...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Day 2820: Merlin – Could it Be Magic?


Hmmm, well, this was a quite… tentative opening to the BBC's latest Saturday night "family entertainment" show. Will it be another "Doctor Who" or will it be another "Robbing Hoodie"? It seemed that it hadn't quite made up its own mind yet either!

For every classy special effect by Doctor Who's team from the Mill or prosthetics by Mr Neil Gorton, there was a moment of crassly anachronistic dialogue that could have tripped off Robin's tongue innit.

And with no fewer than four names under the "created by" credit, you can't help worrying that this is magic by committee.

More obvious even than the Doctor Who / Robbing Hoodie connection, though, is the lifting from the series that is, in some ways, at the root of both of those: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Except it's a really weird INVERSION of Buffy.

Where Saint Joss of Wheadon took an ordinary teen-drama and injected fantasy elements (in the form of honking great metaphors for the horrors of teenagedom), here the Beeb have taken a fantasy story and turned it into Camelot 90210.

This inversion even seems to extend to undoing the Buffyverse's gender-reversal, with the heroes definitely being the boys again (which doesn't half miss the point, though I suppose mythology left them a bit stuck with the genders of their leads).

Merlin is Buffy – the newly arrived one, with the mysterious powers – while Arthur is obviously Cordellia – the local Queen Bee whose vanity and selfishness disguise a heart of gold. Hopefully. In some bizarre twist, this means that Xander (i.e. the "normal" one) is going to be Guinevere aka Gwen the maid. Yes maid! Never mind your strict feudal caste system, this lady is going to be social climbing. Probably up one of those Alps you can see out of the Disneyland Camelot windows.

This means that where Buffy took clichéd horror tropes (like the little blonde cheerleader in peril) and merrily inverted them (she kicks fluffy bottom!), Merlin appears in danger of turning them BACK into cliché.

Xander's role was often to scream and get saved. That means that Gwen's is… what? Oh, and like it's not bad enough she's destined to marry Art and fall for Sir Loungeabout, here she's already giving off "I fancy you" conflicted messages to magical Merlin.

And just to complete the Buffy axis, the show has Buffy's Mr Anthony Head in the role of… actually, Principle Snyder while Merlin has Mr Victor Meldrew playing the Mr Anthony Head part.

The acting and writing (at least for character) is much better than Robbing Hoodie, though, (nothing as embarrassing as poor Sam Troughton's Much) even if the terribly pretty Disney castle is very clean and everyone has very nice clothes and hair for the Dark Ages. My Daddies were pleased that young Mr Colin Morgan as Merlin was obviously happier to get his top off than Mr Jonas Armstrong. Oh, and he was actually quite personable in the title role.

Mr Bradley James as the bratling prince (yes, I know Mr T H White says that Arthur is supposed be brought up ignorant of his royal heritage; clearly the committee are just as ignorant of THEIR heritage) managed to make him a right royal pain without being totally unlikeable. It's a difficult thing to do, but he's off to a good start, there were just one or two hints that he might be able to grow into the wise and strong leader of legend (with, of course, the right magical nudges from Merlin).

And if the UST between wizard-boy and princeling gets any hotter something is going to catch fire! (Daddy will not tell me what "HOMOEROTIC" means!) And Merlin is so totally in the closet about his magic. Mind you, Buffy did have the "have you tried NOT being a wizard Slayer" line first as well.

It sort of goes without saying that Mr Head was rather good, but he was and made Uther Pendragon (he's the king, you know) slightly more shaded and interesting than was necessarily on the page. There's some opportunity for exploring and expanding his story here – just why does he have this vendetta against magic, and how did he get to be in a position to routinely execute wizards who you would expect to be able to defeat him and his knights by, well, magic. And why, given all that, does he keep a CGI dragon in his (extraordinarily capacious) cellar?

It was quite a GOOD CGI Dragon, as these things go, nicely lip-synching. Though I suspect (from the Doctor Who-esque next time trailer) that some of this CG is going to get used a bit repetitively.

