Saturday night television was very different pre-2005. Hulking great monolithic reality shows reigned supreme, with no alternative for bored audiences. However, things changed. Between 2005 and 2008, starting with the materialisation of Doctor Who, several new arrivals graced Saturday night television, bringing family drama back to the heart of schedules. Despite initial demand, Primeval, Robin Hood and Demons all eventually met their ends. However, one such show caught on, and after five series, concluded this Christmas. The secret to this shows success? Dragons, magic and a potent homoerotic subtext.
Merlin started out as a youthful prequel to the tales of Arthurian Legend, starring Bradley James as the then Prince Arthur and newcomer Colin Morgan as the titular teen wizard. Initially chided by critics for its lax approach to historical accuracy (it’s a fantasy, duh), the show built a solid audience and fandom, gaining a reputation for pacey, linear storytelling driven by character. Gradually, elements of the traditional Arthurian legend began to increasingly hold sway over the storytelling; as Morgana made her transition from bland to evil and bland, and Arthur inherited his father’s throne, the drama grew darker, with more at stake for Merlin in his bid to save Arthur and unite Albion. Gone were the recurring ‘Prince Arthur/King Uther has been hypnotised/poisoned by a princess/troll/guest actor of the week/all of the above’ plot structures; the show, like its audience, had grown up.
The last episode, The Diamond of the Day, began with Arthur and the Knights making a stand against the villainous forest Goths Morgana and Mordred on the battlefield of Camlann. Of course, Merlin arrived to save the day, but not before Mordred let Arthur know how upset he was with him by stabbing him in the gizzards. Tasked with saving his King, Merlin and a wounded Arthur take one last trip of self-discovery together, in a manner that was both moving and in no way deliberately baiting certain fan communities. Merlin’s emotional reveal of his powers to his best friend was perfectly realised by Morgan and James, two leads that have grown into their roles perfectly, providing the dramatic axis for much of series to work around.
The finale did suffer from much terrible villain dialogue, but whilst tight budgets may have led to a sparsely populated episode, whether intended or not, the sole focus on Merlin and Arthur’s relationship made the conclusion all the more gripping and remained true to the character-driven nature of the dramas diverse canon.
It was in all, a fitting conclusion to a hugely endearing show- it was Game of Thrones in a world without cynicism, gender or beheading, and all the more innocently entertaining for it.