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'Merlin' Season One: The Verdict

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'Merlin' Season One: The Verdict
It wasn't always an easy ride, but Merlin grew in strength and confidence throughout the course of the first season. Ratings were admirably consistent, despite being moved in the schedules on a weekly basis, prompting the BBC to commission more outings for the young sorcerer and his friends. But what worked and what didn't in the show's debut year?

The first half of the season undoubtedly contained too many facsimile plots. Each week, some strangers would arrive in Camelot asking for help, only for Uther Pendragon to welcome them into his court with open arms. Secretly though, they would be plotting to kill the King via some malevolent use of magic - most probably because he did something nasty to their family many years before. Enter Merlin, who would have his usual ethical crisis during a chat with Gaius, only to save the day with a spell that no-one notices.

Fortunately, the writers dared to tinker with the increasingly stale formula on several occasions, and the show worked best when the central figures were proactive rather than reactive. Hence the effective nature of the adventurous 'quest' episodes. Most notable of all was 'The Labyrinth Of Gedref' - a moving story built around a series of character tests on Arthur after he needlessly slays a unicorn. Similarly, the finale was packed full of inspired purpose and eye candy, as Merlin travelled to a far off land to save his beloved prince.

Indeed, the blossoming relationship between the lads was a reason to tune in every week. The sense of unrequited love echoed The Fast Show's Ted and Ralph characters, buoyed along by Merlin's talk of 'coming out' to the world in his true guise. Even Merlin's own mother waded in and told her son that she noticed a glint in Arthur's eye when around him. It's all a bit of a tease, but the possible subtext was fun to speculate about.

By contrast, the pre-credits sequences were far from fun and regularly failed to whip up any excitement before John Hurt's tedious Dragon narration kicked in. This key component of the show was amateurishly handled and is in dire need of correction for the second season. Merlin's makers must study some other genre shows to see how effective these teasers can be to hook in viewers, not bore them.

In terms of characterisation, the boys certainly fared better than the girls. Colin Morgan and Bradley James gelled fantastically well together, constantly learning from each other and indulging in some amusing banter. Who couldn't be impressed when Merlin stood up to his master in the recent finale and called him a "prat", albeit in an endearing kind of way?

Anthony Head deserves massive plaudits for keeping Uther an ambiguous character, as some of his deeds - like making Merlin drink from a cup to test for poison - were nothing short of evil. Head's great achievement was bringing an underlying sense of humanity to the ruler, giving off the impression that the strains of being a monarch have fragmented his ability to decide between right and wrong. Contrastingly, Richard Wilson was wholeheartedly good as Gaius, a dignified soul who was only given major psychological focus at the end of the season when he revealed that Merlin was the son he never had and that his life was largely a failure.

Alas, the girls did not fare so well on the show. Katie McGrath was wonderful as Morgana, yet was inexplicably underused throughout the series despite her presence markedly boosting the episodes she featured prominently in. After being unveiled as a 'seer' halfway through the run, full of prophetic visions, one could have expected this to be explored further. So fingers crossed the excellent actress, at her best when standing up to Uther, is given more material next year.

As for Guinevere... oh dear. Her main purpose seemed to be to spark some kind of romantic intrigue between herself and Merlin or herself and Arthur. On both fronts, it was entirely unconvincing and contrived. Through just a couple of glances exchanged with Merlin, Michelle Ryan's devilishly seductive Nimueh instantly blew her away as a believable love interest. It was a shame that beyond her initial excursion into Camelot, Nimueh wasn't at the forefront of more stories.

Sure, she popped up on a couple of occasions but more as a tacked-on afterthought. There's much scope to develop her (assuming she will return from her apparent death), as witnessed by the electrifying revelations between her and Uther, when her part in Arthur's genesis was explained. This enabled a more sympathetic judgment of Nimueh and her actions, and perhaps it's a shame that Merlin showed no remorse after dispatching her. It's murder, after all.

Still, at least the humans fared better than the other species on show. The Dragon was a particular disappointment, eating into the effects budget for little more than a few increasingly annoying cryptic soundbites spoken to Merlin. An array of other beasts largely disappointed due to the poor CGI being exposed in the harshness of daylight, and they looked even feebler against the impressively lavish environment and set design of Camelot. A rare effective moment for the critters came when Arthur was pursued by a horde of oversized spiders in a cave,giving the show a real Indiana Jones feel for a fleeting moment.

Regardless of the criticisms, everything is set in place for a fantastic second season of perfect family viewing, providing a few tweaks are made. Ditch the Dragon unless he serves more purpose, give Morgana more screen time, resurrect Nimueh, and use the CGI monsters in more atmospheric, darker conditions. Above all, keep us guessing about Arthur and Merlin!

> What do you think about the first season? Share your views

> Click here for our individual reviews of every Merlin episode

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