A look back at Merlin Season Three

Reviews, Screen

MerlinSeason Four of Merlin has come and gone in the UK and those of us who have seen it will probably agree that this latest season exceeded what came before. The same could be said of the third and second seasons as Merlin improves with each passing year. Filming of the fifth season is due to commence in March and we can expect a September / October air date in the UK and a January 2013 broadcast in the US. Season Four just kicked off in the US a few weeks ago, coinciding with BBC America’s release of Season Three on DVD and Blu-ray, and while it’s been some time since I first watched it, this was as good a reason as any to revisit it.

If you’re a regular reader of SFW you’ll know that I am a fan of Merlin, a show that took me completely by surprise when I stumbled across it several years ago. It often treads a precarious line between comedy and silliness, but for the most part the footing of the writers and actors is assured and comedy rather than farce prevails. For that, and for many other reasons, Merlin is charming entertainment, or better still, it’s enchanting: funny, thrilling, often dramatic, extremely well written for the most part, and always delightfully acted by the leads. With Season Three and now Four, the onward and upward trend of the series has continued in all areas of production from writing through to special effects: the creature effects in particular have improved from the Great Dragon to Serkets – giant scorpions – the Sidhe to undead fighters.

If you’re unfamiliar with the series, a little background is in order. Rather than giving us the immediately recognisable stuff of Arthurian legend, Merlin‘s writers explore a time before Camelot’s Golden Age, imagining the events, personalities, relationships and conflicts which may have brought about that Golden Age and its eventual doom. Early on in the show (though only occassionally) this undertaking created some clunky moments when key elements from legend were shoe-horned into the youthful adventures of the characters, but on the whole the writers elegantly introduced the themes and elements of legend with which we’re so familiar.

Seasons Three and Four see many more elements of legend introduced into the story and the writers handle this with ever more sophistication. In Season Three we find the Fisher King and the Perilous Lands, the Sword in the Stone, the Round Table, the Crystal Cave and Taliesin, as well as characters such as Gawain (performed memorably by Eoin Macken). Most fascinating, at least for those of us with an interest in Arthurian Legend, is the re-appearance of the Grail as the Cup of Life. Held by the Druids, this is a magical cup with the powers of light and darkness: in Merlin there is no Christian provenance for this cup and we are reminded quite forcibly of the almost complete absence of the Medieval Christian elements of the Legend throughout the series, suggesting (though not proving) an earlier Dark Age or Celtic inspiration for the show.

Imagining a childhood for the key players in Arthurian legend, and one in which they grow to adulthood together, clearly requires dramatic departures from the material we’re familiar with from legend and some purists no doubt find the show unpalatable. It does work however because the producers and their team of writers have identified the core features of the characters and then plotted a trajectory (the events, relationships and circumstances) along which the young adults might have travelled on their way to becoming the figures we know from legend: so it is that Merlin (a charming Colin Morgan) was not always a competent wizard; Arthur (Bradley James) was not always the great and powerful King but could be “a prat”, to quote Merlin; Morgana (Katie McGrath) was not always the enemy of Arthur and Guinevere, but circumstances place her on the path to becoming so. The development of the characters and narrative is typically inspired and  slowly but surely brings us closer to the legend we know. With Season Three the tone becomes increasingly dark as the character of Morgana evolves into her legendary role as Merlin’s nemesis, but also as Uther (Anthony Head) – a tyrannical king with more blood on his hands and his conscience than Arthur will admit to – begins to lose the plot.

The story picks up a year after the dramatic end to Season Two which saw Merlin revealed (to us if nobody else) as a Dragon Lord. Morgana has been missing for that year, whipped away from near certain death at the hands of Merlin by her half-sister Morgause (Emilia Fox). Merlin was reluctantly forced to poison Morgana in order to break an enchantment imposed by Morgause which was close to destroying Camelot. As Season Three commences, a distraught Uther has had his men searching without luck for Morgana (only Merlin and his mentor Gaius know of Morgana’s treachery) before she is discovered by Arthur apparently lost and in distress.

All is not as it seems and Morgana’s return is the beginning of the end for Camelot – she quickly sheds the petulant pout she’s worn for two seasons, becoming instead the mistress of the sinister sideways glance and concealed sneer as she plots with Morgause to overthrow Uther and claim the throne. It’s often difficult not to sympathise with Morgana as Uther is a tyrannical king whose hypocrisy knows no bounds. His reign is in decline as the sins and crimes of his past return to haunt him (quite literally as it turns out), and we find Arthur reluctantly stepping up to take the reigns of power.

Anyway, that’s my say about a show I highly recommend. Here’s a little of what BBC America has to say about Season Three:

With epic action, stunning CGI sequences, terrifying monsters, and a renowned guest cast featuring Warwick Davis (the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia), Miriam Margolyes (the Harry Potter series, Being Julia), and Mark Williams (the Harry Potter series, The Fast Show), the third season of Merlin is bigger, bolder and more action-packed than ever and showcases why SFX Magazine called Merlin “must-watch TV.”

Here’s a peek at Season Three:

Highly recommended show (although I’d love to know why the moon over Camelot is always full…).

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