Series profile: Merlin

Merlin is one of the shows I’ve been most enjoying watching lately. Merlin has been off the airwaves for some time now, but I’ve always been meaning to catch up. Merlin first broadcast when I was 13, in my first year of high school, and it was one of my favourite shows at the time. Unfortunately, at that age I was distracted by “stuff”, and gradually stopped watching; apart from not having the attention to follow an ongoing television show series to series, no one else I knew watched it, so I slowly stopped paying attention.

That was a great mistake, as I absolutely adored the show and its characters, and re-watching the show recently has reminded me of the fondness I once had for this franchise. In my current marathon through the show, I’ve just finished Series 3, although I can’t remember up to where I had seen when I stopped watching originally. In any case, I think it’s time to put down some thoughts on the show’s progress thus far.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Merlin follows the life of Merlin, the great wizard of Arthurian legend, in his youth. To make this work, Merlin takes great liberties with the Arthurian legends as traditionally told, re-imagining Camelot under King Uther Pendragon as a kingdom among many in an early medieval Britain, probably somewhere in Wales. Arthur, here, is not a commoner destined for greatness, but a prince and the son of King Uther (but still destined for greatness). Merlin is Prince Arthur’s servant and friend. Other characters from the Arthurian legends featuring prominently include Morgana (Morgan le Fay) as King Uther’s adopted ward, and Guinevere as Morgana’s handmaiden (and Arthur’s love interest). Also, John Hurt voices a giant talking dragon. Merlin imagines Camelot as a kingdom where magic is brutally repressed by the paranoid Uther, forcing Merlin and his kind to hide their gifts for the sake of their lives. At the same time, Camelot is infested by magical creatures and forces, setting the stage for the conflict of magic and Uther that dominates this series. The theme of destiny is prominent in this show, and Merlin’s struggling to come to terms with his destiny, to aid Arthur to fulfil his great destiny, hangs heavily over the story. Merlin is essentially a coming-of-age story, for both Merlin himself, as he faces challenges and grows into his destiny, and for Arthur, the destined Once and Future King.

As I said, I originally loved the show when I was 13, and, indeed, the show is very much tailored towards an adolescent demographic. As such, it may not be as appealing to adults at first glance, but one would be surprised if one has some patience with the show. A lot of the plotlines are, admittedly, fairly juvenile, but the low church storytelling contains many powerful and affecting moments which are a credit to the writers. And, every so often, Merlin hits upon a gleaming gem of a story that rank among any of the best highbrow drama. Often Merlin conducts, and does successfully so, a fine balancing act, maintaining the discussion of mature and relevant themes at the same time as making those themes, and the show in general, palatable and interesting for a younger audience. The whole theme of the repression of magic can be interpreted as an analogy for prejudice and discrimination in our time. Merlin at one point spoke a line, something to the effect of, “I just want Arthur to accept me for who I am”, which was quite obviously a comment on bigotry against LGBT individuals. It’s also hard not to see Morgana’s slow descent into evil as an analogy for the ideological or religious self-radicalisation of some who are “outsiders” in one way or another in modern Western society. Furthermore, Merlin deals with hard philosophical themes, especially in its presentation of predestination as a reality of life. Merlin also deals with themes of love, honour, status, custom, loyalty and justice, and, I think, constitutes a robust and comprehensive moral education for its adolescent audience.

One of the great things about Merlin is that it’s very consistent. Of the three seasons I’ve seen thus far, there’s scarcely a bad story. For a concept that seems to have quite limited horizons in regards to the possible stories that can be told, almost all episodes are fairly solid and well worth the 40 minutes of your time they take away. Even the “filler” episodes, by which I mean episodes that don’t advance the overall series arc in any meaningful way (and there are a lot of these), are generally very robust and enjoyable.

What is not consistent, however, is the acting. Given that this series features prominently a number of young actors in its cast, unrefined acting is to be expected, but, on the other hand, one would also expect better from a flagship BBC drama series. Colin Morgan as Merlin and Bradley James as Prince Arthur are the better of the young actors here. At this stage in their acting careers, they are both impressive actors, and the chemistry they have together onscreen is a joy to watch; they really bring the complex relationship between the young Merlin and Arthur to sparkling life. However, Angel Coulby and Katie McGrath as Guinevere and Morgana, respectively, I’m afraid to say, are cringe-inducing, McGrath especially. Everything about their acting is overstated. McGrath makes her character completely unconvincing, with her obvious facial expressions and inflections, causing the viewer to wonder why no one else at court suspects her, or at least forms the impression that Morgana is a bit… weird. McGrath’s overstated acting, unfortunately, requires the viewer to suspend disbelief, something we shouldn’t have to do. Morgana is something of an unconvincing character all-round, in any case; her character arc is executed poorly — she seems to go from being a sweet, if curious, young lady in the royal household, to an evil witch hell-bent on destroying Camelot, remarkably quickly. In any case, the young actors all are easily outshined by the old. Richard Wilson (AKA Victor Meldrew) is exceptional as Gaius, Merlin’s mentor, while Anthony Head plays very well the troubled Shakespearean king in Uther Pendragon.

Merlin is a highly addicting substance. It has everything that makes good drama: an intriguing concept, endearing and well-developed characters, consistently engaging plots, and strong series and character arcs that are relentlessly progressed. Although the greater part of its episodes are one-off and essentially self-contained, Merlin is a series that is best viewed as a long-form story, starting from the beginning. Nevertheless, some of its best episodes (that I’ve seen) include A Remedy to Cure All Ills, The Beginning of the End, The Moment of Truth, The Labyrinth of Gedref, To Kill the King, The Once and Future Queen, The Witchfinder, The Sins of the Father, The Fires of Idirsholas, The Crystal Cave, The Sorcerer’s Shadow, The Coming of Arthur.