Arthurian legend might be traceable to actual 6th-century Welsh history, but it's the fanciful side of the young king -- dragons, The Lady of the Lake, and Excalibur -- that have maintained an enduring, age-defiant role in fantasy lore that continues to rope in both adults and children alike. Likely the most whimsical of all these elements is Merlin, his court advisor and magician, who has taken on the more conventional role of Arthur's sage-like advisor in both John Boorman's Excalibur and Disney's The Sword in the Stone, while also molding into a more "historically accurate" depiction as a barbaric war leader in Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur. Neither of these represents his place in the BBC's concoction of Merlin, where we see the wizard as a young man, freshly arrived at Camelot, just learning of his powers. As the series barrels through episodic tomfoolery that plays with gallant knighthood, blossoming magic, trust gained and lost and amusing flickers of Arthurian legend, it's a flawed romp that outweighs its misgivings with charm.
Merlin picks up at the point where the juvenile magician (Colin Morgan), somewhat clumsy yet vibrant, arrives in Camelot as a page for the royal physician, Gaius (Richard Wilson). Times haven't been good for magicians in the city, as seen promptly upon Merlin's arrival by a magic-user's execution for using the forbidden craft. The logical decision is made to keep Merlin's power a secret, which becomes difficult as he catches the eye of like-aged Prince Arthur (Bradley James) and sorcery-fearing King Uther (Anthony Steward Head, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") himself -- who eventually, after Merlin saves both their lives, assigns him to be Arthur's servant. Thus begins these early, re-imagined tales of the Arthur / Merlin duo, containing bursts of adventure as the young wizard learns of his importance and dodges the evil guises of Nimueh (Michelle Ryan, Cashback), a powerful sorceress with secret ties to the king, while growing closer to Camelot's steward Morgana (Katie McGrath) and her maid Guinevere Gwen (Angel Coulby). It's only from the prophetic dragon (John Hurt) under the city that Merlin learns of his true destiny as a "side of the coin" in the fate of Camelot.
Pieced together with a Smallville-like revamp on Arthurian legend in mind, and obviously with cherry-picked cohesiveness to the original Arthur work Historia Regum Britanniae, Merlin takes us through action-heavy adventures without much of a connective narrative -- yet each installment contains dashes of familiar, albeit sharply deviated, lore. Character attitudes build upon each other, with blossoming romantic relationships, typical high-power conflicts grating between father Uther and son Arthur, and the persistence to keep Merlin's secret hidden. Yet each episode's storyline remains self-contained, not relying on continuous storytelling for its weekly installments. Early on, the episodes hinge on Nimueh as an easy villain while they establish Arthur and Merlin's chemistry, along with dropping in plot elements involving Lancelot, the depths of Avalon and the presence of Mordred. They're all fleeting, tailored glimpses into the Arthur legend, however, that hop into the story and back out with little purpose other than to flaunt their existence.
What weakens Merlin at its beginning, as with many fantasy-based television series like Legend of the Seeker, is a struggle to find the right blend of storytelling tones and tightness of scripting. As it gets settled into Arthur and Merlin's dynamic, with Uther's firm hand grasping at Camelot and Gaius' tutelage guiding Merlin along, a few episodes suffer from nagging gaps in logic that veer our concentration away from the fun to be had. One revolves around a knight with a shield etched with magical snakes that lunge from its surface upon command, something that the wielder can somehow keep secret during battles in a circular, spectator-riddled arena, while two subsequent episodes revolve around the premise of never-before-met villains tricking Uther -- a staunch, on-edge king -- into letting them stay on the castle grounds and, later, take part in menacing deeds. Apparently we're supposed to believe these things for the sake of absorbing the magical trickery that occurs, yet they're still infuriatingly unnatural considering the characters.
Thankfully, there's more than enough charm in the cast to offset these early reservations, as the earnest humor and valiant attitude within each episode of Merlin help to smooth over a few rough patches. Colin Morgan works charismatic magic as Merlin, trading moments of wide-eyed bravery with snarky one-liners and glimmers of convincing empathy. His rapport with an excellent Bradley James as Arthur easily stands out as one of the series' strengths, offering a duo of upper-crust mischief makers that are a joy to watch. It's the supporting cast that solidifies the charm, however; Anthony Head remains consistently convincing as a wavering tyrant with a heart in Uther Pendragon, while Angel Coulby's Gwen bashfully fumbles her words around both the male leads. Then there's Katie McGraw as Morgana, whose bristly mannerisms (and similarities to Keira Knightley) become increasingly palpable as she slowly irks towards magic's darkness.
