Merlin in America … unfortunately

June 29, 2009 at 5:46 am (BBC, TV) (, , )

Last week the British series Merlin premiered on NBC. Ooo, I thought – Arthurian legends, British-made, sword and sorcery, Anthony Stewart Head (aka Rupert Giles) – promising!

It defaulted on its promise. Dammit. I don’t understand. You have some of the finest stories in all of … storydom, some of the most amazing characters in legend – and this is what you come up with? Are you mad? (NBC couldn’t cough up for Doctor Who or Torchwood – or the real Life on Mars, or Ashes to Ashes, or Being Human. Nooo.)

There were two episodes last week, and two this week; it seems a little odd they want to shoot their wad so quickly, but okay. (I’ll come back to that word.) The first episode shows Merlin coming to Camelot as a teen (18 or so?) because he has extraordinary powers, and magic (use thereof) has been outlawed by King Uther; his mother needs him out of their little village and under the wing of someone she can trust. This would be an old doctor/scientist named Gaius who lives in the castle, the court physician.

Waitaminnit. Camelot? Ruled by … Uther? Um…?

And you’re afraid your son will be discovered to be illegally possessed of witchy powers – so you send him to the seat of the power that would kill him if it found out? Er… Isn’t that sort of like sending a crack dealer to set up shop on the steps of the local police station?

In fact, the first thing Merlin sees on entering the courtyard of Camelot is the execution of an alleged warlock. Subtle. Doesn’t seem to have too much of an impact on him, really; you’d think a kid from the sticks might be a little more bothered by watching a man beheaded right in front of him – for no other crime than being the same as he is – but not so much. He should have been throwing up in a corner. They breed ’em tough in those little villages.

I won’t go blow-by-blow into the first two episodes. They made me raise an eyebrow – both, actually, several times – but I decided to keep a watching brief, give it a shot. Even though I’m fairly sure I heard someone say “okay”, and based on the rest that I’ve seen it’s quite possible. [ETA – Guinevere said it loud and clear in “Lancelot”. In one of the moments I turned the channel over from what I was watching. What are the odds? Oh, right – pretty good.] That is one of my biggest, hairiest pet peeves. The word “okay” is about as medieval as Levi’s and steam engine trains. It’s generally supposed to have come from a Boston newspaper in 1839 standing for “oll korrect” (don’t ask me, I just work here), or the 1840 presidential election, standing for “Old Kinderhook”. Whichever, it entered the vocabulary in the US in the 1800’s. It is not, I repeat with emphasis not something that would have come from the lips of a medieval (or pre-medieval) Angle (or Briton, or whathaveyou) unless they were talking about the initials of some one named Oscar Kellogg. “Okay” is most adamantly not okay. And it’s completely inexcusable to ever hear it in a period piece that isn’t “Wild West 1800’s” or after, even one as slipshod as this.

In the same vein, tonight Gwen made her daddy a sandwich. I think that was when I started muttering at the television. Because, you see, while a medieval girl might have put a piece of meat between a couple of pieces of bread for her pop to take to work for lunch, she would not have called it a sandwich. Couldn’t. Wikipedia: “It was named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century English aristocrat”. Things like that are, as I said, completely inexcusable, and make my hair stand on end. (While not as impressive as when it was three feet long, it’s still striking.)

They say “yeah” a very great deal too, but I can make up excuses for that. [ETA – my mother commented on this one. That’s not a good sign for them.]

Moving on.

The setting: it’s too clean, but then, for television presumably aimed at kids I suppose it would be. The architecture of the castle is a little surrealist; very white and bright and airy and yet labyrinthine at the same time, it seems, with lots of pillars to hide behind, and dungeons so nice peasants of the real time period would have been constantly inventing ways to get put in them. And why, exactly, is there a gigantic statue of a fleur-de-lis in the middle of the hallway featured in episode 2 (Valiant, was it?)?? One thing that was a constant from their first meeting seems to have been pure antipathy between England and France. I could easily be very wrong, but it seemed really odd to me. And did I mention that Uther didn’t reign in Camelot? I think I might have.

The special effects aren’t awful. Tonight’s afanc critter was … not great, but they did a Jaws Maneuver (and for the same reasons Spielberg did): show the monster less often, scare the audience more. Not, really, that this was scary… The magic is actually done fairly well; the golden-flaring irises are all right, and the language used for spells is excellent. I need to try to find out if I’m right in my guess it’s Old English. The animation of the dragon is pretty good for a tv series, though they pretty obviously recycle a small amount of animated footage over and over in each episode. (William Hurt is the voice of the dragon, which always makes me think of one of the first times I had a post modded up strongly on a Board Which Shall Remain Nameless (up-modding indicating approval): Someone asked who did a voice in the animated Hobbit (I think). Someone’s terse response was “William Hurt”. And I couldn’t resist replying “Poor William. I hope he better now.”)

