Here are my thoughts on The Darkest Hour (Part I):
- "…the destiny of a great kingdown rests on the shoulders of a young MAN" - I laughed at this, because earlier today I was wondering whether they'd ever bother to change the increasing inaccurate "boy" bit. What do you know, it turns out that they heard my thoughts! Well, this bodes well for future plot developments, doesn't it? *thinks very hard about knights wrestling in jelly*
- Now onto the programme proper, and we begin with that great British standby of fantasy telly, the BBC quarry! And in it, we find Morgana, who has abandoned her usual haircare products and stocked up on a new wardrobe from Demonia von Sporkraven's Goth Chick Emporium and Coal Cellar. She also seems to have sold her donkey to pay for it all, and therefore has to pull Morgause around in a cart herself. Never mind, Morgana, it adds to that shabby chic lived-in look.
- Then some knights turn up. Sir Leon (yay!), Sir Elyan (yay!) and some faceless redcloaks. Guess who are the only two to make it home alive? Ah, you're way ahead of me, viewers. Enjoy that shiny new Plot Armour, boys.
- Back at Camelot, it's all go. There's a veritable horde of non-speaking extras, being Disneyesque and busy-busy, and totally oblivious of Gwaine and Percival's comedy chicken-stealing activities - or maybe they aren't surprised at the lengths those two would go to for a portion of hot meat. Merlin, meanwhile, is looking for Arthur's laundry (he must like it fresh with the aroma of anachronistic vegetables), because it would be TOTALLY unheard of for a prince of Camelot to be seen without a shirt on, wouldn't it?
- "Could try a bit of salt." Hooray, it's Lancelot! And as well as knowing all about Merlin's magic, he's surprisingly knowledgeable about getting red wine stains out of shirts. I do like a man with a good grasp of practical household hints.
- "You're dressed." - yes, Merlin, we're all as disappointed as you are to find Arthur fully clothed. A brief flash of lower back just isn't good enough, although it does create an excuse for a gratuitous bum shot, so it's not all bad.
Don't call it a tramp stamp. Think of it as a round-table label...
- It's been a year since the end of the last series, explains Gwen. Since then, she's acquired a couple of new pinafore dresses and now has access to all the push-up bras that Morgana left behind. Uther, meanwhile, has been much less fortunate. His heart is broken, his spirit is gone, and his sense of style has self-combusted, if that comb-over from hell is anything to go by.
- And who's the new guy in the corner? Why, it's Arthur's Uncle Agravaine, graduate of the Severus Snape School of dark clothes, greasy hair, pessimistic comments and hoping nobody will notice you're a bit dodgy. Too late, dearie, I noticed.
- I was wondering why people kept saying "Salmon", then I realized that that they were actually talking about the festival of Samhain. Then I noticed the large half-eaten salmon on the banqueting table and wondered if the props people had made the same mistake that I made.
- "I can't do this!" says Morgana, foreseeing herself trapped in another season's worth of evil grimaces and badly thought-out ruses that are bound to end in embarrassing failure. But Morgause tells her to pull her big-girl panties on and stab her sister like they planned, thus setting Emilia Fox free to appear in another series of Silent Witness or some marginally less silly drama that doesn't involve as much scowling in a cloak.
- Morgana comes around and sees that oops, she's torn a great big Freudian slit in the veil between the worlds. This amused me mightily, especially given the climax of the latest season of Torchwood. (You wait ages for an enormous symbolic vagina and then two come along in a month.) Then Madam Pomfrey (or the Callieach as she is properly spelled) appears and explains that all the screaming noises are the Dorocha, the voices of the dead, and not just an attempt to save money by using one of those old horror sound-effects tapes, no.
- Well, despite the disappointing shirt fakeout earlier in the episode, the Powers That Be clearly recognize that we need something to warm us up (as does Merlin) so Arthur gamely puts out and strips off for the first time this series, 14 minutes in. Quite slow, by his own standards (remember, he is the current shirtlessness record holder at five seconds in), but we've got a whole season ahead of us and a whole troupe of knights waiting to challenge that title.
It was not the first time that Merlin had walked in and caught Arthur enthusiastically calling his pillow "Merlin". Nor was it the last.
- "Just shapes, they had no faces… it was as if they weren't real" - Oh no, thinks Arthur, I've got to fight cheap CGI baddies AGAIN. My favourite. At least he's got a lovely bunch of knights to do it with, this time around. Gwaine's need to stuff himself with fruit may outweigh his common sense, but it's nice to see that walking into a dark village with no torches can be used as a cast-iron excuse for grabbing your comrades' muscular appendages and rubbing up close behind them, for fear that they might get lost…
- So, not only are the Dorocha killing people with cans of spray-on snow, they're also having a terrible effect on Merlin's magical batteries. And a scared Merlin is no good for bromance, as Arthur soon finds out after a couple of failed attempts at insult-based flirtation. So Arthur has no choice but to take the lads out for a day trip to the Isle of the
BrianBlessed for a spot of homoerotic campfire action and noble self-sacrifice.
- As a surprise to nobody, Agravaine turns out to be a bad 'un! At the first opportunity, he scampers off to Morgana's bijou bachelorette pad in the woods for a spot of treachery and cod-incestuous flirtation. (I think he's meant to be Arthur's mother's brother, so not actually a relation of Morgana for a change, but it's still a bit iffy, isn't it?)
- Time for some moving goodbyes! There's part of me that wonders why they bother doing this so often, since we know that nobody's going to die this soon in the series, but Merlin and Gaius and Arthur and Gwen always manage to make the most of those little touching moments, so I find I can't complain.
- Ah, so THAT's what the knights have been doing for the last year - practising their synchronized slow-motion walking! Although I'm really hoping that they get some individual character time this season, it's nice to see that they've already got their little niches. Percival's got the Big Guy schtick, Elyan's got gamely bouncing up and down (probably because he's not so big), Leon's got stoic straight-aheadness, Gwaine's got mischief, and Lance has soulful staring, nicely used on Gwen in a teensy scene that presumably foreshadows Love Triangling To Come. Mind you, he also has knowingly flirty looks with Merlin, and you can't tell me that's ALL about magic…
- So, a camping weekend with Arthur and his knights involves a lot of talk about pairing off and getting wood, does it? No surprises there. But it's going to take a lot more torchswinging to get them through the night. Despite their moments of bromance fail earlier in the episode, Arthur and Merlin soon get it together in the face of real peril, and soon they're dollopheading, half-heartedly complimenting, and casually saving each other's lives like there's no tomorrow. Bless. I can't imagine how homoerotic they'd get if they were actually friends.
- Oh no, Merlin has been hit by the spray-snow of doom and is Apparently Dead! Could the title character of the series be about to die for realz in the first episode of the season? What do you think, viewers?
- In conclusion: hail, hail, the gang's all back! As often happens, they threw so much incident into the season opener that there hasn't been much room for character yet, and with both Merlin and Arthur in unusually serious moods, the humour content hasn't peaked yet, but they're still the same characters I love and their relationship is still the heart of the show. As ever, it's the ladies who are more badly served: Morgana has swapped smirking in a castle for scowling in a hut, but she's still the least threatening villain of all time, and I really hope that Gwen gets to do more than nursemaiding and torchwaving this year, although she is generally good with the bits she gets. The bigger-than-usual supporting cast also needs a bit more time to bed in, but there's a ton of promise there, so I'm looking forward to some knights to remember. And some of them may even be wearing clothes….