“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.