Okay, so when the BBC announced that it would be creating a new show based on the young life of the wizard Merlin, I groaned. After the awfulness that was Robin Hood, I really wasn't looking forward to another show featuring a yoofed-up interpretation of popular legend. Alarm bells started to ring when the trailer was released. My favourite part was the end of the trailer where Merlin addresses the audience, take a look:
Now this line reminded me of another TV show from times past. Check this out and keep watching the title sequence, I'm sure you'll hear something similar...
So with thoughts of Tots TV in my head, things weren't looking good for Merlin heading into the pilot episode. Will my snark know no bounds or will I be *gasp* nice to the show? Read on...
The show opens with John Hurt's distinctive voice waffling on about young warlocks and journeys; it's all fantasy cliche 101. Then we get the title sequence which is actually pretty good, there's fire, knights clobbering each other, the usual fantasy soundtrack with lots of 'ooooooo' and 'aaaahhhhh' in a baritone and finally there are some very dodgy looking monsters. There's a CGI snake, a CGI dragon and something that looks like a model monster that's escaped from 1970s era Doctor Who.
Young boy Merlin wanders into Camelot, which looks very impressive and clearly isn't just a model, and seems to marvel at peasants wandering around. He ventures into the main square where a man is executed for using magic. The magic user has his head lopped off with an axe but as this is a family show we don't get blood splattering all over the screen. What we get instead is an old crone with a familiar looking gap in her teeth and an accent that is straying into Welsh at times. Hmmm... she seems familiar. Anyway, she swears VENGEANCE! She will kill Uther's son in retaliation for Uther executing her's.
Merlin meets up with Gaius (Richard Wilson, or Victor Meldrew if you prefer) who promptly falls of a balcony in shock at young Merlin's jug ears. Merlin uses his magic, which seems to be telekinesis and glowing eyes, to put a bed at the bottom of Gaius Meldrew's fall. Gaius realises magic is at work and quickly works at becoming Merlin's caring father figure. I really, really want Gaius to say, "I don't believe it!" Just once.
Later that day and into night, Eve Myles/Gwen Cooper/WPC Slapper-Jones (as I affectionately call her due to her Torchwood character's tartiness in season one of said show) is our special guest star! She plays Lady Helen who is a great singer. She'll be performing before the king in a couple of days. She's soon murdered by the evil crone though as she uses a voodoo doll to stab her to death. But Eve Myles isn't removed from the show that easily as we see the crone assume the appearance of Lady Helen.
Merlin is woken from his sleep by John Hurt's voice. Merlin doesn't freak out at this point like I would. I mean, if a voice in my head started talking to me and waking me up, I'd be pretty freaked out. Merlin has his breakfast, does some chores for Gaius Meldrew and then meets Prince Arthur. Prince Arthur is a massive douche.
Prince Arthur is throwing daggers at a servant and Merlin intervenes. This doesn't end well as Arthur has Merlin arrested. I think if this show was made in the 80s, Prince Arthur would've been played by Robert Addie.
Merlin is released from prison by Gaius Meldrew but has to spend an afternoon in the stocks. As is traditional, small children throw vegetables at him. He does get to chat up Guinevere while he's locked in the stocks though. Guinevere is Morgana's servant so that's ummm... different. I suppose it's so there's a girl of equal social standing for Merlin in order to complete the awkward love oblong in the show.
Merlin discovers magic books in Evil Eve Myles' room but before he can ponder this, he gets into another fight with Arthur. Merlin uses more telekinesis (or magic if you prefer) to keep the fight even but he eventually loses to the Prince. Merlin then has an emo moment as he complains to Gaius Meldrew that he'd rather die than stop using magic. He then shuts himself in his room, presumably to write some poetry or song lyrics about his pain.
Merlin has John Hurt's voice in his head again so he sneaks down into the dungeons of Camelot to find a dragon that Gaius Meldrew mentioned earlier. The dragon is John Hurt's voice and some poor CGI. It's not that the CGI is poorly done from a technical standpoint, it's just that the dragon doesn't look... right. I thought it would look ancient and fearsome, but instead it's a little fresh faced and well, cute.
The dragon tells Merlin all about his destiny to aid Arthur unite the land. Merlin isn't convinced because Arthur's a douche.
Next day, Merlin gets into a comedy misunderstanding with Morgana as she undresses in her room whilst thinking that Merlin is Guinevere (she's not blind, she's just hidden behind a screen and thinks Merlin is her maid). Merlin muddles through with some comedy girlish noises. We learn that Morgana quite fancies Arthur and wants to make him notice her. The love oblong is complete.
Evil Eve Myles kills a servant with a life draining kung-fu grip. The servant made the mistake of seeing Eve in a mirror which reveals her hideous crone visage. With all these evil magic powers, killing Arthur will be pretty easy, surely?
Evil Eve makes her appearance and begins to lip synch to some Clannad. The magic song puts everyone in court to sleep apart from Merlin who simply puts his hands over his ears. It also causes cobwebs to appear on everyone, presumably so that the victims will wake up and think, "Shit! I've been asleep for centuries!" She's such a card. Once she's put the guests to sleep her next part of the plan is to stab Arthur with a daggger.
It's an effective plan but it's kind of lacking in imagination. Stabbing someone in their sleep would be an effective way of killing someone but it's not elegant is it? Besides, she has a crazy life draining death grip and a killer voodoo doll. Why not use them over a crude dagger? I guess she likes the personal touch.
Merlin halts her evil scheme with his telekinesis (sorry, magic) as he drops a chandelier on Evil Eve's head. The audience begin to wake up as Evil Eve summons the last of her strength to throw the dagger at Arthur in slow motion. Merlin does the traditional slow motion dive (he forgets to yell "Noooooo!" so he loses points there) and pulls Arthur out of the way of the knife. Uther rewards Merlin by making him Arthur's personal bitch. Neither Arthur nor Merlin seem impressed.
Gaius Meldrew bonds with Merlin at the end of the episode by rewarding him with a spell book. Merlin will soon be a level 2 Wizard in no time.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by Merlin. It seems to use its budget well as the set and costumes are all very well done, unlike Robin Hood's knitted chainmail and silent, Hungarian extras. The script didn't insult my intelligence either, which is refreshing for Saturday evening on the BBC. Hopefully the show will build on this solid foundation and improve. I still can't help but feel that this show could've been set in an original fantasy setting without the Merlin brand name and nothing about the show would be different.
I can't wait to see the ropey looking model monster too.