The story of Arthur, the wizard Merlin and the kingdom of Camelot has been around for centuries, and most of us know it. In its various versions, Merlin is always a wise old man with a pointy hat, a long white beard and powerful magic who mentors Arthur in one way or another. However, the British series Merlin takes the basic legend and spins it on its head, offering an inventive new look at the legend.
The series, which makes its American premiere on NBC on Sunday, June 21, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, follows the journey of Merlin as a young man who is naturally gifted with magic but untrained. Young Merlin (Colin Morgan) arrives in Camelot after his mother arranges for him to stay with court physician Gaius (Richard Wilson). No sooner does Merlin get to Camelot than he learns that magic has been banned by King Uther (Anthony Head) under the penalty of death.
It also doesn't take long for him to clash with Prince Arthur (Bradley James) or for Merlin to learn about a secret King Uthur has hidden in the depths of the castle. Before Merlin knows it, he learns he has a destiny, and it's a destiny that will tie him to Arthur, the once and future king, in powerful ways.
Merlin may not be the legend we all grew up with, but who cares? This BBC production takes what it wants from Arthurian legend and shakes it up to suit its purpose, creating a magical tale that explores how Merlin might have turned into the wise old wizard and what might have happened if he and Arthur had met as young men.
The pilot, "The Dragon's Call," offers an excellent introduction to the characters and gives the delightful Colin Morgan the opportunity to shine as Merlin. If he's not Merlin as a young man, he should be. As for Bradley James as young Prince Arthur, his character is given depth in the second episode, "Valiant." The episodes also give us a taste of other Arthurian characters, including King Uthur, Morgana (Katie McGrath) and Guinevere (Angel Coulby).
While Colin is clearly the star of the show, he shares that credit with one other character ... the castle. Filmed in a real castle in France, the set gives the series the weight and richness it needs to make it feel as though it just might be Camelot. Add to that an incredible special-effects dragon and we have a whole new Arthurian legend to explore.
The first two scripts are well written and original as they plot out how to have Merlin save the day without it looking like he's using his magic. It's an entertaining mix of humor, cleverness and action that makes Merlin a rousing new option on Sunday nights.
One other note ... thank you, NBC, for taking on shows from other countries. The summer is the perfect place to test out this little experiment with Canada's The Listener and now with Britain's Merlin. Whether it works or not, it's nice to get the same opportunity that other viewers in other countries get.