Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Merlin: Season 1 Review

Arthur Pendragon, prince under his father, the magic hating King Uther Pendragon has to fight off innumerable threats to Camelot from every direction. At his side is Merlin, a humble servant, newly arrived to the city and under the guardianship of crusty old Gaius the court physician - who struggles to help Arthur find his destiny without revealing his own magic. Along the way there’s Morganna, Uther’s ward, sparring foil for Arthur with her own troubled past - and terrifying gift. And her servant, the sweet and kind Guinevere.

What I love most about this series is... meta! Precious precious meta! Yes, throughout the entire season the plot was maintained. I don’t think there was an episode that I could have skipped and not missed something. There was character development, relationship development, seeds for future plots, lovely nuggets of Arthurian lore,  and every episode was interesting. There were none that felt off or down or pointless or weak or contradictory or frustrating, I generally enjoyed every moment of it all the way through. And that’s rare - normally you expect at least a couple of pointless episodes (usually involving bloody wendigo)

And there was some money spent on the CGI (admittedly, none spent on any scenes when the actors had to interact with the CGI). As well as on the sets and costumes - yes, small things but if you’re going for epic medieval fantasy you need to make it look right.

One of the other things I loved most about this season was the character’s growth - which they all display. They don’t miraculously change - Arthur is an arrogant prat who rather remains an arrogant prat throughout the series, for example. but they do grow. Arthur learns compassion and some level of respect for others. Gwen becomes stronger and more confident. Morgana, with her growing power, gains both the will and resentment against Uther. Merlin himself grows considerably. All of this works so well because the characters do have depth and complexity - they’re not just archetypes, they’re some of the best realised characters I’ve seen for a while. Even the villains of the piece - Uther and Nimue - are complex in their motivations and are not just bad for the sake of it. Uther’s intolerance to magic - an intolerance that steadily grows as the number of failed magical attacks continue - is based on tragedy and a not-entire-unreasonable fear. Similarly, Nimue’s hatred of Uther and Camelot is based on very real persecution and suffering inflicted by Uther. They’re not just bad because they’re bad.

Part of that is also how they work with each other, all the characters have some excellent character relationships. Merlin and Arthur manage the incredible feat of being excellent friends while maintaining that master/servant relationship. They’re fun, they bounce off each other really well and their relationship grows excellently. Merlin and Gaius, similarly develop at a great pace from first meeting to a pseudo-father/son relationship. Even Merlin and the dragon develop an interesting relationship despite their brief meetings - with the mix of mentor, advisor, manipulator and, at times, even enemy thrown together. There are no characters I hate, no characters I aren’t interested in and no character who doesn’t make sense.

I was surprised, immensely surprised, to see that the show had not only decided to include POC in the background but even had a POC knight (albeit one with a very short life expectancy and not many at that) and even made one of the main characters, Guinevere, Black. Yes, crowd scene POC and one member of the cast being Black is far from revolutionary, but when it comes to anything historical most shows take that as a gold plated excuse to decide it must be all white (unless a dangerous foreigner is needed to be sinister and barbaric and other - right Game of Thrones?) It’s not a lot, but it’s still surprising given the extreme erasure that is so often the norm.

Still Gwen is not without flaws - not least of which is that they’ve changed Guinevere from a princess to a servant. Yes, it’s apparent that she’s still on the way to being Arthur’s love interest, which is extremely good and she is lacking so many stereotypes and is a genuinely sweet and gentle person - who still has strength and determination to her. But why make her a servant? It’s hard not to see the trope.

The female characters - Gwen and Morgana - are both refreshingly strong. I expected - feared - courtly maidens of gentle gentle swooning. Instead they are both strong - not just in terms of sword play (though Morgana shows herself more than capable) but also in their willingness to stand up and say what’s right. In particular, Morgana’s challenge of Uther’s decisions - far in excess of what Arthur would presume - shows more strength than any amount of sword skill. Gwen’s challenge of Arthur’s contempt and arrogance when in Merlin’s home village in episode 10 was another epic moment of of strength against authority.

Which also brings us to that other issue that is constantly lurking in Merlin - class is never flinched from. The rigid traditions that prevent Lancelot - who will go on to be the most noble and kindest of the knights - from being accepted by Uther in episode 5 to the responsibilities of the nobility and the helplessness of the peasantry in episode 11 when Arthur kills the unicorn. Even without specific examples, just every episode the way people can treat the servants, the commoners, the way Uther is willing to sacrifice or disregard them never fails to carry the message of the class divide. Particularly impressive is how they manage to maintain the friendliness and the joking between Arthur and Merlin but that divide is never bridged, it’s always there.

With these good and well maintained marginalised representation, it’s sad that there are no GBLT people at all in the whole series.

I’ll finish up by saying there are some things this programme very clearly is not. It’s not true to the legend, no it is not. If you’re an Arthurian legend purist then you will be spitting at the screen. It’s also not historically accurate - nor does it try to be. So, again, if you’re someone who demands their historical fantasy to be totally accurate and true to the time, turn away, because even aside from dragons and magic it’s not close to historical accuracy. Personally, since it’s fiction I don’t demand it be true to the source or history - I largely mention this to pre-emptively head off all the people rushing to comment or email “Guinevere is Black! INACCURACY!” or “why do you want GBLT people?! INACCURACY!” because I will personally take great pleasure in bludgeoning such folks with every anachronism I could find.

Series one did everything I’d expect it to - every character was introduced, the world was introduced and the plot was introduced - but we also had growth, development, strong relationships forged and the seeds of a dozen plots sown. It was a truly excellent first series.