Oh fun. It seems the Doctor Who effect is growing stronger. Now that it’s been firmly established that people actually want family-friendly drama early on Saturday evenings, we’ve had the deliciously silly pseudo-historical fun and games of Robin Hood and the CGI monster moves of Primeval. But what with production cycles, schedules and so on, there was a gap that needed to be filled, and obviously what was needed was something pseudo-historical with added CGI monsters, which is surely the only way to satisfy the audience.
And here it is. Merlin, which started last night, manages to fill both those criteria, and does the early evening entertainment thing well enough to be nicely watchable while we’re all waiting for the Doctor Who Christmas Special.
It’s been a while since there was an attempt on the old Arthurian legends on TV, quite possibly because every reasonable approach has already been taken. So the only way to play it is to take some version of the legend as literally as you can, twist it, spin it, use plenty of anachronistic language and attitude and, most importantly, have fun with it. And that’s what’s been done here.
The story follows the young Merlin, sent to King Uther Pendragon’s kingdom of Camelot to work for the Court Physician, Gaius. Merlin is played by Colin Morgan, who was the young man with goth tendencies in the Doctor Who episode Midnight, while Gaius is superbly played by Richard (Victor Meldrew) Wilson. When Merlin arrives, he’s just in time to see a sorcerer being executed. After some unpleasantness twenty years earlier, King Uther (Anthony Head) banned the practice of magic from his kingdom. Oh yes, and killed all the dragons, except one he imprisoned for reasons of plot development. After the execution, the sorcerer’s mother (Eve Myles in heavy old woman make-up) swears vengeance, quite explicitly threatening to kill Uther’s son, before doing a dramatic disappearing act…
Merlin goes to meet his new employer, and we immediately realise that he might have a wee bit of a problem in Camelot. He has a wild magic talent – he can will objects to move, or freeze them in the air as they fall. This is a little bit unusual – normally, magic has to be studied for years. Incantations have to be memorised and practised to make anything at all happen, and this young man can just do it without all that messing around. Nice trick if you can do it, and one that could get him killed in Uther’s kingdom.
And he soon gets himself into trouble when he encounters Prince Arthur, who is a bit of a bullying twit. Then he keeps hearing a voice calling to him. Following the voice to a cavern deep below Camelot, he finds the Great Dragon, imprisoned by Uther, but apparently quite friendly and wise. A very nicely created CGI dragon, too – with the vocal talents of no less than John Hurt. The Dragon tells Merlin the usual stuff about destiny, and how Arthur is going to unite Albion, and how he won’t be able to do this without Merlin. Merlin is not at all keen on this idea, what with Arthur being a complete prat.
Meanwhile, the sorceror’s mother has murdered Lady Helen, a famous singer who is soon to perform for Uther and his court. And with a bit of amulet twisting and incantation muttering, she
removes the old lady make up transforms herself into the image of the singer.
And when she sings for the court, she casts a spell, which sends everyone except Merlin into a deep, cobweb-covered sleep. Merlin drops a chandelier onto her, which breaks the spell. As everyone wakes up, she just has enough life left in her to throw a knife towards Arthur, but Merlin (being more awake than everyone else) throws the prince out of the way.
Uther is sufficiently impressed that he rewards Merlin by making him Arthur’s manservant. More fun will no doubt follow.
I have to say I enjoyed this first episode – nicely silly, well performed, and being set in that unspecified (post Roman, pre Norman) period, it’s freed from the awkward requirement for historical accuracy that makes Robin Hood a little odd at times. Good fun, well worth watching.
 Back next year, apparently
 Also back next year
 Though given the lack of a “real” historical point, it’s probably not fair to comment about anachronism. Unless it’s particularly silly.
 OK, OK. Soon we’ll get to someone who hasn’t been in Doctor Who. Probably.
 I think that’s all the Doctor Who linkage we’re getting.