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Merlin: The Dragon's Call

ARTHUR: This new learning amazes me, Sir Bedemir. Explain again how
sheeps’ bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes.
BEDEMIR: Oh, certainly, sir.
LAUNCELOT: Look, my liege!
ARTHUR: Camelot!
GALAHAD: Camelot!
PATSY: It’s only a model.

When it comes to new BBC dramas, a fairly reliable barometer is the Murdock press’s preview features. The portents were extremely promising, with TheLondonPaper’s critic frantically trying to dissuade viewers from tuning in. Unfortunately, Merlin never rises above the level of basic competency, but if it can duplicate the growth in quality shown by other family dramas, then Rupert’s gang are right to be worried.

“Speak to me boy, for I am 60% of your FX budget!”

There’s a reassuring feeling to Merlin, with a homely atmosphere distinctly at odds with the programme’s cynical conception. It’s easy to image the pitch document for King Arthur: The Harry Potter Years, and the showrunners have obviously been taking careful notes from their fellows. In this first episode, Merlin’s powers consist of basic telekinesis, a much more understandable concept than any talk of mystic arts. It’s a calculated move, in the same way that JK Rowling allowed Harry to chat with snakes long before kitting him out with a magic wand. The deserved mockery that greeted the first run of Robin Hood, with unfavourable comparisons to various Hollywood blockbusters, has obviously also had an influence. The production team have taken considerable steps to isolate themselves from other takes on the concept, conceiving the programme as being the Smallville to conventional Arthur stories’ Superman. Despite the talk of destiny in the voiceovers, the programme appears to be in no hurry to advance to more familiar material.

On the other hand, this conservatism has served the show well when it comes to casting. Merlin is stuffed full with actors who are so well suited to sci-fi/ fantasy that it’s easy to envisage them driving hover-cars to work. Anthony Head is the big name here, although he isn’t given much material to work with. The plot device of his opposition to magic hampers King Uther, and sympathy with Head’s understated air of loneliness is limited as a result of his casual bumping off of a peasant in the first five minutes of the episode. A predictably excellent Richard Wilson is free of such constraints, and brings the court physician to life with ease. The younger members of the cast fare slightly less well. Colin Morgan’s Merlin is a curious mixture of inadequacies. He’s not bold enough to be a hero, but not self-aware enough to be truly endearing. Given the amount of time we spend in his presence, we still know very little about what drives him, or what would move him to an extreme of emotion. Probably the best performance comes from Bradley James as Arthur, who makes a convincing bully, despite a slightly cringe worthy slapstick fight.

The King, there.

There are some good production values here, although it’s tempting to nitpick at the scrupulously clean castle and village, despite the obvious fantasy elements. The effects selected are simple enough, but the programme has been conceived intelligently in the light of the available technology. Matt paintings for Camelot, cg props for Merlin to manipulate, a few minutes of dragon; everything has obviously been thought of in advance. A curious omission is the lack of any real sense of a threat being established, with the only source of danger to Merlin being the potential discovery of his magic powers. Eve Myles does her best as the public face of a vengeful witch, but given that her sole objective is to stab the annoying Arthur in the face, it’s hard to muster any real enthusiasm for her downfall. Presumably the circumstances of the magical rebellion of twenty years ago are intended to be the secondary hook to keep older viewers watching, but given that Merlin could get the truth by simply demanding answers from either Gaius or the dragon in the basement, it’s hard to care deeply. However the writers deserve credit for giving the show such a feeling of solidity, despite its lead character being in a very uncertain and transient status quo.

I realise that this article has had a rather negative air, but the episode largely succeeds as an undemanding introduction to the programme’s world. It’ll be interesting to see whether subsequent stories are able to insert any real drama into the series, or if the undemanding, cosy atmosphere seen here is the programme’s raison de etre. Even at this early stage, the show manages to avoid any of the self-inflicted wounds that characterised Primeval’s genesis. Merlin isn’t a compelling enough proposition to stay in for, but if you happen to be at home on a Saturday night, there’s no reason not to have the TV on…

3 Stars

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I was pretty appalled by the whole thing on first viewing, but your review makes a great deal of sense, none-the-less. It’s more of a 2 start episode, but I can see what they were doing now and at least how it’s a superior start to Robin Hood.