The reuse of the dragon footage is indicative of a budget that isn’t what it might be; another sign being the hilarious dearth of horses – any horses at all – in the three-day tournament. On the plus side, Merlin didn’t ride into town on a palfrey, which would have been stupid. On the minus side … well, there have only ever been less than half a dozen horses in the three episodes I watched, and those not all onscreen at the same time. That’s pitiful. The sword-unsheathing sound effect on scene changes is a dead giveaway that this is in the same vein as, if not made by the same people as, Robin Hood. (The only reasons I watch Robin Hood at all faithfully are Alun Armstrong’s son and Patrick Troughton’s grandson. Geek loyalty is important to me. Even in the face of bad storytelling.  That show is a whole ‘nother post.)

Regarding tonight’s first episode, “The Mark of Nimueh” (should I bother to mention that I have never seen Nimue spelled that way?), I … had issues.  I mean… Merlin and Gaius are carting a body through the streets, and Gwen approaches. “What are you doing?” “Oh, nothing…”  Really. Then why does that “nothing” have a pair of booted feet sticking out the end of it? That’s all right – it’s hardly noticeable. If you’re severely myopic. When the two of them come across the third victim of the plague, a man still alive, Merlin wants to try to do something – yay. But they end up walking away, leaving a man to die alone sitting in the street. Nice. The disease, they finally decide, is being spread through water. Yes. That’s why no city-dweller in medieval England would drink the water. Because it was tainted at the best of times. “I’m psychic” made me want to throw something at the screen. And … seriously? A glowing ball under Gwen’s father’s pillow? Why not just paint a sign on the girl’s forehead, or her father’s, saying “WYZZARD”? (And why did they let the father off so lightly? I would think he would have rated more questioning.) Why did they keep calling the glowy magic ball a “poultice”? Are they stupid as well as ignorant, the writers, or is there a definition for the word I know nothing about? To plan for her to die by fire… is that supposed to be foreshadowing? Or do they really not know the story?

The characters, distaff side: Guinevere and Morgana. I honestly can’t remember where the legendary Guinevere came from; my gut instinct is that she was the daughter of a neighboring king. Considering she marries Camelot’s king, that makes good sense. What does not make sense is that Guinevere (Angel Coulby) is an unpretty blacksmith’s daughter. I want to carefully avoid disparaging the actress’s looks; she’s cute. I like the actress. But she’s not Guinevere material. I don’t care if she’s black; she could be Andorian and I wouldn’t argue if she fit the part in other ways – I’ve seen and heard of enough Shakespeare productions that blurred racial lines with magnificent results that I don’t care about it in this case. It’s an anachronism, in a show that clearly doesn’t give half a damn. But she’s … sweet, and nice, and Morgana’s lady’s maid for God’s sake, and flirting with Merlin right and left. This is supposed to later be the strong, self-willed woman who marries Arthur (THE BLACKSMITH’S DAUGHTER??) and then cuckolds him (and not with Merlin)? [ETA – now and then I’m right. The “historic” Guinevere was the daughter of KING Leodegrance. Or the blacksmith. Same thing.] At this point, she doesn’t even like Arthur, at all, so the overall feel is – well, yeah, if she somehow ends up married to him, of course she’s going to cheat on him. (I can’t wait to see what they do to Lancelot, whom I understand will be arriving in a few episodes. [ETA: Not French.  As Niles said once on Frasier, apparently “cute but stupid.  ‘Nuff said. Except: seriously, does no one like Arthur besides a bunch of bullies and his father?] Even though he’s not supposed to show up until Arthur’s been king a couple years. But why quibble?) This Guinevere is all wrong, and looks too often like a Renaissance Faire newbie who bought her garb all at once, in the wrong sizes because they were on sale.  Cheap.

Morgana. Played, apparently, by Keira Knightley’s kid sister, from the looks of her.  They have the same teeth, sadly.  No? Katie McGrath? Cousin, then? She’s a dead ringer.  Unfortunately.  Sorry – I’ve had the Knightley woman shoved down my throat too often – playing Guinevere, yet (I’ve forgiven her Lizzie Bennett – she very nearly carried that off), and some role in every other movie made in the past five years, and a clone depresses me.  Was Morgana the ward of Uther?  I can’t remember. I don’t think so. I’ll have to check in the not-wee-hours. [ETA: Inconclusive] But I am pretty sure she didn’t dress like a RenFaire goth princess, with too much makeup and blatantly anachronistic fabrics.  Her style should be different from her maid’s – but not from a different century. I like the idea of her having trouble sleeping when there’s magic afoot, given what she will be – but they haven’t made it clear if she knows what she is yet.  And why on earth will she later be Arthur’s ultimate enemy, based on the story so far?  There should be seeds already, I should think.  They pretend they don’t like each other any more than he and Gwen do – but they get along well enough in fact.  It’s very odd.

