Does our hero stand a ghost of a chance as this darker fourth series begins?
4.01 "The Darkest Hour"
Writer: Julian Jones
Director: Alice Troughton
THE ONE WHERE A year has passed. On Samhain’s Eve, Morgana and Morgause tear the veil separating Albion from the spirit world, unleashing ghostly attackers on the land. With Uther debilitated by grief over her betrayal it falls to Arthur and his knights to protect the kingdom – but the vengeful spirits are immune to Merlin's magic, making it difficult for our young hero to protect the prince regent.
VERDICT Blimey, this is dark - and scary. It also has a much bigger scope than previous series; Camelot itself feels like a bustling castle, and beyond its walls we see multiple striking-looking locations around Albion. The desolate stone landscape at the start and Morgana’s vision of a red, corpse-strewn battlefield in particular feel borrowed from a certain big screen epic.
A disfigured Morgause sacrificed by her sister on an altar; a terrifying vision of the old crone Cailleach; the screams of the dead; a ghostly attack that kills peasant women and children... is this really the same programme which usually entertains us with jousting and fart gags? Much of the effect is achieved with sound; there's constant background wailing once the veil is torn. Parents who let their nippers stay up following Doctor Who probably regretted that decision when faced with the enormous body count and vengeful howling spectres (the Dorocha) who fly straight at the screen. And finally Merlin chucks himself into the fray and is, ostensibly, killed. Sleep tight, kids!
It’s the first time we see the Scooby Gang of knights all venture out together, which makes more sense than when Arthur and Merlin used to ride out alone to tackle dangerous missions. We do need to see more character development in the lesser-known knights before we get a real sense of how the team plays together, though. Sir Elyan and Sir Percival saving three children feels tacked on, a rather weak and clichéd way to demonstrate what good guys they are. I’m surprised they didn’t rescue a kitten from a tree too.
The old-fashioned jump scare tactic is overused – it was only a goat! It was only a chicken! It was only a knight eating an apple! (No, really !) – and some of the lighter banter feels oddly out of place with the sense of foreboding elsewhere. (Would the knights of Camelot really be trying to pilfer a roast bird from the kitchens?) But overall this is a wonderfully edgy episode which hints at an action-packed series ahead.
UTHER LITE Anthony Head, portraying Uther's depressed condition, only has four words this episode (“Don’t leave me” and “Really”).
ARTHUR SHIRTLESS Just one instance (at about 14 minutes 30 seconds) this episode.
NEW CHARACTER Arthur’s uncle, Sir Agravaine, is portrayed here by Nathaniel Parker (famous from The Inspector Lynley Mysteries ). Of course, it turns out that he’s in league with Morgana – the dramatic irony of Arthur’s, "You’re the only person I trust, uncle... I’m just grateful you're here,” is mildly undermined by the fact that he's so predictably a wrong'un.
MIND YOUR MAGIC Merlin’s failed attempt to summon an orb of light in his hand is simply the word “leoht”. The incantations for Merlin’s magic are always based on Old English. This one just means “light”. Previously his spells for illumination are “leohtbora” (light-bearer) with which he ignites torches and “forbearnan” (burn) for starting fires.
LOVE TRIANGLE Lancelot promises Gwen he’ll protect Arthur with his life, despite obviously being devoted to Gwen himself. Now that Lancelot is a regular character we can assume the story will take us in the direction of the Arthurian legend and the most famous affair in literature.
SLASH BAIT Merlin charges into Arthur’s bedroom and says, astonished, “You’re dressed!” Then the camera zooms in on the prince's behind.
TRIVIA The Cailleach – Gemma Jones’s eerie gatekeeper – is a celestial hag from Celtic myth. The word comes from the Old Irish meaning “veiled one”; the word still exists in modern Scottish Gaelic where it means “old woman”.
Arthur: “You’re a brave man, Merlin... between battles.”
Merlin airs on Saturday nights on BBC One in the UK.