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Thursday, January 27, 2011


I thought this series was going to be hard to get into, but after only one episode I had settled comfortably into the magical world of BBC-TV's MERLIN: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON.  For fans of the legend of Merlin, Arthur, and Camelot, all the familiar elements are here--they've just been taken apart and reassembled in very different ways.

This time,  Merlin (Colin Morgan) is an awkward, callow young apprentice to the wizened old court physician, Gaius (Richard Wilson), who is like a father to the boy.  Merlin was born with magical powers but must keep them secret since King Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head) has outlawed sorcery of any kind in Camelot.  Only Gaius, a former sorcerer himself, knows Merlin's secret.  Uther's ward, the beautiful Morgana (Katie McGrath), is also developing similar abilities which keep her in a constant state of anxiety.

Prince Arthur (Bradley James) shows the potential of becoming the wise king we know he'll someday be, yet remains arrogant and vain.  As Arthur's personal servant and friend, Merlin tries to help him develop his better qualities while also secretly using his magic to protect the prince, and Camelot itself, from harm.  The object of Arthur's affections is Morgana's trusted maid, the dusky-hued beauty Gwen (Angel Coulby), although we know, of course, that she will someday be smitten by dashing Lancelot.  Or will she?  In this version, you can never be sure.

"The Curse of Cornelius Sigan" gives us our first look at Merlin's power as he battles an evil sorcerer whose soul has inhabited the body of a weaselly con man named Cedric.  This one features a full-scale attack on Camelot by some flying CGI gargoyles that are pretty well-done.  (Overall, the show's digital effects aren't bad for a weekly series.)  It also introduces us to the Great Dragon (voiced by John Hurt) who is chained in a vast cavern below the castle and from whom Merlin often seeks magical advice, with the promise of someday releasing the creature.

A bounty hunter hired by Uther's sworn enemy King Odin stalks Arthur in "The Once and Future Queen", which advances the story of Arthur's growing love for servant girl Gwen against the backdrop of a jousting tournament.  "Lancelot and Guinevere", with Gwen being mistaken for Morgana and held for ransom, brings future knight Lancelot into the mix and begins the ill-fated love triangle that will someday bring ruin to Camelot.  (Maybe...)  In "The Nightmare Begins", Morgana discovers her true nature and flees to a Druid village for some sympathetic advice.  Here, we meet the child Mordred. 

One of my favorite episodes is the two-parter "Beauty and the Beast."  Sarah Parish guest-stars as a hideous troll who uses a magic potion to impersonate a noblewoman and bewitch King Uther into marrying her.  Parish wears some highly effective makeup and a body suit which transform her into one of the most revolting creatures ever--she makes Jimmy Durante look like Jayne Mansfield--and her unrestrained performance in both guises is outstanding. 

It's also fun when she drops the "ladylike" act in private and reverts to her usual trollish behavior while still looking like Lady Catrina.  This is probably the season's most overt dive into broad comedy, especially when the blinded-by-love Uther gets romantic with his nightmarish, flatulent bride.  You may need to keep a barf bag handy for this one.

Charles Dance gives a gleefully sinister portrayal of "The Witchfinder", hired by Uther to sniff out sorcery in Camelot by any means necessary.  His efforts result in Gaius being sentenced to burn at the stake.  In "The Sins of the Father" we meet the beautiful and mysterious sorceress Morgause, who turns Arthur against his father.  This episode builds to one of the more intensely dramatic endings of the season.

"Lady of the Lake" gives Merlin a chance to fall in love when he helps a lovely sorceress escape from a ruthless bounty hunter, only to find that she hides a deadly secret.  "Sweet Dreams", another comedic story, finds Arthur and a rival king's insufferable daughter bewitched into falling madly in love during a royal peace summit. 

The final three episodes in the set--"The Witch's Quickening", "The Fires of Idirsholas", and "The Last Dragonlord"--are full of exciting surprises as the season builds to its finale.  Morgana's story takes some drastic turns with the return of Morgause and Mordred, while Camelot itself comes under attack from supernatural forces that threaten to destroy it.  A major revelation for Merlin comes shortly before he and the Great Dragon face off as enemies at last, in a season ender which, thankfully, doesn't completely leave us hanging.

While at times poking a bit of fun at itself with a few deliberate anachronisms in speech and behavior, MERLIN's indulgences in lighthearted comedy have none of the hokiness of a show like "Xena" or "Hercules."  The more realistic tone allows the writers to include frequent moments of high drama that elevate the show above the norm.  Several episodes are surprisingly moving, while others simmer with intrigue.  Action-wise, the stories are filled with swordfights, monsters, and colorful villains.

The production values are lavish, with elaborate set design and costumes and scenic locations (including an actual 14th-century castle in Paris) contributing to the overall atmosphere.  Each episode is enhanced by a stirring musical score fit for a big-budget fantasy epic.  The lead actors are engaging, particularly Colin Morgan as Merlin and Richard Wilson (HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING) as Gaius. 

The 5-disc DVD set from BBC-Warner is in 16:9 with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  Disc #5 contains the special features, which include the 34-minute featurette "The Making of Merlin", a cast and crew introduction to season two, a photo gallery, and desktop wallpapers.  The set also includes cast and crew commentaries for selected episodes, plus cool animated menus. 

The highlight of the special features disc is the BBC series "Merlin: Secrets and Magic" consisting of 14-minute segments covering each episode in detail.  My favorite is the one showing Sarah Parish's amazing makeup transformation into the hideous troll from "Beauty and the Beast."

With a fine cast of characters and a vibrantly  healthy sense of wonder, MERLIN: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON is total fantasy fun all the way.  It may play fast and loose with the legend, but it's nice wondering what's going to happen next instead of just waiting for all the familiar pieces to click neatly into place.

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