Like Smallville did for Superman, Merlin is a new drama series that updates the story of the infamous sorcerer of Arthurian legend for a new audience. In a time before history began, the mythical city of Camelot was a fantastical realm and a dangerous world in which magic has been banned by the ruthless tyrant Uther Pendragon. When Merlin, a young man gifted with extraordinary magical powers, arrives in the kingdom, he discovers his destiny and that of the kingdom's young leader in waiting,Arthur, are inextricably linked.
The creators of Merlin
position their hero as the original Harry Potter: a headstrong young wizard with mixed feelings about--and sometimes outright hostility toward--the destiny that's been thrust upon him. Merlin
is a reboot of Arthurian legend, starting when all the heroes and sorcerous folk were teenagers, bursting with hormones and wrestling with the powers-that-be, particularly Arthur's heavy-handed father, Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head, best known as Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
), a benevolent tyrant who's banished magic from Camelot. Merlin (Colin Morgan, an impish lad with prominent ears) comes to the kingdom with high hopes and innate magical powers. He's taken under the wing of the court physician, Gaius (Richard Wilson, One Foot in the Grave
), but additionally becomes the servant of young Arthur (Bradley James), a handsome and talented fighter who's also a bully and a snob. Rounding out the main cast are Morgana (Katie McGrath), who will one day be Merlin's foe but is now Uther's ward, and Gwen (Angel Coulby), a.k.a. Guinevere, the woman who will one day be the center of a legendary love triangle--but who is now Morgana's maid. Clearly, Merlin
wants to shake up any preconception about these stuffy old stories, presenting a multi-ethnic Camelot with contemporary language and attitudes.
Despite all this, Merlin quickly becomes addictive. The dialogue and special effects can be cheesy (particularly when the CGI monsters have to interact with actors), but the cast is charming and the stories, while a tad formulaic, keep things moving. Morgan is appropriately dweeby (but also has killer cheekbones), James combines football-quarterback good looks with a hint of sensitivity, McGrath is luscious and impetuous, and Coulby has earthy spunk. The heavy lifting, acting-wise, is ably handled by Head and Wilson. The first season deftly explores the origins of the pillars of Arthurian mythos, from the sword Excalibur to a very dashing (but born of peasant stock) Lancelot to the mysterious birth of Arthur himself. Add to it all an imprisoned dragon, voiced by John Hurt (Alien, The Elephant Man) and prone to cryptic but sometimes helpful advice, and you have an engaging fantasy series. In addition to 13 episodes, there's an additional disk with making-of features and video diaries of the young cast gallivanting around France. --Bret Fetzer