Saturday, 11 August 2012

Merlin (Series Four)

The fourth series of Merlin begins with the two-parter episode The Darkest Hour, which takes place one year after the events of the series three finale The Coming of Arthur. Uther Pendragon is a broken-hearted man after the betrayal of his beloved daughter and ward Morgana and is now suffering from severe depression. As a result of Uther's condition, Arthur is now king in all but name and is acting as Prince Regent of Camelot. And as for Morgana, she's still on the loose and is more than determined than ever to make herself Queen. She's even willing to sacrifice her own half-sister Morgause in order to do it. Morgana's magical powers have grown considerably over the past year and she's now a much more dangerous and threatening villain. She's even had her own badass makeover too! In the first three series of Merlin, Morgana usually wore colourful and fabulous dresses such as these:

But now Morgana looks like THIS:

As you can plainly see, Morgana now looks like a younger and hotter version of Bellatrix Lestrange! Unfortunately for her - since she's no longer at Camelot and is stuck all by herself in her Cottage of Doom all day - there's no-one around to appreciate how glamorously evil she's become. That can't be fun for her. Say what you like about Morgana but you have to admit she's got style! Morgana has also gotten herself her own spy to feed her information and stir up trouble in Camelot. This is Arthur's uncle Sir Agravaine (I like to call him "Sir Aggravate") and he's now working as Arthur's chief adviser at Camelot. He's a man that's so shifty looking that you can just TELL he's up to no good even before it's revealed that he's in cahoots with Morgana! You might be interested to know that Agravaine is Arthur's nephew in traditional Arthurian mythology but he was still sort of evil.

Merlin and Gaius both suspect that Agravaine may be Morgana's spy but can't really do anything about it due to their lack of proof. Yet despite the fact that Morgana is more dangerous than ever before, she becomes increasingly paranoid and scared about Emrys after she receives a series of warnings that this extremely powerful sorcerer is destined to be her doom. Morgana becomes obsessed with Emrys but she has no idea that Emrys is actually the druid's name for Merlin. It's quite satisfying to see Morgana being scared-stiff of Merlin without actually knowing it's him!

Now that I've watched all of its four series I can't believe that I initially dismissed Merlin all those years ago. It's a wonderful TV show and is vastly, VASTLY superior to all of its post Doctor Who rivals. Up until Doctor Who arrived back on our TV screens in 2005, fantasy/sci-fi shows were a rare thing on British TV. But Doctor Who's huge success proved that there was still a big market for this sort of show. The BBC and ITV then produced several others to try and cash in on Doctor Who's success - shows such as Robin Hood, Demons and, Lord help me, Primeval. (shudders) When Hannah from S Club 7 is the best actor in your show you know you've got problems!

Merlin is different. It's entertaining and ridiculously addictive. It has clever and interesting plots. It has magic and exciting action scenes. It's very well-written and it has a superb cast: Colin Morgan, Bradley James, Katie McGrath, Angel Coulby, Richard Wilson, Anthony Stewart Head and John Hurt. And the show has extremely likeable protagonists that you can genuinely care about. As cheesy as it might sound there have been many times when I've found myself wanting to hang out at the pub with Merlin and Arthur! Even Merlin's weakest episodes have some merit to them. And the quality hasn't declined! It's a show that just keeps getting better and better! Series Four is the best series of Merlin yet. In fact it's so good that it makes series one seem almost crap by comparison! And I really loved series one! This improvement in quality might be the reason why the show has had increased ratings. Something...just seemed to happen with this series. Merlin has always been a popular show but for some reason there was a big boost in ratings with series four. Was it a word-of-mouth thing? The BBC had originally planned on Merlin being a teatime show but they then decided to give the show a prime-time Saturday night slot for its fourth series. You'd think the BBC's decision to put it in direct competition with ITV's The X Factor might have harmed the show's ratings but that wasn't the case at all. In fact the finale of Merlin series four only got half a million less viewers than the finale of Doctor Who series six! This is a huge achievement! Now Merlin is the only fantasy show in the UK that can genuinely claim to be a rival to Doctor Who, and it's picked up a small but passionate cult following in the USA due to it being shown on the cable channels NBC and Sy-Fy.

