09/03/2011

Three Is The Magic Number by John Connors


Dealing with a pre-existing legend can be a blessing and a curse for writers. On the one hand you want to retain the familiar icons, on the other why bother if you’re not going to impart something fresh? Merlin sits deftly between these two aspects managing to feel new yet familiar at once. The third season is bolder than its predecessors, more fluid in its themes and confident in their delivery. From the energetic two part opener to the thrilling finale it reaps the rewards of what has sometimes seemed like too careful an approach. On reflection we can definitely see a three year game plan that pays off in every department. Perhaps the most surprising thing- though those of us who’ve watched since the start shouldn’t be too surprised- is how well it has done in the ratings. Latter season three episodes were getting 6 to 7 million viewers despite being scheduled against The X Factor. You suspect even Simon Cowell might raise an eyebrow over that.
This season was obviously written with an eye on the series’ probable cancellation as the lack of `Radio Times` coverage and teaser trailers makes it seem as if the BBC had it in their heads that this would be the last season. However even they will have been surprised by the ratings and thankfully the show is coming back, though possibly not until next year. When its return was announced it was stated it will be 10 rather than 13 episodes, a decision made by the producers when given the option of only having same budget next time and wanting to maintain the very high visual standard. Latterly it’s been reported season 4 will consist of 13 episodes after all.


Only Colin had learned the dance.
Broadly speaking, what has been an issue for the previous two seasons has been the villains. Any series set in one place gives rise to a certain receptiveness of evil. This has largely consisted of people with a grudge against Uther’s persecution of magic getting into Camelot and trying to wreak their revenge. Arthur has to deal with it, Merlin has to covertly protect Arthur while keeping his magic a secret. Each week he’d trundle down to see the dragon for a bit of advice and a cryptic warning. Arcing across this there was a big villain who had a few goes, often using the aforementioned people to try and take over Camelot. To vary the mix we’ve also had some `lighter` stories usually involving foul monsters in human form with their own agenda. It’s something of  success in retrospect that they managed to shake such variety out of these story types but for season 3 the producers have tried something far more satisfying. The season 2 climaxes certainly set the tone, finally taking the dragon largely out of the picture and setting up Morgana in her traditional role of villainess.

Much better was the second episode showing a confidence both in the visual and character aspects. There are some issues with the actual plot though- such as how Morgana can come and go from the castle so easily- and often wearing a big billowy cloak any guard should see- and also how come Merlin doesn’t detect the Mandrake root straight away if only those with magic can sense it? More importantly, why such a convoluted plan? Why not just assassinate Uther; from Morgeuse’s point of view that would make more sense. Provided you accept these admittedly large gaps, there is much to thrill to as Camelot comes under siege and looks in proper danger for the first time ever in the series. Clever use of CGI and perspective shots renders an epic battle rich with heroics and grit. When some walking skeletons are added to the mix, the thing takes on the feel of a film and is all the more exciting. Obviously they can’t afford this very often but placing it in the opening story seems a bold statement of intent. Plus they remember the human side too- the looks that pass between Merlin and Morgana at the end suggest much for the coming episodes. Both Kate McGrath and Colin Morgan excel here and you can see a lot of potential for ramping up the antagonism between the characters. Emilia Fox’s turn as the theoretically more powerful Morgeuse was less successful as she seemed to mainly be there as a sounding board for her sister’s plans.
Emboldened by how well this played, season 3 is less about keeping the status quo. Over the course of several episodes we learn key facts that drive Morgana to ever more dangerous villainy and while there are still plenty of second grade antagonists to help her, the sense of impending threat is superbly essayed in almost every episode. Grandly starting with a two part story, the season looked more expensive and filmic than ever
Beginning with a cliff-hanger is tricky because it takes a while to build to something momentous and there are times during the first part of The Tears of Uther Pendragon when the tension doesn’t come over as it might. Meanwhile- and unusually for the show- the lighter bits seem contrived to make us not worry that this was all going to be too serious. The episode looked good though, with an epic sense of purpose and some clever tricks to make it look like they had hundreds of extras. The last fifteen minutes built to a multi climax that was extremely satisfying. Merlin’s scenario in particular is full of tension. 
The lively, Goblins’ Gold fulfils the function of lightening the tone after the darker 2 part opener and does the job well. The riffs are a little familiar as we seem to get this sort of episode each year but considerably enlivened by Richard Wilson having a great time when possessed by the mischievous goblin. In fact the entire cast get to exercise their comedy chops and as it’s something they are good at, why not?

