Thursday, January 3, 2013

TV Review: Merlin, Series 5

So Farewell, Merlin, that staple of early Saturday evenings for the last few autumns. You were pretty good overall, in the end. Since the return of Dr Who, the fantasy/SF family drama has undergone a little bit of a renaissance, and a number of shows have attempted to bottle the lightning of Britain's favourite Time Lord with only patchy success. It turns out that appealing to a wide, popular audience whilst retaining a devoted fanbase is hard, who'd have thought it? But out of them all, Primevals and the Robin Hoods alike, the winner is Merlin, which not only prospered, but in the end got to go out on its own terms.

And it died as it lived - slightly patchily.


One of the nicest things about Merlin has been its commitment to moving forward, rather than being stuck in the sort of permanent not-yet-arthurian-legend state that it started as. Going into this season we have Arthur and Guinevere married, the Round Table formed, they'd already done a Lancelot arc and looked like they were headed for a full-on Arthurian series. They introduced a grown-up Mordred, started fighting Saxons and dropping big prophetic hints about it all going wrong and Arthur dying. Its to the eternal credit of the show that that is what you get.

It makes analysis easier when series finish with episodes that sum up their run nicely, and so it is with Merlin. Arthurian Legend has to end with the fall of Camelot, with darkness, betrayal and death, and I liked that the show does, or at least as much as a Saturday tea-time show can. The body count is impressively high, and it doesn't shy away from what is, whichever way you look at it, a downbeat ending for our young heroes. Its faithful in the right ways, whilst not cleaving too closely to a source material that can be pretty dated in places.

The problem is not all the pay-offs they've spent so much time setting up, pay off. Arthur and Merlin, as ever,  are great throughout the series and give the finale itself great emotional weight. I think dedicating the last episode pretty exclusively to their relationship was a bold gamble that paid off. But having spent a series setting up Mordred as a conflicted and sympathetic character, having him flip over to Evil, and then get killed without any real resolution to that internal conflict (other than "I am Evil Now, plus brooding looks") feels like a waste of the earlier work.

This goes even more so for Katie McGrath's Morgana, who has had one of the longer and more interesting arcs in the series whole run. Arthurian Myth has always had "issues" with women as the downfall of noble men and three times in the 5th series Morgana's spy in Camelot is a woman and its his love for a clearly bonkers assassin that is Mordreds downfall. I'm inclined to think that this is as much a way of having female characters that do anything in an inherently boys story about Knights, but I can;t thinking that some sort of pro-active female goodie wouldn't have been that much of a liberty, on the scale of ones they'd already taken.

Some dodgy character stuff aside, Merlin gives good "epic" for its limited budget and manages to juggle the increasing darkness of it's main storyline with levity and humour in the right places. Like it's leading actors, it's  likeable and engaging, and even when it doesn't quite hit the mark, I've never begrudged it the time spent in it's company. I'm pleased it got to the end, I'm especially pleased it didn't wimp out and change it. I'd like to think that this will be fondly remembered as this generations retelling of Arthurian Myth, leaving its own stamp on this ancient British tale.