Friday, 17 October 2008

Merlin - wizard stuff or just a load of warlocks?

Okay, so we're five episodes in to 'Merlin', the BBC's latest Saturday night early evening family drama series - a strand we're now fortunate enough, thanks to the success of Dr Who, to be able to enjoy as a respite from all the singing and dancing and general "Me!Me!Me" Saturday night shouting - and I think it's time the World of Stuff gave its verdict. And, as I've just finished watching my recording of the fourth episode, 'The Poisoned Chalice' I think I can probably safely say I'm satisfied I can give a thumbs-up to this fun new series; it's a cautious thumbs-up, mind.

After two weeks the thumb would probably have been quivering somewhere in the middle and wavering towards pointing downwards. Three weeks in and this series wasn't really getting out of first gear for me; maybe it was the slightly derivative strories, the irritatingly-anachronistic dialogue (a big bugbear of mine in these sorts of shows) or just the slighty cynical nature of the series, recreating classic British myths in the style of a teenage soap opera. It takes a few weeks to get used to the show's rhythm, its wilful disregard for anything even approaching historical accuracy and, of course, to get used to a new cast of actors playing a new cast of characters in a potentially long-running series. And, with ratings on the climb and recently at around 6.5 million (against the tiresomely unstoppable juggernaut of the Demon Cowell's X Factor) I think we're probably looking at a fairly long-running show here. Episode four seems to be about the place the series has 'settled' and grown into itself and I've started to get used to its style. And, you know, I think I'm rather liking it...

The BBC - particularly in the form of the ever-gushing drama bigwig and Dr Who executive Producer Julie Gardener - have made much of the fact that 'Merlin' draws its inspiration from American TV genre shows, particularly 'Smallville' - and if they hadn't told us quite so readily I'm sure we could have worked it our for ourselves. Where 'Smallville' reinvents the more recent American mythology of Superman by stripping the character and all his baggage back to basics and taking the audience through the angst and anguish of young Clark kent before he dons the blue and green, so 'Merlin' takes us back to a pre-Round Table Camelot where a fresh-faced and naive young magician called Merlin (Colin Morgan) is dispatched to be trained by the wise physician Gaius (Richard Wilson in a nice white wig) and, because magic and sorcery has been outlawed in Caemlot by stoney-faced King Uther (Anthony Head), Merlin has to keep his gifts under wraps. "Keep the magic secret" is the show's tagline and I don't think it's too cynical to suggest they could have bunged "to keep the CGI costs down" to round it off. Yes, Merlin, as we know, becomes an important figure in the chronicles ofg King Arthur and Camelot and all that gubbins but at this point in the story - right back at the beginning - Merlin has to keep his magical light under a bushel and all we get to see him do are discreet sleight of hand things - moving furniture and, in one thrilling episode, covering something up with a cloth so it won't be found!

First episodes of any new series can be desperately clunky as new characters and situations and relationships are introduced and the template for the rest of the series laid down. 'The Dragon's Call', Merlin's first episode, makes a fair stab at setting out some ground rules. Merlin arrives, gets on the wrong side of Uther's show-off son Arthur (Bradley James) and eventually saves his life, thus becoming his lackey. We meet Guinevere (retooled for the young audience as Gwen) and, because any adventure show needs a baddie, we get Torchwood's Eve Myles as Mary Collins, witchy vengeful mother out to wreak havoc to make amends for the death of her son at the command of Uther.

'Merlin' sets out it stall - and its style - in its very first episode. Here's a series which purports to be set in - what, the 10th century? - yet the characters all walk and talk with the swagger of the 21st century. There are precious few concessions to anything even remotely approaching contemporary (for the time) dialogue. the kids - and, let's face it, the heroes of this show are kids - speak in a very slick and recognisable 21st century patois. Dialogue gems so far include "Could Arthur be
any more irritating?" and "Creep!" and, as the weeks roll by, I'm starting to find it less irritating than I did in the first two episodes. Obviously certain concessions had to be made to make a series set in the 10th century accessible and of interest to a 'young' streetwise modern audience - and I suppose I can live with it. But the show's desperation to find favour with 'ver kids' might have been less blatant if the modern dialogue had been pulled back just a bit because, even now, I find myself dragged right out of the drama of the series when painfully-anachronistic dialogue is flung into my face by a man in an ermine robe with a crown on his head.

