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Reviewed by Will Harris
veryone knows that American television networks aren’t afraid to note the success of a show and try their best to emulate that success with a similarly styled property, but if for some reason you think that these creatively dodgy tendencies are limited to our shores, then you’d best think again before watching “Merlin,” the BBC’s take on the life and times of a very old wizard when he was still very young.
Sorry, did I say “watching”? It doesn’t even require that much effort for the casual BBC (or BBC America) viewer to realize that someone in programming witnessed the success of “Robin Hood” and immediately set off to find another out-of-copyright concept and see if they could get lightning to strike twice.
The Arthurian legends have served as a source of inspiration for many series, miniseries, and movies over the years, not to mention a few really cracking comic books, but until someone gets around to making the much-needed “Camelot 3000” film adaptation, we can at least make do with “Merlin.” Despite that decidedly cynical opening, the series is actually pleasant enough for family fare, taking the established mythos and fiercely tweaking them into more of a teen-friendly soap opera.
Here, Merlin (Colin Morgan) is a young lad who’s had magical powers all of his life, but his abilities are something to be hidden in Camelot. The king of the realm, Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head), has a steadfast – some would say irrational – loathing of all things magic, to the point where he has outlawed its practice and imprisoned the last remaining dragon in the land. The court physician, Gaius (Richard Wilson), is actually a sorcerer in forced retirement, however, and as he also happens to be Merlin’s uncle, he takes the lad under his wing and surreptitiously helps the young wizard hone his talents. Still, Merlin’s got to have something to keep him busy the rest of the time, and before you know it, he’s found himself a position in the Royal Household as the manservant of Prince Arthur (Bradley James). This starts off as a rather torturous gig for Merlin at first, since he can’t stand Arthur and the feeling is approximately mutual, but you know how it goes when destinies are linked: eventually, you overcome your differences and becomes the best of friends – well, sometimes, anyway.
Possibly on a related note, let us consider the women of the series: Morgana (Katie McGrath), Uther’s ward and virtually as much a part of the royal court as any blood relative, and Gwen (Angel Coulby), Morgan’s maid servant. Those who know anything at all about the Arthurian legends will know the destinies of these characters, which leads to very little suspense in the romantic aspects of the series, but we can at least take comfort in the fact that the ladies are easy on the eyes. The same can be said as well for the recurring character of Nimueh, played by the always-gorgeous Michelle Ryan, whose motives are less than commendable.
Surprisingly, the biggest problem with “Merlin” is not the way it so often lays waste to the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth in favor of a TV-friendly take on the material. Rather, it’s the fact that the episodes seem to follow such a predictable format. You know that Uther is going to roar against how terrible magic is, and you know Merlin’s still going to use magic anyway, then almost get caught doing so but just barely get away with it and save the day. These are but two examples of such recurring moments throughout the season; you will likely have a list of your own by the time you’re watching the finale. Still, “Merlin” looks good, the cast does well and has fun with the material they’re given, and, as noted, it’s good family fun that the kids and the easily entertained adults – yep, I’m in that bunch – will find quite easy to enjoy. Even the latter will probably find it equally easy to step away from.
Special Features: Another solid presentation from the folks at the BBC, with audio commentary, a two-part “Behind the Magic” featurette which feels substantive rather than a slapdash necessity, video diaries, a photo gallery, and wallpaper for your computer.