“The Dragon’s Call”
June 21st, 2009
[Two episodes of the BBC/NBC co-production Merlin air tonight on NBC at 8pm EDT (“The Dragon’s Call” and “Valiant”), but the below review sticks to the pilot – really, I just didn’t have much interest in seeing another episode when the show’s formula had pretty much been set up already.]
I once wrote a paper on what I called the near unadaptability (not a word, but I’m okay with that) of the Arthurian Legend on film, at least based on the work of Sir Thomas Malory in writing Le Morte Darthur, considered the definitive version of the myth. Now, yes, Excalibur is considered to be a worthwhile film in and of itself, but as an adaptation it fails to capture those elements of Malory’s text which make it so distinctive: a unique code of honour, for example, that finds its conflict not between individuals or based on love triangles but in a code of ethics that remains foreign to those who haven’t studied the text intricately. By turning the conflict into one between individuals and not between their actions and this code, films tend to lose track of the fact that Malory is writing about the fall of an entire kingdom more than the fall of one man – despite containing heroism and capturing a spirit of adventure, the text is ultimately a tragic story of the powerlessness of a king to save his own people, a narrative that may never be properly put to film.
However, at the time, I hadn’t really considered the notion of a television adaptation of the material, which is strange considering my role as a critic. Generally, I treat any adaptation of the Arthurian Legend with great skepticism, knowing it has expectations too high to properly capture what drew me to write my thesis based on the material, and the BBC/NBC co-production Merlin is no exception to this role. In fact, presented as it was as a hip reimagining of the legend, finding Arthur and Merlin as teenagers in the origin of their complicated relationship, I had every reason to avoid the show like some sort of plague, writing it off as an attempt to treat this epic medieval romance as a superhero origin story.
But, as both a student of the Arthurian Legend and as a critic of television, it seems like I should offer my thoughts in order to fill in some gaps and try to explain how, in all honesty, this isn’t actually a terrible idea. Yes, it’s poorly executed and loses track of its purpose about fifteen times in the span of its pilot, but the relationship between Arthur and Merlin is actually a fairly interesting one, and if I were to ever suggest a way to take the epic scale of this story and turn it into a television show this would be a pretty strong pitch.
The resulting show, of course, is a hodgepodge of Lord of the Rings and Smallville, entirely missing the real potential in this particular period of their lives. However, the show does demonstrate the ways in which a television format may actually be the right way to tackle this material, just not quite with as many wacky hijinks as we see here.
For those who don’t know, this notion of Arthur and Merlin’s destiny that has been set forward is not entirely fabricated: while Merlin was never actually a contemporary with Arthur, they did have a very strong relationship where Arthur was dependent on Merlin’s knowledge and action in order to save his kingdom. Now, I’m not suggesting that the show’s setup is accurate: Merlin would need to be older, and the show would have to focus further on Arthur than it currently does to match up with whauthe Morte, for example, presents. However, what really stands out is the way in which the show asks the question of why Merlin does what he does to protect Arthur.
Its answer, of course, is far too simple: “It’s destiny” is not a justifiable enough reason, even told by an enormous talking dragon, for this to take place. I left the Morte with seriously eons of unanswered questions about Merlin and his motivations: for an all-knowing, all-powerful individual, he allows the kingdom to fall, withholding information and allowing Arthur’s actions taken based on his information to go awry. Merlin’s intention and Merlin’s actions do not always seem to add up in the text, and investigating the complicated man that Merlin is would be an intriguing way of approaching the material.
Of course, the show doesn’t really aspire to any of these notions, drawing Merlin as a confused teenager who has control over his powers but has no knowledge of why he has them or any sense of his purpose. The show eventually places he and Arthur at odds before placing them together as a combined destiny, which is an interesting way of showing how Merlin works his way into this complicated role of advisor. The problem is that, by choosing to place them both as teenagers, Merlin’s complications are his lust for the same women (Morgana, who better damn well end up evil), his friendship with “Gwen,” and your basic teenage angst. I don’t particularly desire to see a Merlin who doesn’t understand his powers in the same way that he doesn’t understand the feelings below his waist, I want to see a mature Merlin coming to terms with powers with a much more expansive world view.