The main problem I had with it was that the dialogue and acting (especially from Merlin and Arthur) combined to create an almost pathetically unconvincing atmosphere. I wouldn’t be surprised if in some promotional material someone described Arthur as a “Robbie Williams of his day”, as that’s the phrase that swims round and round in my head every time the BBC produces some appallingly unrealistic portrayal of a well known historical figure (mythical or otherwise) in the name of modernising for the kidz.

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By Jonathan Capps
September 21, 2008 @ 6:25 pm

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I quite enjoyed it, enough to watch it again next week. There wasn’t really all that much to it, plot-wise, but then it was an introduction episode after all. I thought it was quite a nice touch to make Arthur such an unlikeable character and for a family drama there was a nice touch of moral abiguity with the witches anger being understandable and Uther Pendragon’s brutal authoritarianism actually seeming to have some sort of moral basis. As you said, I think those are the hooks likely to keep older viewers interested.

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By Zagrebo
September 21, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

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>Murdock press’s

Wow. He’s come a long way from the A-Team.

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By Tanya Jones
September 21, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

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I think I would find it watchable if I didn’t smell cheese everytime Merlin uses his POWAZ and Richard Wilson got a lot less screen time.

I usually enjoy the fantasy surrounding Merlin stories but this seems to be a very tongue in cheek show without the mystery. I’m really hoping as the show goes on Merlin will learn a few more spells and incantations rather than relying heavily on telikinesis.

Also I did notice something annoying while watching this. To save Gaius, Merlin slowed down time (and stopped it for the bucket of water). Yet later on in the show rather than down right stopping time to sneak past some guards we had a nice show of how stereotypically stupid guards are(enough so for both of them to follow the magic moving dice without being suspicious). Now the person I was watching it with said time couldn’t be stopped here because if that was shown then it would give the idea Merlin could do whatever he wants(lets ignore the fact he already is). I’m just wondering if this is the way it is going to be, are powers always going to be used to stupid comedy effect, or used a basic plot devices rather than using common sense.

Maybe I went into this looking for a drama rather than a slapstick.

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By Karrakunga
September 23, 2008 @ 9:57 am

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I think with the Hiro-style “stopping time”, it’s not something he can do at will yet, hence his messing with the dice to distract the guard. The water bucket was an instinctive reaction.

By Julian Hazeldine
September 23, 2008 @ 9:20 pm

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Stop defending him! He’s an insulant little spot wielding tyke who does not yet deserve our respect!

I am talking about Richard Wilson of course!

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By Karrakunga
September 24, 2008 @ 10:54 am

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Highly interesting first episode it was. On one hand it was absolute wank, with the ‘fight’ between Merlin and Arthur being the most ridiculous, most tame-due-to-it-being-in-the-family-slot thing I’ve ever seen (do they seriously think the U.S. audience will accept that??). You see more violence in You’ve Been Framed FFS. They need to get a grip on that.

The acting was all over the show. Anthony Head thinks he’s in a serious genre show (god forbid), possibly due to his involvement with U.S. television production where you’re actually allowed to take that line. Richard Wilson was, well, Richard Wilson in a wig (apparently the wig improves in later episodes because the first one was made for another actor who got replaced by Wilson!). Whatever, he gave a solid performance, as did Colin Morgan who plays the title character. Thankfully he should be able to carry this show. The actors playing Arthur and Guinevere are a bit of a disaster though. OK, Arthur’s meant to be an arsehole, but he could also be performed by someone with the ability to act. Guinevere was dodgy too, though the writing certainly didn’t help (her first line being ‘my name’s Guinevere, but most people call me Gwen’ wow, just brilliant). I wish Eve Myles was a permanent cast member.

I wish John Hurt was doing the Storyteller against instead of this. This is what I’m referring to, if you don’t know. God what a great piece of television that was.

By performingmonkey
September 27, 2008 @ 4:16 am

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