As I've already mentioned series four is the best series of Merlin so far and this is due to several different reasons. One of the reasons why it's the best yet is because of these guys (see left). Although a couple of them are basically glorified extras - I'm looking especially hard at you, Percival! - the Knights of the Round Table really are a great addition to the show and provide a lot of fun. The production values for this series are higher than they've ever been before too. Although the dodgy dragon CGI suggests that the show doesn't have a massive budget it's still quite clearly an expensive show to make and it does have a very cinematic look and feel to it at times.

Another great thing about series four is that it has the best storylines so far and even the standalone "filler" episodes are great. There isn't a single bad episode. Also, series four is definitely the darkest and most mature series of the show yet. You know it's going to be almost straight away because the opening narration from John Hurt refers to Merlin as a "young man" instead of a "young boy". The darkest episode in the series is, well, the series opener The Darkest Hour. It has moody visuals, a genuinely eerie atmosphere and some unsettling scenes. I wouldn't be at all surprised if some of the younger viewers were sent to bed early by mum and dad! I thought it was a great move to hold off showing the Darocha for as long as possible and to let the scary sound effects do all the work. Tellingly the series four boxset is the only series of Merlin to receive a 12 certificate. It really is more grown-up!

The characters feel more mature in this series too and they all develop. It was nice to see Merlin take on Gaius's medical duties in Lamia and he even becomes Arthur's speechwriter! Merlin develops in other ways in this series too but I'll come to that later. And judging from the episode The Hunter's Heart Gaius and Sir Leon would make a pair of excellent detectives. Somebody get them their own spin-off show! The character who develops and matures the most in this series though is probably Arthur. Because of Uther's condition he's been forced to step up and become the ruler that Camelot needs. It's great that he's finally become comfortable with the idea of being King. Later on he gets to be the King of Camelot officially. Yep, Uther actually dies in this series! Hurrah! I'm sorry, Anthony Stewart Head. You're a legend and I love you but I'm not going to miss you in this. As a king Arthur isn't perfect. He sometimes listens to bad advice (courtesy of Agravaine) and I reckon he should have been more pro-active in trying to deal with the threat of Morgana. But he's still a far nicer person and a far more open-minded king than his dad ever was. He manages to win over people who had previously held him in contempt (Queen Annis, Tristan) and he even promises to end the persecution of the Druids. His decision to exile Gwen from Camelot was pretty shocking but at least he had the decency to reverse that decision later on.

I especially loved Morgana's character development in this series too. One of my gripes with series three is that the writers made her character too evil too soon. They really should have included a couple of scenes that had Morgana questioning her motives and expressing self-doubt with her evil plans. She was just too unrecognisable from the character of series one and two. But I have no such complaints about Morgana in this series. In my mind, series three should have had Morgana teetering on the brink of evil and series four should have her be totally committed to the dark side. And in this series she is. Morgana is just awesome in series four! I loved her and hated her at the same time. At first I was gutted when Morgause was killed off because she was a great villain and Emilia Fox did a great job playing her. But it was all for the best really. With Morgause no longer around the writers have made Morgana into a much more badass and capable villain in order to compensate. Katie McGrath does a brilliant job playing her too. You can really tell that she's having the time of her life playing a villain! There's far less evil smirking from her than there was in the last series (I think that was due to the writing and direction) and far more actual evil doing. As always there are some impressive guest stars in this series too. A number of talented character actors appear in this series. Gemma Jones (of Sense and Sensibility and Bridget Jones's Diary) plays the Cailleach. Phil Davis, who you may recognise as the taxi cab driver from the first episode of Sherlock, plays as assassin. James Callis, who was in Battlestar Galactica and played Bridget's gay best friend in the Bridget Jones films, features in an episode as an old pupil of Gaius's called Julius Borden. Lindsay Duncan plays Queen Annis and Gary Lewis (who was the dad in Billy Elliot) plays Alator.

