My first thought about Merlin was that it was the King Arthur version of Smallville: all the characters are now teenagers meeting far earlier in their lives than in the older, more established stories, and it’s a blatant attempt to appeal to the youth market. Given that this seems to be the current trend with television shows, this approach really isn’t surprising; what is surprising is that it’s not bad.
Somewhere between myth and history stands Camelot; the great city of Arthur and his knights of the round table: bastion of truth, justice, and equality. Unless you practice magic. In this version of the story, Camelot is founded by Uther Pendragon (played by Anthony Stewart Head, better known as Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), not Arthur, and while in most cases he proves himself an able—if temperamental—king, he has a deep-seated, almost pathological hatred of magic and those that practice it. Twenty years before Camelot, Uther saw the lands ravaged by sorcerers and he vowed to make them a better, safer place for normal people to live. Now that he has more or less accomplished this goal, he decrees that any person caught practicing magic must be put to death.
Enter Merlin, an awkward, amiable country boy sent from his village by his mother to study under the court physician Gaius. Merlin also just happens to possess unheard of innate magical ability. Although Gaius constantly admonishes the young magician to keep a low profile, he just can’t help getting into trouble, running afoul of Uther’s only son, the prince Arthur. It doesn’t help matters that Arthur is also a huge pratt and their destinies are intertwined.
Pretty much all the major characters are here—Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Morgan le Fey, and even cameos by Lancelot and Mordred—but in a way you’ve never seen before. I never thought I’d see Merlin acting pouty, or Arthur strutting about with almost terminal teenage pride, and while it takes a while to get used to, the episodes add more and more layers to the characters to make them interesting and familiar. Glimpses of the Arthur and Merlin we’re more familiar with appear now and then, making this feel sufficiently Arthurian (Merlinian?) while still appealing to the kids.
Honestly, if I wasn’t required to watch this show I probably would have quit after the second episode. Thankfully, I did have to watch the whole season, and I found that the show really grows on you. The characters are far more complex than they initially appear and the conflict in each episode typically calls into question their loyalties and beliefs. Merlin must hide his abilities from his friends, and yet he finds himself again and again in situations where he must use those powers to save them. Arthur lives under the constant strain of living up to his father’s—not to mention his own—expectations about the man he needs to become in order to be a good king. Gaius must temper his love for Merlin with his duty to and friendship with Uther. The internal and external conflicts mesh very well in this show and makes for some great drama.
Obviously, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this show, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still the Arthurian Smallville, meaning that it plays with the legend in ways that some may not like. I’ll be right up front and say that this is not my preferred interpretation of the stories (for those interested, my favorites are Excalibur and Merlin starring Sam Neil). Making the characters teenagers means that they’re going to be dealing with teenage problems, insecurities, and other stuff I feel more suited to 90210 than King Arthur. Now, that doesn’t mean that this is bad—it’s quiet enjoyable—but it doesn’t do it for me. Some of the aspects of the stories that I like are missing, one of which I won’t say because it would be a major spoiler, so that hinders my overall enjoyment. In a way, I feel about Merlin the same way I did about King Arthur: it’s fun, but it’s not really King Arthur.
But I don’t think I’m the target audience for this show. It’s geared more for families and young adults, neither of which describes me—I’m crotchety and childless—so the fact that I still enjoyed it speaks to the quality of the show. It’s not for me, but if you enjoy fantasy, don’t mind a bit of monkeying with the legends, or want something that you can watch with the kids then you might want to give this a try. At the very least it’s one of the few retellings of the story that actually stars British actors (I’m looking at you, First Knight).
Each episode is presented in 16×9 aspect ratio with the audio in Dolby Digital Stereo and they look and sound very well with no discernable problems at all.
This series is chock full of extra features (full list will follow) and while they were a bit much to watch in one sitting, they were interesting. One tidbit of information I learned that I just loved was that Anthony Stewart Head plays a pink Nintendo DS when the camera’s off him. The audio commentary is standard fair—not my cup of tea, but good if you’re into that.
“Behind the Magic” Making-of Featurette
Although I didn’t mention this in the review, the acting is very good in this show, and, as a Buffy fan, I particularly enjoyed seeing Anthony Stewart Head as Uther. Sometimes I liked to pretend that Uther was Giles’ ancestor and I’d say things like, “Giles would be so disappointed in you right now.” Sue me, I get bored sometimes. If you consider yourself an uber-fan of the King Arthur stories I’d approach this with a bit of trepidation, but if you’re open to different interpretations or want something fun to watch with the family, give this a try. Recommended.
BBC presents Merlin: The Complete First Series. Directed by Ed Fraiman, James Hawes, Jeremy Webb, Dave Moore, and Stuart Orme. Starring Colin Morgan, Bradley James, Anthony Head, Richard Wilson, Katie McGrath, Angel Coulby, John Hurt, and Michelle Ryan. Written by Julian Jones, Jake Michie, Howard Overman, and Ben Vanstone. Running time: 568 minutes. Rated NR. Released on DVD: April 20, 2010. Available at Amazon.