TV REVIEW: Merlin - Arthur's Bane Part One

The new series of the BBC's surprisingly successful magical fantasy Merlin gets off to a dark and moody start as knights are captured, dragons appear, and the titular wizard has a vision that could change everything.

The first two series of Merlin were, let's be honest, pretty terrible; it was lightweight, cheesy, throwaway entertainment to wile away the Saturdays until Doctor Who came back. But then something odd happened. It started building in more Arthurian mythology than it had before, weaving it into storylines in neat and clever ways, the performances developed from two-dimensional stereotypes into people you actually wanted to see onscreen, the writing became tidier, the comedy sharper and perhaps most importantly, it got a little darker, which always makes things interesting. I'd always followed Merlin as a bit of a curiosity (and for a small crush on Bradley James) and it has been rewarding to watch it grow into the compelling programme that returned on Saturday.

Last series ended with the long-awaited wedding between Arthur (Bradley James) and Guinevere (Angel Coulby) and the promise of prosperity for Camelot while Merlin's (Colin Morgan) magic remained a secret and Morgana (Katie McGrath) escapes to plot and smile evilly for another day. It's been three years since then; Camelot's entered a golden age, enjoying untold peace and harmony, Arthur and Guinevere are still happily married and her dresses are considerably more *ahem* enhancing than they were before. But all is not entirely well as Gwaine (Eoin Macken) and Percival (Tom Hooper) have gone missing heading north towards Ismir, Morgana's stronghold. Arthur sets out to find his loyal knights, despite the obvious risk while a traitor in Camelot alerts the sorceress to his plan, allowing her to set a trap. Merlin meanwhile has a vision that shows him Arthur's death at the hands of an old acquaintance. And Gwaine got his shirt off. Again. So that was nice.

The first episode was a tightly structured first parter, building us up steadily for the second episode whilst having enough of a narrative to stand as a good instalment in its own right (though because I'm an idiot, I missed the whole 'Part One' bit of the title and yelled angrily at the cliffhanger - it was a long day). It also seems to be very much a post-Game of Thrones depiction of fantasy, with more care given to effects and new locations than we've seen before, particularly the snowy expanses of Ismir. The darkening of the subject matter, for example, with the loss of the knights and unflinching decisions when it comes to dealing with traitors, suits this slightly grittier version of the Merlin we know and love.

While I'm starting to get annoyed with Arthur's wilful ignorance of Merlin's magic (how stupid are we meant to think he is?), this episode did remind me of why I enjoy the show in the first place. The chemistry between Morgan and James as the two leads has always been a highlight with banter and deep and meaningful moments in equal measure. Both actors bring a great sense of fun to their relationship and thankfully the writing has improved so much that the comedy between the pair no longer feels as forced as it used to. It does tend to mean that the other knights get sidelined a little with the central pair, but the focus on Gwaine and Percival's plight as new members of Morgana's topless sweaty army suggests we may see a little more development for the other members of the Round Table.

Another major character development is that Guinevere is FINALLY given something more to do than pine after Arthur and tell him how great a king he's going to be. Instead, we see that royal appointment is really starting to suit Gwen, offering tactical advice at the Round Table whilst also demonstrating some fierce judicial skills. Coulby looked more than capable of going all warrior queen when she deals with Camelot's traitor. Katie McGrath has also managed to increase her range in the gap between series as thankfully, she no longer finishes every scene with an evil smile, just to remind us of how evil Morgana is. That's really evil by the way.

What gives me hope for this series is the inclusion of Arthur's death from the very beginning, tying it in neatly with the Mordred aspect of the story from the original mythology. Yes, they've not done the whole Mordred was a product of an Arthur-Morgana incestuous tryst storyline but as it's Saturday night family viewing, I think we can forgive them that small rewrite. But most importantly, it seems they're prepared to end the Arthur-Merlin story properly - with the death of Arthur and the fall of Camelot. People seem to forget that though Arthur and Merlin manage to create this utopian idyll of chivalry and romance, it fails for a variety of reasons, but mostly because Arthur can't remain the paragon of virtue that he's set up to be. Mordred exploits that weakness. I just hope that the showrunners are brave enough to go the whole way and not necessarily give us a happy ending.

But there is one thing that's nagging me slightly... what on earth was that alien thing?

- Becky

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