Merlin: The Dragon's Call

“None of us can choose our destiny, Merlin. And none of us can escape it.”

You know, Doctor Who has a lot to answer for.

Before its return in 2005, science fiction and fantasy shows were practically an endangered species on British television. In fact, had it not been for the triumphant comeback of the mad man with a box, they would have become extinct altogether. Once the revived Doctor Who made it clear that there was still a healthy audience for family friendly fantasy drama, both the BBC and ITV were quick to cash in. And thus we ended up with drivel like Demons, Robin Hood, Outcasts, Bonekickers, The Deep and, lord have mercy on us, Paradox. Suddenly extinction wasn't looking like such a bad idea.

Four years ago, I would've happily filed Merlin away with that lot. When it first aired, I didn't really give Merlin a fair chance. I watched a few episodes, including this one, thought it was a very silly series and switched off. It reminded me too much of the fantasy films of the 1980s. The storytelling was predictable, the special effects were cheap and cheesy, the heroes were all young and pretty, and the actual acting was left to veteran Thespians (in this case Anthony Head, Richard Wilson and John Hurt), slumming it for a quick paycheck. It wasn't until season three that I decided to give it another chance. And I'm glad I did because, like peasants turned into newts by witches made of wood, Merlin got better. A lot better. I went back and watched season one again and was surprised to discover that it wasn't as bad as I remembered. It wasn't great, but it was by no means terrible.

Taking the Matter of Britain and giving it the Smallville treatment, Merlin re-imagines the legendary wizard as a teenager, living in Camelot and having adventures every week with the young, and arrogant, Prince Arthur. Like the Last Son of Krypton, this Merlin is a young farm boy with superpowers (that he must keep concealed from his friends) and a great destiny ahead of him.

'The Dragon's Call' doesn't get the show off to a strong start. In fact, this has to be one of the weakest pilots I have ever seen. It makes the crucial mistake of assuming the audience isn't paying attention and is therefore unable to figure things out for themselves. So they ram as much exposition as possible right down our throats. When Merlin first arrives in Camelot, someone is, rather conveniently, being executed for using magic, leading to a very clunky speech from Uther all about how magic is banned in Camelot. Later, Gwen introduces herself to Merlin by telling him her name, her nickname, occupation, shoes size, favourite colour, and what she most looks for in a man.

One of Merlin's strongest features is its cast. Head might chew the scenery while Hurt (literally) phones it in, but the younger cast members aren't that bad. Colin Morgan makes for a likeable Merlin. Arthur might be a complete prat, but that's more to do with how he's written than Bradley James' acting. Morgana is probably the series' most interesting character, and I'm not just saying that because I'm absolutely infatuated with Katie McGrath (okay, maybe a bit). The only major weak link is Gwen. Again, this isn't any fault of the actor. Angel Coulby does the best she can with what she's given. But Gwen is essentially the Lana Lang of the series. She's nice, kind, sweet and duller than a convention for John Major impersonators.

Familiar Faces

Gwen Cooper herself, Eve Myles, played both the vengeful Mary Collins and Lady Helen. And she was completely wasted in both roles.

Merthur Moments

First time they meet, Arthur and Merlin can't wait to get physical with each other. Second time they meet, Merlin is practically ripping off his clothes so he can get physical with Arthur again. And this was all before they started doing Merther stuff deliberately.

Notes and Quotes

--Among the many anachronisms are reading glasses, sandwiches, mops, strawberries and tomatoes.

--Camelot is actually the Chateau de Pierrefonds, Pierrefonds, Oise in France. Looks nice, doesn't it? If too obviously French for a British castle.

--To keep his feet comfortable, Richard Wilson's Medieval boots are actually Nike trainers in disguise.

Uther: “You saved my boy's life. A debt must be repaid.”
Merlin: “Um... well...”
Uther: “Don't be so modest. You shall be rewarded.”
Merlin: “No, honestly, you don't have to, Your Highness.”
Uther: “No, absolutely. This merits something quite special.”
Merlin: “Well...”
Uther: “You shall be awarded a position in the Royal Household. You shall be Prince Arthur's manservant.”
Arthur: “Father!”

Merlin: “Come on, Gwen. I thought you liked those real rough, tough, save-the-world kind of men.”
Gwen: “No, I like much more ordinary men like you.”
Merlin: “Gwen, believe me, I'm not ordinary.”
Gwen: “No, I didn't mean you. Obviously. Not you. Just, you know, I like much more ordinary men. Like you.”
Merlin: “Thanks.”

Arthur: “I warn you, I've been trained to kill since birth.”
Merlin: “Wow. And how long have you been training to be a prat?”
Arthur: “You can't address me like that.”
Merlin: “Sorry. How long have you been training to be a prat, my lord?”

Uther: “Why are you not joining us at the feast?”
Morgana: “I just don't think chopping someone's head off is cause for celebration. That poor mother."
Uther: “It was simple justice for what he'd done.”
Morgana: “To whom? He practiced magic. He didn't hurt anyone.”

A so-so start to the series. But I'm feeling a little generous. Two out of four naff CGI dragons that sound like Quentin Crisp.
---
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.

5 comments:

CrazyCris said...

I'm kind of obsessed with Arthurian tales, so I'll give anything that plays around with that story a chance. Add to that Tony Head (Giles!!!) and a DRAGON?! I was sure to be there from day 1! And yeah, the first season was a bit weak, but it got better and better as things got darker. The more Merlin and Morgana grew into their powers the more interesting things became.

You're right about Gwen though, even 4 seasons in she's still the weakest link. *sigh* Morgana is much more interesting!

It's been fun watching the twists they put on the original Arthurian legends...

And I kind of like the idea of Arthur being such a prat, fun! :p

Are you going to be going over the whole series here, now? Will be nice to re-visit it!

Maybe I'll pop the dvds in and join along! I'm doubly thankful for them because I've been able to use them as "homework with a couple of my English students. ;o)

Morgan India said...

Mark, to say you're only a bit infatuated with Katie McGrath is like saying kittens and puppies are only a little bit cute. But thank you for reviewing Merlin. Here is an Anzac biscuit.

And I heartily approve of the picture. Yay, Giles!

Mark Greig said...

Come on, Morgan, I'm not that bad. Am I?

Sooze said...

I am with you, CrazyCris - anything Arthurian and I am "in".

Although, as I have said in other posts, I am easily pleased. I actually liked Robin Hood until they (SPOILERS) killed off MAIN characters that had no business being killed off. Although if I were to be honest, I liked it mostly for one dark and handsome baddie. He's the reason I watched 6 (7?) seasons straight of MI-5 on Netflix so that I could get to his seasons. Although, the first two seasons with another hot Brit wasn't a chore...but I digress.

In nay case, Merlin has definitely gotten better. The constant "Everyone thinks Merlin's an idiot, Merlin saves the day, no one notices" was getting old.

CrazyCris said...

I'm with you on Robin Hood Suze! Took me a couple of episodes to feel ok with the modern dialogue, but then I loved it! Until that final episode in Season 2... I kept expecting them to "fix it" somehow in Season 3... *sigh*

And yeah, the handsome baddie was a big draw, as was a fabulous Robin! ;o)

It was so good to see Merlin taking more action this past season! But still, the only person who seems to appreciate how much he does (other than Gaius) is Lancelot... it's about time someone else finds out! I don't want to spoil it for US viewers so won't go into details, but there's one episode in season 4 where I could have sworn another knight witnessed Merlin using magic and was ok with it... but then there was no other mention of it the rest of the season and I've been wondering if I imagined it...