SyFy's BBC import Merlin has captured its fair share of fans on this side of the pond, and American audiences can see Season 3's 13-episode run on Frinday nights at 10.
How does the first episode fare? We review the Season 3 premiere episode “The Tears of Uther Pendragon” and discuss in the comments.
[Warning: Spoilers Follow]
The season starts off a year after Morgana's betrayal and dramatic disowning of King Uther Pendragon. Unbeknownst to Uther and everyone else, Morgana has been with her half-sister Morguese plotting the kingdom's downfall. Young Prince Arthur and Camelot's knights have been searching for the king's ward for a year, with Merlin keeping quiet in the hopes that no one discovers his nascent magical powers - or that he poisoned Morgana to end the curse Morgause had placed on the castle. When she's welcomed back to Camelot with open arms, Morgana begins the machinations of a plot to drive Uther insane and topple the kingdom.
Morgana uses her impressive skills of manipulation and her own emerging powers to achieve her nefarious goals. With help from her sister, she hides an enchanted mandrake root under Uther's bed which begins to warp his mind. At the same time, Morgues recruits a neighboring warlord to invade the kingdom while its king is incapacitated. In Camelot, Merlin begins to suspect Morgana as the cause of the king's malady while Arthur struggles to rise to the challenge of assuming command. Merlin follows Morgana and discovers the sisters' plot, only to be captured and left for dead. The episode ends with Merlin rescued by the dragon Kilgharrah and an army besieging a leaderless Camelot.
The story and acting are par for Merlin's course: solid but not outstanding. The compelling part of this series, and certainly what will bring fans back for its third season, is its modern take on legendary characters. Merlin has this in abundance. The first season was spent cementing the relationship between Arthur and Merlin, and the second season was largely concerned with fleshing out the rest of the core characters. As the third season begins, it's clear the writers intend to capitalize on the work they've done setting the stage for some more earth-shaking story developments.
Morgana's treachery and skillful deception is entertaining to watch. We've seen this character evolve from a naive ward of Uther to a villain in her own right, and it's clear that her classically nefarious side will be on full display as the season continues. Uther's paranoid and often brutal reigning serves as a good reminder of whose actions set up most of the conflict in Camelot. But the two main draws leave something to be desired - Arthur and Merlin squabble like schoolyard kids, and Arthur continues to berate and tease Merlin for his lack of fighting prowess. Yet, when faced with the gargantuan task of assuming his father's throne and fighting off a potential invasion, Arthur becomes immediately serious and contemplative. The back-and-forth between the two is entertaining, but the sudden shifts in character are hard to reconcile with an Arthur who is still very much a boy.
Some of the best parts of the episode are seeing Uther Pendgragon get his comeuppance. Much of the drama in the series is set up by Uther's ruthless slaughter of hundreds of magic users, and when the women and children he drowned in his rage begin to appear as cold and terrifying hallucinations, you begin to sympathize with the warlocks and sorceresses intent on toppling his throne. Merlin remains the only magic user in Christendom who isn't out for Uther's blood, and even that's only in the hope that Arthur fulfills his destiny as Camelot's greatest king.
The production design, cinematography and costumes are among the best seen yet in the series. It's clear that the crew has hit its stride with Merlin and are becoming comfortable in its medieval world. And then there are the special effects. There's no nice way to say it: the CGI in Merlin is awful, and continues to be so as the series progresses. cramped action shots and greenscreen effects abound. In part two of the episode there's a scene where sword-wielding skeletons animate and attack the castle, presumably having just finished their gig on Jason and the Argonauts. It's hard to fault bad effects on a TV budget, especially in something as difficult as a period piece, but the CGI just doesn't match the impressive fit and finish of the rest of the series.
However, Merlin fans don't tune in for blockbuster-level production values - they want story. And for the most part, the episode delivers. We get to see more of the blossoming relationship between Arthur and Guinevere, and Uther's bipolar love for Morgana and hatred of magic is compelling. There isn't much for Merlin to do except react to the antagonists, but the tension created by his secret keeps you wondering how he'll stay undercover. There are, unfortunately, a couple of sore spots. The writers seem to reach for poison more often than the average Castle Elsinore tenant; Morgana poisons a guard that she failed to murder, marking what must be the dozenth use of the plot device in the series. And the climax that sets up for part two sees the villains ride off in the sure knowledge that their intricate trap will finish off Merlin once and for all. That trick was old when The Once and Future King was published, and it's disappointing to see it here.
All in all, the episode is a decent reintroduction to Merlin's core characters with an excellent set-up to next week's concluding episode. Those hungry for the continuing adventures of the wizard and the would-be king will be delighted, and eager for the next piece of the story - which, trust me, will pay off on the premiere's setup.
Merlin airs Fridays at 10 PM on SyFy.
Note: If you're new to Merlin, or if you just want to catch up on the story, Hulu is currently streaming all of season 1 and 2 for free.