Seeking a stalwart series to dominate their Autumn schedule, the BBC have gone all fantasy period drama with new series Merlin. The programme very nicely fills that Saturday evening Doctor Who/Robin Hood slot. Which isn't surprising as it's a direct cross between Doctor Who and Robin Hood.
The legend of Camelot is a well known one, and most, on hearing the name Merlin, would picture a white-bearded, goatish chap with a pointy hat and a staff. But this is Camelot re-mixed, and things are not as you might expect, not least because the action is set back when Merlin and Arthur were just boys.
That’s not the only surprise. In the first episode we found out that Arthur, far from the saviour of the people, is an arrogant brat, Guinevere is not a lady but a maid, and Merlin is only just discovering the extent of his powers, under the guidance of court physician Gaius, played by Richard Wilson in an alarming hairpiece – like Victor Meldrew wearing Victor Meldrew’s wife’s hair.
As might have gathered this is not a series for Arthurian purists. Merlin, played by likeable newcomer Colin Morgan, looks like he’s just stepped off the set of Skins and with its colloquial language and casual delivery, this series is more Mike Skinner than Malory.
And in this re-imagining, Merlin is not a magician but a gifted rapper. No, just kidding, he’s still a sorcerer, able to move objects with his eyes and stop time. All very handy stuff, except that in Camelot circa this series, such behaviour is banned by order of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon (played by Anthony Head).Hence, when Merlin arrived in Episode 1, it was to see someone getting executed for using their powers, causing the victim’s mother, a powerful witch, to swear her revenge on Uther’s own son, Arthur.
Putting aside the question of why the witch didn’t just use a spell to save her son from having his head lopped off, we watched as the crone returned to the castle in disguise and then cast a spell of enchantment upon the royal court, singing to them until they were all asleep and covered in cobwebs. Very much how I imagine a Barry Manilow concert.
Merlin used his magical skills to resist the spell – well, alright, he covered his ears – and then saved Arthur from certain death, winning a place in the kingdom as the prince’s servant. This essentially set up the format for Merlin: it seems inevitable that Arthur will be in danger in every episode and Merlin will save the day without getting any of the glory, in the manner of Spot the cat and Hong Kong Phooey.
Continuing the modern feel, last episode featured Will Mellor (Gav from Two Pints of Lager) as conniving knight Valiant, who planned to use an enchanted snake-filled shield to kill Arthur in a tournament. Being accustomed to seeing Mellor as the crude, unreconstructed bloke in Two Pints, this was a little hard to get my head round. I kept waiting for Valiant to make a knob gag about 'sword craft' and show his bum to Lady Morgana. Sadly, no joy.
I’m also disappointed by the magical aspect of Merlin. The boy wizard’s powers so far seem a trifle dull – it’s all sliding latches and polishing swords (If you still have Will Mellor in mind, please feel free to insert your own joke here.)
Also, because Merlin is a magician in a land where hardly anyone can do magic, he has an unfair advantage, which rather detracts from the tension. This, plus the predictable plot and morality-by-numbers, make this a less sophisticated effort than even the worst episode of Doctor Who and a very far cry from the enchanting, beguiling world of Harry Potter.
Even the dragon is tedious. Voiced by John Hurt, the last dragon in England, locked up by Uther, has an encounter with Merlin each week whereupon he imparts some fortune-cookie wisdom. First week it was something very deep about destiny. Last week it was: “This is not the end. This is only the beginning.”
I suspect he may be tearing these off a page-a-day calendar he’s got tucked under his wing. What next? “The best things in life are free?” “Life is not a rehearsal”? “All good things come to those who wait”? It would be great if the latter statement was true, as I would like to see Merlin develop into a really impressive piece of television rather than the slightly simplistic, old fashioned series it appears so far.
Next episode, we’re promised Michelle Ryan, aka Zoe Slater from EastEnders, as wicked sorceress Nimueh: The Lady of the Lake. With more magic in the air, and darker forces at hand, perhaps these are the right ingredients to make Merlin just that little more spellbinding.