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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...
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.