Friday, 27 August 2010

The Arthurian Review, Issue 4

(CONTAINS SPOILERS for both seasons)

Merlin Season One

Merlin Season Two

I discovered the BBC series Merlin when it was already halfway Season Two. The first episode I saw, The Sins of the Father, immediately made me curious for more. I ordered the first box set and liked that well enough to get the second one, too. Now, while all Merlin fans are anxiously awaiting Season Three, I’d like to share a few thoughts. Those thoughts are a mixed bag, really. That is because on the one hand, I find Merlin very enjoyable, but on the other, I find it rather disappointing. I guess the mixture of shortcomings and enjoyment qualify it as something of a guilty pleasure.

Merlin features many familiar characters from Arthurian legend, but places them in a kind of alternate universe. Merlin is the same age as Arthur, and Arthur is being raised by his father, King Uther, instead of by a foster-father appointed by Merlin. (One unfortunate consequence of this is that the series must do without the delightfully sarcastic character of Sir Kay – no foster-father for Arthur means no foster-brother either.) True to the original legend, Morgana is Uther’s ward; but in the series she, too, is about the same age as Arthur. In an interesting twist, Guinevere is Morgana’s servant, and after all the well-known images of a blonde Guinevere, it comes as a surprise that the BBC series’ Once and Future Queen has African roots.

Merlin’s Camelot is a land ruled by a king who fanatically opposes magic. Uther prosecutes witches, wizards and magical creatures ruthlessly. This poses a bit of a problem for Merlin, a prodigious magical talent who must conceal his powers if he wants to keep his head. To complicate matters, Merlin is made a servant to Prince Arthur, in which capacity he is constantly under Uther’s nose. Discretion is advised. So naturally, in every episode some magical threat manifests itself that can only be stopped by means of Merlin’s own magic.

The ties between Merlin and the legends to which the main characters’ names refer are really rather thin. If you feel inclined to be critical, you might well ask why the writers choose to call their characters Merlin, Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Morgana if they are going to be barely recognisable as the figures of legend. The makers are not filming their own version of Arthurian legend; they are making a fantasy series with Arthurian touches. The best comparison I can think of is with J. K. Rowling’s use of myth and legend in Harry Potter. It’s not deep, it’s not particularly meaningful, but it adds some couleur locale and it’s fun if you get it. This is something you have to accept in order to enjoy the show.

Merlin is an enjoyable show but doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Maybe what I miss most is a clear creative vision. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Kaamelott are driven by a creator who knows very well where the characters are going and who write episodes that serve the development of those characters. There are themes and larger arcs that give structure to each season. For Buffy, Joss Whedon worked with a small army of writers, but each script would be submitted to him to ensure that it was consistent with his vision and coherent within the whole. A season of Merlin, on the other hand, seems to consist merely of 13 loose episodes. This is even more the case for Season Two than it was for Season One. Whereas interesting issues and plot points may be brought up within an episode, more often than not these elements will be buried by the end of the episode, let alone that there would be a sign of continuity in the next. One blatant example is of Morgana vociferously disowning Uther in Episode 11. Despite the fact that Uther does not take very will to this kind of behaviour, Episode 12 still finds Morgana living quietly in Uther’s castle and telling Morgause that she “has to pretend to be Uther’s loving ward”. I don’t see a lot of pretending anymore, but that might just be me.

Likewise, there seems to be a sad lack of ideas among the script writers. Twice now, Arthur has been bewitched to fall in love with someone (Uther, just the once, but it lasted two episodes). Twice now, we have been served the same big revelation about Arthur’s birth. And countless times, Arthur is accidentally knocked out so as to allow Merlin to do some hocus-pocus unnoticed. At the same time, the scripts do provide lots of elements that could be taken further. There is Gaius’s past as a magician. There is the fact that sooner or later, Arthur must find out that Merlin is a wizard. Uther must realise that Morgana has magical powers. And what’s with the family connection of Morgana and Morgause (and/or Arthur, if applicable)? All these things are touched upon, but they never seem to go anywhere. It seems as if the writers try to draw everything out as much as possible – if, at least, you can trust them to have sown these seeds deliberately.

The writers have taken the Arthurian characters out of the framework of the legend, but they seem to have forgotten to build a framework of their own – or if they do have a framework, they are not making good use of it. I suppose people will say it’s a children’s show (actually it’s supposed to be ‘all audiences’) and that therefore it must not be too complex, but I find that more often than not, that argument is used as an excuse for laziness. I have read picture books for five-year-olds that have more subtlety and layers than a Merlin episode or, for that matter, a Harry Potter book. It is perfectly possible to create something that can be appreciated by children and yet does not make older readers/viewers feel as if they are too old or too smart to be reading/watching it.

So, why do I actually watch Merlin, and enjoy watching it, if my criticism is so harsh? Well: I guess that a very good reason for watching is the cast and the obvious pleasure they take in participating in the show. Colin Morgan’s Merlin is a sweet, clumsy and very winning young wizard whose chemistry with Bradley James (Arthur) is undeniable. Both Morgan and James are adorable comedians, but they don’t disappoint in dramatic moments either. And it’s great fun to watch these two interact. Angel Coulby makes a very loveable Guinevere, a devoted servant who nevertheless shows the kind of strength to convince you that she would make a great queen. The weakest link in the young cast, in my opinion, is Katie McGrath, who is gorgeous as Morgana but inclined to overact a little at times. The young actors are complemented by ‘old hands’ Anthony Head – formerly known as Rupert Giles, here a delightful King Uther – and Richard Wilson as Gaius, court physician and Merlin’s grandfatherly mentor. Moreover, Merlin has an excellent cast of villains, including Charles Dance, Mackenzie Crook, Adrian Lester and Emilia Fox.

Season Three is being filmed at this moment, and from what I have heard, it will have larger story arcs than Season Two. Let us hope that some of the other issues will be solved too. The actors – and the audience – deserve a little more effort.

And on the Gawain-o-meter...

Merlin simply doesn’t register – yet. Let’s check back after Season Three, which certainly shows promise :).


Cecilia said...

I haven't yet finished watching Season 2 (the last episodes are somewhere recorded in my father's computer, however) and so I haven't yet seen Morgause (ops).
On the whole, I totally agree with you about the enjoyable/disappointing impression. And you haven't even talked about the slashy attitutes ;)

I personally dislike Guinevere in this show. She is the one piece of absurdity I cannot cope with: not only she has been made a servant, but I find that the actress 1. is ugly and 2. doesn't know how to play. Morgana's actress, on the other hand, is simply gorgeous and I'd prefer so much that teleplayers would lean toward an Arthur/Morgana (though this seems improbable :/).

ampersand said...

Eh. We must agree to disagree about Angel Coulby. I think she's unspeakably cute and an excellent actress :P. Les goûts et les couleurs...

Sorry to spoil you about the presence of Morgause! I think you'll love her, though. In fact, I'm sure of it. She's pretty brilliant; I just hope the writers don't ruin her.

I can't believe I didn't mention the slashiness. It's so ... slashy. Even when there is het romance involved. I'm inclined to prefer Arthur/Merlin to Arthur/Morgana ;-).