I could do without the thirty-tonne lizard going all YODA with the ZEN KOANS like "there is no right and wrong, only what is and what is not". Yes, there fluffy well IS a "right and wrong" – the ENTIRE point of Camelot is about standing up for a better way, that might should not equal right and that there had to be justice and chivalry. Otherwise it's just all about who has the biggest Lancelot.

Meanwhile, Mr Richard Wilson as Gaius the court physic who, GASP, turns out to have a magical background of his own, was warmly enjoyable, with a nice streak of devilment in his enjoying Merlin's time in the (considerably less nasty then they might have been) stocks.

And Torchwood hooting heroine, Ms Eve "SAYYYY YOOFA GIVEME!" Miles, was really rather groovy as the slyly dastardly witch. She should be given villainous roles more often! We did love the way the mirrors kept revealing her true face; that's a nicely believable bit of fairy-tale magic. Oh and the full Sleeping Beauty treatment of her singing the court to sleep was also a brilliant effect, even if "crushed by chandelier" is veering back into land of corny.

As plot goes, however, it was rather flimsy. Buffy kept the "witch who steels a younger lady's body" episode for their first regular (or mundane) episode AFTER the big opening. This all felt a bit "episode two" as well, and for its season premiere Merlin really needed something bigger too.

That Dragon should have been a THREAT not a PRISONER – in fact, there would have been drama and irony to be mined in a story about Uther taking an army to fight the Dragon but, when it learns of Merlin, it just wants to talk to him and this results in it getting captured. Then you've got a Dragon in the cellar that you've ESTABLISHED as very, very dangerous, but whom Merlin is still talking to and learning from. It would add EDGE. And you can develop the idea that the Dragon might not be ENTIRELY GOOD, and could be trying to escape and probably incinerate Disneyland Camelot.

It's called having a BIG BAD.

Of course, if you know your Arthur myths then PROBABLY the big bad is ACTUALLY going to turn out to be Princess Morgana. Even if it's Merlin who's a bit Fey.

In some ways it has taken important lessons from Doctor Who's opening episode "Rose", in that we follow the title character (Rose or Merlin) through the story and learn what's going on AS she (or he) learns what's going on. It's not QUITE a match, though, because it doesn't have the EXPLOSIVE Harrod's Henrick's destroying opening – the first big spike on what is called the "Dramatic W", meaning open on a high, build to a (anti-)climax in the middle then build to another climax at the end – so that instead you have a first half that is a bit limp even if the finish is, literally, magic.

But Daddy Alex points out the KEY problem: in Doctor Who's "Rose", she is an ORDINARY person walking into an EXTRAORDINARY world and she takes us with her. Dr Who is central to this world, but he's NOT our point of identification; he remains a MYSTERY – the CLUE is in the series title – and that makes him MORE powerful.

In contrast, in "Merlin", we have an extraordinary world in which Merlin is an EVEN-MORE-EXTRAORDINARY person.

(Harry Potter – yes, I give up, I'll mention the OTHER boy-wizard – Harry Potter is in many ways the LEAST extraordinary person at Hogwarts, having neither Hermione's brains nor Ron's background. He is, however, good at sports.)

Put more simply, we should have been following GWEN. Make her a minor noble sent as lady-in-waiting (not servant) to Princess Morgana and have her discover this boy working in the castle apothecary… (you could even keep the reveal that Gwen is short for Guinevere as a surprise).

It was fun but I'm not blown away, and I'm wary that it's going to be just like this week after week devolving into teen-soap-a-la-Sherwood with added magical-moment of the week. Or maybe I'm not giving it the same benefit of the doubt that I gave to Robbing Hoodie's "Will You Tollerate This"

But it COULD get better. With the creators claiming to already have a five-year-plan, it's possible that this is going to give them a structure on which to hang proper plot and character development. In which case, this is merely a beginning.

Let's hope so.

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