Merlin has a habit of being just off-target. Whereas Robin Hood finally learnt to aim straight in its’ final series and the Doctor has been dominating the family drama slot on BBC One for nearing six years, the young wizard has never quite managed what those two great British icons achieved, and Steven Moffat’s recent Sherlock series got right from the start. There’s this element of pizzaz that Merlin tends to lack- It almost just wants to play it safe. The show has a sense of fun, but no sense of adventure. Can this third series finally put that right?
Well, it’d be hard to give that impression after just a couple of episodes, but if the opening two-parter was anything to go by, Prince Arthur and company could be about to be catapulted into a new level of cult adoration.
We pick up one year on from the previous series, in which time all of the cast have had haircuts and Merlin now seems to be three inches taller. However, we don’t feel one year on in terms of presentation. Hell, that titles sequence has been around since the series debut in 2007. The castle is exactly the same and while we know it would be weird if they changed it, the series fails to make it feel like something new. Doctor Who does it, Robin Hood managed it, even Primeval so why can’t Merlin?
From a plot point of view, however, we have moved on. Morgana is no longer a love interest character for Arthur one week then Merlin the next, she’s now the sworn enemy of the magic boy, but still the King’s Ward to everyone else. Having an arking villain and storyline like in the first series should make things more interesting, after the highly uneventful second series, although we’ll have to wait and see.
For an ‘event’ episode, not a lot really happens, to be honest. We already knew Morgana was evil, we already knew many of the details about Uther’s past and we’re still waiting for Merlin to reveal his secret to the world- Something he had a great chance to do during the one-on-one confrontation with Morgana in Part Two and blew. How nobody’s noticed that every single army that attacks Camelot seems to be crushed suddenly by a falling tree, we’ll never know.
Katy McGrath returns as Morgana, although she’s been exposed here. As someone who started off as make-up artist and clothes runner behind the scenes before landing acting jobs, you can tell why she wasn’t immediately taken into drama colleges. Yes, she’s acted well when she’s just had to smile at Arthur/Merlin/Gwyn/Uther/Lancalot/Whoever and occasionally cry a bit, but she can’t cope with being evil. Yes, it’s where the story was headed, but you’ve got to strike an active relationship between the tools and the job at hand, rather than making one fit the other.
However, Anthony Head keeps his head held high even if his character is in their darkest days as he portrays an Uther full of emotion, more so than ever before. Other actors would find a way of making the overdone fear look like a silly plot idea. Head, however, pulls it off, so extra credit must go to him. There’s also typically solid performances from Colin Morgan as Merlin and Bradley James as Prince Arthur, although really the leading duo sum the show up. Doctor Who found Tennant and Piper, then Tennant and Ageymun, then Smith and Gillan, all of which stood out. Sherlock propelled unknown actor Benedict Cumberbatch to BAFTA nominations. Merlin’s stuck with two actors who do what they’re asked to, but when it comes to blowing us away can never quite get there. Hopefully, though, the signs of improvement shown carry through to next week, for the sake of pizzaz.