The Cailleach

The Assassin

Julius Borden

Queen Annis


Another great thing about this series is that it's darker than its predecessors but not too dark. One of my major problems with the final two seasons of Buffy was that it became too dark and serious but that's not true of Merlin. It still manages to be very funny and entertaining. The comic highlight of the series for me was the episode A Servant of Two Masters. When it starts off though it would be an easy mistake to think that it's going to be a serious episode. Merlin gets injured on a quest and Arthur is obviously concerned because he finally confesses to Merlin what we all knew. He doesn't really think Merlin is a coward. He thinks he's brave and loyal and a great servant. Aww! Then Merlin gets separated from Arthur, is knocked unconscious and is taken by Morgana's henchmen. Morgana then tortures Merlin - Bitch! How dare she?! - and brainwashes him with a magical snake called the Fomorrah, so that Merlin will kill Arthur and therefore enable Morgana to take the throne of Camelot. Now this really shows just how evil Morgana has become in my opinion. Believe me, if I had Colin Morgan tied up in my house then taking over Camelot would be the last thing on my mind! Merlin then goes back to Camelot and makes several bizarre and hilarious attempts to kill Arthur. Merlin makes for a surprisingly terrible assassin! He's then temporarily brought back to his old self by Gaius and Gwen and then battles Morgana in his old man Merlin disguise. Old Merlin is hilarious and there's a very funny scene with him and the Knights. Merlin then defeats Morgana with a very nifty spell and destroys the Fomorrah for good.

The bromance between Merlin and Arthur is just as amusing as it's ever been in this series. In fact it's actually more so! This is because there's now an increased homoerotic subtext to many of the conversations! Ever since Merlin has started there have always been fans who've shipped Merlin and Arthur as a couple, the Merthur fans. If the final episode ended with Merlin and Arthur declaring their unspoken homoerotic love for each other they'd be very pleased! In fairness there have been moments in the previous three series that have had a (presumably) unintentional homoerotic subtext so the fans are only responding to what they see. To moments such as THIS:

With this particular series of Merlin it seems as though the writers have finally discovered the existence of these Merthur fans and have decided to throw in some scenes with a deliberately homoerotic subtext to entertain them. I mean, just look at these scenes! I absolutely refuse to believe that the writers didn't know what they were doing!

The most slashy and hilarious scene of them all....

Ha ha! And even in real life Colin Morgan and Bradley James seem to have something going on! Do I detect some sexual tension in this video? ; )

We see more elements of the traditional Arthurian legends in this series as well. In the episode Lancelot du Lac the show finally gets round to tackling the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle. The adulterous love affair of Lancelot and Guinevere is of course one of the most famous stories in Arthurian mythology, possibly the most famous. Merlin's treatment of this didn't disappoint and and it made for an extremely moving and powerful episode. Even though Merlin isn't a show that takes itself too seriously it can still pack a hefty emotional punch when it needs to! I know that it annoyed some that Lancelot and Gwen's affair was simply a single, passionate kiss in a dark room on the night before Gwen's marriage to Arthur; and that it annoyed many that neither Lancelot nor Gwen were to blame for their actions. The resurrected Lancelot was actually a mindless shade of his former self and was being controlled by Morgana, and Gwen was enchanted by a magical bracelet. But I'm going to stick up for Merlin's depiction of the affair. Although Merlin has gotten darker with each series it still remains a family show so of course the writers wouldn't have wanted to show an adulterous sex scene. And as for the fact that Gwen was enchanted, well, because of the way her character has been written throughout the entire show I've always found it VERY hard to imagine her ever one day cheating on Arthur. She just doesn't seem like the type. If the writers had had Gwen cheat on Arthur of her own volition then it would have been far too out of character. And the fact that Lancelot and Gwen weren't responsible for their actions didn't make the episode any less powerful. In fact it added to it in my eyes! It was heartbreaking that everyone, including Gwen herself, thought that she'd willingly betrayed Arthur. It doesn't look as if anyone ever will find out either. Also, the episode really shows just far the show has come. If this episode had happened back in series one the outcome would have been completely different. Merlin would have found the bracelet, exposed Morgana's plot and exonerated Gwen. The episode would have then finished with the uplifting sight of Gwen getting married to Arthur. But now the writers are bolder and are unafraid to mix things up a bit. Sure they had Arthur eventually forgive Gwen a few episodes later but they still kept us on our toes for a while! Bradley James and Angel Coulby deserve much praise for their acting in this episode too. They both acted their hearts out. There's an extremely emotional scene between them that got them a round of applause from the crew members. You'll know it when you see it! You know, I've never really been a huge fan of the idea of Arthur and Gwen as a couple before. It might have something to do with me being more entertained by the fact that there's more sexual tension between Merlin and Arthur than there is between Arthur and Gwen. But the scene between Bradley James and Angel Coulby completely changed my mind about Arthur and Gwen as a couple and made me support their love!

