Old Merlin's staff in the finale were pretty cool.)

I guess it felt like an actual problem to me because, well, Merlin was always hyped as the greatest sorcerer who ever lived... and yet his talents never looked appreciably better than anyone else's. Merlin's unique talent was being able to command dragons, which I don't recall anyone else doing, but it's a shame there weren't more instances when you had a deep feeling only Merlin could pull off a particular spell, or the focus and concentration to do magic with greater ease.

At the end of the day, it's easy to gripe and get angry about things you perceive as missed opportunities in hindsight, but all of the creative decisions were made by the guys in charge under very different conditions to a humble TV viewer/critic. You can just disagree with what they did as a fun debate with fellow fans, and I reckon the creators would do some things differently if they had the ability to go back in time and make changes. Ultimately, the good things on this list are more integral to making a popular TV show (casting, production values) than the many bad things, and it's the good qualities that kept me and millions of others coming back every Saturday night.
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