Painting Arthur as an adolescent is actually ideal, in the end. He’s a bit of a bratty teenager in the Morte, and there is this brattish (sorry, Prattish, I forget it’s a British show) way about him in the text that works here. He did become anointed to be king at an extremely early age (the show is skipping his period living amongst non-royals, but I can’t expect accuracy), and there always was a sense that it was partially his own bungling which would lead to his kingdom’s downfall. Without Merlin, he would have literally been nothing, so a bully of a teenager struggling to come to terms with his own destiny is not a terrible way to characterize the future King.
I would love to see a show that portrayed Arthur early in his rule under his father, struggling with his identity and seeking the counsel of the wise Merlin, who is not himself just growing chest hair and chasing skirt, and having to strike up that new relationship. The show’s attempt to create a narrative from the banned use of magic is a shameless effort to turn this into Smallville or any other superhero origin story about powers that aren’t meant to be used. The real story is in these characters and who they are going to one day become, but right now things are so caught up in an invented past of magical misuse and clichéd evil witches that the show really doesn’t understand what makes this story memorable and timeless.
It’s really unfair for me to treat the show like I am, expecting it to turn into an Arthurian Deadwood or The Wire, but to be honest there are points at which those shows remind me of the complicated ethics, the changing rules of the street or the lawless town, and the characters that exist within them have struggles with responsibility and their own destinies as much as any others. Boiling all of that down into what is a teen drama is just not what this story needs, and the awkward sexual tension between Merlin and Guenevere and the “OMG, I’m in the quarters of the King’s ward and she thinks I’m her handmaid” scenes are moving the show further away from what is not a particularly poor impulse.
Beyond its premise, of course, the show falls apart further: the cast doesn’t have any particular weak links (although Anthony Head needs to be given something decent to do at some stage here), but the dialogue they’re given is a bit of a concern. This is especially true for nearly every conversation between Merlin and Gaius, his guardian. There’s a point where Gaius, bailing the young man out of jail, says that “You never cease to amaze me!” However, they’re pretty well known each other for all of two days, so that line of dialogue makes no sense. Merlin then responds with an exaggerated “Oh thank you, thank you!” that feels entirely out of character when placed alongside the uber-serious “I’d rather die than not use magic” we get later in the episode. There just isn’t any consistency here, and it’s wearing thin my interest in the subject matter.
Moving forward, the show is kind of trapped in its setup: since magic is now synonymous with evil, Merlin is there as essentially Arthur’s bodyguard to keep snakes on shields from coming to life, or to keep crazed opera singers from murdering him at celebrations. This isn’t a show I really want to watch, which is why barring a strike of boredom I won’t be continuing with the series.
However, I will officially be arguing to anyone who wants to listen that a television series may be the right way to do this story justice, as the ability to focus on episodic moments, or even to go back and capture unique relationships like the one between Arthur and Merlin, makes it a more ideal medium than film for discovering the unique relationships and notions of honour that permeate Malory’s text. Here, that’s all washed away by a talking dragon and the entire show being treated like it’s on The WB, but here’s hoping someone else sees the potential in this type of idea and creates the show I really want to see.
- I am actually quite certain that HBO has a show based on the Arthurian legend in the pipeline, although its future largely depends on the Arthurian-esque Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I liked that book, and think it already reads like an HBO show and won’t need a great deal of bastardization to fit into the network’s programming mould, so barring a poorly constructed pilot I would expect it to find its way onto the schedule before an Arthurian tale.
- The show could have done a lot more with its rather clunky forbidding of magic, especially considering that they are trying to paint magic as both the cause of and the solution to all of the kingdom’s problems. There’s a moral dilemma there, one that could be better served with giving Merlin a more complicated question than whether he should save the royal ass of a Prince – there’s darker questions at play here, and I wish he could have had a less one-note evil sorceress who could tempt him to the dark side a little. And yes, that would be a giant cliché in and of itself, but as long as the show’s operating on that plane it should go all out.
- Yeah, about those special effects on the Great Dragon…let’s not talk about that. We should talk about, though, the total Harry Potter parseltongue ripoff that was his secret messages to Harry.
- And, just to be clear: if I had no connection to the “source material,” I would have stopped watching after the umpteenth “Oh, I’m not ordinary” line from Merlin that’s just one giant wink to the audience – so lazy, so frustrating.