For those of you who follow my twitter, it will come as no surprise to you that I have mixed feelings about Merlin, particularly with Series 4 and 5. Now that the series has finished for good, I feel like I can take a proper look back at some of the things which could have been improved upon. I'm in no way a showrunner, but even I can see some of the areas where Merlin went wrong.
For one, none the writers seemed to be on speaking terms with each other. A number of episodes existed to establish the exact same thing. I don't think I could count how many stories ended in Arthur admitting that Merlin means a lot more than he cares to admit, then in the next episode he's treating him like nothing. Or the times where Arthur promises to end the persecution of the druids, then... doesn't. The series was poorly organised, and that's not just something obvious in the poor pacing of the plot.
Inconsistent characterization went through the roof about the time Morgana turned evil, and that again seems down to poor communication between the writers. They couldn't seem to decide whether Morgana should be a sympathetic villain who is understandably fighting against persecution against mages, or just a psychotic, sadistic bitch. Naturally, we as an audience remember her more sadistic moments, and the attempts at making her sympathetic come off as unconvincing. As a side note, I think the time jumps between series is an issue here: It means leaps are taken in her character rather than the fluid shift from good to evil that it should be. It's not just her, though. I've already discussed the issues with Arthur, and how his character seems to revert to square one at the beginning of each episode. Gaius flips between genre-aware mentor and a fool who doubts Morganas intervention until the last minute. Uther is an interesting offender: consistently appearing as a narrow-minded tyrant, but his relationship with his son is all over the place.
My other major problem; the one my followers will probably have heard the most about; is the deliberate wasting of time. So many stories in all five of the series simply did not need to happen. This was not much of an issue in Series 1 and 2, where the story arc wasn't as prominent and filler episodes were basically indistinguishable from important ones; in fact, they were quite useful for fleshing out the characters in the early stages. As we got closer to the grand finale, however, the number of episodes which contributed nothing to the overall plot progression became more obvious, and it almost seemed like the writers were deliberately wasting time.
This meant that so many plot points - including the painfully drawn out magic reveal, Morgana's downfall, Arthur and Mordred, Aithusa, and the often-mentioned great kingdom Athur and Merlin were destined to rule together - were hastily rushed in the finale or outright unfinished. Having so many plot threads dangling like that when episodes like Lamia, The Kindness of Strangers and The Disir accomplished absolutely nothing is simply unacceptable. Even episodes which could have led to some interesting developments such as Another's Sorrow (the kingdoms being brought together, Merlin/Morgana) ended without really going anywhere. The only thing that kept me going through Series 5 was the thought that SOMETHING had to happen eventually.
|"STOP WASTING MY TIME!" Screamed Morgana...|
The idea that there was going to be a Series 6 is no excuse, by the way. The writers knew their contract ended at the finale of Series 5 and they made a point of emphasizing that Series 5 would function as the end of the show, and Series 6 was only a possibility if there was enough demand. The story should have been finished properly.
I've not thought the plan out that much, but I have come up with a rough few ideas which could have improved the series...
I don't remember that much about Series 1 other than the fact it was largely self-contained, which is something I guess you can't really blame them for. There was very little Arthur/Gwen, though. That made the jump in their relationship at the start of Series 2 a bit odd. It would have been interesting too see more of Morgana as she is in To Kill The King (my favourite story of the series). There she is shown to be ultimately good, but rather vengeful. I completely agreed with her in the episode, and she was passionate to the point of violence. This is a direction I really wish they carried with Morgana, and they did... For a while, at least.
Series 2 is amazing. It set up many of the long running storylines in a subtle, convincing way. Arthur/Gwen was starting to pick up a bit of steam, and I think it was handled pretty well aside from the sudden start. Morgana's magic came into play, and her fear driving her towards the dark side is convincing and rather upsetting, to be honest. Even Morgause's opening story is pretty good: She's established as a very powerful and knowledgeable villain and has very clear motivation, qualities which are sadly lost throughout Series 3. I will criticise the resolution of The Sins of the Father: Arthur discovers the circumstances of his birth, and is aiming a sword at Uther. Massive game changer? No. Merlin comes out and convinces Arthur not to kill his magic-hating father for some reason.
One suggestion that will become important in Series 4 and 5 is the reduction of the series length. I wont bother with Series 1, but here I think you could afford to lose the... different Beauty and The Beast two parter and Sweet Dreams.
Series 3 is where inconsistent writing starts coming into play. My episodes for the chop are: Goblin's Gold, for not being funny or remotely important. Love In The Time Of Dragons and The Sorceror's Shadow, while both decent episodes, didn't really belong. They'd feel more in place in the earlier seasons. They don't accomplish a great deal, either.
