Merlin: Arthur's Bane Part 1 Review

rating: 4

Coming fresh off the back of a sublime new run of Doctor Who episodes, the fifth season of Merlin has certainly been under a lot of expectations in terms of its performance as a BBC1 primetime Autumn drama. It was no wonder, then, that the show's writers chose to open the latest run with a two-parter, this time around focusing on the titular 'bane' of the legendary King Arthur. Did the premiere episode succeed? To a large extent, yes it did. Thankfully, despite a couple of slight comedy gags before the titles this episode got quickly underway to its main narrative, as Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table went off to search for their lost friends in the Northern Wastelands. To have such an immediate quest thrown upon us within the opening minutes is a refreshingly unique experience for the show, and with any luck this should really help give this season a sense of direction that at least Series 1-3 were sorely lacking. Indeed, with the return of Morgana (yes, *again*) and Mordred- via visions then a brief cliffhanger cameo- onto the Arthurian scene, writer Julian Jones certainly seemed to show that this set of instalments really means business in terms of pushing the adaptations of the classic legend forward significantly. Better yet, the majority of the cast were on top form this time around. Colin Morgan has always been resourceful at balancing Merlin's secret magical alter-ego and his jesting servant self, yet now more than ever it seems the two previously irritatingly isolated storylines are becoming intertwined, with Arthur closer than ever to perhaps stumbling upon his friend's secret. Speaking of Arthur, Bradley James did the character proud, giving everything he had in both the Game Of Thrones-esque beautiful action setpieces and the more subtle exchanges with his close friends in the kingdom and the woods they traversed. Angel Coulby appears to be finally being utilised in her role as Queen Gwen, now forced to execute a traitor in her midst who threatens everything she has worked for. On top of those great showings from the series regulars, Alexander Vhalos has taken over Asa Butterfield's role as Mordred and looks to be already owning the stage for moral ambiguity and inner darkness. There was sometimes a little too much of a sense of deja vu in the episode, though, both in terms of its stars and its narrative. Yes, it's always fun to have the near-obligatory season opener/finale cameo from John Hurt as the Great Dragon, yet here Hurt's beast serves little purpose other than to confirm what Merlin and the viewers already know, so one hopes that when he next returns it'll be for a battle with rogue dragon Aithusa. In addition, Lindsay Duncan's cameo was nice, but felt worryingly necessary only to fill out the episode's middle section, while mainstay Richard Wilson had little to do this week other than stand in the throne room and look worried for his friends and their strife. I appreciate that the producers may have wanted to 'show off' the wide range of British talent they had on offer here, but often this felt a bit forced, and having Kate McGrath limited to yet another 'Morgana wants revenge' plot with the under-used Liam Cunningham as her aid didn't help. Many critics of the show have been noting from its press campaign the striking visual similarities that Merlin's fifth season appears to share with the hit HBO drama Game Of Thrones. To an extent, they're right, and the change in directorial style for the programme really appears to be helping the sense of the more mature feel its writers seem to want to provide it with. That said, when (apart from the vision setting up the main arc) the bulk of this premiere episode's storyline seemed to be rehashing the age-old plot of Morgana swearing revenge for all her woes with a seemingly indestructible and ancient force that will place her back on the throne, it was hard to ever get a sense that this could ever come close to Thrones in terms of the depth and innovation of its storyline. Clearly the BBC aren't going for that kind of audience consistency here, and rightly so, yet it's for this very same reason that Arthur's Bane Part 1 did not really feel like it matched the TV greats of 2012 so far such as Thrones, Who and Sherlock, instead located in an awkward gap between kids' fantasy drama and a more mature version that's been trimmed down (think Taken 3 rated at PG). More than ever, it looks as if the success of the season will depend on the sustainability of its arc and character progressions rather than farcical gags and kid-friendly themes. All the same, thanks to their setting-up of what appears to be a hugely compelling arc for the fifth season, the show's writers have ensured that Merlin: Arthur's Bane Part 1 has thrust us back into the heart of an intriguing world of myth and magic. Quality-wise, Merlin is still miles ahead of low-budget recent lookalikes such as Sinbad, and at the very least if this was the beginning of the programme's final run, then we've certainly started with a bang.
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