The series finale The Sword in the Stone also featured some traditional Arthurian elements and it was a fantastic two-parter episode. On paper it would have been easy to dismiss it as being too similar to the series three finale The Coming of Arthur. Once again we had Camelot falling to an enemy army, Morgana becoming Queen, and Arthur and Merlin being forced to go on the run before they were able to rally the troops and reclaim the throne. But The Sword in the Stone was better than The Coming of Arthur. It was bigger and even more epic - and it was surprisingly funnier too. Seeing Arthur as a tree-hugging simpleton had me in stiches. Another great performance from Bradley James! I was also very much entertained by the scenes between Morgana and Gwaine in this episode as well. Just look at how flirty Morgana is in this scene! And she's got him fighting shirtless! Oh Morgana, you've got it bad haven't you?

As for the actual sword-pulling, I know that some viewers have objected to the fact that Merlin used his magic to help Arthur pull the sword out but I disagree. I know it annoyed many but I thought it was an excellent scene. After all, Merlin was the one who put the sword there in the first place so it makes sense that Arthur wouldn't be able to get the sword out without Merlin's permission. It may not be 100% faithful to the myth but Merlin has always played fast-and-loose with Arthurian mythology from the get-go. It seems a bit late to complain about that now! Also, I think some viewers have forgotten that Arthur is a humble servant boy who is unaware of his true noble origins in most interpretations of the myth. Pulling the sword out of the stone proved to the people of Camelot that Arthur was the one true king and the rightful heir to the throne. But that wasn't necessary here. Arthur is already king. He already has the love and respect of his people and they would gladly fight and die for him. Pulling the sword out was never about proving anything to them. Merlin engineered the entire situation as a means of eliminating Arthur's self-doubt and restoring his self-confidence. And I think people still sometimes forget that there isn't really a "correct" version of Arthurian mythology. They're tales with obscure, mysterious origins that have been rewritten numerous times over the centuries.

The only thing that really disappointed me about The Sword in the Stone was the introduction of Tristan and Isolde. They were given the Merlin treatment in this and were reinvented as a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-like smugglers but that's not the reason why I didn't like them. I disliked them because they were just so annoying! Tristan was annoying because he was an annoying prat. Isolde was annoying because she was a crap fighter and had an absurdly impractical, revealing costume. It seemed like the only reason why the writers even put Tristan and Isolde in the episode was just so they could give Arthur more motivation in getting back together with Gwen, and so they could have a scene where one of them dies in the other's arms. But I wasn't moved at all by Isolde's death. If the writers had wanted me to be moved by it then they should have given her an actual personality and not just treated her as token eye-candy. I was just annoyed that Isolde didn't die sooner and that Tristan didn't die as well. I really hope we don't see Tristan again in the next series!  Tristan and Isolde's characters were one of the few things that I found disappointing about this series of Merlin. I also feel that the writers could have explained Agravaine's motives more clearly as well. Why is he so loyal to Morgana? Why does he hate his own nephew so much?

Another thing that I'm getting peeved about now is the fact that it's now been four series and everyone at Camelot (apart from Gaius) is as clueless as ever when it comes to Merlin's magical powers. It really makes me miss Lancelot. When is Arthur ever going to find out about Merlin's powers?! I mean it's getting a bit silly now. There's only so many times the writers can have Arthur failing to notice when Merlin is muttering magical spells behind his back. It's especially frustrating because Merlin has actually moved forward in so many significant ways since the start of series one. We've had Morgana turning evil, the Knights of the Round Table being set up, Uther dying, Arthur becoming King, Arthur getting Excalibur, Gwen marrying Arthur, Gwen becoming Queen. Yet, the writers still insist on keeping Merlin trapped in the magical closet. Actually, I CAN understand why the writers chose not to have Merlin reveal his powers to Arthur in The Sword in the Stone. Arthur had spent the last two episodes brooding about people betraying him (Morgana, Gwen, Agravaine). The last thing he needed to hear was that Merlin has been lying to him for all these years! Arthur isn't like Uther and he wouldn't want Merlin put to death but he'd still view it as a massive betrayal. He'd be hurt and angry. Arthur learning about Merlin's magical powers is a HUGE deal and there wouldn't have been enough time to deal with that properly. It was great to see the look on Agravaine's face though when he realised that Merlin is Emrys! That was an awesome scene! We got to see Merlin take charge and use his magic to kill Agravaine and all of his men. He didn't hold back. It's not the first time that Merlin has killed someone of course but it was still quite shocking to see him kill a load of people all in one go. And so easily too. It was a gutsy move on the writer's part to have the adorable hero of a family show do that and Colin Morgan was just fantastic in that scene - but then he always is really! In this series we get Merlin battling Morgana in his old man disguise, Merlin manipulating the Sword in the Stone, Merlin pulling off his most badass piece of magic yet, and there's also the fact that Merlin can control dragons. It makes me really excited to think what Merlin might get up to in the next series!

