Merlin is the black sheep of the BBC Saturday tea-time family. After being commissioned in the wake of the huge success of the Doctor Who reboot (a move that also brought us the ill-fated re-imagining of Robin Hood), it’s slowly evolving from a slice of frothy, swords ‘n magic family fun to a genuinely involving fantasy drama. Don’t get me wrong, this ain’t no Game of Thrones, but Merlin manages to do exactly what its intended to do- appeal to people of all ages. The term that comes to mind when describing Merlin is “under-appreciated”, both by critics and the BBC itself, with series 4 being the sacrificial ratings lamb to ITV’s irritatingly popular glurgefest, The X Factor. Having said that, Merlin continues to hold its own and find an audience, with the fact that a fifth series has already been greenlit a testament to the series’ popularity.
If you’re new to the series, let me quickly recap. We follow a young Merlin (Colin Morgan, reminding me of all the members of the Arctic Monkeys simultaneously) and his life in Camelot. Merlin works in servitude to the dumb, but noble Arthur Pendragon (Bradley James), the prince of Camelot and head of the famous round table. Merlin is gifted with extraordinary magical powers, but is forced to practice in secret as magic has been outlawed by King Uther (Anthony Head). One of the only people who knows Merlin’s secret is the court physician, Gaius (Richard Wilson), who acts as a mentor and a confidant to the young warlock.
This series is a significant step-up for Merlin. It’s the first series to be filmed on 35mm film, so the series has been given a cinematic sheen that previous series lacked. The writing also seems to be more accomplished, with the series unafraid to chop and change characters to keep the audience guessing.
Series 4 of Merlin starts with a solid two-parter called The Darkest Hour, in which the traitorous Morgana (Katie McGrath, looking like Madonna circa 1985 crossed with Morticia Addams) opens up a rift, unleashing the spirits of the dead, known as Derocha, who wipe out entire towns. It’s a decent opener and contains some of the darkest stuff the series has dealt with so far. The Derocha themselves reminded me of the spirits from the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
My personal favourite of the series was episode 3, The Wicked Day, which was written by Misfits creator Howard Overman. The episode threatens to be all fun and frolics, especially with Merlin’s changing into his older alter-ego Dragoon the Great, which reminded me of the quick Superman/Clark Kent changes in Superman IV. However, the episode ended up containing more of an emotional gut-punch than I was expecting and Morgana’s reaction to the significant event (doing my best to avoid spoilers) to be nicely underplayed and surprisingly affecting.
Series 4 contains some of the series’ best episodes to date, including stand-out ep A Herald of a New Age, but there are a few things that let it down. I found the final two-parter to be a bit of a damp squib, coming across as a bit of a rehash of series 3’s finale. Also, the lovely cinematic look of the 35mm throws some of the ropier CGI effects (such as the John Hurt voiced dragon) into sharp contrast, which is a bit unfortunate. There’s also one magical move resembling the Force push from Star Wars that is used over and over again when the writers don’t know how to harmlessly indispose of characters for a while, which gets a bit grating after the first few times. Also, I felt that this series sidelined Merlin and his magic somewhat, in favour of focusing on Arthur. Which is a slight shame, as I always found Merlin’s burgeoning magical abilities to be one of the more enjoyable aspects of the series.
Still, if you haven’t caught up with Merlin yet, now’s a good time to jump on the bandwagon. The series is improving and is starting to deliver on the promise it had when it first started. It’s inoffensive family entertainment that won’t have you reaching for the remote/bottle/pistol due to incessant kiddie pandering. Recommended.
Blu-Ray Rating: 4/5