Adjusting to the wild deviation from Arthurian lore is the biggest hurdle to cross with BBC's Merlin, where the powerful magician and the soon-to-be-king live in an Uther Pendragon-commanded Camelot as twenty-something contemporaries. It's a bit strange to see Merlin (Colin Morgan) kowtow to the snooty-yet-growing Prince Arthur (Bradley James) in hopes of keeping his magical abilities a secret, yet the series gleefully -- and, admittedly, fairly successfully -- clanks and chants through fantastical episodic adventures and the legendary duo's budding bromance, keeping a lively pace with a charismatic backbone. While the first season (click here for my review, and here for John's) vaulted over its hurdles, coasting along the momentum generated by a menacing (albeit quite attractive) villain as the lore began to take shape, Merlin's second season sees a new crop of issues that, from recycles plots to waning logic, ultimately weighs down its fun, bold yet predictable momentum. That is, until it crosses the barrier over into the second half, which contains arguably the best pair of episodes that the series has concocted yet.
Newcomers and returning fans alike will feel right at home, mostly because only the infrastructure of the story's components continue into this second stretch. The writing still focuses on Merlin's magical abilities and secondary plot devices that branch out underneath -- Arthur and Guinevere's (Angel Coulby) blossoming relationship, Morgana's (Katie McGrath) discovery of her dark magical side (and her connection with the druids), and the dragon's desire for freedom. Yet, there's not a pivotal threat propelling the story this time, since Nimueh's temporarily out of the picture. Instead, Merlin ratchets through the young magician's battles through strange supernatural occurrences, fantastical beasts and knightly pride that don't really connect one to another, creating a series of one-off adventures similar to Hercules or Xena. And that's alright, considering the production values (including greatly-improved visual effects), sturdy performances, battle scene excitement and overall charm also carry over.
The frustration lies in the writing; it's not the dialogue or character awareness, which both maintain a level of respectability, but the chronic, stale plot devices. Last season, several episodes featured individuals snaking their way into Castle Camelot as honorary residents, and more often than not these villains -- usually magic-wielders -- were out to damage Uther's (Anthony Head) rule. Before the halfway point of this season, this occurs twice, and it doesn't stop there. One would think that Uther and the Royal Guard might be a little more cautious about the guests staying on their grounds, since they've been manipulated and backstabbed on more than a few occasions. Instead, it veers away from rationality as the dominoes topple, from Arthur denouncing Merlin as his assistant for a newcomer to Uther labeling Gaius (Richard Wilson), Merlin's ward and the court physician for twenty or thirty years, as a traitor.
Additionally, the non-"infiltration" installments have a repeated tempo that flounders between quaint episodic design and going-through-the-motions repetition: a challenge on Arthur's knightly worth here, Merlin scrambling to the all-knowing dragon in dire situations there, and so forth. Even though they remain vigorous and sturdily assembled, all these episodes start to blur together without a focal narrative thrust or all-pervading villain to distinguish them, revealing a lack of innovation by falling back on the status quo. It takes away from quality episodes that aptly use the formula, such as "The Once and Future Queen" where Arthur silently fights as an unnamed knight to show the people of Camelot that he's developed his own knightly merit -- and that he's willing to empathize with the plight of his subjects. For ever novel episode, there's one like "The Curse of Cornelius Sigan" that stumbles into thrice-done, shrug-worthy trappings.
Though the story duplications can be forgiven for enjoyment's sake, and they truly can, one episode sticks out like a sore thumb: "Beauty and the Beast", where a troll disguised as a human infiltrates the Castle Camelot. Nearly every signature point that hallmarks the series pops up in this one, from irrational untrustworthiness among the main characters to easy magic-based manipulation, while tacking on flatulence jokes and snarling, slap-sticky accents. Sarah Parish does a fine job of bringing the troll-in-disguise Lady Catrina to life, with her dainty feminine poise shifting to nasty grimaces for slightly amusing results. Everything around her, however, borders on the inane, leaning on the easy power of a cursed relic like a crutch as it leads to harebrained sword duels and, uh, suggestions of behind-the-curtains naughtiness between humans and trolls. If that wasn't enough, the episode dangles on a cliffhanger at the end, which continues the lackluster mix of fart jokes, maggot-'n-rot munching, and convenient magical manipulation over to a second episode.
