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‘Merlin’ – The Dragon’s Call/Valiant

Not exactly the stuff of Arthurian legend, but it has its moments

It’s summer and magic’s in the air.

Admittedly that’s a cliché to start my review. An uninteresting and conservatively non-descript beginning that lacks real merit and effort. In a strange way, though, my opening diatribe of bland mediocrity perfectly sums up the lifeless and stale hour-long drama that is NBC’s newest train wreck, “Merlin,” a series devoid of new thinking bogged down not in being fresh but retreading an already exhausted fiefdom of storytelling: The superhero who’s not and who is forced to hide his secret from the world.

In many ways, this series is much like “The X-Men,” “Smallville,” “Heroes” or “Chuck” (or any number of shows recently thrust upon the unsuspecting masses). The opening episode starts with a voiceover by an unseen omniscient narrator describing the nature of destiny and the people it calls upon. It’s a setup rife with the usual platitudes about the path of a specific person whose impact will be far reaching and the stuff of legends.

And, of course, this person is the young titular character of Merlin (Colin Morgan) who before us wanders the country side as he travels wide eyed and innocent in the world, aiming for the Big City. Unfortunately the Big City is not as he had hoped and shortly thereafter we get to the lean and unsatisfying meat of the show: Merlin must hide his abilities for fear of being singled out and hunted by the king who as decreed magic be banished from his kingdom. To help him on his way we meet Gaius (Richard Wilson), the wise old father figure who imparts wisdom and helps keep the secret. Rounding out the cast we meet the cocky and arrogant young Prince Arthur (Bradley James), the approachable and helpful young servant girl, the idealist popular girl willing to speak her mind … and also a dragon who talks and isn’t voiced by Sean Connery (but voiced by the equally talented John Hurt).

And there you have it, BBC’s “Merlin” now showing on NBC.

Unfortunately, it’s extremely generic and lacking in imagination. More often than not it feels more like a knock off of existing efforts than a fleshed out and fully realized concept. Because as much as the series has potential it remains heavily marred by a “going through the motions” style setup. In the background is that a villian with super powers is in town and Merlin is the only one with the power to stop them. But of course as he is unable to admit to his powers so he must act secretly to save the day. So Merlin carefully succeeds while everyone is oblivious to what’s really going on.

And in the two-hour premiere (which was two episodes presented together) we are treated to this formula twice, first with a old shape-shifting woman avenging her son (played by “Torchwood” star Eve Myles) and second by deceitful knight who cheats in tournament with the use of a magic snake summoning shield. Unfortunately these characters are as two dimensional and forgettable as the extras standing in the background. They are given but the most basic of motivations and lack believable motivation. They function as a cookie cutter plot McGuffin’s meant to feel a need in giving Merlin something to do between vain attempts at humorous moments and flimsy character development.

But all is not lost with Merlin. While the show does start out on the worst possible terms there are a number of options the series may, if it survives, develop into something more. The diametrically opposite positions of Morgan and Merlin opens up so much potential conflict, one as a honored protectorate of the king and the other as the simple servant to the prince and also the role of Guinevere, who in Authurian legend married Arthur, as a simple servant with little or no claim to power. A Prince Arthur who is a cocky and arrogant failure in his father’s eyes, and who will one day lead the kingdom thanks to Merlin. And finally, the king — and father — somewhat doubtful of his role in raising his child alone in world surrounded by magic.

Whatever the final destiny of “Merlin” is, at least it’s something to watch this some summer and maybe as filler it might be worth it.

What Worked

Anthony Head and John Hurt – together, both of these wonderfully power actors make the scenes when they are present. Their abilities to sell the concept helps in some of the more obviously poor moments of the series. And their limited time leaves the audience craving more.

The sets: the series appears to be filmed in an actual castle for a number of scenes. This raises the production values enough that, while clearly limited in budget, the series still seems plausibly situated in some reality.

What Didn’t Work

The rest of the cast: None of the younger cast carries any weight in their performances. They don’t feel as if they are doing anything more than appearing in a high school play about that nerdy Merlin whose a loner by still kind cool. They mostly fill the scenes until the actual actors appear. And unfortunately their efforts really drag the whole thing down. Because as I watched the episodes I felt as if it were filler until the heavy weights were called.

The father/mentor dynamic of Merlin and Gaius has been done to death and here the series strikes the deathknell for this type of dynamic. As it sits Gaius does not strike me as anything more than a proto-Merlin. What we would expect an adult Merlin to be one day. The kind, respected man who has connections and is accepting of his station in life as a part of something bigger and nobler than himself.

The series reliance on monsters of the week is… well weak. With a series focusing on the origins of the world’s greatest wizard a little more politicking would have served for better drama. By treating the story more as an epic and laying the foundation more clearly for a destiny that includes all of the characters the writers could have reduced the sloppy story telling. They could have minimized the shallowness of the delivery by giving us a reason to hate or love the characters.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

“The Dragon’s Call” written by Julian Jones, “Valiant” written by Howard Overman. Directed by James Hawes. Starring Katie McGrath, Angel Coulby, Richard Wilson, Colin Morgan, Bradley James, and Anthony Head.

“Merlin” airs Sundays on NBC.

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Could they be a Rut-ro! Shaggy
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