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Merlin: The Complete First Season

BBC Worldwide // Unrated // April 20, 2010
List Price: $49.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted April 13, 2010 | E-mail the Author
The Show:
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 first BBC program to be broadcast on US network TV in decades) and recently picked up by SyFy, is being released soon 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, Merlin 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 forbidden 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), and 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 by Uther:  he is named Arthur's personal servant. 
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 to Merlin, added by Gaisus and with the cryptic advice of an ancient dragon chained up in the catacombs beneath the city, to keep them, and the kingdom, safe.

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 being raised 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 Uther's son... if everyone knew he was the heir from birth, what's the point of that famous event?)  What's almost as bad is that they expect viewers to know what will happen in the future... there are little in jokes about Arthur not finding Guinevere attractive and Lancelot being enamored with the young girl that foreshadows important events in the 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 about the 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 see 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 and having citizens of Camelot as well as black nobles and knights (even Guinevere 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?) and 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 after a 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 and heads to Camelot, the knights get ready for its arrival by arming themselves with 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 interact 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 his every decision, and some of the errors he has made come back to haunt him.

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 have character flaws, as well as positive traits, that a real prince of that time would have.  In one early episode Arthur has to fight a knight in a tournament who is using magic and wants to kill 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 watching.


The DVD:


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 forceful 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 fine.
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 and 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 to the 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 set than the behind-the-scenes featurettes.  I particularly like how Colin couldn't read in the sun between sets because the 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.
Final Thoughts:
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 Arthur and Camelot, sit though some predictable plots with holey dialog and some CGI that's best described as 'not great' if you're willing to do that you'll be rewarded with a fun and enjoyable show.  This set comes recommended with those caveats. 
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