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Merlin 1.1: The Dragon's Call

September 20th, 2008 (07:59 pm)

I'd really been hoping to say good things about this. I had planned to demolish the misbegotten format, and then explain that despite the errors of the creators - and there are four names credited as creators in the titles - this was a successful fantasy drama. It wasn't entirely miscalculated, by far, but the whole thing is built on insecure foundations, of which its abuse of its source material is only a part.

Merlin compounds the offence of Robin Hood by treating history and legend as a cocktail bar, and not fine wines, real ales, or, yes, good old cheese. From the start, this had a defined sense of place, but that sense was a mistaken one. Camelot is a sickly wedding cake of a castle, the dream of a drug-fuelled designer whose hobby is attempting to contact Ludwig II of Bavaria at a seance. Close up, it looks like the nineteenth-century prettification of a older site; it looks wrong to see these very bright, neat walls, designed for show, inhabited by a fairly grimy (though not Robin of Sherwood grimy) bunch of peasants and chainmailed soldiers for whom this is a working environment.

The bad juxtapositions continue. The key bonding scene between Arthur and Merlin is a nasty fight with a lethal weapon which could do a lot of injury - not a romanticised sword associated with strict rules of knightly combat, but a morning star. This should have been used to show how far Arthur needs to come to be the king of legend, but instead it's accompanied by jaunty music as Merlin uses magic to frustrate him. A scene which could have been edited as threatening instead was softened to twee. I was not taken with this Arthur at all; I assume that the cheery witty servant girl Gwen (Guenevere, I'm afraid, transplanted from her background) is going to fall for Arthur eventually despite her protestation that she likes 'ordinary' men better than muscly princelings, which is as good a neon signpost to future plot developments as anything. Merlin is being paired up with Morgana, however; I'd worried that she was going to be presented as Uther's daughter, but instead she's Uther's ward, and we don't know who her father was (not necessarily Gorlois of Cornwall, here). We also learn that Arthur has been brought up without a mother. There is no mention of a father for Merlin, which is promising for those hoping for more acknowledgement of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the subsequent mediaeval tradition in the future. Not that we will necessarily get what we wish for.

The episode didn't have a strong focus, with introductions to the characters and Uther's war on magic (no Saxons here; indeed, the court of Camelot isn't placed in a specific country, though some of the publicity has referred to Uther as 'King of Albion', which is an attempt to grasp the nettle without being stung, but misses the stalk and goes straight for the leaves) being personified in Mary Collins's assassination attempt on Arthur, which provides the B plot. Initially Mary is played by Eve Myles in grotesque old age make-up, but we then meet Myles again, looking more like her Gwen Cooper self, as singer Lady Helen, who is killed/incapacitated by Collins who then adopts her form. Yet the 'old' Collins is clearly Eve Myles in make-up. Is a link between the characters to be assumed in the future, or was this just misdirection arising from a decision not to cast two performers?

John Hurt voices the reasonably benign and expensive-looking CGI Great Dragon, who tells Merlin of his destiny by referring to Arthur as 'the Once and Future King'. I'm tempted to wonder whether the apparent disregard for most of the earlier forms of the Merlin story (and having Merlin as the contemporary of Arthur, Guinevere and Morgan le Fay blatantly disregards the spirit of the character) is because this version of the story is set in our far future, where 'sorcerers' with paranormal abilities have emerged, and are being persecuted... or perhaps some part of me is yearning for a revival of The Tomorrow People.

Colin Morgan is an erratic lead as Merlin; sometimes there are signs of presence, but sometimes nothing at all beyond nerviness. Of the other young leads it is still too early to say; but everyone seems outacted by the scenery, except perhaps Richard Wilson as Gaius (who should really be called Blaise). His line referring to 'Lady Perceval and Sir Olwen' spoke volumes.


Posted by: Марья (dreiviertel)
Posted at: September 20th, 2008 08:33 pm (UTC)

Thanks for the review! I was vaguely thinking of watching it, but decided not to in the end - it looks like I was right.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 20th, 2008 08:41 pm (UTC)

It's repeated tomorrow afternoon should you want to see it. Someone else on my friends list, infinitemonkeys has referred to it as "ahistorical Eurobilge hell".

It might yet come right, or at least be passably entertaining, but...

Posted by: Марья (dreiviertel)
Posted at: September 20th, 2008 08:44 pm (UTC)

I may have a look at the BBC's iplayer later - if I feel brave enough...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 20th, 2008 08:45 pm (UTC)
Arthurian Logo

I shall dig out my plastic sword and knight you myself if you are brave enough...

Posted by: Марья (dreiviertel)
Posted at: September 20th, 2008 08:48 pm (UTC)

That is encouragement indeed, Sir Knight! Confronting monsters seems a worthy reason for being knighted.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: September 20th, 2008 09:05 pm (UTC)

Surely the whole point of the Arthurian tales is that they are a cocktail bar! You can browse from the following buffet;
-the original Brythonic/Welsh version (see Arthur of the Britons)
-the 12th century Jeff of Monmouth version
-the French romances from the 14th century
-Morte d'Arthur from Caxton's press
And that's all before we get to 1600!
The point being there is a Welsh Arthur, an Anglo-Norman one, an English one and a continental European one without starting on later Disney/Tolkein/CS Lewis/TH White incarnations. It's a myth which has many versions. What on earth is wrong with going with the pretty/pristine version of Camelot? It's not the earliest version of the story...but it does go back about 800 years.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 20th, 2008 09:08 pm (UTC)

It doesn't help that I don't like cocktails!