The Tears of Uther Pendragon is fine. The Crystal Cave did not need to have Morgause in. Over the course of Series 3, Morgause lost her edge; she became a "What havoc shall I unleash on Camelot this time?" kind of villain. Her plans lost credibilty. By limiting her appearances, I think she could have remained more of a threat. The Castle of Fyrien is fine too, but it needed a bit more of active conflict between Morgana and Merlin. Have them knowingly thwarting each other, maybe? Swap Queen of Hearts and The Eye of the Phoenix around because the order they are in makes for an odd shift in Gwen and Morgana's dynamic... Not that the shift isn't bizarre anyway, but it'd be less sudden.
Generally Morgana needs to be smirking less. She doesn't convince me as someone who wants to overthrow Uther, she just seems to enjoy being evil. This becomes particularly blatant where she starts to act like a jerk to Gwen, Gaius and (to a lesser extent) Arthur for no adequately explained reason. She also needs a more definite reason to want to torture Arthur. Her hate for Uther and Merlin is justified, but the only reason she has against Arthur is that he's in line for the throne. There's no reluctance to kill her brother. There should be.
Get rid of Agravaine completely. He's a very obvious plot device and too obviously evil to take seriously. As for the episodes to cut, this series was originally supposed to be 10 episodes before becoming the standard 13. Despite the title, A Herald of the New Age is uneventful, and is rather egregious because Arthur promises to end prejudice against the Druids... then doesn't. Cut The Secret Sharer; I still can't quite work out what the point of the episode was, though it's too funny to watch Alator saying he knows who Emrys is while staring straight at Merlin, and Morgana doesn't get it! Finally, cut Lancelot du Lac, as the big break-up between Arthur and Gwen feels contrived and doesn't last long enough to have a real impact, IMO.
The series generally needed less of Morgana. Like Morgause, she became far less threatening because she kept popping up and her plans kept failing. There was no need for her to be in His Father's Son; as amazing as Annis's speech to her was, Morgana wasn't necessary. She also just lost any sympathetic traits in Series 4 for some reason. If she still had her motivation to bring rightful justice, then her fear of Emrys would make her more relatable, but her pantomime hatred for everyone and desire to just kill everything just makes her tiring to watch.
Arthur also needed to start bringing the Kingdoms together in this series. He starts to with Annis, but then not much else happens. If we're finished by Series 5, the great future of Camelot needs to start here.
You might be surprised to see no mention of Lamia. Well that's because my plan starts to diverge a great deal from the series there. At the end where Lamia corners Merlin and Gwen, Gwen attacks passionately to save Merlin, but Lamia turns on her. Merlin uses his magic to save Gwens life. Gwen gladly keeps his secret. That would be a great testament to the strength of their friendship, which is the point of the episode, and would be a much stronger ending than Arthur popping out deus ex machina style and stabbing the Lamia in the back.
Cut the entire Hollow Queen arc. Gwen never turns evil. If she stayed evil until the end, fair enough, but it's resolved too quickly to mean anything. Besides, it would interfere with my plan to have Gwen discover Merlin's magic in Series 4! Keep the concept of the episode The Hollow Queen, as it shows Arthur building Camelot, but obviously change it to remove evil!Gwen.
In the opening two parter, bring in Mordred and get him Knighted. Same as the actual story. However, have Merlin (in his old disguise) save Arthur and the captured knights with Mordred instead of having Merlin captured with Arthur and Mordred unceremoniously stab Morgana. It'd be similar to the fight near the start of the final episode. This would start an arc where Arthur slowly realises magic isn't so bad.
Scrap The Disir. All it does is make Merlin look like an idiot.
Set The Drawing of the Dark a little earlier in the series. Mordred doesn't go back to Morgana, though. They remain opposed to each other.
Make The Dark Tower a two part episode. Instead of making it such a trial for Merlin and Arthur to get to Gwen, it's a trap. Morgana has Gwen, Arthur and Merlin held at knife point. Merlin uses his magic to save them. He then spends the majority of part 1 duelling Morgana. Gwen admits to Arthur that she has known about Merlin's magic and he throws a small strop. Merlin is close to killing Morgana, but she manages to escape, mortally wounding Gwen in the process. Part 2 shows Merlin confronting Arthur about his magic, eventually convincing him to accept it by healing Gwen and saving her life. Morgana and Mordred can have a fight here. I'm distinctly against the idea of them ever teaming up.
An episode or two to explore this new dynamic. Maybe bring in Mordred to give Morgana a breather! The penultimate episode will deal with Aithusa and Kligarrah, but I don't know enough about the legend to work this one out.
The final episode is the Battle of Camlann. Instead of just Camelot, Queen Annis, King Odin and the other leaders join in against Morgana, showing that Arthur has united the kingdoms. Mordred may or may not kill Arthur, haven't decided. Morgana is close to killing Merlin, Gaius and Gwen come in to distract her and Merlin sets her on fire. The end.