Part of Merlin's problem is that Dr Who has set the bar for this sort of Saturday night Tv so supernaturally high that anything else is, by definition, going to be found wanting. It's commendable that shows like Merlin, Robin Hood, ITV's Primeval and the forthcoming Demons exist at all (and it's all purely down to the success of Dr Who) but, probably because of Dr Who's long legacy and its place in the British public's collective consciousness, the new shows have to struggle to earn their audience's rspect (despite the fact that the BBC have 'reinvented' two other British mythologies, presumably hoping to ignite the same fervour of recognition amongst the audience). So 'Merlin' rerally needs to be judged on its own merits, by its own production values, its cast and its stories. And it's doing okay. It has none of the subtleties and nuances and sense of spectacle of Dr Who - what has, let's face it? - but on its own merits, four or five weeks in, it's growing into itself and finding its feet and its place in the schedule.

'Merlin' is a smart and slick series, boasting gorgeous production design. Camelot itself may not look anything like the architectural style of the real place but it looks like a castle and that's really the point. Sumptuous sets, lavish costumes, decent FX (by Dr Who's The Mill) and an impressive cast. Colin Morgan (last seen in the season four Dr Who story 'Midnight') plays Merlin with a wide-eyed, innocent charm, and Bradley James has a pleasant grumbly malevolence as Arthur. Lesser young cast members haven't made much impression yet; considering her importance to the myth Gwen (Angel Coulby) is little more than willowy eye candy and Morgana (Katie McGrath) has a powereful presence but not much to do. The stories are simplistic romps too, linear stories with a beginning, a middle and end and with no noticable sub-plots or story arcs (beyond the inherent ones involving the steady progression of the character relationships) and, since the feeble second episode 'Valiant' (where Will Mellor is desperately miscast as a knight with a snake-infested shield who tries top best Arthur at medeival duelling), have been slowly improving. Even the deadening presence of the vacant Michelle Ryan couldn't suck all the life out of 'The Mark of Nimueh' and 'The Poisoned Chalice' and Lancelot made his inevitable, if unexpectedly early, first appearance in the fifth episode.

Sometimes it's easy - too easy - to find in fault in a new series and to criticise it for being something it was never really intended to be. 'Merlin' was commissioned and created to provide a fun, entertaining fantasy romp for a Saturday night audience which, over the last few years, has found its appetite for this sort of stuff again. 'Merlin' does what it does efficiently and with some style. It's better than the somewhat samey 'Robin Hood' (itself enough of a success to run to three years with a possible fourth on the cards despite the fact that star Jonas Armstrong is handing in his bow and arrow at the end of the forthcoming third series) but i wish the show hadn't followed the 'no tights, no flights' rule of 'Smallville' quite so rigidly. I'm hoping Merlin himself will get the chance to show of a few more of his magical skills as the series wears on and that the stories will start to get a bit darker and a bit subtler, with more attempts made to generate the atmosphere of the original legends rather than just transplanting sexy 21st century kids into a 10th century setting with no real feel for the myths which inspired the series in the first place.

So, all in all, it's a useful addition to the current crop of fantasy TV shows (although, in passing, I'd like to mention I'd quite like the BBC to try something for the Saturday night slot which doesn't involve swords and castles, thanks!) and, if nothing else, it's a merciful alternative to the monotony of flat-headed Simon Cowell and his unending quest to make another quick buck by exploiting gullible kids who "want this more than anything". But that's for another rant altogether...

So what do you think? Is Merlin a worthy addition to the Saturday night TV rota or doesn't it float your TV boat? Agree or disagree with Stuff's verdict? Post a comment, let me know what YOU think!!

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