Gawaine plays like a standard episode, replete with comedic bantering between the leads and another tournament that is “the ultimate test of strength and courage.” At least until the next one! However it slots another totem of the legend into place with the titular knight helping Arthur and Merlin win a bar brawl which has consequences when the troublemakers turn up for the tournament in disguise thanks to some handy crystals. The episode’s focus on loyalty plays on some of the series’ most important themes as Gawaine’s antipathy towards authority due to experience is altered when Arthur goes out of his way to help him, re-paying him for saving his life. At times the script is too pat, relying on heroic gestures yet it is well played. Particularly interesting is Merlin’s burgeoning friendship with Gawaine and the more subtle way Arthur argues the case with his father.

Swathed in mystery and intrigue, The Crystal Cave is one of the best ever episodes of the series in which the revelation that Morgana is Uther’s daughter is despatched casually yet with powerful results. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Colin Morgan and Katie McGrath are the strongest members of an altogether strong cast and their clashes are to be anticipated. She is superb at evil looks and slinky deception but some of her best acting comes when Morgana is faking friendliness. With Colin M you get the sense we’ve yet to see his full range, the surprises he pulls out of his acting range show a hugely talented actor; several times in this episode he makes whatever is going on seem wholly believable. This talent to ground a fantastical drama is important – the verisimilitude it provides papers over anything that may be seen a bit silly. This is a slow burn script with  the action punctuating lengthy ruminations over power and responsibility. That Merlin is forced to save Morgana to assuage everyone’s grief over her condition underpins his heroic values. For a series aimed at younger viewers Merlin likes to explore the heart of the matter in a less straightforward way than many of its ilk. It’s an approach that may not be quite as crowd pleasing as the `story beat every 10 seconds` speed of other shows  but the result is richer and more fulfilling. All episodes look great but director  Alice Troughton brings a misty quality to this one adding the final layer.

Richard and Colin were disappointed by the choice of sandwiches...
 The Changeling at first appears to be another jokey episode but ultimately proves to be a fine balance between levity and exploring some of the character issues the series has. Arthur and Gwen’s mutual attraction is pitched at just the right level while Morgana’s discovery of it is achieved without Katie McGrath saying a word. She doesn’t need to having become the queen of scheming looks! The She fairies return showing off what a visual triumph they are, their blue skin and aggressive faces make for a great monster. The episode also returns to the idea of how Merlin does appreciate Arthur’s destiny as he has his own and in a very well written scene actually gives Arthur some mature advice which the prince heeds. There is thus a sense of development, of the series moving forward in a satisfying manner. For the most part the writers are manoeuvring with the skills of chess masters though make a small slip up in this episode in not essaying the changed Uther. After recent events, surely he would think twice about such strategic wedding arrangements? There is fun to be had with some more gross make up – courtesy of a sporting Miriam Margoyles- and unpleasant bodily functions by the possessed princess (a series motif it seems!). yet these never overwhelm what is a thoughtful episode that entertains now and adds much for the future.
The new best thing about the show is the glaring looks that pass between Merlin and Morgana and there are plenty of them in The Castle of Fyrein. Now that she knows about Arthur and Gwen’s feelings for each other, Morgana is determined to exploit them. This plan may be one of her more farfetched but sets the  scene for some barely repressed hostility as they look ready to knock each other off their respective horses at every turn! There’s too much snarling and people in dungeons for this to be a classic but Arthur’s bravura rescue plan is a good change of pace for a character that can sometimes seem a bit thick.  Gwen’s brother is not given enough to do however, being merely a plot device to start matters rolling, surely the introduction of such a significant character should be left for a story in which he can shine?

Arthur must journey to the Perilous Lands for his Quest in Eye of the Phoenix, which takes its cue from the Fisher King legend. Visually this is a treat with some washed out vistas and a terrific set of monsters in the Wyvern. The Fisher King is played by Donald Sumpter an actor whose haunted face and serious tone is tailor made for this sort of thing. The action is interspersed with Gwen’s discovery of Morgana’s true intent which actually turns out to be more involving than the main plot. The trouble with Quests is that the involve a lot of wandering about so it’s not really till the Dark Tower that things kick off and then it all seems a little too contrived.

