By Elaine Bergstrom
The historical Merlin, as fans of the legend may recall, was a bearded old man, already long in the service of King Uther Pendragon by the time Arthur was born. But what fun would an old man be in a series that is clearly aimed at families with young kids who cut their teeth on the exploits of Harry Potter and need a bit more fantasy in their lives?
And for fantasy lovers willing to forget everything they have read about Merlin and Arthur, this BBC production airing Sunday nights on NBC (HD) is a treat even if it does have some serious shortcomings (read on for these). Here Merlin, Arthur, Morgan and Guinivere are all young, and Camelot (which legend says Arthur founded) is already a thriving city. King Uther (Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Anthony Head) rules the city, and has prohibited the use of magic there.
Merlin, in a nod to what legend tells us, is not a warlock, even if he is called that in the opening voiceover. He was, as he confesses to Gaius, the physician to King Uther, “born that way.” He knows no spells and has had no training, but he possesses a gift for moving objects and controlling people that is nearly instinctive. He has been sent to Gaius by his mother. Why she would send him into the heart of a dangerous city, where the use of magic is punishable by death, is a mystery. Perhaps she thinks it would be easier for her son (conceived by an incubus, legend says) to be overlooked in a crowd? Merlin immediately runs afoul of Arthur, who clearly lacks any guidance in what it means to be a royal heir and roams the streets like an unruly bully.
Along with banning magic from his kingdom, Uther has a dragon imprisoned in the caves below the city. It calls to Merlin, who pays it a visit and learns that his destiny lies with Arthur. It’s hardly the news he had hoped to hear, though by the end of that episode their lives have become intertwined.
The best parts of Merlin come in those moments when the future king and the future power behind his throne interact and clash (not unlike Clark Kent and Lex Luthor in Smallville). The worst is the dialogue. Lines such as Gaius telling Arthur “you never cease to amaze me!” when they just met a day earlier may escape unnoticed by kids but parents will be inwardly groaning. And the series suffers from the spotty effects of many BBC dramas. An early scene in which a sorceress vows revenge on Uther for killing her son is beautifully done, and her attempt to make good on her threat is truly magical. But in Arthur’s meeting with the dragon, which should have been the biggest scene in that episode, the beast/oracle lacks the grandeur he deserves. And there is a genuine lack of griminess in what was historically a very dirty era for humanity. But for all its shortcomings, Merlin is great fun to watch — a series that will be welcome in a season with a lack of creativity, let alone magic.
Credit: Nick Briggs/NBC