by Michael

Merlin is the BBC’s flagship autumn family drama. I have a soft spot for it, and the story of King Arthur more generally, but there are things that I would do so differently were I in any way connected with the show – which, of course, I am not.

I remember reading Stephen Lawhead‘s series of books when I was in my teens. He took the Arthurian legend and made it his own and in a very Romantic, appealing and moving way (for me, aged 14). His first book was Taliesin, and took the conceit of telling Merlin’s father’s story. The second book was Merlin, and the trilogy, which was grounded in historical research, I believe, concluded with Arthur. [Apparently he has subsequently written another 2 books in the Pendragon series.]

I think it is with these books in mind that I am fond of the new TV series, and I mostly enjoyed the first series. Not for any particular resonance in the details and certainly not in the dialogue, but more that spirit of taking the ancient narrative and having fun with the characters and overarching storylines.

We are in the second series now, but it was with the finale of the first series that my dissatisfaction was sown and in the second series, my frustration grows with every episode (I have seen but 2 thus far).

The first series had a local witch as the recurring nemesis of the young Merlin. The series culminated with her defeat and some climactic guff that involved Merlin’s mentor, Gaius, dying or not dying or whatever. What was my problem with this? Mainly that it meant series 2 was going to be series 1 repeated – a series of episodes of calamity befalling one of our young heroes and Merlin’s wizardry, Arthur’s strength or Gwen’s humanity saving the day. Week after week after week.

It seems to be that this is a decision taken to prolong the life of the programme as far as possible, to work out this formula until it is beyond tired, at which stage the BBC can finally permit it to translate to the next stage of the story. For we all of us watching know the basics of the story. Arthur grows up to become king, he goes on a quest for the Holy Grail, marries Guinevere (or Gwen), gets a sword with a name, rebuilds Camelot, makes a round table, etc. (not necessarily in that order).

So how weak to dwell in this one manifestation of the story for more than one series. My feeling is that the bolder decision would have been to give one season to this ‘young heroes’ phase, getting relationships established, characters familiar, and setting set. But the next series should have taken the opportunity afforded by the grand sweep of the legend to be something different. Break free from the soap opera mentality and transform the story every year.

[Skip the next 9 paragraphs if you’re in a hurry — Ed.]

Series 1 should have concluded with the death of King Uther (Arthur’s father) and the fall of Camelot into disarray / political in-fighting / barbarism, and the fleeing of young Arthur, his life in danger, accompanied only by Merlin. It would have been a darn sight more dramatic than everything getting neatly and sweetly resolved to how it was before the start of the last episode of series 1 and only the baddie having been lost as a result. And it would have meant no one having any idea where series 2 was going to be set or who would be in it or what. The start of series 2 could have been genuinely thrilling for returning viewers.

What could it have been? Well, off the top of my head, series 2 could have seen Arthur and Merlin in exile – they could still be getting into jolly scrapes and developing their relationship, but it would have seen Arthur getting to grips with concepts like humility in a lot more style and substantial ways than the current offer where, oh the fact that a servant girl he fancies tells him he shold be more humble. So he is. A bit. When it suits him.

Then series 2 could have culminated in Arthur and Merlin separating – either falling out or befallen by catastrophe. And Merlin finds a Lake. With a Lady in it. And maybe she has a sword. Lady Morgana could have been maturing herself towards becoming an evil enchantress – maybe she spilts up the boys, maybe not entirely out of spite, since we are clearly interested in seeing her journey to the dark side – it’s Anekin all over again.

Series 3 – are we with Merlin or Arthur, or both? I say Arthur. It’s called ‘Merlin’ – we know he’ll be back. Arthur returns to Camelot. It is a mess, being ruled by a venal little man who knows the price of every bribe and the value of no moral thing. Arthur vows to restore Camelot. But how? Or when? Details, details, but maybe he decides to find this Holy Grail that someone mentions as being terribly powerful and capable of toppling venal little men and restoring true honour to thrones.

So series 3 is the quest for the grail. Maybe Morgana is looking for it too? No matter, Arthur gallivants around the country, using up the BBC’s regional drama budgets, and by the by, recruits new knights to help him in his quest and generally uphold chivalric values. Brilliant – every episode, a new knight who must overcome some obstacle and then decide whether or not to ride with Arthur. Some will refuse, bound to protect their village or a girl, but others will join him and it becomes a bit like Robin Hood, but actually very different.

Oh, and Merlin is around in series 3, looking out for Arthur, observing him and occasionally protecting him – maybe in disguises. Merlin should also stay in touch with Morgana and be wracked with pangs over how to help her from falling into absolute EVIL. Merlin holds the arc of the story while Arthur fills in the time.

Series 3 ends with Merlin revisiting Camelot, as Arthur did in episode 1. Arthur is not in this episode, as Merlin was not in the first. Merlin sees that Camelot has been downgraded even further. But Merlin has power now, has learned his craft and carries authority when he needs to. He hurls the sword (give it a name, I don’t know, Excalibur) into a convenient stone and delivers the key prophecy of his television programme. He who draws the sword from the stone etc etc. And of course Arthur did not find the Grail – it was just that by searching for it, he learned so much about being a leader, and Goddammit, being a Man.

Series 4 – Merlin is in Camelot. He has an odd position, buoyed mostly by the fact that everyone secretly tries pulling on his sword and fails to get it up out. He is dismissed by the venal little man (it is probably a different little man by now but that’s part of the story too, you see), but only because the little man (or men) has also failed to extract the sword. But when Camelot (or Camelittle as it could now be known) is threatened, Merlin acts – using his magic openly now, since Uther is dead and no one else cares. Gaius probably died somewhere along the way as well. Morgana’s very much alive and is staking her own claim to Camelot – maybe via her son, who has grown into a fine man in his two years of life (some kind of withccraft, surely…). Well it’s all getting a bit far in the future, but maybe Series 4 climaxes with Arthur’s return to Camelot and grasping the hilt of Excalibur.

Series 5 – Arthur is in charge, kind of, but the venal little man is still there too, and no one likes the title of King anymore, so that’s a bit sensitive. But Arthur is de facto King and Merlin is his adviser and Gwen is back form wherever she went, and the knights are there to be called on but not actually in Camelot … yet. But series 5 will crescendo until Arthur is crowned and the people say three cheers and Morgana says I’ll get you next time, Merlin.

I’ve gone on far too long for anyone still to be reading, but the fact is that Merlin could have been very special and aware of itself being a multi-series drama but structured throughout its entire lifetime as well as within each series and within each episode.

As it is, the BBC is cynically milking it at each stage for as many series as it can; I think they will wait for each soap operatic element to die into a dusty, venal blandness (a la Camelittle) before they try to resuscitate the franchise with a facelift. Series 2 has become a carbon copy of series 1 – even the dragon got rehabilitated into the story after some ultimate break-up with Merlin towards the end of series 1: but it all got forgotten very quickly and neatly enough to keep John Hurt’s box-office voice in the credits (got to keep selling it to the States, you know).

But by then it will be under pressure to deliver, and I expect they will try to cram the questing, the sword-finding and stone-setting and sword withdrawing and king-making and table-rounding into one measly series and rush it and not have fun with it but tie up all the loose ends they purposely unravelled thinking it could go on for decades.

I would prefer them to have recognised that great TV has a shelf life, that Fawlty Towers is still talked about despite there only ever being 12 episodes, that great TV has to be wise with its form as well as entertaining with its content. I think Merlin could have been historic in its ambition and execution. As it is, I fear it will be epic only in its length.