Though born with magical abilities, compassionate teenager Merlin (Morgan) has kept them secret all his life. Sent by his mother to stay with wise court physician Gaius (Wilson), Merlin arrives in the city of Camelot where he must keep them even more guarded since King Uther Pendragon (Head) has banned all witchcraft with zero-tolerance towards it. Learning that he’s destined to become a powerful wizard, Merlin secretly uses his powers for good while protecting the headstrong Prince Arthur (James), his master, friend and future ruler of the kingdom…
Since the underrated Robin Hood wasn’t the ratings success that the BBC were hoping for, the search was on for another Saturday night family-orientated drama. Wisely, co-creators Julian Murphy, Johnny Caps and Julian Jones turned to the timeless Arthurian legend, which boasts a similar vibe (swords, forests, knights, castles, ye olden times setting) but offers a much more fantastical slant. After all, if the Lord Of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series have proved anything, it’s that fantasy isn’t exclusively for geeks anymore…
However, whilst undoubtedly similar to the Beeb’s Robin Hood, Merlin is actually a closer cousin to the first few seasons of Smallville. A purposeful move according to Caps, the aim here was similarly to take an iconic, legendary heroic figure and visit his pre-hero years. Like the WB’s Teen Of Steel, we’ve got an idealistic legend-in-the-making using his gifts to save those around him on the sly while constantly (key word) being reminded of his destiny. Just swap Clark Kent’s Dad Jor-El with an obviously-CGI dragon (voiced by John Hurt, no less) and you’ve got a good idea what to expect.
Sadly though, it also suffers from the same formulaic feel which constantly brought down Smallville‘s early days. Here, there’s a weekly peril to be overcome (a plague, a deadly foe, an iffy-looking digital creature), one of the main characters is near-death, the solution is magic, magic can’t be used, Merlin gets decidedly-ambiguous advice from the dragon, magic is used secretly… and repeat.
But yet, when offered brief glimpses of the mythology’s will-be-important-later elements, the show proves interesting. Frustratingly, they’re often introduced only to be discarded soon after (mythical sword Excalibur, Santiago Cabrera’s invincible Knight Lancelot), but the introduction of Merlin’s future nemesis Mordred is particularly well done, whilst hints at Morgana (Katie McGrath)’s descent into evil remains the most tantalising storythread. Overall, the stories are rarely surprising and often too simplistic (the downside of family television), yet, somewhat ironically, there’s hints of a brighter future to come.
And the cast is genuinely winning, especially the endearing Colin Morgan as our eponymous warlock-to-be. Not everyone gets equal screen time mind you (Angel Coulby’s Gwen is almost a cameo at times), but Bradley James gets pass marks as the bully-come-virtuous Prince and the enchanting McGrath shines when given the chance. It’s the old hands who impress most though, with Richard Wilson overcoming a scene-stealing wig to bring class as Merlin’s mentor Gaius while Anthony Head is the stand-out as ruthless, magic-hating King Uther Pendragon. And, of the guest stars, it’s the gorgeous Michelle Ryan who shines brightest in a recurring role as a vengeful witch.
Hindered by a repetitive structure and the need to appeal to kids, Merlin isn’t quite as magic as it could (or should) be. Next time could (and should) be better…