16/10/2011

Dark Times

“In a land ...” etc. John Connors looks at the first three episodes of the fourth series of Merlin
The success of the third series of Merlin earned it both a reprieve from an initial ten episode commission for a fourth and we can only presume that the BBC were so impressed by this year’s episodes that they granted a fifth series before this one was even shown. Thus the creators will be able to conclude their planned five season arc. However it does mean that from an audience point of view, having always impressed without the sort of expectations that sometimes overwhelm Doctor Who, 2011 sees Merlin return for the first time with some pressure to perform well.

"Spoilers if you go past here matey"


Yes, I think she is evil now don't you?
Justifying a later timeslot, the season opens with three episodes that might normally form a season climax. In the two part `The Darkest Hour`, Morgana- now sporting the customary black clothes that villains everywhere prefer- breaches the veil between the worlds causing dangerous things called the Dorocha to emerge.  Though floating skulls sounds a bit silly when you type it, these particular ones prove to be rather disturbingly rendered and courtesy of some eerie sound effects prove a mightily impressive enemy. What’s more, Merlin’s powers don’t seem to work on them. The only thing that will stop them is to seal the tear, which requires a sacrifice.  The story would probably benefit from being just one episode long to maximise the impact of the Dorocha and reduce the amount of time the knights traipse around fending them off.
This wandering about means that while both episodes are strong on atmosphere, they are less so on  dialogue with a number of uninspiring conversations stating the obvious. The denouement - which sees Lancelot sacrifice himself instead of Arthur, a task Merlin had intended to undertake - is rather perfunctory and hardly what we expect for such an iconic character, though of course he may return.
It’s entrusted to the redoubtable Howard Overman to pen the key third episode `The Wicked Day` which begins in fairly standard fashion- a birthday banquet which we know will turn sour- and ends with the development that has been waiting in the wings since the show began.   It always seemed unlikely that they’d keep Anthony Head sitting in a chair all season and however tempting the mad, useless King plot might seem dramatically it is clearly too difficult to sustain.
The moment that Uther died however has always been imagined as a sunset lit battle with a mighty enemy. Top marks to the team for usurping that predictability with a noble small scale alternative. Uther is mortally wounded protecting Arthur from an assassin (a brief cameo for Phil Davis) before Morgana finishes the job courtesy of a spell that renders Merlin’s attempted magic cure doubly harmful. Overman inevitably provides better dialogue for the dilemma in which Arthur first turns to and then totally rejects magic leaving Merlin in a worse position than before. The scenario does seem slightly hurried but subtly acted by Bradley James and ending with a suitably grandiose coronation. Knowing the show, you’d imagine they’d leave the latter till next week to allow a comedic episode about the crown being stolen by a goblin! There is room for some levity though courtesy of a return for Merlin’s cantankerous sorcerer alter ego Emrys, though Colin Morgan rather over does it this time round.
Anthony Head has been an asset to the show from the start pitching his performance at a level where we can believe in Uther’s attitude. It’s a difficult part to play- see how Nathaniel Parker’s Agravaine appears to have wandered in from the panto season- and Head gave it his all. Uther has been a useful character too in outlining the pros and cons of various situations; he’s been there are a counterpoint both to the occasionally too saintly Merlin and co as well as the villains. His persecution of magic- initially seen as `the enemy` from our stand point following Merlin- has been brought into focus so we understood it. Merlin will miss him more than any other character whose been and gone to date.
With three key characters out of the picture in terms of regular interaction with our heroes and the other knights yet to establish themselves as discernable characters the series will need careful handling but you have to praise the writers for taking chances with a successful format.

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