So, the Doctor is off and the wizard is back and, after a few minutes, it was as if he’d never been away. Merlin the show is like a comfy pair of slippers or a takeaway pizza. No-one could accuse it of being quality drama but it normally hits the spot. Series 5 starts as it means to go with the usual mix of Camelot intrigue, quests through those familiar forests and Morgana scowling in her witchy finery.Arthur’s Bane: Part One doesn’t muck about, with our favourite himbo knights, Percival and Gwaine, caught out in the snow by Morgana’s forces. The Big Bad was holed up in a dusty castle, sitting on her chair scowling as usual surrounded by cobwebs. Why do villains never dust? Her latest accomplice is Liam Cunningham’s Ruadan, probably happy to have some regular work after the short lived Outcasts in which he was the lead. He’s a sorcerer and has somehow managed to get his daughter, Sefa (Sophie Rundle), hired as Queen Gwen’s chamber maid. This is another example of Camelot’s absolutely rubbish security – a paper bag is harder to get in or out of than Arthur’s castle.
Arthur sets off on a mission with the rest of the knights to rescue the first lot. It seems Morgana has been ‘recruiting’ lots of the locals to go digging under her castle for ‘Arthur’s Bane’, although no-one knows what it is. He gets Lindsey Duncan’s Queen Annis from last year to help him sneak in from the West but, gasp, Sefa has sold them out and Morgana and her latest group of minions attacks. In the melee Arthur cops a whack with a mace and the Marlin helps him escape. Alone, they continue to head into danger. Meanwhile, even though it looks bloody freezing, Percival and Gwaine are in the tunnels shirtless, pretending to dig but mostly posing. There are shots aplenty of their toned torsos before Gwain comes across a CGI thingy that looks like a cross between Casper the ghost and Michael Jackson.
This opener was decent enough but a tad pedestrian. Julian Jones’s script crammed in every cliché it could but didn’t offer much by way of compensation. The usual byplay between Arthur and Merlin lacked fizz and Gaius was sidelined. Angel Coulby’s Gwen is now Queen but is still as soggy as a lettuce leaf, even when required to sentence Sefa to death. Bradley and James and Colin Morgan try their best but they don’t have the material. The only attempt at comedy was Merlin using magic to juggle.
Part of this was because Merlin was in a sour mood this week. A druid seer had shown him a prophecy of Arthur potentially being killed by a new face. It’s only at the end that we meet the owner in the flesh – crikey! – it’s Mordred all grown up, and now played by Alexander Vlahos. It isn’t really explained how Mordred seems to have aged 10 years while no-one else has, but hey, it’s magic, probably.
Let’s hope, as clunky as this episode was, that now the pieces are all set up, next week’s will be a more rousing conclusion. This week felt just a little too familiar for comfort.