I think that you've missed my point. I'm well aware of all the versions, but this one makes little use of any of them, and works hard to detach the names from most of their earlier context. The point about the "pretty/pristine" version of Camelot is that it isn't wholly followed through in the design; there isn't a clear mood or vision apparent in the production.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: September 20th, 2008 10:56 pm (UTC)

I don't much like cocktails either!

Having said that I think the show while clearly a "romp" does draw on many themes from the various Arthurian tales. For instance, the dragon buried under the castle is clearly a reference to Dinas Emrys. The ambigious nature of Uther...is he good or bad...also rings true.

It is certainly a cherry-picking show taking bits from various versions and piling other stuff in to. But hell, it's a family/kid's programme...they should be allowed some slack! It's a matter of personal opinion, of course, but to me it feels "true" to the spirit of Arthurian tales.

There is some modern satirical stuff there as well though. Arthur is clearly Prince Harry, but that's fine...it's a lot more subtle than Robin Hood!

I'm not sure that you are right that names are detached from their context. It is perfectly reasonable that Gwenhwyfar would be shortened to Gwen...heck I live in Wales... I know a woman who does just that! Gaius feels right as a Romano-British hangover.

I had misunderstood your point about the Camelot design. I'm not sure that I agree with you though it seemed fairly consistant to me... we shall see as the series continues!

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 21st, 2008 10:18 am (UTC)

I agree with Dinas Emrys - I had spotted that one.

Context depends on what one is looking for, I suppose. Perhaps Gwen (I'm not arguing with the abbreviation, but with her transplanted background) will turn out to be a princess after all...

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: September 21st, 2008 09:28 am (UTC)

Arthurian Mythos being, of course, a near-anagram of Anachronisms-R-Us.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 21st, 2008 10:19 am (UTC)
Arthurian Logo

Perhaps I should keep that in mind..!

Posted by: catmint_1984 (catmint_1984)
Posted at: September 20th, 2008 09:06 pm (UTC)

Dad and I spent most of the time making silly comments and quoting Python.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 20th, 2008 09:11 pm (UTC)

An excellent film, and closer in its sense of cameraderie and uncanniness to many of the mediaeval romances than was this. (I think there were points where it was trying to be T.H. White, but it couldn't manage it, as White is still in copyright...)

Posted by: muuranker (muuranker)
Posted at: September 21st, 2008 10:08 am (UTC)

Not having BBC4, we didn't see last night's Medieval stuff shown there earlier this year. So we had a choice betwen Merlin and Stephen Fry and the Gutenburg Press. On the basis that we were sure we could catch up with Merlin, and we were not sure that SF and the GP would be on i-player, we watched Stephen Fry.

So thanks for letting us know we can see it this afternoon.

Posted by: robinhood2007.blogspot.com (ext_123533)
Posted at: September 21st, 2008 01:49 pm (UTC)

This is a good and fair review you've written.

I was really disappointed with practically everything about the programme.

Posted by: romancinger (romancinger)
Posted at: September 21st, 2008 02:07 pm (UTC)

"The story has been changed because it fails to conform to the required formula"

I nearly didn't watch this, because I suspected the above. In the end I did - and probably because I was expecting to cringe, actually rather enjoyed it.

To do so, one certainly has to rigorously school oneself to expect no more than a passing nod to the original(s). After all, it's not obliged to follow them; every age has reinvented the Arthur myth anew - it's what happens to myths. Given the age-group it's aimed at (with a better aim than Bonekickers!) it looks quite jolly. (I too was relieved about Morgana!) I think there is scope with the interaction between Arthur/Gwen/Merlin; eg they could have her preferring Merlin, but for some reason having to marry Arthur.

I liked the costumes. Nice juxtaposition of medieval/almost modern, but better done than for Robin Hood.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 22nd, 2008 06:22 pm (UTC)
Arthurian Logo

I wonder if it will be the fate of the Merlin-schooled Arthur to break down class barriers by marrying Gwen, and so move the kingdom on from Uther's repressive society in more ways than in ending the prohibition on magic? (If the Smallville model is to be followed, sooner or later Anthony Head will go the way of John Schneider.)

Posted by: sharaz_jek (sharaz_jek)
Posted at: September 22nd, 2008 03:29 pm (UTC)

One of the most disappointing things was how limited Merlin's supposedly miraculous magic was. He's portrayed as some sort of prodigy with power no one has ever possessed, yet all he can do is telekinesis, and when compared with the one-shot enemy of the week, his power is a lot less magical and far more mundane. Where's the imagination, the wonder?
And incidentally, how did such a large dragon fit through that narrow tunnel?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 22nd, 2008 06:27 pm (UTC)

Presumably Merlin's talent has yet to be honed; the Dragon will presumably act as his teacher. At the moment his magic seems very instinctive; too much is done without thinking. You are right that it all seems very mechanical, and Mary Collins was seemingly more potent.