Sunday, September 21, 2008

BBC's Merlin

I have no doubt, seeing as the BBC's Robin Hood has been popular, that Merlin will be considered a success; it was given a go on the second series before the first started airing last night.

I think it's fair to say that Merlin is better than Robin Hood but, in my world, that's not saying a lot. Personally I considered Robin Hood to be a travesty. I watched two episodes and gave up. When I was told it had "got better" towards the end of its run, I watched an episode. Better is a relative term.

Anyway, Merlin. I'm writing this on Sunday, on the train back to Reading from Manchester while it's fresh in my mind. I watched it a couple of hours ago, recorded from last night.

I'm willing to suspend my disbelief a long way, especially if the writing is good. The script of Merlin has played havoc with the Arthur myth, but that wouldn't be important if the script was good. I can't comment on the original script, since I haven't seen it, but I'm tempted to believe it was better than what we finally got, because there were flashes of brightness in a mire of unpleasantness.

Most of the acting was good, considering the material they were working with, apart from Guinevere who was certainly the poorest - then again so was her dialogue.

Alright, let's take Merlin's character: who is this idiot who picks fights with nobility? He just wouldn't. He's a nobody in a world where nobility have the power of life and death. His first encounter with Arthur (where Arthur is taunting a servant) Merlin treats Arthur like an equal – and suffers some consequences though there is no sense of danger.

Merlin apparently has the ability to do anything, any magic, without the need for mucking about with spells. He doesn't take anything seriously, even being put in jail or thrown in the stocks. Why not? Obviously there's no threat, he can do anything. He's Superman: A total goody-goody with unlimited power. Where's his inner conflict? He has none. In fact he's better than Superman because he can do it with his mind, at a distance.

This initial fight with Arthur? Merlin didn't need to say anything, he could have just had Arthur's trousers fall down. But there was the perceived structural need to set up a conflict between Arthur and Merlin and they go about it in the most unrealistic and gauche way possible. But if Arthur had picked on Merlin directly, then Merlin's response would, at least, have been more logical.

I'll just mention Guinevere's first dialogue: "Hi, I'm Guinevere but people call me Gwen." And this while Merlin is in the stocks and Guinevere has no reason to speak to him at all. They committed a fundamental no-no in script writing.

There are serious problems with the setting: Apart from being mock Medieval instead of early Dark Ages, the idea is that Uthor Pendragon (played by the inestimable Anthony Stewart Head) kicked all the dragons and sorcerers out of Albion.

But it is quite clear that these sorcerers were very powerful, never mind the dragons. So, how on earth did Uthor manage to defeat them? In fact he's far more likely to have used sorcery because that is power. This could have been mitigated by the introduction of Christianity – which could have provided a real threat to Merlin in the form of a powerful behind-the-throne figure.

Then there's the fact that not only can the nobility read and write, so can Merlin and his mother. Give us a break. Almost the only people who could read and write were the Clergy, and they maintained their power by keeping it that way.

No, there's no logic or consistency to the setting.

What about the initial set-up with the witch who wants to kill Arthur because Uther killed her son? (The "story of the week".) Why didn't she do her teleportation trick, or something else, to stop her son being killed? After all, she had plenty of time to prepare.

Then there's the dragon in the cave under the castle: It was just an excuse for CGI as far as I could tell.

One thing I did like, though I suspect many might claim it was unreal, was the singer, Lady Helen. Curiously enough I had recently listened to a radio programme that showed that concepts like the travelling troubadour (such as Robin Hood's Alan a'Dale) probably didn't exist. But members of the nobility with particular musical talent did travel about performing at feasts, celebrations and Holy days. So she was, perversely, one of the real elements.

Arthur's character was reasonable, no depth yet but the arrogance was nicely played. Uthor was probably as good as could be played. Morgana was nicely done. Making Guinevere a servant is slightly insane. (The fact that she is not white would have been far less of an issue, in this story, if they had set it in the early Dark Ages, shortly after the disappearance of the Romans, as it should have been; since citizens of the Roman Empire came from anywhere.)

But, ultimately, the character of Merlin is totally wrong. He has none of the sensibilities that anyone in any feudal period would have, even one with powerful magic. Even if he isn't at risk, what about his mother? He would keep his power in check for her, wouldn't he? He has no inner conflict at all, and wanders through the story like a simpleton as if it's all some game.

I had desperately hoped that I was going to like this. And the problems with the setting would have been tolerable had the script been decent. Unfortunately, for me, it wasn't.

What's on the turntable? "Incantations Part Two" by Mike Oldfield from "Incantations"


Anonymous said...

I wasn't expecting much from Merlin and that's exactly what it delivered in the five minutes I bothered watching it. The snippet of dialogue that I caught was execrable and the situation painfully contrived. I won't bother relaying it because you've done a much better job in this post than I could have done.

One thing, though. I'd have loved to hear from a few target-age kids what they thought of it. My two-year-old son thought it was hilarious.

Adaddinsane said...

My 11 year old son thought it was good. We try not to criticise in front of him. My 17 year-old daughter thought it was okay, but hated some of the acting (she is an actress).

My wife refused to be in the same room as it. She loathes flawed historical contexts.

I'll keep trying with it. But the 18th century French castle is a pain.