Series Premiere: Merlin – “The Dragon’s Call”

MerlinTitle

“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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.

14 Comments

Filed under Merlin

14 responses to “Series Premiere: Merlin – “The Dragon’s Call”

  1. j.ann

    I’m about 98% certain that the show creators were inspired by Smallville (which… actually isn’t a comfort), and it is definitely a very camp reimagining of the original legend (fans of new Doctor Who like me are well used to it, I think) and pretty much changes the whole story, but personally, I find the the show itself to be a great deal of fun, especially as the season goes on. Actually, by the end, I think they manage to veer from the magic beastie-of-the-week very well, even doing some wonderful things with Morgana and Uther, which I never would have expected. If Smallville manage to be that good within the span of 13 episodes, I might’ve kept watching that show for reasons other than sheer DC loyalty.

    But you know, to each his own. I love my campy goodness.

  2. Len

    The show’s writing gets better as it goes on. For me, the show started picking up starting from Episode 4/5-ish.

    Yes, if you’re looking for ASoIaF’s brand of dark, nitty-gritty realism in “Merlin,” you’re not going to find it. But the show does get darker: Episode 8 comes to mind as an example. /SPOILERS/ In that episode, Merlin debates whether or not to save a life of a child, knowing the detrimental consequences of saving that life will — in the long-term — cost Arthur his life. /END SPOILERS/

    Episode 11 is deep with symbolism, and if you don’t plan on watching the rest of the series, you may be interested in watching Episode 11 (or 8, if you choose). In fact, if you’re interested, here’s a commentary on that specific episode here from another avid student of the Arthurian legend: http://crabby-lioness.livejournal.com/48227.html#cutid1

    • Len

      Oh, and just another note:

      If I wasn’t persuaded to watch the entire series by AND THEN judge “Merlin,” I probably would’ve stopped watching after the second or third episode.

      I agree with j.ann: the crucial difference between “Smallville” and “Merlin” is the latter manages to improve enormously in the span of thirteen episodes. In the second half, the writers expand the story beyond the formulaic baddie-of-the-week and taking the storytelling to different (and sometimes, darker) levels.

      The characters and their development are at the pinnacle of the series’ strength; these strides are most notable, again, during the second half of the series.

      I hope you will give the show another chance by finishing all thirteen episodes, but if not, see you around when HBO premieres with “A Game of Thrones” around 2010, I suspect. (Crossing my fingers for GRRM to finish ADoD by then, if not by this September.)

  3. I guess as a reply to both of you, I’m definitely not vehemently against giving the show another shot. The second episode is sitting here, and chances are I’ll end up watching it at some point ahead of next week’s second run.

    It’s comforting, though, to know that the show evolves as it goes on – I can understand the desire, or perhaps even the need, of a less dour and more welcoming opening to the legend, as certainly very little of the source material offers such a thing.

    Consider my mind open, despite my skepticism – thanks for the comments!

    • Len

      Well, I can understand your skepticism, especially if you’re a TV critic. I’m rather new when it comes to watching TV series faithfully (being a bibliophile), and I’m already finding myself dropping shows more quickly than I had been when I first started out. So far, I’ve watched several TV shows, and the only ones I’ve stayed with all the way were “Rome” and “Battlestar Galactica.” I haven’t gotten around to watching the other HBO TV shows yet, but one of my friends — an HBO aficionado — will see through that. 😛

      I’m not sure why I’m more forgiving of “Merlin”‘s flaws. I find it unusually charming in the way I found the new Star Trek film unexpectedly charming. The film had a 1D villain and a plot riddled with flaws, yet their characters and developing friendships seemed to make up for it. In a similar way, “Merlin” derives a lot of its charm from their characters and their relationships.

      “Merlin” is still crude, bungles up the legend, and has its problems, but…

      Based on the last several episodes, I really do believe the writers have something more planned for the second season. I saw some potential peeking out, particularly behind Episodes 8 and 11 (13 in some parts, 10 for character development). It could be just be me overanalyzing (I tend to do that a lot), but the writers are trying in a way that makes me believe there’s potential for something better.

  4. I don’t think the show ever reaches its full potential from the perspective of an adult fan of the legends, but it does improve, and it’s such a charming romp that it’s hard not to enjoy it. Plus, my kids loved it, and it’s increasingly difficult to find anything that’s enjoyable and appropriate for both them and me. 🙂

    • Len

      I’m hoping the show will reach its full potential during the second season. I’ve read in interviews that it’ll be darker than the first season, so we’ll see.

