Saturday night family drama would well be little more than a distant memory nowadays, were it not for the ever-indomitable presence of Doctor Who. But back in the noughties, high-concept adventure shows aimed at the whole family were the definitive highlight of the weekly telly schedules. A certain Time Lord may have owned the Saturday schedules for the most part, but a strong contender came in the form of Merlin. Carefully tucked between the usual plethora of indistinguishable quiz shows, singing competitions and Strictly Come Dancing during the long autumn months, Merlin initially offered fun, fantasy drama, engaging characters and plenty of swords and sorcery, but quickly developed into something far greater.
The brainchild of producers Johnny Capps, Julian Murphy and writers Julian Jones and Jake Michie, Merlin reimagined the early years of the legendary sorcerer in a manner that felt fresh and invigorating after countless grandiose, cliched interpretations of the legend in other media. Depicting the first meeting between the titular wizard (played by Colin Morgan) and famous King-to-be Arthur (Bradley James), the show played hard-and-fast with the famous myths, riffing on Smallville‘s successful reinvention of Superman, and thereby introducing plenty of fresh, modern ideas into the mix.
Setting the show within a Camelot where magic was outlawed and punishable by death, the writers found no end of potential for big stories with high stakes. The show’s first season toyed with the typical ‘Monster of the Week’ format that other hit fantasy shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, of course, Doctor Who regularly practiced, but early on there were small hints that bigger things were yet to come. Chained beneath Camelot, the Great Dragon (voiced by the late, great John Hurt) mentored young Merlin, but soon began to show signs of a hidden agenda. A young druid boy rescued by Merlin and Arthur was revealed as Mordred, a character destined for terrible things in the years to come. And in one of the show’s all-time best episodes, trusted friend and ally Morgana (Katie McGrath) contemplated murdering her step-father, cold-hearted King Uther (Anthony Head).
The seeds for greater things were planted early on, and as the show continued, the writers put paid to each plot thread and character arc, resulting in a series that, whilst fun and occasionally cheesy, refused to speak down to the younger members of the audience. Over the course of its five seasons, Merlin matured beyond simple magic and monsters, to the point the show’s final season near-enough did away with the self-contained adventures in favour of a more complex and challenging story arc, one that shook the show and its characters up repeatedly right up until the harrowing (and still heartbreaking) two-part finale.
Of course, being a show for both children and adults, Merlin could occasionally veer into silly territory, but this remained part of its charm. Particular stories featured gold-obsessed goblins, flatulent trolls in disguise as pretty maidens, and love potions aplenty. But in-and-amongst the fart jokes and slapstick were well-developed, oft-conflicted characters, many of whom received excellent character development over the series’ long run. The integral friendship between arrogant Arthur and the heroic Merlin lent the show a great deal of heart, whilst the growing relationship between servant girl Guinevere (Angel Coulby) and Arthur had all the involving and complicated twists that make for the best romantic dramas.
Bringing these stories to life was a fine cast of new and established talent, including the wonderful Richard Wilson as Merlin’s loveable guardian Gaius, Emilia Fox as the villainous Morgause and the aforementioned Anthony Head in the role of chief-antagonist Uther. But it was Colin Morgan who stole the show and audience’s hearts as the loveable, bright and fallible wizard-in-training. Possessing a skill for understated emotion and a fine penchant for comedy, it’s no wonder Morgan has gone on to become a regular stalwart of British theatre and television, despite the risks of typecasting such a role within a series like Merlin surely invites.
Through its 65 episode run, there remains much to love about Merlin – blending powerful grown-up themes and involving stories with epic adventures and a constant sense of fun, it still stands as a timeless piece of entertainment that deserves to be passed down from generation to generation. The fact that so little primetime drama is tailored for both kids and adults nowadays remains a bittersweet legacy for a show that dared to develop beyond simple sword-fights, slapstick and magical mirth.
‘Keep the Magic Secret’, whispered the show’s first trailers. Here’s hoping the magic doesn’t remain a secret for the legions of potential new fans down the ages.