Cultures Film & TV

In a land of lockdowns and the time of streaming…

Illustration by Ben Beechener

Merlin

noun

  1. A camp monster-of-the-week style television show that aired on BBC One from 2008 to 2012, based on Arthurian legend, except in this adaptation Merlin is not a wizened old sorcerer, but rather Arthur’s skinny, secretly-magic manservant who simultaneously hates his employer and would do anything for him.

“BBC Merlin is a masterpiece of queerbaiting!”

verb

  1. To gather in the room of one member of the household and watch BBC Merlin – tea, innuendo and household bonding required; strong G and Ts suggested but not compulsory.

“Are we merlining tonight?”

Hilary term of my first year at Oxford will forever be defined by my BBC Merlin Renaissance. I first watched the show at the ripe old age of 12, in need of more silly shenanigans after binge-watching all of Doctor Who, but I’ve rewatched the first two seasons annually since. When, at the end of the Christmas vacation, one of my housemates suggested we watch a show together, I immediately recommended Merlin, and in early January we set off on our fantastical journey, all from the quiet of our accommodation halls.

Merlin is not the best television show. It is misogynistic, minimal in its diversity, rife with poor writing and poorer acting (apologies to Katie McGrath) and contains laughable CGI. But, despite its many flaws, it is delightfully charming. We watched one or two episodes an evening, laptop precariously balanced on a desk chair whilst we sat on the bed with our backs to the walls. Though it was only the two of us who observed this post-dinner ritual religiously, other members of the household would pop in for an episode or two; some who had grown up with the show, others who had no idea what was going on. It was like worlds colliding as I watched my new friend fall in love with characters that had been with me through my adolescence. Trapped inside by a national lockdown, unable to see other friends or even attend in-person teaching, Merlin became escapism of the highest form. It gave us motivation to complete our work for the day, desperate for a guilt-free evening that the Oxford atmosphere rarely lets us enjoy, to be able to hit ‘Next Episode’ without faltering or worrying about an impending essay deadline. 

As streaming services continue to rise in popularity, producing their own shows with seasons being released all at once, I have become a master of binge-watching. I managed all six series of Schitt’s Creek during our two week isolation period in Michaelmas. Most recently, I watched all 77 episodes of BoJack Horseman in five days over the Christmas vac. Watching Merlin in college with my housemates has restored some of the anticipation that Netflix and Amazon Prime have replaced. Waiting, it seems, is its own kind of magic. This is particularly important for the BBC’s Merlin; although not exclusively a monster-of-the-week show, its first few seasons chiefly employ the trope of ‘here’s a monster, kill the monster, wipe your hands and be done with the monster’. Each episode – and thus each day – brings a new mythical creature to life, and the cringey ‘Next Time…’ previews elicit such a fierce excitement that I haven’t felt since I was a kid. It’s funny, really; somehow leaving home and living independently for the first time has restored this earnest joy, not just through a love of story-telling (I am studying Classics and English – that never left), but the supposedly childish need to wind down with a bedtime story, shared with those you care about.

As the seasons develop, the overarching plot throws off its cloak, armed and ready and blazing. Gone are the days of Merlin and Arthur bickering in Camelot’s training grounds, replaced instead with undersaturation and blue tones and an overall vibe of taking-itself-too-seriously. But at its core, Merlin is a love story. It’s one of those shows where every character has sexual tension with each other, leading to many evenings of two or three or five of us gathered round the laptop, yelling ‘throuple’ at the screen. Ultimately, the driving force of the show is Merlin’s acceptance of his destiny and his place by Arthur’s side, and eventually his own fondness for Arthur the man, not Arthur the leader, growing into love. It’s a queerbait, yes, but forgive a lesbian literature student for relishing the picking apart of small touches and dialogue. Sometimes having to work for it makes the reward that much sweeter.

The finale was a grand affair. We busted out a bottle of Prosecco and made a cake, though my baking skills are non-existent and it ended up in the bin. Six of us huddled on the bed and watched. I resolutely did not cry, but we all watched with bated breath and then the credits rolled. Afterwards, we settled in the kitchen and ran through the highlights of the show: our favourite characters (Merlin and Gwaine) and our favourite episodes (all of the really gay ones). It was the end of an era.

“So, what next?”
“…have you ever seen Torchwood?”