Much in the vein of the currently-popular franchise "re-boot" idea, Merlin: The Complete First Season continues this idea by re-inventing the traditional Arthurian legends for a newer, younger audience. In this BBC production, the typical, white-haired "old man" version of Merlin is traded in for a young boy learning about his magic and his destiny.
Merlin (Colin Morgan) is a naturally gifted warlock who is sent to live with Gaius (Richard Wilson), the physician in the court of Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head), king of Camelot. However, Uther has become a tyrant and prosecutes anyone and anything associate with magic. Uther's only small joy rests in his son, the famous Arthur (Bradley James) who, in this show, is depicted as an arrogant and reckless, yet well-meaning youth that always manages to get into trouble (and Merlin has to save him) . After saving Arthur's life, Merlin becomes his personal manservant, and thus begins Merlin's journey to realize his destiny as a powerful warlock and protector and friend to Arthur. Merlin and Arthur are joined in their journey by Morgana (Katie McGrath), the king's ward, and her maidservant Guinevere "Gwen" (Angel Coulby).
The plotlines for about the first half of the series seem to blur together. Each episode feels like a repeat of the last, following the same formula: a stranger shows up claiming to be someone they are not, Merlin uncovers the true and wants to use magic to fix it, when Merlin confronts others about the truth no one believes him, Merlin eventually saves the day with magic secretly, and Arthur typically gets the credit. The characters also felt very flat in these episodes, with little development and little relationship growth. The only thing that got me through these episodes were the high production values (the BBC doesn't skimp) and the fun, adventure aspect of the show.
Thankfully, the second half of the season really picks up. Plotlines grow more complex, characters grow deeper and the show takes a darker turn that drew me in. It becomes apparent that the first half of the season was meant to be exposition, and the writers finally got to a point where they could grow legs under their show. In particular, Morgana takes unexpected turns that pulls viewers in and makes them question everything they've learned about the world of Merlin.
The oddest thing about the American distribution of Merlin is the fact that it aired on NBC on Sunday nights. Sure, it was picked up during the summer, likely to be a filler show during the off months, but I thought it an odd choice and an odd time slot, but figured that NBC was hoping that Merlin could pull some of the Doctor Who fans and possible enjoy cult status -plus it's family-friendly. Unfortunately, NBC didn't pick up season two, but SyFy did, and is currently airing it. A third season is currently in the works from the BBC.
Bonus features in this five-disc set include episode commentary, two in-depth making of featurettes, video diaries from some of the cast while filming the series, photo galleries and wallpapers. While I found that this was a worthwhile collection of extras, I was hoping for something a little more -like deleted scenes from certain episodes, or an exploration of the original Aruthurian legends and how they are different/similar to the series.
Merlin is offered in complete surround-sound stereo, which really comes in handy during the action sequences. Surprisingly though, only English subtitles and English language audio track is available, which will probably disappoint fans with alternative language preferences.
While the show does have some shortfalls, it's a fun adventure that'll keep audiences of all ages entertained. The second half of the season proves that Merlin is filled with potential to grow into a powerful show filled with magic, depth and amazingly complex character.