      Also, I do hope “Merlin” won’t fall into the trap that I’ve seen some PG-rated films have, desperately trying to prove its cleverness in a way that ends up ruining the story. This is usually because they weren’t able to make up their minds about whether or not they were going to be kiddie-oriented fare or something even more.

      Nothing wrong with trying to be more serious and darker (I welcome it; it means more potential for character growth and exploration of complex issues), I just hope that if that’s the direction they’re taking the show, they’ll do it right.

  5. CrabbyLioness

    Arthurian Legend =/= Malory. Malory was actually a Johnny-come-lately to the field of Arthurian legend, and he mucked up several of the original details to serve his own puposes. BBC Merlin goes back to the earlier material to portray, among other things, Merlin and Arthur as contemporaries.

    The show is going to get a lot darker and more twisted later on, starting with the fourth episode. Stick around next week.

    • Oh, I’m totally aware that Arthurian Legend isn’t Malory. I just think that it’s a) the most interesting take on the legend and b) his is the most influential in the English language, and as a result it can’t help but feel the most prevalent as it relates to any adaptation of this kind of material.

      I’m likely sticking around to see how the darkness comes, at the very least – thanks for the comments, all.

  6. CrabbyLioness

    To each his own. I find Malory fairly dull and far too snobbish myself. He took a story about the establishment of a meritocracy and littered it with pot-shots at the lower classes and paens to the aristocracy that simply didn’t exist in the Legends before his version.

  7. Ru

    I just want to put forward the observation that this is yet another retelling of the Arthurian legends, and that frankly, I’d be more than a little bit bored to watch a flat-out remake of T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone or The Once and Future King, or even the SciFi miniseries Merlin with Sam Neill. The Clive Owen film King Arthur. Quest for Camelot. Le Morte d’Arthur. Camelot the Musical (because I’m sure they weren’t bursting into song and dancing all over the battlements at random intervals in historical/mythical Camelot either). The Crystal Cave. The books of Alice Borchardt.

    The fact that this list is so long is a testament to the number of people that didn’t want more of the same.

    I would be bored because all those plots and twists have been done. Yes, I agree that the “known” is comforting, and that it can be very gratifying to watch events we know so well unfold all over again through a new set of eyes. But if I want to get the interpretation of Marion Zimmer Bradley, I’ll read The Mists of Avalon. I don’t really want to see the same ol’ same ol’ in an “all new television show” because that’s not new, that’s a copy. No new ideas. I’d like a fresh take on the legends, and BBC’s Merlin provides that. It’s very obvious from the way the show progresses that the creators are well aware of the original legends and the off-shoots that came after. I like the idea that Morgana is not evil, but complicated. I like that Mordred is perhaps something more than the avenging bastard incestual son of a forbidden union. I like the idea that Merlin and Arthur meet on different terms than that of the wise old wizard who knows loads more about life than the silly young prince. Not equal terms (obviously, as Merlin is a servant), but different. Perhaps even more equal than the servant/master relationship would lead one to believe, because as a teenager, Merlin can say things to Arthur that he never could get away with as a wizened adult. The juxtaposition of power here is unique.

    I am not as familiar with the Malory writings as you are, but all of these separate takes on Arthurian legend are basically forms of fanfiction. Marion Zimmer Bradley reads the legends, likes them, and thinks, “Hey, I wonder what the women thought of all this.” Boom, new fiction. Inevitable outcry from the purists, but now her book is basically accepted as a piece of literature. Still, it’s only a retelling of another person’s work, and that’s just what BBC’s Merlin is. Just because the women didn’t figure so prominently in the original legends (and by prominently, I mean actually forwarding events instead of being the victims of them or the sinister antagonists who must be destroyed) doesn’t mean that their story isn’t valid. BBC just stepped back and thought, “Hey, what if Merlin and Arthur sort of… grew up together? A bit?”

    I like it. It’s new. It’s not more of the same. It’s not completely faithful to the original, but then, if all I wanted was faithfulness to the original, I’d just read the original. I love seeing the different interpretations of characters. I may not agree with them all, but that’s on me. I like the chance to decide, and I sense that you do as well. ^__^ There’s nothing like a little friction to get the creative discussion going.

    Thanks for the chance to wax on.

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