My TV

29 January 2010

Merlin, an expert opinion

By // TV

There’s another new writer joining us at My TV today.

Young adult/fantasy author Alyxandra Harvey shares her insights into BBC’s Merlin (which aired series one this summer on CTV and NBC).

For more from Alyx, visit her website at www.alyxandraharvey.com, and check out her new series “The Drake Chronicles” at www.thedrakechronicles.com.

Without further ado, here’s Alyx:

Before I even turned on the television, Merlin had my attention.

First, I’m a BBC bunny, so bring on the Merlin, the Robin Hood , the Pride and Prejudice and the fourteenth remake of Jane Eyre. Second, I’ve been reading about King Arthur since I was thirteen years old. Which actually brings me to the not-so-good qualities Merlin has, before the first scene even begins.

By no means unusual in the Arthurian oeuvre, but still wrong: 15th century plate armour in what is generally estimated to be 4th or 5th century Arthurian Britain. Ditto the big white stone castle. This is why my husband fears watching anything Arthurian or Robin Hood with me. I will yell, loudly, forcefully and with much glee, about historical details no one else cares about. Fair warning.

Merlin also has talking dragons, which I’m not fond of, even with my love of fantasy novels and movies. Also, a voice over. Just don’t like those. Generally speaking, it’s over-explanation. I want the information from the story and the characters. That’s what they’re there for.

And yet, despite these things, I really enjoy the series and I am eagerly awaiting the third season. There are reasons for that as well.

To begin with, the sets are gorgeous and yes, this is important. In any historical or fantasy show, atmosphere is key. And Merlin has stones that look like stone and not plaster, and the castle, for all my complaining about time periods, is grand–and not a cardboard cut out! What a nice treat. The props and furniture are decadent and detailed. In fact, if someone could send over Arthur’s entire bedroom set to furnish my farmhouse, that would be great.

As for the story, with magic being such an integral part of the legends, I think it was very smart of the writers to make said magic forbidden. We instantly get more mystery, conflict and character depth; It lends a sympathy to Merlin and Morgana (I’m firmly in the “Morgan Le Fay was framed” camp, by the way). The corn dolly was a nice touch and very appropriate for ancient British magical lore. And the special effects are simple and effective (the whirlwind, glowing pendant, freeze frame, for example), never jarring you out of the moment with obviously flat CGI.

Since Merlin is new to Camelot, and so are we, we get to be introduced to the characters and the traditions along with him, furthering our empathy. Colin Morgan gives a very strong performance in the title role, with an endearing quirkiness and none of the cheesiness which can be a pitfall of any fantastical production. He’s real. We know, within the first five minutes, that Uther Pendragon (Buffy’s Anthony Stewart Head) is not meant to be a particularly sympathetic king, which is a nice change. And the choice of playing Arthur and Merlin as young characters gives the writers so much more to play with. I especially liked the line in the first episode: “And how long have you been training to be a prat?” and the subsequent laughter, it gave a very genuine feel to the connection between Merlin and Arthur. Also: “There must be another Arthur, because this one’s an idiot.” Brilliant, really.

There’s loads of dramatic irony, of course, since we know the story even if the characters don’t. Guinevere can say she wouldn’t want to marry Arthur all she likes, but we know she’s going to, eventually. The familiar characters are all there: Merlin, Arthur, Uther, Morgana, Guinevere, even Gaius who is new to the story but fills the more traditional Merlin/Old Man Guide role.

And the writers have a real sense of tradition, they seem to really respect the mythology they’re playing with. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to have a character whose song is meant to be beautiful and magical, actually BE beautiful and magical. Lady Helen/Vengeful Mother’s (Eve Myles) voice in the first episode is strong enough to carry the scene and the choice of faintly Gaelic words is perfect. The consequence of her magical song is very “Sleeping Beauty” and very like some of the paintings within the Celtic Twilight/Resurgence of Arthurian Lore movement in the late 1800’s. It was a pleasant layer to have that recognized in some small way.

By the end of the first episode, we have a sense of the major plotlines and character arcs: Merlin learning to use magic as his rite of passage, the stress of that secret, Arthur becoming more fully rounded as a person, the burgeoning friendship between the two, Arthur and Guinevere’s relationship and Uther’s growing tyranny.

The story of Merlin may not be an unknown journey, but we know we’re going to like it anyway.

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