Tonight Starz airs the premiere of its newest drama, Camelot. Billed as an adult re-telling of the legendary exploits of King Arthur, the new series breaks the medieval mold in many ways – but is it compelling enough to warrant a viewing?
The episode opens up as classical antagonist Morgan (Eva Green, Casino Royale) attempts to re-enter the hall of King Uther. Her father disowns her for disgracing his new queen, Igraine (Claire Forlani). Morgan disguises herself to enter a feast in the hall and poisons Uther, immediately calling his rival King Lot for an alliance to quickly usurp the throne.
Meanwhile, Merlin (Joseph Fiennes, FlashForward, Shakespeare In Love) rushes to the countryside. He finds a peasant’s son, Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), and assures him that he is the legitimate heir of Uther Pendragon and Igraine. Merlin, Arthur and Arthur's brother, Kay, rush to the ruins of ancient Camelot, to meet with knights loyal to Uther and create a new seat of power for the land.
Camelot is Starz' second period piece after Spartacus: Blood and Sand. The series is written by Michael Hirst and Thomas Malory (among others) who are familiar with genre stories like The Tudors, Elizabeth and Excalibur. The roots of Arthurian epics such as Le Mort d'Arthur are apparent, with more recent versions from T. H. White being largely ignored. That said, there's plenty of modernity in the retelling – this isn't your ancestors' Camelot – and you can expect some major divergences from legend throughout the season.
Production values are high, with excellent sets, costumes and cinematography. The cinema-grade veneer only loses its shine on sweeping landscape shots where the CG castles and backgrounds become readily apparent. On a TV budget, even a sizeable one, the visuals and atmosphere are commendable.
In much the same fashion as Spartacus, the pilot is fearless in its graphic violence and sexuality. To quote Fiennes in an early interview, Camelot isn't a musical. Those hoping for gallantry and chivalry might be turned off, but the adults-only nature of the series is refreshing next to more tame fare like Merlin on Syfy.
Speaking of Fiennes and Merlin, the actor's non-traditional portrayal of the wizard is definitely a high point. Gone is the aged sorcerer with the Santa-shaming beard: Camelot's Merlin is a younger, more vibrant player whose knowledge and cunning are his best weapons. Fiennes plays the character like a cross between a mentor and a politician, deftly maneuvering Arthur, Morgan and Igraine like pieces on a national chessboard. The character is fascinating, and manages to always keep you guessing.
Equally impressive is Green's Morgan. The cutthroat vixen never cackles or screams like a Disney villainess, instead subtly manipulating the powerful men around her while holding the proverbial dagger. Morgan's ruthless ambition is on display, as are more subdued hints at her underlying hatred. If the pilot is any indication, her scheming against the equally wily Merlin will drive the plot of the series forward.
The only real downside to the cast seems to be Bower's portrayal of Arthur. Pale, scrawny and needy, the 'boy who would be king' seems to be very much the former. Peter Mooney, who plays Arthur's adoptive brother Kay, would have been my choice for the role within Camelot's cast. I won't write of the character yet, though – the story is about Arthur becoming king, and humble beginnings may allow Bower to earn some impressive moments in later episodes.
Arthur is the proverbial fish out of water, fluctuating between moments of overwhelming fear and gallant bravery. His on-the-spot rebuff of King Lot illustrates this perfectly: he's strong-willed enough to fight when challenged, but naïve enough not to understand the consequences of his actions. Undoubtedly Arthur will be the character with the most development, and it'll be interesting to see how he transitions from a green claimant to a worthy successor.
The overall writing and delivery is solid without being extraordinary. The sometimes tiring dialogue of Spartacus has been replaced with more natural lines, though given the medieval setting, they're still delivered with an old-fashioned pace. Expect these to improve even more as the cast and crew find their rhythm.
One element I found fascinating was the use of magic, or rather, the lack thereof. In Camelot, magic is a hard and taxing process: using it causes an instant and powerful drain on all affected parties. So while a little sorcery may be seen here and there, don't expect it to drive the story. It's a gutsy move for the writers, who've closed off an avenue to some easy plot resolutions, and I'm very happy to see it handled in such a fashion.
Dramatic arcs are set in motion quickly in the pilot. The essential conflict between Morgan, Arthur and Merlin is compelling enough, but there's also the more nuanced family turmoil of Arthur, who's still in shock after learning the truth of his royal parentage. We also see an extremely brief (and revealing) glimpse of Tamsin Egerton as Guinevere. Without spoiling anything, the conclusion of the first episode will leave viewers hungry for more development and resolution.
The interpretation of such well-known characters is a refreshing one. The protagonists are far from perfect, while the antagonists motivated by understandable grievances. In short, these characters are much more believable than their romantic counterparts, while remaining more interesting than other modern re-imaginings, such as the 2004 film version of King Arthur. There's bound to be some rather fundamental shifts to the story (there almost has to be, with source material this well-trodden) and I'm curious to see what they'll be.
Camelot will please both fans of classic Arthurian tales and Starz' previous dramatic outings. Those hoping for an epic but tame tale need not apply: put the kids to bed before viewing. The premiere is solid, and I'll be curious to see what alterations are made to the beloved stories of Arthur, Merlin, Morgan and Guinevere.
Camelot premieres Friday night at 10PM on Starz.