Review: The visions of Merlin

The new season of the BBC’s popular Arthurian drama premiered this weekend, and it does not disappoint.

It has been three years of peace since the marriage of Arthur and Gwen, and the establishment of the round table.

Gawain, Percival, and a company of 60 men have gone missing while investigating rumors that an ancient, abandoned fortress has been occupied by a great force. As is his typical response, Arthur must ride out personally to see what has befallen them.

Morgana has been searching for ‘Arthur’s Bain’ in the ruins, where it is prophesized to be found, not realizing the object of the prophesy is one of her own allies, Mordred, the boy who is destined to one-day slay Arthur in battle, depicted in this version of the tale as an orphaned Druid child. Meanwhile back at Camelot, Gwen, now settling nicely into her role as queen, must ferret out a traitor in the castle.

As usual, the episode was a mix of drama, action, humor, and magic in great balance. We already knew that the chemistry between Arthur and Merlin is fantastic, a classic bromance which slides effortlessly from grave to jocular and back many times each adventure. Much of the character development in the episode is used to show us how much the characters have grown together over the intervening time.

Gwen’s transformation of the three in-story years is the most dramatic, however. Arthur is growing as king, yes, this is made clear, but we saw that transition mostly near the end of the previous series, and especially in that series’ climax in the final episode.

However, Gwen has gone from the nervous, deferring young maid to a commanding and respected queen, capable of making difficult decisions and running the kingdom with a firm hand while her King is gallivanting away on heroic escapades. Not only has the character changed dramatically, but the actress, Angel Coulby, has matured into the role well, making the part seem effortless.

The production values have also ramped up significantly. The seams still show at the edges of some of the magic effects, but, in general, the costumes are higher quality, the set-pieces are more genuinely crafted, and the shooting locations are more varied and interesting. In addition, the action scenes of this season are better choreographed and more intense than past. At points even taking cues from modern Hollywood productions with their sliding fight sequences and frozen attack moments.

It’s impressive to see how far the show has come since its humble roots as a teen fantasy drama, clearly influenced by the American Smallville, set almost entirely in the same four rooms of a castle, and in which the best effect was a mostly-shadows dragon in the cellar. It was impressive then, mostly thanks to the writing, and a few very talented lead actors. Now it has fully matured, aged into adulthood alongside its target audience over the last five years.

If you haven’t started on Merlin yet, get to it. The light camp of the first few seasons is worth sitting through, even if you’re not into it. If you are already a Merlin fan, get ready. If this premiere is any indication, we’re in for the best series of the show yet.

Merlin airs on BBC One on Saturday nights. The new season hits Syfy (US) in January 2013.