The film critic Mark Kermode (known to his fans as The Good Doctor, not to be confused with The Doctor, the time-travelling one whose first name one musn’t shorten to Dr. as it provokes howls of outrage and lengthy explanations as to how one has misunderstood…) wrote his PhD on paedophobia in horror fiction. Kermode is very interested in the way modern horror seems to be terrified of children, and what that might say about society at large. Step up Mordred (Asa Butterfield), and take your place alongside Rosemary’s offspring, the twins from The Shining and those youngsters who spent their time listening to the gent in the cornfield. Because the first bit of this episode is fairly humdrum, bandit playing possum in the woods to ambush Uther’s men, and it only really gets into gear when Merlin starts hearing a voice in his head. Mordred is being smuggled into Camelot hidden in a barrel, whilst he psychically gives directions to the adults carrying him, and Merlin finds himself in the position of a roadie picking up the local police scanner on his guitar amp.
There clearly needs to be Less of This Sort of Thing and Merlin embarks on the difficult task of tracking down the uncanny infiltration without being able to admit to anyone exactly what kind of Geiger counter he’s using. This is particularly troublesome when Mordred’s escort, Alvarr (Joseph Mawle) persuades Morgana that she should hide them in her bedroom. Hilarious japes ensue, with Arthur breaking down doors and then apologising winsomely when Morgana (Katie McGrath) is less than onboard with his notion of ransacking her boudoir for fugitives. Morgana, meanwhile, has been radicalized by the band of magic-using exiles and steals an ungainly crystal for them from Camelot, which has been locked away for some years on the principle of This Is Why You Can’t Have Nice Things.
Arthur sets out in pursuit of the crystal, accompanied by Merlin, who again has to be pretend that he has unexpectedly good eyes for the tracks of outlaws with a crystal chip on their shoulders, and can’t in fact hear the eerie little shrimp in his own head. Bloodshed ensues when the knights catch up with the outlaws, Mordred escapes vowing (not out louds, obvs) that Merlin is going down for this at some unspecified future occasion, and Alvarr taken to Camelot to be put on trial.
On the way back Merlin can’t stop himself from taking the crystal out of its bag for a quick spin, and magical crossed signals again ensue, because I’m fairly sure what he sees is the harrowing of the Shire, which many of us will remember from The Lord of the Rings as not involving any Arthurian characters at all. Perhaps he failed to insulate his sorcerous antennae correctly. Talking this over with Gaius, he receives a stern but loving lecture on the evils of determinism and conceptually reifying the future – there will be no accepting of the inevitability of destiny whilst Gaius is around, and all shall shoulder the responsibility of their actions. That’s the way this portion of Arthuriana works, and it isn’t shifting its metaphysical basis for no-one.
When Alvarr is brought before Uther at Camelot, he enters the novel and inventive defence of I Blates Done It. (He surely should at least have tried to get off the treason charge on the basis that he doesn’t recognize Uther as a lawful sovereign?) In the resulting squabble between Morgana and the king, she disavows him and drugs the guards to enable Alvarr to escape. And as if a traitor within Camelot’s gates wasn’t enough, the dragon in the cellar is getting increasingly pushy about Merlin’s promise to release him.
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Dr. Jem Bloomfield studied at the universities of Oxford and Exeter and is currently an Associate Lecturer in Drama at Oxford Brookes. His research covers the performance of Early Modern drama and the various ways it has been adapted and co-opted throughout the centuries. His own plays include “Bewick Gaudy”, which won the Cameron Mackintosh Award for New Writing, and he is working on a version of Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy “She Stoops To Conquer”. His writing on arts, culture, and politics have appeared in “California Literary Review”, “Strand Magazine” and “Liberal Conspiracy”. He blogs at “Quite Irregular” and can be found on Twitter @jembloomfield