These strengths make it less arduous to muscle beyond its growing pains (and some rather unimpressive computer-generated work), which ease up roughly halfway through the first season -- starting with "The Beginning to the End", a tale that focuses on Uther's hatred for magic and the soon-to-be-important druids. At this point, the writers seem to have pinpointed the elements that work within the series, where they deftly mix more ominous tones and less hare-brained plot points with the growing character dynamics. They also begin planting the seeds for the lore that we're more accustomed to, including Morgana's darker side, the familiar relationship between Arthur and Guinevere, and the existence of Excalibur. But they also gravitate more towards themes of heroism within both Arthur and the closeted Merlin, which adds a much-needed emotional investment to the series. BBC's Merlin might start out a bit rocky, but it musters up enough valiant magnetism later on to overshadow its early faults. Stick with the young magician, as it gets much better.
Video and Audio:
Arriving in a series of 1.78:1-framed episodes, enhanced for widescreen televisions, the British/French-shot Merlin looks decent on a mediocre, translated-from-PAL level. When in motion, its roots are obvious; ghosting occurs frequently, and the range of general stability during high-activity shots can grow a bit hazy. Also, the palette isn't quite as rich as I remember the episodes airing not too long ago, especially with a few skin tones. Aside from that, there are a lot of strengths that make Merlin an appealing experience, such as the rays of coloring that are accurate -- the blistering blues of Avalon's guardians, blocks of brick-leaning reds in the Round Table knights' coats of armor, and the lush forests outside of Camelot -- and the preservation of detail on intricate elements like chainmail and architectural shots.
The audio tracks for Merlin arrive in Dolby Stereo presentations, and they're about what you'd expect. You'll hear the dialogue bounce across the speakers fine enough, reaching middle-range points with Merlin and deeper shots with Arthur as the female vocals tickle the higher points. The sound effects, like the blasts of electrical magic in "The Gates of Avalon" and the shatter of stained glass in "Excalibur", do ring rather true throughout, while general ambient clanking of blades and horse hooves galloping are satisfying enough to match the visuals. The lack of a true surround presentation is a disappointment, but the source sound offered here gets the job done.
On each of the four primary discs, audio Commentaries are available for a number of episodes. They aren't, however, available for each and every one, mostly cherry-picking the significant ones for content backing. Most of the key cast members participate in at least a few of the tracks (especially for "The Moment of Truth", where they all get together and watch the episode in its entirety for the first time), while others are more assembly-focused from the creators and crew. Tracks are available on: Disc 1 -- The Dragon's Call, Valiant; Disc 2 -- Lancelot; Disc 3 -- The Gates of Avalon, The Beginning to the End, Excalibur; Disc 4 -- The Moment of Truth.
Disc 5 holds most of the special features, which contains both footage and DVD-ROM based content. "Behind the Magic", fittingly separated into Part 1 (31:46, 16x9) and Part 2 (30:04, 16x9) to address both halves of the season, gallops through the construction of the series in an earnest manner. It features interviews with the creators discussing the construction and maturity of the actors, as well as illustrating several on-set captures and behind-the-scenes development spans. There's a bit of cheerful backrubbing going on, but it's clear that all involved are legitimately impressed with the series' construction and what they're accomplishing. A featurette covers the Black Knight (15:56, 16x9) sequences in the "Excalibur" episode with off-the-cuff interviews and raw footage of the knight in the hall, while Video Diaries (17:17, 16x9), segmented in bits with Colin Morgan, Colin and Bradly, and Cast, follow their time both on and off the set. Also included are Photo Galleries and a series of Wallpapers available for access on PCs.
Like many other decent series, it takes Merlin roughly half its freshman season to finds its bearings. In that period, this deviated take on Arthurian legend develops plenty of charm and chemistry between its leads, while holding attention with nice locational set designs and brisk storytelling. It's only in the second half of this first season that it really finds its bearings, finding a well-balanced blend between its charms, darker tones, and injections of lore. BBC's set of the first season looks and sounds fine, while providing plenty of extras for fans. Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site