Throw out everything you think you know about Merlin,
Arthur, and Camelot. That's what the BBC
did with its 2008 reimagining of the Arthurian legend aptly titled Merlin. The
first season, which was shown on NBC here
in the US (the
program to be broadcast on US
network TV in decades) and recently picked up by SyFy, is being
by BBC Home Video. Is it worth picking
up? That's a tough question to answer. It largely depends on a viewer's ability to
ignore the myriad flaws and gaffs. If
you can do that, it's a pretty good show.
The show centers around a young man who arrives at Camelot
to be trained by the royal physician, Gaius (Richard Wilson). The lad is Merlin (Colin Morgan), and Gaisus
soon discovers that he's a very special person indeed.
While all magicians have to spend years
studying and must chant spells to perform the most basic incantations,
can do amazing things silently, and without any training.
He can slow down time with just a gesture and
move objects with but a thought.
The only problem is magic is outlawed in Camelot. The King,
Uther Pendragon (wonderfully portrayed by Anthony Head, best known as
Giles on Buffy), fought long and hard in his
youth to rid the land of black magic, as well as dragons, and now has
any use of magic on pain of death. So Merlin has to hide his abilities.
Added into the mix is the King's son, the stuck-up bully
Prince Arthur (Bradley James), Uther's ward, Morgana (Katie McGrath),
Morgana's servant girl Guinevere (Angel Coulby). Arthur
and Merlin become enemies almost at
once, but after the young mage saves the prince's life, he is rewarded
Uther: he is named Arthur's personal
Though magic is outlawed, that doesn't mean that it isn't
practiced, and Uther has made many enemies when he cleansed the land of
evil. These foes turn up on a regular
basis to take their revenge on either the king or his heir, and it's up
Merlin, added by Gaisus and with the cryptic advice of an ancient
chained up in the catacombs beneath the city, to keep them, and the
It should be obvious from the above synopsis that this
series is throwing out a lot of the Arthurian Legend.
Arthur and Merlin the same age?? Guinevere
a maid?!! And most importantly, Arthur is
in Uther Pendragon's court? That's
almost blasphemy. (The whole reason he
had to pull the famous sword out of the stone was to prove that he was
son... if everyone knew he was the heir from birth, what's the point of
famous event?) What's almost as bad is
that they expect viewers to know what will happen in the future... there
little in jokes about Arthur not finding Guinevere attractive and
being enamored with the young girl that foreshadows important events in
tale. This really bothered me at first,
and still does to a certain extent.
Viewers just have to be able to discard most of what they know
story, except the parts the writers want them to remember.
Come on and make up your minds.
And this doesn't take place in England either. It's some unnamed fantasy land where dragons
and mythical monsters exist and everyone, like Stephen Colbert, doesn't
race. It's actually one of the
disconcerting things about the show too.
While I'm all for equality, I know it didn't exist in the past
having citizens of Camelot as well as black nobles and knights (even
is black) distracts from the story. I
started wondering how black families would have settled in England
in the time before the country
was united (could the Romans have brought them and they just stayed?)
stopped paying attention to what was happening on the screen. Finally I just had to ignore it.
The young Arthur is really a jerk too. Especially
in the first episode, he's not
likable at all and comes across as a huge ass.
Who wants to see a hero who's a bully?
Unfortunately, that's not all of the show's negative
qualities. The plots are very
predictable right from the beginning and they start to feel the same
while. The people are generally really
dumb too. When a griffin (a beast with
the body of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle) attacks the area
to Camelot, the knights get ready for its arrival by arming themselves
swords. Why didn't they pick up their
bows (or better yet crossbows)? And why
does no one ever think that magic is at work until the last minute? Come on people, week after week it's the work
of a witch or warlock... you'd think they'd see the pattern eventually.
Oh yeah, and the CGI effects are mediocre at best, but they
stand out as being really bad when the live action characters have to
with them. Then it's cringe worthy.
With all that going against it, the show would be easy to
hate (and the review would be easier to write... I could just stop now.) To my astonishment however, the more I
watched the more I enjoyed the program.
It's a lot like Doctor Who
(especially the classic series) in that respect. Intellectually
I realize that it's not great,
but emotionally I can't help but enjoy it.
One of the main reasons is Anthony Head. He
does an outstanding job as the king. He's
regal but also mean and ruthless, just
as a king during the dark ages would likely be.
He knows he can't afford to make mistakes and that lives hang on
every decision, and some of the errors he has made come back to haunt
Bradley James is also excellent as the young Arthur.
He has striking good looks and a cocky
attitude that reminds one of the popular jocks in high school. His character grows and develops over the
course of this first season however, and like his father he seems to
character flaws, as well as positive traits, that a real prince of that
would have. In one early episode Arthur
has to fight a knight in a tournament who is using magic and wants to
him. When Merlin suggests that the
prince withdraws, Arthur dismisses the suggestion out of hand. "How can I lead men into battle when they
think I'm a coward" he protests. Better
to go to a certain death than become a poor leader.
The series starts off a bit slow, but quickly builds in
quality and by the time you get to the last episode it's hard to stop
watching. The show becomes less goofy
about half way through and the dramatic elements start working better. The characters become more fleshed out and
with that the program becomes much more engrossing.
I especially liked the way that Uther's hate
of magic was portrayed and ultimately explained. It
made a lot of his actions more clear in
hindsight. The show keeps getting better
at a steady pace until the final show is the best in the series. If you can ignore the flaws, it's worth
This show comes with a stereo soundtrack that's pretty
dynamic. While a 5.1 track would have
been preferred, the show makes good use of the front soundstage and is
during some of the more intense battle sequences. I
just wish there was a LFE channel when the
dragon is around.
The 1.78:1 image looks pretty good, but it could be
better. The picture is a little soft in
places and there's some aliasing in the background that's noticeable. The colors are solid and the contrast is
This set has a good amount of bonus features, most of which
are found on the fifth disc. In addition
to several commentary tracks on various episodes by members of the cast
crew, there are a couple of nice featurettes.
First is Behind the Magic,
a two-part look at the making of the first
season with interviews with the cast and crew.
It runs a bit over an hour all together and is a nice companion
series. The other featurette is The
Black Knight, a 15-minute look at the filming of one episode.
My favorite bonus item was easily the video diaries that the
cast and crew created. They're funny and
entertaining and actually give a better feel for what it's like on the
the behind-the-scenes featurettes. I
particularly like how Colin couldn't read in the sun between sets
director was afraid he'd get a slight tan and the shots wouldn't match.
The extras are rounded out with a photo gallery and a series
of computer wallpapers that you can install on your Mac or PC.
There's no way you could say that this was an excellent
show, but it certainly is oddly addictive.
Though you'll have to throw out much of what you know about King
and Camelot, sit though some predictable plots with holey dialog and
that's best described as 'not great' if you're willing to do that
rewarded with a fun and enjoyable show.
This set comes recommended with those caveats.