The sword side is so much better:

Uther, played by Anthony Stewart Head.  Oh, you know I’m not going to disparage Giles.  And in fact there’s little to put down – he’s strong as always, beautifully grumpy with the heart of a good king and loving father under it… He’s just not supposed to be there.  Looking on the bright side: if I have to have a complete bastardization of the legends, at least it’s personified by Anthony Head (and why did you drop the “Stewart”, hmmm?  Of course, if his Stewart kin are as mad as mine are, I can’t say I blame him.)  Uther did not found Camelot.  Arthur did – that’s sort of the whole point of the story.  If you take the founding of Camelot away from Arthur… well, why not give Uther a big round table and a chair with the placard “Seige Perilous” and stick his sword in a stone by his bedside every night and have done with it?

Richard Wilson as Gaius.  One of those actors who’s been in everything British … He’s terrific, of course.  And I can deal with the fact that there is no court physician named Gaius in all the legends I know; he works in well.  That kind of license I can manage.

Arthur, played by Bradley James. Not bad. Not bad at all. A little too consciously arrogant and prattish, but not bad at all. I can see this boy growing up to be King Arthur.  Almost.  Which isn’t to say I like or approve of the way the character’s written, but it’s after midnight.  I don’t have that kind of time.

Colin Morgan is the main reason I’ve watched three of the four episodes so far. (It’s everything else that made me not watch the fourth.) He’s excellent. Marvellous, even, to be tiresome. I love his looks; he has a very interesting face, boyish but no longer a boy, and I look forward to seeing how he matures. (Why does that sound so lascivious??) He’s a fine young actor, and does a fine job with what he’s given. He’s not in the league of James Purefoy or Nathan Fillion – yet – but he’s doing much what they do for me: taking inferior material and making it as palatable as possible, not only by being enjoyable to watch because he’s attractive (and he is), but by being a damn fine actor. Sadly, his inferior material is a hell of a lot more inferior than the other gentlemen’s. For his sake, I hope the show has a long and healthy run.

For the sake of children who might learn everything they know about the Arthurian legends from this twaddle, I’m bitterly disappointed that it’s going into a second year in England. The fact that this was made for “family viewing” may be their excuse for brutalizing the legends. I don’t know. All I know is that I think I would have been more offended by this … stuff at twelve than I am now. I glommed on to anything Arthurian I could find. I knew the legends, better than I do now. I would have been well aware of this show’s … lacks.

Maybe I’m picking too many nits.  But I honestly can’t comprehend why a production company would say “We’re doing a series based on the legends of King Arthur” – – and then discard the lion’s share of those legends.  Does the crap they’ve perpetrated really make it more a child-friendly show than fidelity to the story would?  Then I fear for the future even more than I already did.

From Wikipedia again: “It is loosely based on the Arthurian legends of the mythical wizard Merlin and his relationship with Prince Arthur, but differs significantly from traditional versions of the myth.”  Keywords being “loosely” and “differs significantly”.  My question is, why bother?  It really wouldn’t be a bad story if they just couched it as “this boy is special, his abilities have been outlawed by the king, he finds out that his destiny ties him to the prince even though they can’t stand each other”.  Why does it have to be “Arthurian”?  It’s like some of those absolutely dreadful Star Trek novels I read when I was a teenager, before I gave up on them.  Some novels in the series were great, dead-on in characterizations and bringing interesting storylines to the Star Trek universe.  But far too many of them were wildly divergent science fiction stories being rammed willy-nilly into a Star-Trek-shaped mold, and either slopping over the edges or not filling it entirely.  They might have been just dandy science fiction novels about Captain Bob Church and his crew aboard the star ship Endeavor as part of the Joined Conglomeration of Worlds – but they tried to put a Trek paint-job on them, and it was not convincing.

Neither is this.

Though one anachronism I find amusing: Arthur is apparently a Browncoat. This is the best shot I could find so far from “Mark of Nimueh”, but from this episode it is clear that Arthur fought against the Alliance. Good boy. See? King Arthur IS a Big Damn Hero.

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