After a triumphant season four, Merlin opens its fifth season with the two part `Arthur’s Bane`
The phrase `darker than ever` that is often used to advertise new series seems appropriate for an opening 2 part story that is a long way from the earlier seasons. Merlin is definitely pitching at an older demographic now which is not to say it has lost its charm, simply that is developing. At times during the first three seasons it seemed as if such growth was going to be very slow and steady. Given the way TV shows come and go we might never even get to see the Round Table. Yet season 4 was a revelation as the show broke free and began to utilise a potential only previously hinted at. The reward was its best ratings even if it had to tussle with The X Factor and now a fifth season that we hoped but in truth never imagined it would reach.
"Look at me- I am evil even on my way to Sainsburys"
`Arthur’s Bane` then is as much a scene setter for the whole season as it is an adventure in its own right. It reveals three years of peace have passed since Arthur and Gwen married and yet now there is a threat from the shadowy land of Ismere. Two knights are missing and Arthur leads the others to track them down. We’re not overly surprised to find Morgana is the culprit; she has the missing knights along with several dozen others digging underground in a cave that is cold enough to be able to see their breath but seemingly warm enough for everyone to be shirtless! Or is that just the way Morgana prefers them? Dressed in more black than ever and frequently seen riding through snow covered wastelands, our Queen of Mean looks pale, deadly and interesting. Very much the Morgana of legend, now with that little white dragon in tow.
Yet you wonder why, if she is as powerful as she keeps saying, she goes to such lengths to try and bring down Arthur? The answer is really of course that the series needs to keep going but the writers need to be careful with this; Morgana is not bound by the sort of laws that force Merlin to be furtively ingenious. She can do what she likes. The other trap the series scripts can sometimes fall into is in inventing yet another amazing legendary thing, in this case she has a mine full of people digging for something even though she has no idea what it actually is.
There are some surprising moments in the story. We glimpse a cave dwelling creature in part 1 who looks like an alien but actually turns out to be `the key` Morgana is searching for. It must be one of Josette Simon’s most unusual roles- her face is CGI’d onto a translucent spindly body, while her voice is distorted. If it looks slightly out of place, it does show that the series is headed in yet more interesting directions. Her declaration that `Arthur’s Bane` is not Mordred as Merlin thought (and indeed saw by implicationin a vision) but “himself” seems altogether a more intriguing place for the series to go.
"Look at me- I am so evil I am staring at you"
Which brings us to the return of Mordred, now in the form of actor Alexander Vlahos ,who may lack his predecessor’s malevolent stare, but has better access to shampoo! This Mordred is a more grown up, secretive magician who, like Merlin, keeps his powers well hidden and Vlahos has a convincing debut. The major shock of the second episode comes when he turns on Morgana and saves Arthur, presumably for his own reasons, ending the episode being inducted into the Knights of Camelot. There is therefore potential for much underhand villainy but the producers will hopefully recall how repetitive Morgana’s plots became when she was ensconced in Camelot and will not simply repeat the formula.
Seeing Gwen all dressed up as Queen still takes getting used to and in the first part there is the suggestion that she has got into the instant justice so beloved of Uther which she used to abhor- and indeed suffered from- when she condemns Sefa to death- so perhaps one of the season themes going to be how power corrupts her? Sadly it is a ruse to try and lure her father Ruadan (Game of Thrones’s Liam Cunningham in familiar surroundings) to Camleot but the idea that Gwen will be turned by the use of power- the opposite to what Merlin in a way- would certainly be a fruitful direction. Hopefully Angel Coulby, whatever her arc, will get the chance to do more this year- too often she has seemed like a spare part while everyone else gets the juicy stuff.
Director Justin Molotnikov loves his slow mo fights and this adds a cinematic sheen to an already outstanding looking production. Traipsing through snowy wastes or fighting in shadowy castle corridors, the story certainly knows how to achieve a look that is both literally and conceptually dark. The nuances are there too in the regular actors. Colin Morgan in particular has been allowed to play a noticeably less chirpy Merlin. As ever the mixture of heroic intent and matey banter underpins Colin Morgan and Bradley James’ performances; considering these are episodes 52 and 53, you’d think they would be jaded but if they are it never shows.
`Arthur’s Bane` is a brisk, broad, stylish adventure to re-introduce the series and if the rest of the episodes are up to this standard then we have another triumphant season ahead-this is the show with the real X Factor!