Merlin, the cheekbony little scamp, has been doing magic again. He knows he’s not allowed to do that in Camelot, where magic is one of those things that you tacitly admit may exist but that’s no reason to shove it in our faces or talk about it at dinner. But a boy’s gotta express himself, and sometimes you just feel you have to conjure a prancing horse out of a cloud of smoke.
Which was a mistake, because word get back to Uther that someone’s been having themselves a time with the laws of nature, which is something the Pendragon takes very seriously. The Periodic Table is like his Tablets of Stone, and there will be no transgressions of this sort on his watch. Not content with Arthur’s offer to hunt down whoever’s been dissing the states of matter, Uther calls in The Witchfinder.
I know what you’re all thinking. No-one can take anyone called a Witchfinder seriously ever since that episode of Blackadder with the Witchsmeller Pursuivant. And whilst I grant you that was a pretty good episode, and no you don’t need to start quoting it (the same goes for Withnail, Red Dwarf and Yes Minister, whilst we’re on that topic) what you don’t know is that Charles Dance is playing the malleus maleficiarum in question. And Charles Dance is all about the charismatic evil.
He arrives bristling with the suggestion of violence and showing up how unthreatening Anthony Head is, even when he’s trying really hard. Gaius is arrested on a trumped up charge, and the Witchfinder forces him to incriminate himself with the emotional leverage of threatening to burn Merlin and Morgana as well. There is a lot of Hammer Horror in the mix this week, which they manage to sling around in an entertaining way without lurching over into Blackadder territory. For the boys it’s Hammer, anyway. The girls get more of a Crucible treatment, with hysterical public confessions and delusions. This nudges the episode a rather more interesting direction, though it is a little bit of a letdown that the visions are traced to some belladonna eyedrops. Hysteria and cosmetics added to Merlin’s list of, y’know, girl stuff that girls do that can be attached to girl characters.
The Crucible parallels are striking, though, because they shift the horizons from hilarious 1970s movies which overuse the crash zoom, towards the abuse of power by the government. It’s impossible to make a show today in which people are interrogated about their lives and beliefs to find out if they’re “One of Those People” without stirring up an awareness of the current political climate. (Gaius deliberately refers to the War Against Magic at one point, and I’m not imagining the quotation marks around that phrase.) It’s partly due to The Crucible that “witch-hunt” has become shorthand for the scapegoating of a particular group for political purposes, and Merlin actually goes one further in a way. As Eric Bentley pointed out rather waspishly at the time, there’s a problem with Arthur Miller’s equation between McCarthyism and witch trials: the fact that Communism did in fact exist1. In Bentley’s own words:
The Crucible is a melodrama because, though its hero has weaknesses, he has no faults. His innocence is unreal because it is total. His author has equipped him with what we might call Super-innocence, for the crime he is accused of not only hasn’t been committed by him, it isn’t even a possibility: it is the fiction of traffic with the devil.
In Merlin, the crime is not only possible but has in fact been committed by the people being questioned. In point of fact the Witchfinder has invented evidence against them, but they are actually “guilty”, even if the show doesn’t regard magic as wrong. I can’t believe I seem to be suggesting that Merlin is better than The Crucible but it comes closer to reflecting on the way certain identities are criminalised in modern society. When Uther comes to apologise for suspecting Gaius of using magic, the wizard delivers a stern warning of the dangers of seeing “sorcerers where there are but servants”, having to condemn his own people whilst trying to protect them. The corrupt behaviour of the Witchfinder could be seen as an easy get-out to put the magical characters technically as well as morally in the right, but I think this episode is more concerned with the fact that Witchfinders will always be corrupt. As the king’s power over freelance torturers and informers is asserted, Merlin’s love of executive authority looks less unpleasant for once.
1 And the longer historians work on the period (and I’m willing to believe an old lefty like David Aaronovitch when he tells me this is the case), the more it sounds like there was pretty heavy Soviet penetration of US institutions, regardless of the effect that had or didn’t, but that really is another day’s discussion…