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!
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.
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.
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…