In the court of King Uther Pendragon, Merlin serves as a lowly servant to Prince Arthur, the heir of Camelot. Merlin is fated to be the mightiest wizard/sorcerer/warlock ever, but must keep his powers secret for the time being, for there is a great deal of suspicion regarding magic. His mentor Gaius (Richard Wilson) must try to train and guide him and above all, Merlin must ensure that Arthur is safe and eventually ascends to the throne.
Perhaps like many, I have dipped into Merlin before, but never been gripped by it. As we move now into season 4, its popularity is clearly enough to keep it as part of the BBC’s primetime market, though it remains a flawed and, at times, unsuccessful programme.
Coming across as a kind of twenty-something Smallville, the show mixes supernatural mystery of the week with the over-arching building of the mythology of Arthur, Merlin, Excalibur, Camelot and there is a certain amount of fun to be had in seeing Merlin trying to keep Arthur safe, while keeping his powers secret. No-one takes him seriously, which makes it rather hard for him to make himself heard at times of impending crisis, though by the end of the two-part finale to this season, he does seem to have generated a bit of currency with Arthur and his beloved knights. In that respect there are echoes of Ben Affleck’s Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears. Which is not a bad thing.
Given that there are plenty of praise-worthy elements in place here, it is difficult to pin down precisely why the show does not work as a whole. The script is serviceable and occasionally witty, the cast are all up to scratch, the production design is impressive enough, but it remains a show that struggles to grab our attention. Although season 4 moves things along by offing a few key cast members and developing the conspiracy between Morgana and Arthur’s treacherous Uncle Agravaine, there is too little progression for Merlin himself. He casts the occasional secretive spell and solves mysteries here and there, but we do not see him growing, becoming the force he is prophesied to be. Tonal problems abound too. Some episodes (including the commendably creepy “A Herald of the New Age”) convey a suitable sense of danger and menace, but too often episodes are played for jaunty laughs when they would benefit from a little more gravitas. The chief culprit in this regard is “A Servant of Two Masters”, where a bewitched Merlin tries to kill Arthur, but it is all played too broadly.
Of course there is nothing wrong with moments (or even episodes) of levity and the usual mantra for this sort of thing of “make it darker, grittier” is misguided, but there needs to be a consistency of tone to avoid pulling us out of the drama. In the end it is hard to care very much about what happens, with too little of the characterisation really drawing us in. Morgana in particular is poorly played by Katie McGrath, coming across as surly and stroppy rather than dangerous and so the “big bad” is a bit of a damp squib, draining the show of any over-arching sense of peril and menace.
A show with enjoyable elements, no doubt, but over all not as much of a success as it needs to be. Although they are of course very different creatures, Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings have shown us how to do this sort of thing a lot better. Season 4 of Merlin is out now on DVD or Blu-ray and you can grab it here.
Extras: The 13 episodes are spread over four discs, with a fifth disc given to a making of (25-odd minutes of on set footage), out takes and the like. Episode-specific commentaries abound, with contributions from cast and directors and writers. They are mostly far too lightweight with far too little interesting content.