Merlin: The Complete First Season

Actors: Colin Morgan, Bradley James, Richard Wilson, Katie McGrath
Format: Box set, Color, DVD, Subtitled, Widescreen, NTSC
Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
Subtitles: English
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Number of discs: 5
Studio: BBC Warner
DVD Release Date: April 20, 2010
Run Time: 585 minutes



I know that once one accepts giant fire-breathing dragons that uncannily sound like Brit actor John Hurt (probably best known to sci-fi fans as the hapless victim of the alien chestburster in the first Alien movie) that one should pretty much accept anything else the film-makers throw at one.

We however had a tough time putting our heads around the multiethnic cast of this 2008 BBC television series, which gives the King Arthur legend the Smallville treatment. Black Knights of the Round Table? Asian peasants? It sounds like a Mel Brooks comedy sketch, except it isn’t . . .

We always project our present onto the past and it only makes sense that a British TV series should project Britain’s own multiethnic present onto a series such as this, but this sort of political correctness is a double-edged sword. On the one hand one doesn’t want a return to those lily-white movies of Hollywood’s yesteryear (check out all those 1950s sci-fi flicks such as the original Day the Earth Stood Still). On the other hand, does one want kids to really believe that not only were there plenty of Blacks in medieval England, but that they were treated as equals? Then again, we’re the sort who always complains about historical inaccuracies in movies, something which probably won’t bother most people.

Once you get past this aspect, Merlin isn’t too bad. The first few episodes drag, but things pick up particularly towards the last handful of episodes.

A better title should have been Young Merlin. The series follows the adventures of a youthful Merlin (Colin Morgan) in a Camelot in which Arthur isn’t king yet and all magic is outlawed (by punishment of death) by Arthur’s ruthless tyrant dad, Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head in a role very different from his role as Giles in Buffy). The plots tend to be formulaic: usually Merlin must secretly use his magic powers to protect Arthur from some new threat, a bit like Clark always protected Lana in Smallville without being discovered.

The show’s standalone structure works against it and it only throws the occasional story nugget at those familiar with the Arthurian legends. Often one hopes that it will take some more chances and more of a serialized approach by maybe killing off a major character or two. The CGI special effects are cheesy and some of the acting dodgy, but when nothing else works out there is always the fresh-faced and winsome young cast. (Actress Katie McGrath’s cleavage helps a lot.)

WORTH IT? British television has in the recent past supplied audiences with some hugely entertaining shows such as Doctor Who, Primeval and Torchwood. Merlin isn’t quite as good as these shows, but its limitations has more to do with the limitations of the fantasy genre as opposed to science fiction – it never allows one’s imaginations to soar as it does in the best episodes of the shows mentioned here. Still, we’d happily check out further episodes in this series.

RECOMMENDATION: John Boorman’s Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail – talk about ideological opposites! - are still the two definitive Arthurian legend movies out there. But Merlin can be pleasant escapist fare in the way that only television can be. Harry Potter fans should check it out.



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