20/11/2011

Spellbound

John Newman on episodes 4 to 8 of the fourth series of Merlin

These are heady days for Merlin, confidentially occupying the old Casualty slot and keeping healthy ratings despite The X Factor being on opposite. It might be something to do with the quality of stories this season and also the fact that they underscore an ongoing plot rather than being mostly stand alone. In other series- notably Doctor Who – this approach has come in for some criticism but it appears to be paying dividends for Merlin. The season so far seems altogether more focussed, more driven with the plots freer because they don’t necessarily have to end up with the status quo week after week. It also fits the sort of legend that King Arthur- whichever version you might name- really is; epic, grandiose and taking characters on amazing journeys. For a series like this to be thriving and still reaching new heights- both artistically and commercially- in its fourth season is something to celebrate. Even Morgana in her dark cottage is probably smiling about it once a week!

Evil Morgana doesn't want you to see the spoliers....or does she?
`Althusa` sees Merlin on the trail of the last dragon egg and after a slow start builds to a rather impressive climax. Julian Boreden an old pupil of Gaius arrives in Camelot assuming his former mentor will help him retrieve the last piece of the key to the tomb of Ashkanar from the vaults, to enable him to enter and find the egg, hidden there for centuries. When Gaius refuses, Merlin steps in but is tricked and can only accompany Arthur and the knights in pursuit of the stolen item.
If the way Merlin obtains the key to the vaults is silly in the extreme, then the subsequent journey is entertaining with a running joke about the food playing into a plot point that allows Merlin to square off against Borden in front of the egg. Its here that Colin Morgan excels, selling us both the significance and for Merlin emotional point of the whole thing, undermining the portentous location. This may well turn out to be a key episode and the final scene where the egg hatches  revealing a tiny  white dragon is rather powerful, again largely due to Morgan.

There’s a real sense so far of the writers wanting to maintain the momentum and not sidetrack into comedic or repetitive episodes. Another big one `His Father’s Son` sees Camelot threatened with invasion after Arthur- egged on by Agravaine- kills the son of the powerful Queen Annis to set an example but his supposed act of strength backfires. At the same time- again thanks to Uncle A- he calls off his burgeoning romance with Gwen on the grounds she is not really suitable company for a king. Even Merlin feels the chill as Arthur ignores his advice. While a few episodes on this track might have developed some interesting scenarios it is wrapped up rather neatly not to mention anticlimactically when Arthur chooses a trial by combat. Having set up an intriguing scenario, writer Julian Jones does not quite see it through with enough power. Nonetheless the momentum is to be enjoyed as are the scenes of tension between Arthur and Merlin. There’s another impressive army to be seen too. Ultimately there are a too few many conveniences particularly Agravaine’s continued coming and going unnoticed from Camelot and an underwritten Queen Annis does not make the best of Lindsey Duncan’s talents. The tension is diffused to suddenly though it’s a good episode for Bradley James who gets to delve a little deeper into Kingly worries.


"Kidnap me? I don't believe it"

`A Servant of Two Masters` is an unusually paced episode that sees Merlin out to kill Arthur after Morgana captures him and sticks a worm in the back of his neck. I’m sure there was a Star Trek episode that did this but anyway, the results are quite amusing. Even spellbound, Merlin proves an accident prone assassin and there’s lots of fun to be had seeing his attempts to kill the king. This develops into a confrontation between Merlin’s aged alter ego Emyrys and Morgana that hints at the real power both have. However the plot is a little too disparate and the mood okayed more for laughs to really have us believe anyone is in much danger.

After coming under suspicion for being the traitor in the castle, Gaius is kidnapped in `The Secret Sharer`  so that Morgana can wheedle the identify of Emrys from him with the help of Alator, one of those handy mystical Celtic types that seem to be around when you need them. From a not especially promising idea the episode blossoms with a series of key scenes underlining the bond between Gaius, Merlin and Arthur. Meanwhile the villainous Agravaine has to work hard to avoid getting himself found out- though of course both Merlin and Gaius already know his involvement.  Director Justin Molotnikov brings out the loyalty and hatred between various characters well and if the method by which Alator tries to extract the information is drawn out and unlikely, the story climaxes with a lively confrontation and the secret still under wraps.
`Lamia` is the first non Morgana episode in a while yet oddly the villain is again female. You do start to wonder about that! Anyway, this proves to be an exercise in atmospherics as the titular character, rescued by Merlin and the knights on their way from a mission to help a village, leads them into increasing danger culminating in a tense confrontation in an old castle. Justin Molotnikov is proving quite a find for the show, drenching this episode with the strangeness it requires. For once, the knights get more than a line each and while it is still a little stilted between them, the situation is built up well with Merlin and Gwen ostracised as the others compete to look after Lamia - played by Charlene McKenna with spooky looks and angular body movement. Gwen gets more to do for a change while there’s a thrilling climax that shows how good the show can look. 
Lamia's dancing was rather different

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