Love in the Time of Dragons pitches romanticism with nastiness rather well. Gaius’ former fiancĂ©e Alice (played by Pauline Collins) is back in the castle for a touching reunion but is being controlled by a Manticore. This is one of the best monsters the show has done, a horribly twisted human-ish face with spiky teeth on the body of a lion with the tail of a scorpion. It may only be the size of a Jack Russell but it is terrifying! The script touches on Uther’s hypocrisy and also on the choices made in the heat of danger. Colin Morgan and Richard Wilson’s on screen chemistry benefits the scenario- when they fall out it seems real plus the ending is played perfectly. One question though. Does that librarian sit at his desk 24 hours a day?

Queen of Hearts is an  odd episode in which Howard Overman’s script flips from serious to light in a moment. Morgana is at her most duplicitous, manipulating Arthur and Gwen into a secret rendezvous, persuading Uther to go on a ride that then discovers them and then planting evidence that Gwen has bewitched the prince with magic. Uther predictably decides to have her burned at the stake on this somewhat flimsy evidence. Presumably unemployment in Camelot is kept low by the turnover in the king’s staff! To rescue her, Merlin ages up and here is where things alter from being a grim, melodrama into a run-around as Colin Morgan has fun being cranky and ancient. It’s his episode really, and it’s good that Merlin gets to say what he really thinks of Uther, even if he is in disguise.
Fun though it is, the change is so sudden it does remove the peril; we’re never in any doubt that Gwen will be saved and the way it is done is rather too neat. Uther’s anti-magic stance is being used too often as a plot prop and by now you’d imagine he’d be having second thoughts or at least doubts about his methods. In continuing to make him the unreconstructed bigot, the scripts are undermining Uther. Some episodes he is more than that, yet for a series that has moved away from the weekly reset button and is developing it’s themes, Uther regresses to season one mould too often.
Nonetheless, Gawaine is back to liven up the fighting and Arthur’s weary tolerance of both him and Merlin when they show up to help is a high spot. The weakest element though is Morgana’s bracelet, supposed to drain the prince of his power so he fails the Quest. It is so large, chunky and obviously glowing malevolently that even someone like Arthur would surely notice? Matters are redeemed by a splendid meeting between the Fisher King and Merlin that foreshadows what’s to come.
There’s another tournament afoot in The Sorcerer’s Shadow but thankfully the episode turns into a personal dilemma for Merlin. The inexperienced Gilly uses magic to win his way through the tournament gaining in confidence and continually ignoring Merlin’s advice to withdraw. The script is strong in outlining both character’s point of view- Gilly feels sorcerers need to stop hiding and when he has the opportunity to fight Uther wants to take it. Merlin counters this by saying that one day they will be free to do so but it is dangerous to expose his talents now. The parallels with any suppressed minority are plain enough and there’s no new insight but Merlin is not challenged enough in this way so the script is a winner. There’s  also a good secondary plot involving Uther’s involvement in the event that provides a dilemma for Arthur.  His choice- he throws the fight – is acknowledged by Uther as proving he is ready to be king, though of course we know it was a choice made at Merlin’s suggestion. Something of a Trojan horse of an episode, this proves to be one of the season’s stand outs not least because of Colin Morgan’s impassioned acting and Tony Head’s subtleties in balancing his role.

...while the lack of figgy pudding made Emilia and Kate very angry.
After a satisfying build of the arc plot involving Morgana, expectations are high for the final 2 part story The Coming of Arthur and it does not disappoint though some interesting choices are made. Having already done epic battles at the start of the season, the mood conjured now is more one of impending doom mixed with a piecing together of some of the key elements of the Arthurian legend. We re-discover the sword in the lake, several characters return to help out and are knighted by Arthur and in the old castle where they hide out uncover the round table. Meanwhile Morgana’s plans come to fruition courtesy of the Cup of Life with which Morgeuse has created a seemingly invincible army. There is therefore a huge amount of material to get through and yet matters never seem rushed. Each character has a key part to play and while there are some small scale hand to hand combat scenes, attention is paid to the characters rather than to simply being epic for the sake of it.

That’s not to say the episodes don’t have their grandiose moments, particularly some superbly rendered shots of the huge army on its way to Camelot. It could be from a film, it looks that good. The only slight niggle is the ending which denies us a faceoff between Morgana and Merlin though that is something to look forward to. The story also shows how Merlin has matured and become more pro-active while retaining his secret.

If this had been the last story, it is a fitting way to end, as it is, there is enough potential here for several more seasons as Merlin ended 2010 as a show more popular than before.

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