Bearing these critiques in mind, Merlin's second season does continue to thoroughly entertain while crafting family-friendly sword-'n-sorcery commotion, which redeems itself with a vigorous and inventive second half. The biggest asset, aside from the stalwart cast fighting for a layer of legitimacy through the sillier moments, comes in the presence of the mysterious Morgause, who first arrives in "The Sins of the Father". Played by Emilia Fox from Cashback and Dorian Gray, she gives the story an added boost that fills that "bad guy" void that the first half clearly had, and it doesn't hurt that the actress makes a magnetic gender-defying knight and, later on, a figure with a wealth of power and a sinister motive. On top of that (and in relation), Morgana's further discovery of her dark magic -- and her kinship with Mordred -- also propels the series' intrigue. Interestingly, their episodes still use the familiar "formulas" used beforehand, but to mightier successes because they rediscover a grasp on momentum.
Though Merlin only advances its secondary plots and relationships throughout the majority of this second season, determined to keep things the way they've been all along, it makes up for this reluctance to change at the very end. Similarly to the pick-up in the first season, the writers and actors grab themselves by the bootstraps and deliver a pair of quality, story-changing episodes that, though still hesitant to considerably alter the framework of the show, progress the narrative along in a fury of exciting, tonally-dark bursts that actually leave the audience wanting to know what'll happen next. What it also reveals, however, is that Merlin could assuredly stand out as a more refined and genuine series, if it'd just stick to the assets that make this finish a climactic rush of energy -- and arguably pinnacle of the series' craftsmanship to date. Those looking for a similar experience to the first season will be satisfied by the developments in Castle Camelot this time around, even if it takes overcoming a few trolls to get to the good stuff.
Video and Audio:
Basically all of the comments made about the first season of Merlin carry over to this second season, with all thirteen episodes contained on four discs (the fourth disc holding four episodes). Shot for the BBC amid a glorious gargoyle-laden castle, the 1.78:1 widescreen-enhanced transfers gallop along with a fine eye for color and a few minute details, yet the PAL-sourced digital transfers suffer from foreseen issues. Heavy ghosting and interlace combing show up across the board due to the heavy camera motion, though it's never distracting, while I noticed a few more instances of jagged lines against contours than in the previous season. It looks fine, suitable in regards to contrast and palette, but nothing spectacular.
Again, Merlin arrives with a batch of Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks, which only hint at what a more dynamic surround presentation might sound like. Dialogue remains clear and properly pitched, while the clanking of swords and armor ping against the show's aural design with as much robustness as it can muster -- sometimes impressive, others somewhat shrill and muffled. The music moves furiously against the two channels, getting all the actions properly swept up in the ebbs and flows of its rhythm, while the quieter moments remain somewhat airy yet somewhat delicate. Those familiar with the quality of the first set's audio will see a slight improvement, but it's largely the same. Only optional English subtitles adorn each of the episodes, which only arrive with English-language sound tracks.
Much in the same fashion as BBC's first season set of Merlin, several Audio Commentaries adorn a handful of the episodes. They mostly include Colin Morgan and Bradley James in conversational roles with a little bit of mild insight scattered within, while other cast/crew jump in sporadically. Commentaries are available for the following episodes: Disc One: Curse of Cornelius Sigan, Once and Future Queen; Disc Two: Lancelot & Guinevere; Disc Three: Sins of the Father; Disc Four: Sweet Dreams, The Witch's Quickening, The Fires of Idirsholas. Aside from the commentaries, however, there aren't any other special features on the four episode discs.
Disc Five contains the majority of the special features, which go a step beyond even the previous season's content. First off, each episode also comes with a small behind-the-scenes spurt of content, contained within the Secrets and Magic (16x9) subsection. Digging into the other material, an Introduction to Season/Series Two of Merlin (10:36, 16x9) goes the studio-standard fluff route by introducing each of the actors and their characters. That's fine, though, because it's counterbalanced by a thorough, interesting Making of Merlin (34:09, 16x9) piece, which discusses veering from what people know about Arthurian lore, the debate sparked with scholars, the inverted relationship between Arthur and Merlin, and playing with the legend by introducing clues. It also covers the language of the magic spells, the horseriding, and a good bit about the computer-generated elements.
Additionally, the disc also arrives with a moderately-sized Photo Gallery, though the photos are small and framed on a chalkboard of sorts in the DVD's menu, and a set of Wallpapers that can be accessed via a PC-ROM drive.
All the charismatic character build-up, vivacious sword-'n-sorcery action, and teases at Arthurian lore again permeate Merlin in this second season, though recurring plot structures take some of the novelty away from its episodic romps. Again, it meanders in quality for half a season before it really discover what works, but that second half sees a spike that noticeably edges out the first season's quality -- especially in the final two episodes, which create a sense of intense immediacy that I found to be excellent. This loaded DVD set containing all thirteen episodes comes Recommended, even considering some earlier shortcomings.