Shiny Shelf

Merlin: The Complete First Series DVD

By Mags L Halliday on 24 December 2008

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Did you know virgin cable’s version of BBC iPlayer now lets you watch ’series catch-ups’? I only just discovered this and have managed to spend the weekend watching all of ‘Merlin’ again. Despite having seen it all the first time round.

I just love the ‘Smallville’ premise it takes, the ‘Camelot 90210′ if you like, by making the heroes into gawky teenagers and young adults. Arthur is manly and a prat, Merlin is fey and klutzy, Gwen is a serving wench, Morgana vamps it up in four-inch heels and King Uther camps it up as if Anthony Stewart Head was told it was an audition for the role of King Rat.

Like ‘Smallville’, ‘Merlin’ doesn’t exactly hold back on the slashy subtext. Merlin is the smalltown boy with a secret who had to run away to the big city and who fears discovery because his practices are illegal. “I was born like this,” he claims when his mentor – Richard Wilson with a permanently cocked eyebrow as Gaius – discovers the true nature of his new apprentice. By the end of the series, when Merlin only thinks to say goodbye to Arthur before heading out to sacrifice himself, you are wondering if BBC1 might allow a serious gay snog on prime time Saturday evening family television.

Like ‘Robin Hood’, ‘Merlin’ plays very loose with the mythology it uses. Uther has turned to Nimueh the sorceress to make his barren wife, Igraine, bear Arthur rather than, as his does in many versions of the myths, having turned to Merlin to make him look like Igraine’s husband so he can shag her. Morgana is Uther’s ward rather than Arthur’s half-sister, and Mordred – normally the bastard son of Arthur and Morgana’s liaisons – is a druid. Whilst a slashy subtext so subtle it may as well be written in neon is clearly OK, incest is clearly not suitable for prime time.

There are some issues with it in terms of story-telling, since it seems almost every episode involves someone being locked up, someone – but not Merlin – being accused of sorcery, Morgana getting in a strop with Uther, and Merlin somehow managing to save Arthur using magic without Arthur ever noticing. Re-watching the series, you can see how well various plot lines are seeded early on, and the characters do develop, so it is to be hoped that the status quo at Camelot is upset next year.

It’s also to be hoped that the FX gang get less afraid of having the mashed-up CGI beasts and monsters in the same shot as the real actors, since there are some scenes in which is painfully obvious that they are avoiding putting them together (and others – such as Lancelot’s first battle with the griffin – where you understand why). Given the Mill also do FX for ‘Doctor Who’, you’d think they would make ‘Merlin’ less like ‘Primeval’ in its fear of showing real/unreal interaction.

The casting is generally spot on, with only the odd moment of wincing at unconvincing bit parts. Anthony Stewart Head dials it up to eleven but also brings a conviction to Uther’s belief he is always right. Bradley James is like a buffed up Neil Hannon and plays up the essential spoilt brat elements but also brings subtlety to his inner conflict over his father’s tyrannical ways. Katie McGrath stomps and pouts as a sexy-and-knows-it Morgana whilst Angel Colby is convincing as a Gwen always alarmed in case Arthur or Merlin could take her comments as flirty. Colin Morgan as Merlin is the big revelation: before looking up his career, I had presumed he had done time on ‘Skins’ or some other teen drama because he manages to convey geeky insecurity and arrogant confidence all bundled up together. In fact, his only previous significant TV work is a single episode of ‘Doctor Who’.

‘Merlin’ is also out on DVD, with the now usual cast diaries etc, and the next season should be one to watch.

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