Merlin Advance Review
Advance Review: With Dr. Who on a sabbatical this year (save for a couple of one-off specials), the BBC has drafted in this medieval adventure to fill their coveted autumn primetime, early Saturday evening slot previously dominated by the adventures of the Time Lord.clicky
The show is a kind of 'Camelot - the younger years' - that revolves around the formative years of Prince (soon to be King) Arthur, Guinevere, Morgana - and of course Merlin himself.
We begin by learning that the mythical kingdom of Camelot is ruled by ruthless tyrant Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head), who has outlawed all magic, punishing any practitioners of the supernatural with death.
It is at this point that the young Merlin (Colin Morgan) arrives in the city to work as an assistant to kindly physician Gaius. Merlin isn't like other boys (and not just because the actor who plays him - Colin Morgan - looks like his age could range from around 12 to late twenties) - he has intuitive magical powers that immediately start to land him in trouble.
Not least with brash Prince Arthur - who's played as a kind of bullying jock by Bradley James. He takes an immediate dislike to Merlin, mainly because he is the one person who has the courage to stand up to him, but also because the young Guinevere takes a bit of a shine to him.
Indeed the whole affair is a bit like some kind of high school drama transported back in time a thousand years, with the various characters flirting and bickering like extras from The OC. Indeed, it's a fun idea, reinventing this classic tale for a young-ish audience - like Smallville and the BBC's own Robin Hood - through introducing some good old teen angst.
However, such an approach needs a funny, zippy and - most important - believable script, whereas, in this first episode at least, the character interaction feels unnatural, forced and at times down-right cringe-worthy. There are stabs at comedy that are obviously for the younger viewers, whilst the romantic elements are obviously for older teens. It's kind of a mess.
The focus on the young characters' relationships also detracts from the most promising aspect in Merlin - the conflict between the supernatural world and Camelot's fiercely anti-magic ruler Uther.
This opener begins with the execution of a man for practising magic that both sets up the story for this opening episode (the man's vengeful, sorceress mother) and nicely establishes this interesting, hopefully recurring theme, for the rest of the series. Indeed some of the most promising material in episode one is the magically gifted young wizard trying desperately to hide his powers for fear of being discovered.
So it's definitely worth keeping an eye on the next few episodes of Merlin. There is definitely the potential for the show to enter the kind of fantastical, scary, but also good-natured family territory trod so assuredly by previous BBC prime-time dramas.
However, here's hoping the writing staff get their act together and create some realistic dialogue for the young cast as the series progresses.