This BBC production is a different take on young Merlin and his introduction into the era of Camelot. Merlin is still learning about his powers, Arthur is still a prince, Morgana is still good, and Guinevere is still a… servant girl? Well, they may take some creative license, but on a whole it works. In many ways it is an “Arthurian Smallville”.
The quality is high but done cleverly on a budget in a number of ways including limiting expensive effects shots and shooting in a real castle. The quality and good casting helps you buy into the pre-traditional premises. The whole cast with two exceptions fit their parts from the start with little adjustment.
The two exceptions are Guinevere and Merlin himself. No offense against Angel Coulby who plays a very non-traditional Guinevere, she seems like a nice girl. Just miscast. Perhaps the producers were going PC and wanted to round out the ethnicity of the olde English cast. As for Merlin, we are so used to seeing him in a skull cap and wielding his staff. This young, scrawny and unsure version is different, but even so quickly grows on you as the underdog.
Since the cast is not yet ready for their traditional roles the producers dug into the lore for the season 1 arc villain. They found Nimueh, a practitioner of the old magics. She is angry at Arthur’s father, King Uther for his ruthless suppression all magic users. It is a slightly shallow message against intolerance but it works as her motivation.
The magic is interesting but inconsistent. In one episode Merlin seems to locally stop time, and in another where such a power would save him he seems to not have it. Thus it is hard to get a grip on his magical limits. This undercut some of the plot complications. Regarding those the writing quality was high overall, but the magic usage per episode was inconsistent. This was due to budget and to the occasionally questionable writing choice.
In the final episode of the season they ramp Merlin’s magic up from out of nowhere. It makes for great shots as Merlin confronts Nimueh in some old ruins. You almost feel sorry for Nimueh. Everybody comes to her with requests, which she grants – clearly explaining the terms. But Merlin does not like it and displays powers out of step with his growth and character. The duel is entertaining and what you probably were hoping to see more of this season.
There is a dragon wonderfully voiced by John Hurt chained under the castle. The computer generated creature is well done and plays a part in the creation of another Arthurian icon, Excalibur. In fact, they managed to touch on most of the important Arthurian plot points including a young Mordred.
I especially like the portrayal of Morgana by the lovely Katie McGrath. She is sympathetic and a scene stealer. It is sad really that she has to eventually go bad. So watch this season if you want to get behind her while you can. Her transition is made somewhat possible by the depiction of King Uther as a conflicted and tragic authoritarian figure bent on destroying magic despite its role in his past… or because of it.
There is a lot of schlock out there. Merlin is not. It is worth your time if you have any interest in the genre.
Our Takes on all the Merlin Seasons:
See a couple more pics of Katie McGrath and Michelle Ryan in Top Ten Pretty Shots Vol.01.