I’m not sure exactly what it was that attracted me to Merlin originally. It filled the Doctor Who slot like Robin Hood had before, and originally it seemed to fill a similar role; medieval legend retold with a young cast, sort-of Skins meets Margery Kempe. Based on Smallville, Merlin had a similar premise; a younger version of a famous character hides his superhuman gifts from the small community that he lives in, facing another malignant superhuman influence more or less every week.
And it was very watchable, albeit with the irritating lack of character development from week to week which characterises a lot of television. The jokes were reasonably funny, the special effects were OK, Anthony Head is always great and the young cast were all pretty likeable. Not a bad show.
But none of that explains why Merlin became one of my favourite TV series of all time.
It’s fair to say that Merlin had stalled somewhat by the end of Series 2 – every week was more or less the same story, and any sort of development was limited. Sure, Morgana seemed to be turning against Uther, but she’d done that about three times before, and she always changed her mind. In Series 3, she finally turned permanently, and became an enemy of Camelot from within; Merlin seemed to have found some balls. And as Series 3 rolled in to series 4, more changed; Uther was killed off, and Arthur became King, a huge shift in the structure of the series.
Morgana was discovered, and Arthur finally married Guinevere. Merlin himself changed too, becoming somewhat more serious and less impulsive, and gaining something of a killer instinct that belied the series’ teatime slot. Week by week the characterisation and consistency of the show seemed to improve, reaching its pinnacle in the final series. The weight of Merlin’s destiny, always the central issue of the show, became a driving force as Arthur’s death was foretold and Merlin made tough, often morally ambiguous or even arrogant, decisions each episode. The series clearly had a gameplan, so the stories felt tighter, the characters’ actions weightier and the silliness more palatable.
The conclusion first felt like a bit of an anti-climax to me, especially considering the epic battle that was hinted at in the previous episode, but, on reflection, making the final episode one final journey of Merlin and Arthur was a good move. The show’s popularity always hinged on their relationship, and their ill-fated quest was a good reminder of that – that Merlin was never really about the magic, or the spectacle, but the relationship between characters. And that made it all the sadder when Merlin failed to save Arthur, or when Gwaine died having betrayed his King, or even Gaius’ promise to make Merlin his dinner.
As I say, it’s hard to put my finger on why I enjoyed the show so much. Certainly I’ve always been a fan of the Arthurian myth, and generally ‘genre’ shows are my bag, but I think there’s more to it. As it improved over the years, I became somewhat invested in its progress, and in its success. Usually I’m quite blasé about these sort of things, but I felt slightly emotional as the show ended. I suppose that in a way I grew up with it, and its ending was something of a comment on my own impending adulthood.
Or maybe I’ll just miss getting to stare at Katie McGrath every week (or Colin Morgan’s death-defying ears). Whatever the reason, I think that Merlin is an example of a show that took on criticism, and made story decisions that really benefited the quality of plot, rather than the propagation of the show itself. I’ll miss Merlin, but I’m also glad that it had the guts to make a proper ending that closed all the doors whilst still honouring its own conventions. And in the process, it made something magical.