As a result of watching Merlin I'm now far more interested in Arthurian mythology and I'm really looking forward to series five, even though I've got next to no chance of watching it on Saturday nights. My family are big X Factor fans : ( I hate that show even more now! True there's always BBC iPlayer but it would make my Saturday nights so much more fun if I could watch Merlin.      
So far not all that much has been revealed as to what we can expect from this upcoming series although some things have been announced. It's going to take place three years after the events of series four, the biggest time jump yet. Merlin's character is apparently going to be much more powerful, focused and ruthless. Yay! Anthony Stewart Head is going to make an appearance. Since Uther's dead I'm guessing that this will be a flashback or a scene where he comes back as a ghost or something. Mordred is going to be in this series too and is going to be working alongside Morgana. About time! We haven't seen Mordred since series two! He's not going to be played by Asa Butterfield though. This time he'll be played by the adult actor Alexander Vlahos (see photo). It would have been really nice to have seen Asa Butterfield one last time but I guess he would be too young to play the character now. If Mordred was 12 when we last saw him he'd be about 18 in series five. Hopefully Vlahos will be as good as Butterfield was. The BBC have also released some promotional pictures for the next series and have released a trailer. Judging from the picture of Morgana her look in series five is going to be the same as her look in series four only more cleavagey. I especially love the shot of Merlin banging his hands on the ground in the trailer. Hopefully he's about to perform a badass bit of magic. And I really like the little scene with Arthur and Merlin towards the end.

My wishlist for the next series of Merlin: 
  • PLEASE can Merlin's magic be revealed to Arthur early on?! I really can't see the writers being able to stretch this out for much longer - and if, after the first four or five episodes, Merlin's magical powers still aren't known to Arthur then I'm going to scream! Well, I probably won't scream but I'll definitely let out a very loud groan! I want Merlin to finally get the credit he deserves for the countless times he's saved Arthur's life and prevented the Kingdom from collapsing. And if Merlin's magical powers are revealed early on it means that we can have Arthur gradually coming to terms with it throughout the entire series. I'm so afraid that they might not reveal Merlin's magical powers until the final episode!
  • I don't want any more spys and traitors in this series. It's been done now and the show needs to move on.
  • Can we get another Gwaine-focused episode? I love Gwaine! He's by far my favourite out of the Knights and I'd love it if Merlin did their own spin on the Green Knight story. Gwaine's character is used too much as the plucky, comic relief.
  • I want the series to focus on the birth of Albion and to see Arthur becoming High King. 
  • It was nice that we got to see Merlin meeting his mother again in The Sword in the Stone. I think the last time we saw Hunith was in the series one finale Le Morte d'Arthur. But Merlin needs to have a long overdue conversation with her about his father. Does she even know that Merlin met him? Does she know that he's dead?
  • It would be nice to learn more about Avalon. 
  • It would be nice if Gwen and Elyan got more scenes in this series too. They got so few scenes together in series four that you'd never guess they were brother and sister.
  • I'd like to see Gwen maturing and becoming a great Queen.
  • I'd love another Merlin-Morgana battle, this time without Merlin using his old man disguise.
  • I have a feeling that Gaius is going to die in this series and I have mixed feelings about that. I do love his relationship with Merlin. The banter between them is almost as amusing as the banter between Merlin and Arthur. But just as Uther's being killed off forced Arthur to mature, killing off Merlin's father-figure would force him to mature. Without Gaius's help he'd be completely self-reliant then and would have to make all of his own decisions. And I'm sure Gaius's death scene would have us seeing some fantastic dramatic acting from Colin Morgan.

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